Silicon Valley De-Bug

Fires of Frustration

The first image I saw in our local San Jose paper about France was a silhouette of a young man in a hoodie, holding a bat over his head and standing triumphantly on top of a burning car. I thought it was from New York, Oakland, New Orleans. Had I not seen the dateline, I still would have thought the picture came from those American places after skimming the article. The reasons that brought this young man to a mixed display of rage and power are issues that continue to burn with youth of color here -- police brutality, racism, alienation.

That of course, is what has everyone so scared. The same combustible conditions that ignited France exist for young people in cities and suburbs all around the world. If thousands of cars on fire, 12-year-olds shooting at police and schools being destroyed is the effect of years of discrimination, unemployment and a high profile case of police misconduct in France, who knows what could happen elsewhere.

More than two weeks later, although the fire has threatened to catch in neighboring countries, it seems that a repeat of 1968 -- the year that young people worldwide rose up and challenged the standing governments of their time -- is unlikely. As for the young people of France, draconian measures such as curfews and deportations have already begun. If these youths felt discriminated against before, just wait till the smoke clears. The young people of France will be taught a lesson, as young people were in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King riots, through increased law enforcement and arrest rates. Fire, the lesson goes, is not a way to make change.

And why didn't the fire catch, with such abundant fuel? Pundits and journalists say it is because the French youths, in contrast to those of '68, lack any coherent ideology. These current "hooligans" and "vandals" have no political aim except voicing their "disgust with the government." In 1968 they at least had an agenda, a manifesto and a worldview of socialism to contain and guide their energy.

But the youths of France have already communicated a political concept to young people around the world who identify with their plight. That message is not a uniting, long-term world-view, but rather lies in the immediate tactic itself -- if they will not see you, light up the city.

Just before Paris started burning, on Oct. 22, myself and other community organizers held a march and rally in East San Jose to stop police brutality. We staged the rally in a neighborhood composed predominantly of Mexican immigrants that has had increasing reports of police harassment. The event was particularly timely because San Jose is going through the biggest police brutality trail we have ever seen. The case is of Michael Walker, a state drug agent who mistakenly killed Rudy Cardenas, a father of five. Walker is the first drug agent in California history to go to trial for killing someone in the line of duty.

The rally was successful, in that hundreds of young people came out, marched and chanted. Most were under the age of 25. In their eyes they are counterparts to the youths of France, suffering police brutality, high unemployment and dwindling opportunities to improve their lives. Most are sons and daughters of immigrants.

If the state agent is convicted, those young people who marched will feel a long-awaited moment of justice was served. "Justice for Rudy" was their main rallying cry. But if the agent is acquitted, what is the response of the young people of San Jose, who see in Michael Walker every cop that ever harassed them? We have already held the marches, rallies, vigils and prayer circles. Our tactics have been exhausted. After the images we've seen from France, though, there is now a new point of reference for another tactic, one that is as accessible to a group of kids in East San Jose as it is to youths in the projects surrounding Paris.

The tactic, destruction, may be inadvisable. Even the youths of France, when this is all over, might say so. But it is inarguably compelling to those who feel their "disgust with the government" is not being heard. A draconian response by the government is, at least, some response.

Some young people have already begun to talk of rioting after seeing France. But the only riots most of us in San Jose have seen have been at the end of the city's Cinco de Mayo parade, when youths have their own "cat and mouse" game with the cops. Nonetheless, the energy that arises at that annual event is contagious and powerful, and seems to mask a political energy -- it's the one day of the year that everyone gets together to get back at the police. Young people get tear-gassed and arrested, but every year they keep coming back. And every year there is a feeling on the street that if one more thing happens, like this one car getting tipped, or a cop hitting just one more person, this place might go off.

Can Jesus be at the Rally?

I was saved at the age of 16. After contemplating suicide, I took a walk to say goodbye to this cold world and during my walk I saw a building that read, "Light of The World Christian Center." I didn't know that it was a church. I though that it was a center, some sort of community building that might have youth in it and even someone to talk to. When I walked in, I was greeted and fed and one of the older ministers said, "There's a reason why you're here." My life would change forever. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior.

I attended church every Sunday without exception. Every Tuesday and Thursday night I was at Bible Study. I would even lead Bible studies at church and school. I've read the entire New Testament about four times and was even a youth minister that sometimes preached in front of 100 people at different churches through out Northern California.

At 18, I decided that I wanted to become a pastor and I enrolled at a Bible School. I was there for close to a year when I realized that Christianity was not for me. I observed a doctrine that sometimes didn't go parallel with the Holy Bible and when it didn't, it was oppressive, judgmental and even hateful.

We would have prayer circles and pray for the U.S soldiers in Afghanistan, but never about the Afghanis. Slogans like "God Bless America" were considered righteous, and the good ol' American values were somehow Christian. During a class lecture a professor told us that the guerillas in Central America were wrong for using the name of God to justify their war, as a Salvadorian I objected and asked, "What's the difference between what the guerillas did and what the Marines are doing now?" I got no response and the professor's face turned red. I left Christianity and I never returned to church again. Although this was only one institutions' perspective of Christianity, it was enough for me to walk away.

Leaving the Church was pretty difficult. I felt guilty that I had let people down, especially my youth group, as I would tell the youth about Jesus and then I decided to leave the Church. I struggled with it for a few months until I didn't feel the guilt anymore.

Although I am not a Christian now, I still have much respect for Christianity just like any other religion, because Christianity -- just like anything else -- is about humans searching for something greater than themselves, something that makes life worth living, and something that can give them the strength and will to keep living. And just like anything else, Christianity also has its flaws. People always point at Christianity as being fanatical, but other groups are often accused as being extremist. How is that any different?  

I left the church out of a political understanding, which also brought me to the leftist political circles. What I have observed in the past few years is that many of these circles lack any sort of respect for Christianity.

Many times people that lack such respect haven't even read the Bible in depth. If they did, they would know that Jesus was someone that stood for nothing but justice for all people. The Bible is a beautiful book that speaks on exploitation, corruption, greed, and oppression. It seems that in every circle gathering pertaining to political organizing, Christianity is not welcomed. People talk about conquistadors and slavery and how Christianity was behind it all. Although Christians did enslave, conquer and did shape the world as a whole, I doubt that such things were faith-driven. Rather, they were driven by other forces like greed, power, and riches -- things that some Christian European rulers had. I also doubt that the world was a peaceful place before Christianity came along.

Whenever there are events that are put together by leftist groups, they have every type of spiritual ceremony except for Christian. There's the Aztec dancing, indigenous prayers, spiritual healings, drum circles, incense burning, but there is never room for a Christian prayer.  

It seems that this occurs only in this country. It seems that the ability to denounce a Christian God is a privilege that can only truly manifest in a privileged nation such as this one, often committed by activists privileged enough to do so. Throughout Latin America (including El Salvador, where I am from), people use Christianity as the frontline for their movements. Even in this country during the civil rights era, people were gathering in churches and using Christian values to fight for equality. And today, in the most ghetto hoods of America, people are gathering in churches for political means.

In the 60's, the hippie era took effect and greatly sculpted our current left political landscape. That movement wasn't founded on a human struggle, but rather a "consciousness" that took place in rich schools like Berkeley where people were encouraged to walk away from church. I am not suggesting that church is where people needed to be, but after this, people seemed to have forgotten that just a few years prior African Americans lead the civil rights movement that would change the course of this country forever. The people that lead it were Christians.

Church wasn't for me, but I could still understand and respect Christianity. Some people need Jesus. I know that my starving people of El Salvador did.

American Graffiti in Brazil

graffiti in BrazilRecently, I traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil, to join 100,000 people from all over the world at the World Social Forum. I spent the time attending workshops about today's most urgent social justice struggles. Although I heard fiery speeches from President Lula of Brazil and President Chavez of Venezuela about activism, I got the most schooling from meeting other young people on the streets of Brazil.

In between sessions at the forum, I went to a cafe on the outskirts of downtown. I met two guys, one black, one white, in their late teens. We were able to communicate, meeting each other half way thanks to the similarity of their Brazilian Portuguese and my Californian Spanish. I learned they were graffiti artists, and so right away we had stuff to talk about. I had spent most of my past eight years doing graffiti art up and down the West Coast.

I became what Brazilians call a grafitero for the same reasons thousands other kids in the US pick up a can. I got fame, was able to kick it, and had a big group of people to back me up. Most importantly, it was the only respected alternative in my neighborhood to gang life.

Later on, I and others around me started to become addicted to the fame. This is part of what led me to quit. It became about the domination of hoods and other taggers. I began to question this way of interacting with others, because it wasn't how I wanted to live.

Graffiti has taken on such a global presence that it was even the topic of discussion for the workshops within the World Social Forum. Progressives, mainly from the US, were calling it a form of resistance art and a tool for social movement. Having lived and breathed the graffiti scene, I can only say that it has a long way to go to reach that level.

This was never made so clear to me as in the conversation I had with the Brazilian grafiteros. After talking a while, I asked one of them "So, who's the most famous out here?" It was the most common question asked among taggers in the US, because fame is one of the most important elements of our graffiti world.

My young homie from Brazil had trouble with the question and replied, "There are various artists here." I repeated the question thinking he didn't understand me, and he didn't, but not due to the language difference, he couldn't grasp this idea of fame as a graffiti artist. This major difference also came across through the images on the walls. In the US, one of the main objectives for most folks is to put up his or her name as often as possible. The graffiti in Porto Allegre went beyond the individual and on to general group messages. Most of it, from the tags to the murals done with paintbrushes, had sayings written in Portugese like, "Justicia" and "Paz." I saw one that read, "No More US Military Bases" in red and black spray paint.

One of the guys asked me if I had gotten up here. I said no because back where I was from you could have problems with other graffiti artists or gangs due to territorial boundaries. In some areas if you don't have some sort of a connection to the local gang or crew, you can't tag there, unless they aren't looking. If you do get caught (and I don't mean by the police), you better believe you're getting dealt with.

He gave me this strange look when I told him I hadn't gotten up here, as if I was crazy for my reasons. He said that all grafiteros here are united, and I could tell he meant it. I had seen this also among young hip-hop heads in Brazil. They held the 1st annual Hip-Hop Conference of Brazil while we were there.

In the conference, rappers and DJs were figuring out how hip-hop could be used to fight sexism and the war. Young people were not only conscious of political and social issues, but were using their cultural activities like graffiti and rap to address them. In the U.S. I have seen a lot of people talk about culture and activism this way, and a few people do it, but in Brazil it was natural and the reality for most.

I arrived back into the United States with a smile thinking about how I would try to inject this good spirit I received into others at home. As I entered the Dallas Airport with my friend, Jermaine, a rapper from Oakland, we waited for our luggage. There was an older white businessman standing next to us. He took a quick glance at us and moved his bags as close to his leg and as far away from us as possible. Jermaine and I looked at each other, laughed, and said, "Welcome home."

This article originally appeared on Silicon Valley DeBug, a youth magazine that is part of the Pacific News Service.

The Fatal Question on Job Applications

have you ever been convicted of a felony?Every day, I drop off three job applications. Everyday, I'm asked the key question that keeps me and many others like me from employment. It goes a little like this: "Have you ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor in the last seven years?" Man, I look at this question knowing that if I tell the truth, I most likely will not get the job. Every time, it's the same feeling -- wanting this job so bad, but knowing an old violation is keeping that job out of reach.

Today, considering the high number of unemployed, this job-screening policy is discriminating against untold numbers of qualified applicants. You may have all the experience needed for the position and may be competing against 10 or 15 others who have little or no experience, but no misdemeanor or felony in their past. You are the one most likely to be written off just because you marked "yes" on this fatal question. And to add insult to injury, once the interviewers know, they look at you as a different person -- someone never to be trusted. I've been there, and I'm there now.

I was so angry after not getting a response from one of my job hunting experiences that I had at a local grocery store, I returned to the store to see who they hired. I saw the hiring sign still posted in the store window. I went into the place and asked for the manager. When he appeared I explained that I had filled out an application for the job and wanted to be interviewed. They said okay and we sat down and started talking with them as they reviewed my resume. It was going all good until that one conversation stopper. "Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony?"

I said yes, and quickly explained the conviction. I had a misdemeanor I received two years ago for skating in downtown. The police charged me with vandalism because they said skating chips the cement. Hardly a major crime. Nonetheless, his happy-go-lucky attitude that he originally had changed to looking down at me. I sat there and had to sell myself twice as hard as the person without a misdemeanor or felony on their record. The whole situation changed in that moment. Automatically the entire conversation ended with a "Well, it is nice meeting you" and "We'll give you a call after we check your references." And, of course, "We are still interviewing other people."

The phone never rang and it's little consolation that I knew damn well I had more than enough experience to do the jobs I applied for. So what to do? Should one be honest and mark yes on the application even while knowing your chances of getting the job will dramatically decrease? Or, should you lie and then wait for the right time to tell them the truth, knowing that once they find out you will be looked at as a criminal and can lose your job? Experience has led me to a third solution: Leave the question blank. If you do this, you can maybe get your foot in the door and be face-to-face with an employer. Then you can tell the truth and have a chance to show them how sincere you are. Take it from someone who knows and who’s finally getting job interviews.

This article originally appeared on Silicon Valley DeBug, a youth magazine of the Pacific News Service. Art for this article is also by Michael Sandoval.

The Pain and Pride of Community College

Community College Comic

After headaches, tears and too many sleepless nights, I have a piece of paper that says I'm of the "learned."

Well, almost. I graduated from Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, or what my friends and I call UC Evergreen to give its name some weight. Graduating from community college is a bit strange, because it's only supposed to be part of your education - a preparation for a "real" four-year college. But community college is not just a phase. It is a unique school experience that is redefining higher education.

For me, community college is where I came to value school. And I'm not alone. In the next decade, community colleges are expected to assume about 75 percent of post-high school enrollment, according to a report by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Even with so many students attending community college, we enrollees aren't supposed to be proud of it. When we're asked what school we go to, the usual answer is, "I'm at community college, uh for right now," or "I go to a junior college, but I'm transferring." The idea seems to be, get out quickly without being seen.

Two weeks before graduating, I participated in an intimate celebration as part of a program that focuses on the academic success of Latino students at Evergreen.

Community College Comic
Looking around, I saw about 15 students who are becoming nurses, teachers, auto mechanics, and computer technicians without going to a four-year school. I also saw how empty the auditorium was. I thought of how not even half of my high school friends are still in school. For a few, it was a personal choice - they just didn't want anything more to do with school. But for the majority, it was other circumstances. There has to be someone or something supporting your educational efforts. I am able to go to school because I want to go, and because I have the encouragement of my parents.

When my friends didn't find this support from their family or workplaces they had to quit. One friend was discouraged by her parents, who thought she was wasting her time with school. Wanting to see fast results, they put her through computer training school, believing she would get a good job like her older sister. But the school she attended never found her a job and after spending thousands of dollars, she got a job with her aunt - something she could have had in the first place. Another friend had no financial support from her parents. She found a part-time job, which made it much more difficult to focus on school. When she took another job, she decided to leave school for a while. She hasn't been back since.

At times, I feel the pressure of the world because I'm in school when so many are not. I felt that weight the other day as I was leaving my brother's house. He was talking about life and success and saying he would help me in any way he could - all I had to do was ask. As I was getting into the car to leave, I heard him say: "Liz has a different life. The life I could have had, but I don't have the discipline." Then, looking at me, he added, "And it's funny - mine is the easy one and yours is the hard one."

I didn't know what to say and though I shouldn't have felt guilty for being able to go to school, I did. I never felt so great a difference between us. He's 10 years older, has a family, makes good money, and is about to move from an East side home to the West side, with a swimming pool and all. But he has not yet gotten a formal education. I know it's not resentment or envy that I feel from him. It's just a difference that separates us in some way.

These confusing feelings of being apart from the real world and close to it at the same time are part of what community college is about. Many students are the only ones going to school among their family and friends.

When it was my turn to speak at my graduation ceremony, I decided to do it in Spanish: "Todo lo que hago es para ustedes, mi familia, y para la raza bella de piel morena." I told my family that everything I do is for them and for the beautiful, brown-skinned people, even if they don't know it and perhaps never will. To get an education just for me would be selfish in a world where, for many, education is a luxury.

Elizabeth Gonzalez is a contributor for De Bug Magazine in Silicon Valley.

The art was provided by Samuel Rodriguez, also of De Bug Magazine.