Category Archives: Brown Berets

Rough Cut Resurrected: Watsonville Peace & Unity March

Watsonville Peace MarchIt took me three years to write the first draft of my novel, Fruit of the Devil. Writing was ecstasy—the story poured out of me as if it were being channeled. The characters came alive. Then I found out the horrible truth—that “writing is rewriting”—and I embarked upon what has now become  five years of revising, editing, and rewriting hell. Almost half of my original content has been trashed because, according to my various esteemed editors and critique groups, those scenes, characters, and chapters didn’t “move the plot.” “Keep it moving” is the mantra of genre fiction writers, and rightfully so—it would be nice to write a book that people will read. (Although I will guiltily admit to a secret proclivity toward writing literary fiction.)

Whatever. I’ve found that in any medium—whether it be clay, paint, or words on a page—there comes a critical moment in the creative process when one feels oneself futzing around, putting edited bits back into the work. That’s when the artist is at risk of overworking the piece and needs to stop; must surrender to the fact that works of art are works-in-progress, and are rarely perfect. I believe I’ve come to that moment with Fruit of the Devil.

Today, I sewed four pages, which I had previously savagely chopped off, back into the body of the manuscript. When I finished doing the horrible deed, I actually heard a voice in my head saying, “Thank you.” I think the manuscript is still breathing, and the resurrected piece is more relevant today that when I wrote it five years ago. The scene describes a community’s response to gun violence.

My main character, Aurora Bourne, is in love with a Catholic priest, Father Francis, who works in the community with at-risk youth. Aurora’s fourth grade student Paloma has two brothers—fifteen-year-old Johnny and eighteen-year-old Victor. Johnny has just jumped in with a Norteño cliqué and has been arrested after trying to rob a liquor store. He sustained major injuries from being jumped in and is now in the hospital under police custody. Victor and Father Francis visited him earlier in the day . . .

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Valle Verde Plaza

At high noon, the fifth annual Peace and Unity March wound through town toward the Plaza. Leading the march, the Azteca Mexica Ixtatutli—the beautiful White Hawk dancers, all in feathers—blessed the barrios and the pueblo in an indigenous, ceremonial way, with smoky copal incense and the haunting tones of a conch shell horn. The blessing felt like strong medicine. Victor, wearing a brown t-shirt and brown beret, was up at the front of the march with other similarly uniformed young men and women.

The community of Valle Verde had organized and come together today, on el Día de los Muertos to honor those who had died in violence, to listen to the family members of those who had been murdered, and to pray, bless, rally, sing, dance, and support El Pueblo de Valle Verde with peace.

Victor felt very uplifted and salved in his heart to be a part of this gathering. These people, his communidad, had Ganas—they had the will, the spirit, to affirm life and peace, in the face of so much personal tragedy. That’s what he needed today, just to keep it going, to keep on believing.

The marchers wound through the city and returned to the plaza. Victor watched all the familias setting up memorials to loved ones lost to violence, placing mementos, photos, flowers, and even favorite foods and personal effects of the departed on the altars. People were remembering their muertos for all the community to see.

The rally started. A woman up on the stage spoke through a microphone. She was a small woman but her voice sounded like it could shake down mountains.

“This violencia is going to stop,” she said. “I’m here today because I lost my son at the hands of gang members. Too many of you know about the pain I am feeling. We all need to work together to end the violence and bring peace to our community. The cops try, but they can’t do it by themselves. We need the families to get out and show support. The answer isn’t just more law enforcement. It’s about parental involvement and community building, education, and faith at a time when it’s clearly hard to come by. I pray that all this violence will stop. But prayer isn’t enough. This is our community. We need to take it back, for the sake of our children.”

The crowd cheered and applauded. Another speaker took the podium—one of the founders of the Valle Verde Brown Berets, a guy named Vallejo.

“We are proud to be here today. Proud that the Brown Berets could play a part in organizing this Peace and Justice rally. We’re tired of the injustices in our community, and tired of not having a voice or political representation in our own town . . . We’re young and brown, so they don’t want to listen to us. But we will be heard.”

Victor had a lot of respect for Vallejo and his message of courage and self-determination. He’d met Vallejo at Indian Canyon with Father Francis, and had heard him speak at the weekly Brown Beret meetings in the Bike Church downtown, across the alley from the Adult School. The guy was a natural born leader.

Victor ambled around the fountain in the center of the park-like plaza. Art, tradition, and culture surrounded him. The Folklorico dancers were swirling their colorful skirts in beautiful, traditional dances of Mexico. Women and children were giving out treats for free—candies, skulls made of sugar, and pan de muertos, bread of the dead.

On the stage where the woman had spoken earlier, Teatro Campesino was getting ready to put on a performance. Victor sat on the grass to watch and drink his champurrado, a thick and delicious Mexican hot chocolate. The Father of Teatro Campesino, The Farmworkers’ Theater, introduced the play. Luis Valdez was a distinguished looking man with a silver moustache. He related the story of how Teatro Campesino had gotten its start out in the fields on flatbed trucks, among the grape and lettuce pickers, back in Cesar Chavez’s day. It had been born on the strike lines of the Great Grape Strike of 1965—Chicano Comedia Popular, revolutionary guerilla street theater.

“When I produced my film Zoot Suit, I made enough money to purchase a teatro permanente down in San Juan Bautista. If you haven’t already, I hope you will come to see us there. But we don’t forget our roots. We will always show up for the people, right out in the open air, whenever we are needed, like today. We hope you enjoy the show.”

As usual, the actors wore wonderful, crazy costumes and talked in a mixture of Spanish and English, street slang, and even a little bit of barely intelligible Azteca and Mayan. The play was an exciting and surreal story full of regular people getting mixed up with strange, supernatural characters and happenings, surprises for both the living and the dead, and very funny lines with lots of double meanings and satire that made the audience split their sides laughing. Victor’s heart was hurting real bad with worry for his little brother. But still, it felt good to laugh.

After the play, children in skeleton costumes with black and white painted faces gathered in the center of the plaza, next to the fountain. Victor’s little sister, Paloma, was not among the children. He’d insisted that she stay home with Grandpa tonight. She was too upset about Johnny.

As evening’s shadow descended, people began lighting the candles they held in their hands.

Several compañeros from the Brown Berets stepped out of the dark and surrounded Victor. “We’re here for you, hermano. We heard about Johnny,” said Pato. “He’s gonna be alright.”

A large mariachi band assembled. Wearing cleric’s collars and black robes, a couple of priests from St. Patrick’s—the big red church in town—said a blessing. Acolytes passed through the throng with smoking incense censers. Pretty soon, everybody was moving, following the children on a procession to the community arts center a few blocks away. There, they would have a grand fiesta, with elaborate altares made by community groups, more food, music and dancing until midnight, when all of the souls went home to rest.

Victor moved along with the crowd, following the eerily lit skeleton kids and the priests with their thuribles of swirling, ghostly copal smoke. The procession wove along Main Street and up toward the Galleria del Arte. The mariachi band, with its full-blown brass cacophony, sent evil spirits flying off ahead of the revelers into the night.

In the bruised, dark purple twilight, Father Francis suddenly appeared at Victor’s side.

The priest, clothed in jeans and a light nylon jacket, put his arm around Victor’s shoulders and sang to the mariachi musica at the top of his voice.

Victor joined in, lifting his voice and his heart, his spirit, up into the night.

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Rough Cut: The Shipper/Packer/Cooler Industry and the Brown Berets

Rough Cuts: {Watsonville Brown Berets, a snippet from back in the day. This is a true story.}

Sunday morning, August 28, 1998.
Prudenciana Elementary School. Watsonville.

Aurora opened the door to the computer lab. Jose Santos, the new technology assistant, was down on his hands and knees under a shelf of colorful new iMacs, working with a tangle of cables. Aurora smiled at the slender young man with a black moustache. They made a good choice in hiring him. He’d been doing very well as a computer technician, even though he was inexperienced.

“Hey, Jose. Thanks for being willing to meet me here on a Sunday morning. How’s it going?”

“Good. We should have all the software installed, and the computers networked to the new printer by the time we go home today, but we’ll still need an adapter for the overhead projector, and we should have some of those rubber floor covers to put all these wires under, so they aren’t a tripping hazard.”

“Give me a list. I can pick that stuff up. Can I give you a hand with networking the printers?”

Aurora dove under the bank of computers, and Jose oriented her as to what he was doing. “You’ve really learned all this technology stuff fast,” she said.

“Yeah. I’m taking a full load of tech classes at the community college, going for the Cisco networking certification.”

“Brilliant move. I’ll bet networking will be huge in the future.”

Jose sat back on his heels. “That does it. Now, we should test them all.”

Jose and Aurora each took a chair in front of an iMac and turned on a computer.

Aurora navigated to Preferences, selected the new printer, restarted the computer, then opened the word processing app to test the printer connection.

“Where are you from originally, Jose?” Aurora asked while she waited for the app to open. “Did you grow up here in Watsonville?”

“I’m from Mexico. A small village outside of Guadalajara.”

“Your English is excellent. You must have been in the States for a long time.”

“No. I came to California about five years ago.”

“Have you been going to school since you got here?

“No. Working. When I first arrived, I got a job in a packinghouse, here in Watsonville. With Strawberry Bay Berry.”

“What was that like?”

“A nightmare, to tell you the truth.”

The printer came to life, rattling out the test page Jose had just sent. He turned off the computer and moved to the next one on the row against the wall.

“Nightmare? Why?” Aurora moved to the next computer in her row and pushed the on button, enjoying the ta-da sound the new iMac made when it powered up.

“I worked at a conveyor belt that moved fruit to the coolers. We were supposed to inspect for rotten and damaged fruits and pull them off, but the belt moved too fast. We also had to quickly slide a new box under the end of the belt where the fruit fell off, whenever a box was full, without letting any fruit fall on the cement floor. The shifts were ungodly long. No bathroom breaks. By the end of the day, my feet, hands, back, and head hurt, and I could hardly see straight. It was always way too hot or freezing cold. Standing all day on the cement floor just sucked the energy out of your body. You really had to pay attention, to do everything right. Somebody watched us all the time. The foreman came from my home village in Mexico. He knew my parents, and grandparents. My family had obligations to him, and I owed him for helping me get into the States and getting me my job. The man was merciless, kind of a Godfather type.”

“That does sound like a nightmare. But you got out. And now you’re at Cabrillo College and you have this job. Those are huge accomplishments.”

“Yeah. It’s because I started going to meetings of this group, the Brown Berets.” Jose said “Brown Berets” in a whisper, looking over his shoulder.

“Who are they?” asked Aurora.

“A Chicano activist group founded by a radical Episcopal priest in East LA in the late sixties, during the Black and Brown liberation movements, to help young Chicanos develop their political skills. The group decided to wear brown berets as a symbol of unity and resistance against oppression.”

Aurora moved to another computer. Ta-dah. “I’ve been teaching in Watsonville for years, and I’ve never heard of the Brown Berets.”

“The organization kind of died out after the sixties. But in ninety-four, a group of students from Watsonville decided to resurrect it. The gang-related murders of two young people had a lot to do with it. We were just a group of young Chicanos and Chicanas, tired of injustices in the community and the lack of political representation. So we decided to educate ourselves, and take the power of self-determination in our own hands.”

Jose hit the print button and the next test page spun out.

“We couldn’t have done it without our mentors, a high school counselor named Alba and this Ohlone Catholic priest we call El Gecko. It’s a real spiritual group. El Gecko helps us get in touch with our indigenous power, and teaches us the Old Ways.”

Aurora’s heart skipped at the mention of the priest. She started the next computer. Ta dah. She was not surprised to learn that Father Francis was involved in such work.

“So the Brown Berets is a peace keeping group?” Aurora asked as the printer rattled out the next test page.

“A peace building and educational organization. We recognize that Mother Earth has no borders and belongs to all of earth’s creatures. With all our diversity, we’re still all family. We should respect, not exploit and oppress one another. At our meetings, Norteños and Sureños actually meet together, cross the line, and find their brotherhood. There’s no hating. We figure out how to work together for the betterment of our community. To address gang violence, we organized an annual march that passes through all the different barrios in Watsonville, to bring the message of Peace and Unity. We’re even working with the police, to build a positive relationship between police and minority youth.”

“So, what happened to you? How did the Brown Berets help you with your job at the packing plant?”

“Well, like I said, the Brown Berets educate. Through our Education Popular, I learned about the history of the farmworkers struggle in Watsonville. I learned that those packer-shipper-cooler corporations are at the top of the ladder. Strawberry Bay Berry is actually owned, through a venture capital front corporation, by BioGenesis Agrochemical Corporation. Heard of them?”

“Oh, my God, yes,” said Aurora. “I’ve heard that their people go into the rainforest, get indigenous people to show them their traditional medicinal plants, take the plants back to the US and patent them, then tell the native people they can’t use their own plants anymore unless they pay BioGen. And the U.S. government is backing up the corporate theft. And I’ve heard they’re developing genetically modified seeds that have pesticides in their DNA, and they’re suing small family farmers all over the world who save their organic seeds in the traditional way, bankrupting them with legal fees and then seizing their farms.”

“It’s all true.” Jose started up the next computer. “And here, in the Pajaro Valley, the big shipper-cooler companies, with BioGen pulling their strings, tell the growers what to grow, when and how much. They have a huge amount of power. But guess what? I found out I have power, too. I learned that in the USA, workers have rights.”

“Yes, we do. So what happened?”

“One day, a friend of mine was operating a fork lift in a cold storage warehouse. I was there in the warehouse when he was fork lifting some heavy crates onto a high shelf. One of the crates got stuck on the lift. The foreman ordered my friend to climb up and move the crate by hand, so my friend climbed up there and pushed the crate. But when it came unstuck, it released the forklift, which bounced up and knocked him off the shelf. He fell more than fifteen feet down to the cement floor. Landed on his back. Blood pouring out of his nose, and ears. I thought he might be dead. But he opened his eyes, and ­– you know what? – the foreman told him to go home. Told him, if he went to a doctor or told anyone what happened, he might as well not come back to work.”

“That’s horrible. Inhumane. And it’s against the law.”

“Right. But keep in mind that most of these workers have no clue about American labor law. After seeing that, something just snapped inside me. The foreman sent me back to my conveyor belt. When the box filled up, I just watched the fruit fall on the floor. My foreman started yelling at me, but I didn’t care. I just stood there, watching the fruit pile up and roll all over the place. Finally, someone shut off the conveyor belt. I walked away, and never looked back. I went to the Brown Berets. Señor Alba and El Gecko helped me get into Cabrillo Community College and helped me get this job. To me, both those men are like saints. I know a lot of people they’ve helped, besides me.”

“Were there repercussions, when you walked off the job?”

“Oh, yeah. I never got my last paycheck. Some of my family in Mexico is still ticked off at me. And I definitely burned my bridges with that foreman. I’ll never work in the packing industry again. Not that I ever want to go back there anyway. I’m just lucky no one came after me. You know – to beat me up, or kill me.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I – ah, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this. I’ve heard that you teachers are asking questions about the pesticides. Be careful, okay? I mean it. The people behind the strawberry industry in this town don’t like to be messed with. There’s history here, going back to before Cesar Chavez. They’re dangerous. Seriously, Aurora. Watch your back.”

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