Historias: “I Was Armed With My Dignity Intact” @ Texas Observer


Poet, professor, human rights activist, and well-known Austinite Raúl Salinas is the author of two new books: raúlsalinas and the Jail Machine: Selected Writings by Raúl Salinas, edited by Louis G. Mendoza (University of Texas Press); and Indio Trails: A Xicano Odyssey Through Indian Country (Wings Press). As poet Joy Harjo has written, raúlsalinas “is a troubadour of justice” who “makes his way through our generation’s history with his songs of truth. Some songs are elegies, some love songs, some are howling at the moon, some pure witness.” (Inspired by poet e.e. cummings, Salinas writes his name in lowercase letters.)

Born in San Antonio in 1934, Salinas grew up on the East Side of Austin. From 1957 to 1972, he spent approximately 12 years in four of the nation’s most brutal prisons—Soledad State Prison (California), Huntsville State Prison (Texas), Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary (Kansas), and Marion Federal Penitentiary (Ohio)—after several drug busts . The prison years marked his remarkable transformation from individual alienation to rage to political resistance that reflected the social movements taking place inside and outside prison walls in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1980s he has run a bookstore, Resistencia Books, and a small press, Red Salmon, in Austin. He has lectured and taught at universities throughout the country and currently teaches at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

The following is an excerpt from a recent interview:

Texas Observer: In a letter to human rights lawyer Michael Deutsch you explained how “prison was a backyard form of colonialism.” Can you talk about “backyard colonialism” and the prison rebellion years, and how political education was related to movements outside of the walls, emerging from experiences you had with other inmates inside the walls?

Raul Salinas: Well, the prison rebellion years were very exciting times, even though they were very physically brutal and mentally devastating. We weren’t just challenging the state in an irrational, inane way, but we were very clearly outlining our arena of struggle and what we had to deal with. The fact that people were becoming educated, helping each other to go into higher learning, to read books critically, to become writers and painters and prison barristers or, as they’re more commonly known, jailhouse lawyers.

So those times were very exciting, very frightening, because there was a transformation taking place. And this was happening throughout the country—no doubt about that—but we were focused on our arena of struggle, which happened to be the federal joint at the time—Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, and later Marion. It was a time of organizing and turning each other on to new materials that we had never had the opportunity to hold in our hands, much less read.

New languages, new concepts, new paradigms that began to make it clear that it was part of a colonial mindset: This is the captives. This is the renegades. These are the ones who will not conform to the reservation or the plantation, and we must deal with them. So how did the state deal with us, the Feds in this case, but the state overall? The way the state deals with any captive, military or otherwise. It’s about brutal physical assaults to mental pressures that go into the clinical, which go into the mind-altering drugs, which go into the attempts to deprive one of one’s senses and shake up one’s sense of equilibrium.

They tried to domesticate us, to pacify us, to control us, to render us helpless, powerless, but they didn’t succeed.

We began to look at this society and the individualistic nature of this society and how it’s dog-eat-dog, every man for himself. The first thing we learned was there is no such thing as being self-taught. I would be so grossly negligent—aside from being a damned liar—if I fall into the trap and agree when people say I am self-educated. I am not. I was educated by some brilliant, brilliant minds, and they all gave me something of themselves, as I am sure I gave to them.

TO: And then you were released. When you talk about “seeking out like-minded people” on the streets, what do you mean? What did you take with you from these experiences—from organizing with Puerto Rican Independistas at Leavenworth, with other Chicanos, blacks, American Indians, from Marion, where you were a plaintiff in Adams v. Carlson, the case that challenged the arbitrary long-term punishment of isolation, sensory deprivation, and behavior modification?

RS: Oh my God. What did I take with me? I felt that I was prepared to live as a totally different man that I had lived when I first went in, that I could contribute to humanity. So I brought with me a wealth of information and knowledge, some loyalties, some undying friendships that are alive and well to this day, those of us who survived…

TO: My Weapon is My Pen ends with a final dedication and declaration: “In honor of those who did not survive the ‘prison rebellion’ years, and in solidarity with those prison fighters who continue to struggle, I commit the remainder of my life to exposing the inhumanity of the jail machine. La lutta continua.” When you were released from Marion, where did you go? How was that another part of this process of transformation?

RS: Well, I literally went into exile. And I say that in the most non-rhetorical manner because people have problems with the term “exile,” or they think exile means being cast off in an island by yourself somewhere. The true sense of exiliado is also desterrado, to displace you, to remove you from your homeland. And since I could not return to Texas because the Rangers were waiting for me—the Texas Rangers not the baseball team—and California had a life-top on me, just for doing what Willie does every day and gets praise in the press for it, I went to Seattle.

Through my writings, through my poetry primarily, Trip Through the Mind Jail specifically, I had established some correspondence with graduate students and professors at the University of Washington. And they were doing prison work at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. So it was a natural connection, and they began to correspond with me, and they asked me what they could do for me… so they helped me obtain my release: the late Dr. Joseph Sommers, along with Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, now retired from the Rockefeller Foundation, and historian Antonia Castañeda. They were very instrumental in getting me to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington. A city and state that I had never been to, a university the likes of which I had never set foot in. This was my first taste of university life—although I was taking college courses in prison. I immediately immersed myself with the prison movement, going into McNeil Island, to Shelton Reformatory in Walla Walla State Prison. And I began an association with El Centro de la Raza, a civil rights, human rights, social service agency that was very much at the forefront of the struggle in the Northwest for Chicanos, Latinos, migrants, students, and they occupied an abandoned schoolhouse. And I was taken there by Dr. Sommers to meet the people, and I immediately fell in love with all of them. And of course the people there were very much involved in supporting the [American Indian] fishing rights struggles and the Asian struggles in the Northwest, which had to do with organizing unions [Alaska Cannery Workers] around the salmon fisheries. So we began to involve ourselves with anti-Marcos[Ferdinand Marcos] work—Filipino youth. And that brought us in contact with these folks who were engaging Marcos directly. We sent four brigades between ’75 and ’80. And then in Nicaragua. In 1973 the popularly elected government of [Chilean President] Salvador Allende was toppled, and we opposed that. We took on the ITT stockholders meeting in Seattle and disrupted it. While continuing our local work, we moved into solidarity with another union, a union of African Americans, very progressive, which later became a minority union: United Construction Workers. Then as a result of the fishing rights struggles, I became acquainted with the American Indian Movement, and that’s what I devoted my time to up until returning to Austin, where my work is now mostly youth-oriented, arts work, immigration, environmental.

TO: In 1999, Seattle was again on the world stage with the mobilizations against the International Monetary Fund, bringing up many of these same issues you are talking about: the analysis based on local conditions, anti-capitalist, the inspiration of movements abroad—across the land borders or across the oceans or the street. How are these movements related?

RS: Whether it’s called colonialism or neoliberalism or globalization, globalizing of the economy, it’s still the same machine at work, gobbling up humanity. Whether in Seattle or East Austin or south of the border, south of the river, we’re up against the same opposition. I think all we can do is learn from how they treat us all the same, “they” meaning the state, the university, the prison system, the military. People can quibble and talk about “but aren’t you being harsh?” Seems pretty clear to me that some grandma fishing on the river for subsistence is no different than an immigrant taking all kinds of risks to come to make a living for their family.

TO: So you come back to Austin in the early ’80s, and we are now in 2006. What has changed, what hasn’t?

RS: What stayed the same is that people are still going to jail from the East Side. In Austin, very few Chicanos are recruited to the University of Texas. It’s a building we look at from across the great divide. So that hasn’t changed. What has changed is the onslaught of gentrification invading the West Bank, our West Bank. Condos galore. Affordable housing for anybody except for the natives that lived there for over 60 years.

There was a new movement, so to speak. New faces, new language, new concepts to learn. And so I wanted to learn. And so I aligned myself with people who knew. Young people, and that being a struggle in and of itself because I wanted to work with young people. Young people wanted to work with me, but we have that big generational divide that both sides perpetuate.

A lot of old fogies think youngsters have nothing to contribute, and a lot of the youngsters think they were immaculately conceived and nothing was here before them. I’m 72 years old, I have not been broken by any system, and I reiterate: I commit the remainder of my days to helping expose that machine that almost ground me up, that tried to grind me up, and that has ground so many of our people up, and that continues to grind them in larger numbers each year.

TO: The recent count is more than 2 million people incarcerated, and the number of people in the criminal justice system is steadily reaching 7 million. How do you see the current crisis of incarceration for people of color and, most recently, with immigrants?

RS: A whole new set of prisoners. That is the end result. Who is going to prison today? Young black and brown people with the number of women ever on the rise, and poor white people. That’s who’s going to prison and filling these jails.

One important thing about the war and torture is that every day we are finding out more and more that the methods of torture and the whole introduction of torture as another tool of repression are U.S. imports, imports from U.S. prisons. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram are all products of yankee-doodle penology. Standing on that barrel with the hood, brother you tell people in Huntsville about that one. Ours was a barrel you stood in. Handcuffed to the bars all the way up to your tiptoes.

So that’s what I meant, I guess to answer your initial question. That’s what a backyard form of colonialism means to me.

Alan Eladio Gómez divides his time between Austin and Ithaca, New York. Originally from Corpus Christi, he is an assistant professor at Ithaca College.