I just started reading In Extremis, a biography of this badass war journalist named Marie Colvin who wore a patch over her left eye—after she took a grenade to the face in Sri Lanka in 2001—and was killed by artillery fire in the city of Homs during the Syrian war. The book came highly recommended by Susanne Ramirez de Arellano, a badass journalist in her own right. I got a few pages in and was immediately hooked, thank god, because there’s no hell greater than trudging 50 or 100 pages into a book, hoping and praying that it eventually hooks you.
But I can’t get the last book out of my mind. The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta has tons in it that’s still relevant for any leftist Latino writer, activist, wannabe revolutionary such as myself. I’m thinking of that part toward the end of the book where Acosta (as his fictionalized alter ego Buffalo Z. Brown) escapes to Acapulco for some sun, women, drugs, and a little brother-brother time with his twin, Jesus—his brother’s real name was Roberto, like the dead kid whose family Brown represents in an earlier case, and Roberto wasn’t his older twin in real life but his older brother by one year.
Brown and his brother Jesus climb this mountain overlooking Acapulco Bay and his brother tells him the story of Lopitos, a “little Indian” who led an insurrection on that very mountain, bringing in the poor and landless from across the state of Guerrero to settle there. The mountain was owned by some American millionaire but undeveloped, just sitting there empty.
“Eventually the cops came,” says Jesus, “first the local fuzz and then the State troopers. … But Lopitos wouldn’t budge. He told them that if they wanted the mountain, they’d have to kill everybody.”
When the “federales from Mexico City” show up but Lopitos and his people still stand firm—“Nothing could move them”—the government backs down and pays the rich American for the land. Lopitos becomes mayor of Acapulco, “a short man without education,” and kicks out all the foreign interests.
“Two years later he was assassinated,” Jesus says. “Right here on this spot.” The inscription on the monument marking his grave reads:
La vida no es la que vivimos
La vida es el honor y el recuerdo.
Por eso más vale morir
Con el pueblo vivo,
Y no vivir
Con el pueblo muerto.
Jesus heard about the dust his lawyer brother has been kicking up with the Chicano Militants in L.A. and asks if they’re ready to die for their cause like Lopitos was. “How many have you killed?” Acosta gives an “Uh” and “well, you know…” Jesus just laughs.
“Until the people, the blacks, the Chicanos, the white liberals and the white radicals, all of you, until you guys get it in your head that you’re going to go all the way … I mean, like Lopitos here. When they took over the mountain there was no turning back. … It was life or death on the mountaintop. … They chose death and they beat it. You’ve got to accept it, look for it, stick your nose into it and fight your way out of it. You’ve got to find your death before you can find your life.”
That last line reminds me of Hemingway and the bullfighters, who all believed that life was only truly discovered in the face of death.
Brown brings up his campaign for L.A. sheriff but his brother laughs at that too. “What good is all that?” he says. “They gave you those votes, man. They knew you weren’t going to win. They were just letting you guys get your rocks off.”
Of Brown’s work as a civil-rights lawyer: “Bullshit! It amounts to nothing. It’s just an exercise in ego-tripping.”
“I’m not trying to depress you,” Jesus tells his brother. “All I’m really trying to say is … If you guys ever really get serious … I mean, if you really pick up the gun … let me know. I’ll get in on that one. … And I’ve got lots of friends here that will join me.”
After a drug-fueled night in a local whorehouse, Brown awakes to the news that his friend and famed Chicano reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Ruben Salazar (referred to in the book as “Roland Zanzibar”), has been killed “by [a] stray bullet during Chicano riots in East Los Angeles,” according to a newspaper headline. Rodolfo Gonzales, the Chicano leader from Denver, has been arrested.
Brown flies up to L.A. to meet with the Chicano Militants, who have been crashing at Brown’s house in East L.A. in his absence, though they’ve been wondering where the hell their supposed leader has run off to. They’ve begun to question Brown’s commitment to the cause and his loyalty to them. “You must be loaded,” says a Chicano Militant by the name of Black Eagle over the phone. “Acapulco! […] You capitalist pig!”
“What the fuck do I have to apologize for?” Brown says in a huff once he’s back in L.A. “You’re always telling me how you’re going to shoot your arms off with junk after the revolution. Nobody is going to tell you what to do. I’ve been a lawyer for three years. THREE YEARS! You know I don’t want to be no fucking lawyer! So when everything’s cool, I go to see my brother and relax. Nobody has a right to beef! Here I am and nothing’s any different!”
But Waterbuffalo, another Chicano Militant, later brings up Brown’s vacation south of the border. “Acapulco!” he says. “Vatos are dying and you’re off gettin’ a tan.”
“I’m no kamikaze! Are you?” Brown fires back. “Do you want to die? I’m a writer, yeah, and a singer of songs. I just happen to be a lawyer and a fighter. If I’m not all that, I’m dead! What the hell are we fighting for? For land and to live just like we want.”
We all know that line, or most of us anyway, about the pen being “mightier than the sword.” That’s what writers say who have no intention of ever picking up a sword and have the luxury of never having to even consider it. But for black and brown leftist writers with working consciences, the possibility of having to pick a sword, or more likely a gun, at least a brick, remains a constant.
As writers we know that, contrary to what the Athenians told the cowering Melians, might doesn’t make right. But might does make things happen, and “war,” as Clausewitz put it, “is the continuation of politics by other means.” Or as Che wrote: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”
But writers also know that there is real power in words—or at least there used to be. I’m not sure I still believe that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley famously claimed, though Lord knows I’d like to. If there is a way to change the world for the better by spilling ink instead of blood, to have a bloodless revolution, then I’ll opt for that. But “you haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed,” says Malcolm. And as a student of history, and unless I’m willing to believe that the March on Washington and all of Dr. King’s nonviolent protests alone are what forced the white power system to merely begin to give in a little, I have to agree with the late militant.
I understand Brown’s internal struggle, which we have to assume was Acosta’s too. But he isn’t asking “what is to be done?” in the fight to overthrow white supremacy and its economic system of exploitation known as capitalism. What he’s really wondering is what he should do.
For me personally, the answer comes from Marx, not Lenin: “From each according to his ability…”
I’m still pissed at Martí for stepping onto that battlefield at Dos Ríos. What the hell was he thinking? I mean, I know what he was thinking, the same thing all revolutionary writers think: If I write these words and believe in them, then I have to be willing to stand by them. I can’t just write about it, I have to BE about it.
Martí wanted to be the kind of man that Che wanted to be, “one of those who risks his skin to prove his platitudes.”
But what good is a scrawny dweeb like Martí in battle, or even Che, choking on his own breath and having to be dragged around wherever he wanted to join the fight? I get what they were trying to do, admirable as it is, but a wise man knows his place, knows what he is and what he’s not, and conforms with his own nature. Some men make good fighters, while others make good writers. We’re talking about two men who died very young, Martí at the age of 42 and Che only 39. What they had left to contribute in ink far outweighs anything they could’ve given in blood. Their words would’ve inspired thousands, maybe millions of future warriors, whereas their martyrdom only teaches that to die for a cause, however glorious, is ultimately worthless.
Horace’s old line, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” is also his old lie, as Owen reminded us. Owen himself died at the age of 25 in a horrific war that settled nothing—made things worse if anything—and died only a week before it ended on top of that. Of course, we wouldn’t have his beautiful verses had he not fought, just as we wouldn’t have Homage to Catalonia had Orwell not gone to Barcelona as a journalist and then picked up a rifle, but don’t you wish Owen would’ve lasted at least a little longer? What good was his death, or anyone’s? What does dying prove?
“What is bravery,” Marie Colvin asked a mere 15 months before her own death in Syria, “and what is bravado?”
“Wisdom is knowing the difference between bravery and brainlessness,” goes an African proverb. “Only a fool tests the depth of water with both feet.”
As a writer I think it’s wise to remain at my battle station, which is my desk, from where I can launch attacks to such a degree that most others cannot. But I’m in constant doubt of my own wisdom and bravery. Do I stick with the pen because I’m afraid to pick up a sword? That’s part of it, sure. It must be. But then that’s why I’m a writer and not a warrior, and why others are warriors and not writers.
I’m also a writer with some money, though I had nothing to do with that second bit. I only did whatever my wife needed doing, and stood by her as she went from earning a little to earning a lot more. I make a good salary now as an editor, but that’s only recently. Before that I made almost no money, for years, using my wife’s money to fund my passion projects—this magazine and the Latin(ish) podcast—which don’t make any money but are labors of love that I deem a community service. I don’t have to do the work, which takes up a lot of time and energy and money, takes up a lot of me. But I feel I have to since no one else is really doing it or can do it the way I can. Maybe that’s delusion, maybe everything is. But what good is having money anyway, which is power, if you’re not using it to help change the world for the better?
My wife and I had an argument over chilaquiles, carne asada and tequila at Casa Don Juan on Saturday. Same argument we’ve been having since we met: I was telling her how I thought some rich and famous person, this time J. Lo, should do more with their fame and money—in J. Lo’s case, I think she should weigh in on U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. My wife was saying how J. Lo doesn’t owe anybody squat, and she’s right; at the end of the day we’re all on our own.
“But isn’t that the problem with the world?” I asked her. “Isn’t that why nothing ever changes? Because it’s every man and woman for themselves?”
My wife mentioned J. Lo having to claw her way up to the top, which she did. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that J. Lo, after doing so much to gain the world’s attention and money, is now a very rich and famous woman. Fame is another form of power, same as money, and a person who spends her career chasing fame and money can’t then turn around and say she has no obligation to use those twin powers for good once she’s obtained them, especially when she comes from a place and people who desperately need someone with such powers to defend their rights. Plus if the rich and powerful aren’t obligated to help make the world a better place, then who is? The poor and powerless?
Still, I can’t say it doesn’t sting being called a “swimming-pool communist” like Police Chief Judd Davis calls Buffalo Brown. “Those people who tell the poor people to take up arms from out of their comfortable homes in Beverly Hills.”
I don’t live in Beverly Hills, but I do own a pool in an area of Vegas whose zip code ranks higher than Beverly Hills’ in terms of income, all thanks to my wife’s hard work plus the moral and physical support I’ve given her. But, of course, people don’t look at me and see some proletarian or a lumpenproletarian, which is what I consider myself to be: an outcast, marginalized as fuck, unemployable outside of writing and editing. They see a “bobo,” a term coined by the New York Times columnist David Brooks to describe the bourgeois bohemians, with one foot in the countercultural artistic world and the other in the mainstream capitalist one.
I’m mostly aware of my image among activists and fellow radicals. Like when I went to an immigration rally last Friday outside the federal courthouse here in Vegas. I’d been invited by Lalo Montoya, an activist friend of mine who works with Make the Road Nevada and was a guest on the podcast. I was self-aware enough to park the Beamer around the corner, out of sight, but I didn’t think anything of wearing my Gucci shades and my Bulova watch as I usually do. My accessories must’ve clashed with the black IMMIGRANT MADE shirt I wore. I only realized my faux pas by the way some of the activists eyed me with suspicion upon my arrival. “I’m sorry, who are you?” asked one of them.
I joined in their chanting just to show them I was down with the cause. Whether that violates some rule of journalism, I don’t know and I don’t really care. Orwell saw no problem joining the POUM in Catalonia—“I do not have to ask myself which side I am on”—and what’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for me.
Gabo was a socialist and a damn good journalist too, as was Hitchens and a lot of others. They were still objective, which is how they came to the conclusion that the capitalist system would fall, that it must fall, and that socialism is the humane side to be on. And if you can be a capitalist and journalist without anyone questioning your objectivity, then why can’t I be a socialist and journalist, even one with a swimming pool?
Then there’s the unfortunate fact that, as Daniel Cubias recently wrote for this magazine, most poor people don’t respect poor people, much less listen to anything they have to say. Poverty, according to capitalist teaching, is indicative of some type of character flaw in a person: if the person were smart enough, worked hard enough, were or did enough of anything, then they wouldn’t be so poor, now would they? Not that the poor trust the rich but they respect them due to this capitalist upbringing. Money is the form of power respected by the most people, then fame—I respect character and intelligence myself, but, well…
So if a poor person with character and intelligence has any hope of helping other poor people, he’s got to get rich first, while never forgetting which side he’s on. Whatever I have or don’t have, whatever I am or not, I know which side I’m on.
Featured image by Lee Edwin Coursey/CC BY 2.0