Forty-nine years ago today I had the honor of marching through La Plaza De La Revolución as a member of the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. I got to listen to Fidel give one of his shorter speeches (only about 2.5 hours, if memory serves.) The USA has been exceptionally cruel to the people of Cuba. They deserve far better, as do we all.
Tag Archives: Cuba
¡Hasta La Victoria Siempre! Venceremos
This is my ID card, given to me by the Cuban government when I traveled there in 1973 with the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. I celebrated my 26th birthday around the time we returned, after two months of construction labor and educational presentations, and culminating in a one-week tour of the island that ended in Santiago de Cuba.
We weren’t actually allowed to travel there back then, but we flew Western Airlines anyway from LAX to MEX, where we transferred to an Ilyushin four-engine turboprop from MEX to HAV. We were met by the CIA in Mexico City, who insisted we pose for pictures before we were allowed to proceed. We were met with a television camera, celebration, and nation-wide coverage upon our arrival at Havana.
Memories of the Sixties & Seventies
This is just a part of the collection of my political memorabilia from the late sixties and early seventies. The button at the top left is from Radio Habana, as is the pic of Che, which has a 1973 calendar on the back. The button with the torch I got when I was in Cuba in 1973 as well; it’s from Cabo Verde y Guinea Bissau. The Cubans were providing military assistance for their liberation struggle and we were fortunate enough to be able to meet a few of their fighters, who gave us the button.
The one next to that is from the fight to lower the voting age to draft age (I couldn’t vote until I was 21.) Next over, to the right, as a Vietnam era veteran I was eligible for membership in VVAW and I worked very closely with them for several years during that time. The next one conveys my general feeling about drugs … which hasn’t changed much in the ensuing years. The last button is from the time when Angela was on trial for providing the weapons Jonathan Jackson used in an ill-fated attempt to free his brother, George Jackson, from prison while he was in court at the Marin County Courthouse.
Below that is my ticket to the fundraising concert for Angela, where I was one of the armed bodyguards for the McAfee family, who put their farm up for Angela’s bail. Finally, the ticket in the middle is from when I attended an event at UCLA where several of the defendants in the “conspiracy” spoke about their trial. Sacha Baron Cohen was, regrettably, not present that day. Neither was Abbie Hoffman.
Fear of Sharing
My wife would say I’m overly gregarious and too willing to share things about my life and experiences, and from all appearances, I seem to have spent much of that life being outgoing and transparent, yet I think I just realized that in actuality, I have always hidden much of who I am from others. Specific others, not everyone . . . and not about everything. Most of the things I’ve kept to myself over the years aren’t deeds I’m ashamed of or thoughts I’ve believed in and now think are wrong. It’s just that it wasn’t important for certain people to know about them.
For instance, I never shared my experiences in the late sixties with the “Free Love” movement with my mother. Somehow, I felt she wouldn’t have appreciated learning why I refer to myself as a “battle-scarred veteran” of the Sexual Revolution. Similarly, when I first hired in at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, to work on the Space Shuttle Main Engine team, I didn’t think they needed to know I had spent two months in Cuba in 1973 as a guest of the Cuban government. The list goes on.
When I became a first-time, adoptive father at the age of 55, I considered writing about the experience of adopting, but decided against it because I thought it stood too much of a chance of violating my children’s privacy. I’m still a bit conflicted over how much I can share about my experience for fear of sharing too much of their lives, and those things don’t belong to me alone.
Now that I’m less than a year and a half from my 75th birthday, I’m thinking it’s time to stop being so concerned about embarrassing anyone who knows or is related to me . . . and just write my truth and put it out there for everyone to judge for themselves. That is what I’m doing, but I’m also just realizing how seriously I have been hobbled by my unwillingness to risk bringing shame to my family . . . even though I’m hardly ashamed about anything I’ve done over the years. Sorry for some things, yes – because they hurt me or others I loved and cared about – but shame does not emanate from this boy.
Having recognized this serious impediment to telling my story, it’s now my job to overcome what it’s done to me over the years (it hasn’t perzackly helped me overcome “imposter syndrome.”) I can no longer embarrass my parents or grandparents; they’ve been gone for quite some time, and I need to get these stories out, regardless. Even if I live to be ninety, I won’t have to regret anything (which I likely won’t anyway) for very long.
Racism and Bigotry
I still believe we are misusing the words “racism” and “racist.”
Racism is institutional, systemic, and structural. It’s insidious and buried deep in every aspect of our society and economy. Bigotry is right out in the open.
And this isn’t whitesplaining on my part. This is what I was taught by members of the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets in 1973. I was, along with 49 of my closest friends, required to go through about 20 hours of cultural and racial sensitivity training before being allowed to travel to Cuba with the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade.
I keep bringing this up because the public now conflates racism with bigotry and, by doing so, gives people an excuse for not looking closer at how they’ve unknowingly embraced or benefited from racism, by merely pointing out their lack of anger or visible anger/hatred toward people of color. “I don’t see color,” or “I have black friends/relatives.” All that means, at the most, is you’re not a bigot. It doesn’t change the centuries of economic and social injustice deeply baked into every aspect of our society.
We need to understand the differences if we’re going to erase racism and its insidious effects.
One other thing I learned from that education, and that has been reinforced in the intervening years, is that white people need to shut the fuck up and listen to people of color when it comes to understanding their lived reality. Because of racism, you don’t know squat about their experiences. Try it. You might be surprised.
I arrived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco at the tail end of the “Summer of Love.” It was either late August or very early September. Things were already starting to fall apart before I got up there, but it took weeks before I was able to recognize what was happening.
I had traveled from Los Angeles by thumb, where I had just given up a lucrative business my father had purchased for me at the very end of 1966. Fearing my life was going nowhere (which it kinda was) he took the opportunity to buy a small snack shop from a friend who was going into another business. The place was called DEBS, which was an acronym of the previous owners family’s names. We kept it . . . the name that is.
Situated directly across the street from the May Company, between 8th and 9th Streets on S. Hill Street, I was making big bucks for a snot-nosed teenager. I didn’t realize just how lucky I was at the time which, I suppose, is the very definition of privilege. I just did a time/value calculation and discovered I was making the equivalent of close to a quarter of a million dollars a year back then. Yikes! That doesn’t seem possible or even reasonable, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.
Unfortunately, I was only 19 years old at the time, fresh out of High School the previous year and recently honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy after a total of one month and twenty-three days of service. I’m surely one of a few people in the country who has served, received the National Defense Service Medal, and also a medical discharge while I was still in boot camp. Since I was in for such a short time, I am not eligible for veteran’s benefits, nor have I ever sought to receive them . . . but that’s another story I’ll get to later.
DEBS Snack Shop was open six days a week, twelve hours a day on weekdays, and ten hours on Saturday. I had to be there for every one of those hours and, since I lived in the North end of the San Fernando Valley, the commute took at least an hour and a half, round-trip, every weekday. Saturdays were a little quicker. So I was putting in about 70 hours per week, not including time getting ready to head out the door.
Not only were the hours long, I had to deal with my father coming by every day and pointing out everything I had done “wrong,” i.e. not how he would do it. Not that I didn’t screw up; 19-year-old boys aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, no matter how high their IQ. But my old man was not the kind to hand out compliments or praise. Nope. He was a genius at pointing out shortcoming, though.
I remember one weekend I finally had a date with a young woman I had met somewhere. Much of the detail is lost in the mists of time, including who she was and where we met, and the relationship didn’t last long at all. We went out to dinner and were going to go to a movie afterward. Unfortunately, if memory serves, I actually fell asleep at dinner, I was so tired. I don’t think we made it to the movie, and I’m not sure I ever saw her again.
That particular debacle was one of many compelling reasons I asked my father to sell the place after only seven months. I was young and restless, and I had no social life. I had also started smoking pot the previous year and was beginning to experiment with acid (LSD.) I needed to spread my wings and I didn’t see that ever happening as long as I was tied to a demanding business and an overbearing father. But I digress.
What I was thinking of when I decided to write this post was the agricultural workers here in my native County of Ventura. Some of the laborers post videos to a local Facebook group and seeing them brings me back to my two encounters with working in the fields, one of which took place while I was living up in the Haight.
When I was working in the snack shop, I frequently had to go and purchase produce, generally a few blocks away at the Grand Central Market. One of the items I had to buy was tomatoes. I would get them by the “lug,” each of which weighed approximately 30 pounds.
On many a day in the Haight, people would just sit around in front of the stores on Haight Street, sometimes standing to perform for the tourist buses that would pass by. They expected no less from a bunch of “Hippies,” and we were often content to give it to them. One day, a man came by and asked if anyone was interested in picking tomatoes. He said it paid a certain amount (I have no idea what it was) per “lug.” I accepted.
The following day, early in the morning, I boarded a bus with a group of fellow “hippies” and we were taken to a field right next to a mental hospital. We were set loose in the fields to pick tomatoes and it was then I discovered their definition of a “lug” was considerably larger than what I had grown used to purchasing for the snack shop’s use. At least twice as big! I had just turned 20 in June, a couple months prior to selling the business. I was in good shape, yet picking tomatoes, which requires bending over continuously, was physically demanding and, based on how many tomatoes had to be gathered to complete a “lug,” I soon came to the conclusion this was NOT how I wished to make money in the future.
I don’t think I spent more than a couple of hours in the field, but I’ve never forgotten how difficult and back-breaking the work was. It has given me a sense of deep respect for the people who spend their lives working in the fields. It is extraordinarily difficult (and sometimes dangerous) work, for which I’m sure they are not paid enough.
I did mention, above, there were two times I had worked in the field. The second one was in 1973, when I spent two months in Cuba as a member of the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. During that time I worked primarily in construction, making concrete slabs and pillars used to construct small, single-family dwellings. However, on one occasion we spent a day in the fields cutting sugar cane. In addition to the work being back-breaking, the fields were torched prior to our work in order to burn off some of the vegetation on the canes. It meant we were covered in burnt sugar cane juice by the end of the day.
I had purchased a pair of brown Red Wing boots for the trip. After one day in the fields, they were mostly black from that burnt juice. It never came off.
Those two, admittedly short stints in the field gave me an appreciation for anyone who works in agriculture – especially those who bend over and pick and pack our food for distribution. I’ve done a lot of other things in my life that were difficult, some equally so, but none more difficult than picking tomatoes or cutting sugar cane. I have nothing but respect for someone who makes their living doing such work. It’s why I have long supported the United Farm Workers and all who struggle to be treated with dignity and respect.
The Farmdale Boyz
This pic was taken in about 1972 or 1973. I lived for about two or three years with these guys in two three-bedroom homes, side-by-side in North Hollywood, CA. Two sets of brothers and two close friends. In the background, at one time or another, those two tanks held a couple of snakes. One of them was named “Ellis A. Piary” (because that’s where he/she was rudely captured by one of our number) and the other, naturally, was named “Lefty.” Two of the people in this photo are not on Facebook, but everyone’s still alive!! — with Rick London, Loren Goetz, Stephen Ladd, Tom Shannon and Mark London.
Sometime after this picture was taken, I traveled to Cuba with the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade and, shortly after my return in the Summer of ’73, I began attending law school. There have been some changes over the years, and a couple of us don’t talk much with each other, but for the most part we’ve all remained friends.
The Irony is as Thick as the Karma
When I returned from a two-month working journey to Cuba in 1973, the FBI showed up at my door with questions about my trip. I had been a member of the sixth contingent of the Venceremos Brigade, and a small part of my education for the trip was the admonition to politely refuse to speak with them, which is what I did.
It was a short, pleasant conversation. I told them I wasn’t going to answer any questions and they asked me if I was sure. I said “yes” and they said “have a nice day” and left. That was it.
My years of activism had brought me to the attention of many law enforcement agencies, chief among them the LAPD and the FBI.
All to say, there’s been little love lost between me and these organizations . . .
Yet I’m really looking forward to what James Comey has to say.