November 7 marked 30 years since I won my first police brutality trial in East LA. After all these years, I have come to understand the meaning of resilience. Equally important, I have come to understand that the attempt to silence me was an act of political violence.
I’m not sure why this knowledge eluded me. Perhaps because for so many years, people would always ask me if my skull had been cracked by sheriff’s deputies during the 1970 Moratorium against the Vietnam War in East LA. “No,” I would always reply, with a sense of guilt. “It happened while covering cruising on Whittier Boulevard the opening night of the movie ‘Boulevard Nights’ in March 1979.”
It became political when the officers turned on me while I was photographing the beating of a young Mexican man. Then they charged me with attempting to kill four police officers with my camera. All told, my life was threatened and I was subsequently arrested, detained or harassed some 60 times. On the legal front, my nightmare ended in 1986 when I won a 36-day lawsuit trial against the deputies who nearly took my life. Truthfully, there should have been a third trial – a criminal trial – theirs. But they never faced the possibility of time in prison.
All these years, I didn’t know that I was living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I now believe what I actually lived with was Political Trauma Stress Disorder. Since my legal victories, I have witnessed the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and Alicia Soltero in 1996 in Southern California. Like many, I have witnessed other videotaped beatings throughout the country on national television. What prompted the trauma each time was the knowledge that of thousands of beatings, no one would actually ever face prison time; no police officer would ever be truly held accountable.
About five years ago, I was invited to be a part of a group of survivors of torture and political violence. It was the most powerful and healing thing I’ve ever done. And yet, I felt I didn’t belong because all the other members were from outside the United States.
“What they did to you is what they do to us in our countries,” many of the other participants told me, insisting that I did belong there. That is when I began to contextualize what happens in the barrios, ghettos and reservations of our country. The conventional wisdom is thatpolitical violence, corruption and lawlessness occur in Third World countries, never here. But that doesn’t explain why this nation operates the largest prison system in the world, filled primarily with people of color. It doesn’t explain why the vast majority of victims of law enforcement abuse are people of color.
Not coincidentally, that’s why I celebrate November 7, rather than that earlier date in March. That’s what I do now; I commemorate my victory, not my near-death and trauma.
My journey can be best appreciated by other survivors of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, or as I refer to it, susto profundo. It can also be appreciated by those who have dedicated their lives to treating people like me, whether they come from Asia, Africa, other parts of the Americas – or East LA – anywhere that human beings are routinely dehumanized.
I could recount the chilling details of what happened to me 30 years ago, but it is both unnecessary and harmful to the spirit; survivors of torture or political violence should give political analysis, not excruciating, even prurient, details – something survivors are often asked to do in public. Perhaps it can help to heal, but I have yet to meet a survivor who enjoys constantly reliving the trauma. Most who do so do it in the belief that it may perhaps help others or even that it may one day help to eliminate torture and political violence.
Some stories may offer insight into how I overcame trauma.
Running prepared me for my 1986 lawsuit. Every day I ran up and down hills in LA. Each day I would run farther so I could be stronger than my enemies. When I reached the top, rather than collapsing, I would run farther. By the time my trial rolled around several months later, I had become invincible: nothing or no one could defeat me. With the courageous representation of my attorney, Antonio Rodriguez, we won.
It was an unprecedented victory primarily because I am alive. (Rodriguez is the same attorney who successfully represented me in my criminal proceedings in 1979). The other victories one hears about – extremely rare – usually involve the spouse or parents of someone who died at the hands of law enforcement.
That running came back full circle this year when around 50 young people – including myself – ran from Tucson to Phoenix because legislators were threatening to eliminate the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona. We were supported enthusiastically by our communities and joined by the Yoeme and Otham nations. When we reached the state capitol, the legislators were amazed that we had run through the merciless desert in 115-degree heat. The bill was dropped, although they promised to eliminate Raza Studies next year.
Afterwards, one of the runners commented: “We came to fight this bill, but in the end, we came to know ourselves …” That is another thing that happens when survivors fight to create a better humanity.
One of the most rewarding things for me in the years since I was assaulted was helping to heal other survivors of political violence at an event in Washington, DC, several years ago. I had written a column in which I described how Sister Diana Ortiz, who had been tortured in Guatemala, was healed with roses. While I read this column in public, my wife, with the assistance of children of survivors, not only placed those roses upon her body, but also upon all those survivors who had come to urge the US government to abolish torture.
A psychologist in the field of trauma, Bessle Van der Kert, made an observation several years ago that survivors heal when they find a greater passion for something other than their trauma. For me, this has been my research on Centeotzintli or sacred maiz. It involves the search or origins and migrations. My research was motivated by the notion that Mexicans and Central Americans don’t belong in this country. At a certain point, I was told by elders from throughout the continent: “If you want to know who you are, follow the maiz.”
That’s what I do now. In the process, I learned that the stories I had been looking for were right in my own home – from my own parents who are 86 and 81. The stories they told me when I was growing up became the basis for my dissertation: “Centeotzintli: Sacred maize – a 7,000-year ceremonial discourse.”
To be beaten is dehumanizing. To be treated as a member of a suspect population and to be told to go back to where you came from is violating. To be denied one’s human rights makes us less than human. To fight for one’s rights is rehumanizing. To find one’s roots, one’s connections to that which is most sacred on this continent, to that which is many thousands of years old and part of one’s daily life, is to find one’s humanity.