A dark-skinned gardener stood with his back to the street, hoisting his bent arms overhead to trim a tall, verdant hedge that shielded a Beverly Hills home from the outside world. He and his mustached companion, who stood nearby clutching a shovel, donned pale, gray clothes and wore indistinct facial expressions. Normally, passersby would not have noticed such men because of who they were: Hispanic service workers often regarded as a compulsory but undesirable component of this affluent landscape. They would have blended in if it weren’t for one thing: on this occasion, they weren’t real. The gardeners were cardboard cutouts painted and fastened to the shrub by local artist Ramiro Gomez.
Realizing this was a jarring moment for motorists and joggers on Doheny Drive. From the elderly woman in a white Mercedes Benz to the Latino man driving a beat-up truck carrying gardening tools of its own, people turned their heads. They did double takes. You could almost see the questions formulating rapidly in their minds. Why were these cutouts there? Who put them there? What did it mean? Was it a political or social statement? Was it pro or anti-immigration? Was it a cry for Latino rights, or a mockery of their presence here?
If they had known the 26-year-old man several yards away was the artist, they could’ve asked him. Indeed, there sat Gomez himself on the curb, observing people’s responses while feeling vulnerablities of his own. Although the creator, he’s not immune to feelings of nervousness and even fright when he puts up a display. After all, it’s intimidating to attach provocative art to the homes of the rich and famous. But it’s worth it, he says, because his work allows him to send a message and then watch how it’s received.
For Gomez, the objective is to start a conversation, to bring the taboo into the light. Without nannies, gardeners, valets, cooks and housekeepers, the lives of the luxurious would lose their luxury. Even so, low-income Latinos in the service industry, whether undocumented or legal, are often under-appreciated and even ignored, despite doing the work that makes places like Beverly Hills function, Gomez says.
The artist first had the idea to make a statement about the city’s working-class Latinos when he started working a nanny for the children of wealthy families in the Hollywood area. He befriended other nannies who would hang out at a local park, and realized how difficult it was for them to live here with little money, no car, spotty English and not much recognition. He was able to relate those experiences to the journey of his parents, who immigrated from Mexico to San Bernardino to become a janitor and truck driver.
Gomez knows his art won’t have a direct impact on immigration law, and he doesn’t think it will inspire people to go home and pay their nannies more. He isn’t trying to rally poor Hispanics to go out and protest either—many of them just want to stay under the radar so they can make enough money to survive, he recognizes. But he does say his work is activism; a “subtle protest,” he calls it. “My goal is to make people think for a moment,” Gomez says, standing on the corner of Doheny and Elevado Avenue with black paint on his hands. “I want people to see these people less as disposable cardboard and more as real people.”
Gomez collects used cardboard television boxes from dumpsters outside stores like Best Buy, cutting out life-size figures, and then painting people on them with acrylic. Once they’re finished, he gives them names, and drives the streets of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills looking for spots with high visibility. He then installs them with wire and pliers. Another body of work consists of Hispanic laborers painted on the pages of décor magazines.
On the Friday morning in July when Gomez situated the two gardeners in Beverly Hills, he had already put up more than 30 cutouts over the past year at numerous storefronts and private homes—even at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was starting to get a rush of media coverage by reporters intrigued with his work. A UC Santa Barbara professor began talking about Gomez in his lectures, an Ohio State professor wanted to include him in a lesson plan, and UCLA was already archiving his work. That didn’t mean, though, that everyone had come to understand his message. As even Gomez found out that morning, it was still very much open to interpretation.
Shortly after Gomez erected the cutouts, two real gardeners appeared across the street, blowing leaves on the sidewalk outside a house. They thought the cutouts were mocking them. The Salvadorians said they were sensitive to discrimination because of the countless times they had heard the well-to-do make disparaging comments about their profession. Now, they looked across the street and saw fake, life-size versions of themselves and thought it was more of the same. Hearing the news, Gomez was dismayed, and rushed across the street to assure gardeners of his intent.
As for residents, some loved it, and stopped to take pictures with their phones. Others found it offensive. “I think we have enough racial stereotypes,” said a film producer on a morning walk. “In Beverly Hills, it’s incredibly insensitive where a lot of rich, white people have illegals working for them.” Meanwhile, a local designer chuckled in amazement, and voiced an interpretation close to the artist’s. “There’s a potential commentary on the breakdown of labor in this country in reference to class,” he said. “You drive around and see the Lexuses and the Infinitis and then you see the beater trucks. There’s the whole subculture that goes ignored.”
The mixed reactions come with the territory of provocative art, especially work that so blatantly exposes an issue that’s rarely spoken but on so many people’s minds. And for Gomez, that seems to be the point. “Do I take it down because it offended somebody or do I leave it up because it might change someone’s mindset?” he asks. “That’s the power of art.”
This article was originally published in 2012 by Poder Magazine.
Those who have hiked from the rim of the Grand Canyon towards the river have likely seen the signs. They’re big with a red stripe at the top that says “Warning” and “Danger!” And then: “DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.” Below that, there’s a big drawing of a frowning hiker putting his hand to his forehead, evidently in exhaustion. Apparently at the visitor’s center, there’s a picture of a man vomiting and a list of health risks such as heat-related illnesses and hyponatremia.
The year was 2011. It was late November. My brother and I were on a road trip and we stopped at the Grand Canyon. We spent the night nearby and woke up rather lazily the next morning. It was around 10:30am by the time we got to the visitor’s center and around 11am when we hit the trail. We didn’t have any specific plans for the hike, until all of a sudden we saw the sign. There it was, standing before us in all its red and gray splendor. We looked at each other mischievously. I don’t know if we even verbalized it at first, but we both knew what we were going to do.
"It’s merely a crack in the earth!" my brother then said in his Australian accent, referring to the Grand Canyon. (And no, he's not Australian.)
And we knew we had to hurry. The sun goes down early in November, and it was almost noon already. We took to jogging down the path. This was the easy part, so we might as well take advantage of the downward momentum. It wasn't just the sign; other hikers on the trail were warning us not to do the whole thing in one day.
"I didn’t feel like heeding the warnings because we had hiked things at that elevation before," my brother said, recalling the journey down. "The only thing I was worried about was the time."
We were at the river within a couple hours. That’s at least a 4,500 ft decline in elevation. You go through multiple major ecosystems. The river was a deep green color, surrounded by desert. We sat at the water’s edge for a few minutes and ate something.
Then we knew it was time. Time to hit the trail back up, lest we die and become poster children for the park’s warning signs. It took a long time. And it sure wasn’t easy. And by the time we got back to the top, it was dark and we were absolutely exhausted. But we did it. (Don’t try this at home. Or at the Grand Canyon)
It turns out we’re not the only ones. There are blog posts like this one and this one, and even a YouTube video called “How to hike to the bottom of Grand Canyon and back in 1 day.”
"I’m sure it was painful by the end, but I don’t remember that anymore," my bro said. "All I remember is the glory."
Why am I writing about this? Because first of all, it’s a great memory. But also, I’m wondering now what might have been our motivation to do such a thing, besides the sign and just proving we could do it. I have a theory: just a couple days earlier, we had played a show together in L.A. My brother, of Archivist and Eyes for Echoes fame, and myself. Thinking about it now, I think we were still riding that wave. Here’s a clip from the show. Jens Erik and Tenfold doing “Royal.”
For more music from Jens Erik Gould, go to https://www.jenserikmusic.com/
In early February 2013, there were a series of shootings in the Los Angeles area. Among those killed were a Riverside police officer, a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy and the daughter of a former police captain.
It turned out to be a one-man war against the police department waged by a former officer. In a 6,000-word manifesto published on his Facebook page, a man named Christopher Dorner said he had been discriminated against and driven out of the department.
The manhunt around Southern California intensified, and on February 12, Dorner was located. He had barricaded himself inside a cabin in Big Bear. That cabin was besieged by authorities and Dorner was killed.
Just hours before this occurred, I was interviewed by Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo on CNN after the shooter’s past. Here’s a clip of the interview.
Tuberculosis, or TB, is the world’s second-deadliest infectious disease and killed 1.3 million people in 2017, according to the CDC. While its bacteria are easily transmitted through the air, the disease can be readily treated and cured. Yet much of the world lacks sufficient treatment.
In 2014, journalist David Rochkind and I set out to tackle the question of why, and we received a grant from the Pulitzer Center to do so.
We found that in the developing world, there simply wasn't enough money to effectively fight the disease. According to the WHO, an additional $1.6 billion a year was needed globally, and the organization called the gap a “powder keg” that could make future costs of treating TB skyrocket.
We produced the following feature for Al Jazeera America:
After I posted the lyrics to "Guns Down" yesterday, I got requests for the Spanish version of the song and its lyrics. Ask and you shall receive!
When I recorded the song in English, I thought it fitting to translate the lyrics and sing a version in Spanish, especially since the song is about violence in Mexico. The song was released in 2012, but unfortunately the troubles that it highlights still ring true today. Mexico had more than 29,000 murders in 2017, the highest number in decades. The drug war is estimated to have killed more than 119,000 people in a decade. There have been 176 journalists killed in Mexico since 2000, according to the Knight Center.
Here are the lyrics to Dejar las Armas:
Dejar las Armas
Papa, quiero salir a jugar
El pasto verde me llama a jugar
Papa, por que no puedo salir a jugar?
En vez de niños jugando solo hay silencio
En un mundo de armas solo hay silencio
Mamá a mi amigo lo quiero ver
Mamá por que a mi amigo no lo puedo ver
Mamá que le paso no puede ser
Se mi hijo que lo quieres ver, ya no esta con nosotros
Hombres armados se lo llevaron, adonde no sabemos
Papá por que vivimos así
Papá no veo sonrisas de nadie
Papá que paso aquí,
¿No oyen lo que oigo?
Mamá, nadie ve lo que veo
Mamá un mundo de asombro
Mamá veo flores y arboles,
por que no abren los ojos
Si vieran lo que yo veo, dejarían sus armas
Si vieran lo que yo veo, dejarían sus armas
Si vieran sus almas, dejarían sus armas
Si nunca nos vemos como personas, tenemos mucho trabajo que hacer
Si la vida se acaba y no te vi como persona, tenemos trabajo que hacer
Hear more of my music at https://www.jenserikmusic.com/
When I did the reporting for the first ever Bravery Tapes episode and the accompanying story “Narco War,” I was struck by devastating effects that Mexico’s drug violence was having on the lives of children. I wrote a song about it, and it became the title track of my album “Guns Down.”
Here’s a recording of the song on YouTube as well as its lyrics:
Father I want to go out and play
The green grass is calling me today
Father why can’t I go out and play?
I’m listening to children laughing, but I don’t hear a sound
If they looked out and saw what I see, they might lay their guns down
Mother I want to see my friend
Its been a long time since I’ve seen my friend
Mother what happened to my friend
I know son you want to see him, but he’s no longer here
Men with guns they took him, and we don’t know where
Father why do we live so?
Father I look out and see no smiles,
What happened here?
Does no one hear what I hear?
Mother does no one see what I see
A whole playground around me
And softly swaying trees
Why don’t they open their eyes?
If they looked out and saw what I see, they might lay their guns down
If our lives pass by and we don’t do what’s right, we’ve got a lot of work to do today
If our lives pass by and we can’t be side by side, we’ve got a lot of work to do today
If they looked out and saw what I see, they might lay their guns down
As Mexico inaugurates a new president today, much of the country is asking itself a key question — how will the incoming head of state handle crime? The question of drug violence has been a top concern since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels more than a decade ago, and even more so when it became clear that his strategy only made the problem worse. According to estimates, there have been more than 200,000 deaths related to organized crime over the past 12 years, and the murder rate is expected to reach an annual record of 29,000 in 2018, according to BBC.
In 2013, I released a Bravery Tapes episode examining the impact of violence and kidnapping on a family in Monterrey, Mexico. I wrote a magazine piece to accompany the video, and am republishing it here in hopes that it can serve as a reflection on where the country was five years ago, and where it might be going. Has the security problem improved at all? Is this type of violence still happening just as much five years later, or even more? Can Mexicans hope for real change? Here’s the story from February 2013:
Children are the unsung victims—and also the heroes of the violence that has convulsed Mexico
When more than a dozen hooded armed men burst into Richie Rivera’s home to steal everything, the 16-year-old stoically endured repeated blows to his head and body from heavy boots and the butts of guns. The men pointed four AR-15s at his head and threatened to kill him in front of his mother. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. When the men left, Richie yelled his brother’s name and got no response.
“Imagine turning around and not seeing your brother,” he says. “You think this can’t happen; this is impossible. You throw yourself down on the floor and explode. You cry what you didn’t cry when they hit you in the head and you ask why.”
It has been nearly two years since Roy Rivera was kidnapped in front of his family in their home in Monterrey, Mexico. Richie, now 18, and their mother, Leticia, have done everything imaginable to find him: they’ve conducted their own investigation, scoured the morgue, and even paid a ransom that was never honored. But perhaps the bravest act of all was to go public with the story. They did so even though they feared the men responsible for the kidnapping might take revenge.
“We’re always afraid to be talking about this. I got afraid just now,” Richie says in an interview. “But the love we have for my brother is much greater than the fear of talking about the case. Love is much bigger.”
Of all the horrors associated with a drug war that has killed some 60,000 Mexicans in the past six years, the country’s children and adolescents are perhaps the greatest casualty. They are the future of the country, yet an estimated 30,000 minors in Mexico are involved in some sort of organized crime, while more than 1,400 were killed in homicides between 2006 and 2010, according to Mexico’s nonprofit group Network for the Rights of Children. The rate of 15-to-17 year olds who have been victims of homicides tripled between 2008 and 2010. Seeing the headlines isn’t shocking anymore: 14 teenagers massacred in Ciudad Juarez, seven minors killed in Durango, a 4-year-old girl shot to death in a car in Acapulco. The list goes on and on. Parents are dying as well, and thousands of children are believed to have been orphaned. And many minors who aren’t directly impacted by the drug war have been scarred by the bloodshed in some way.
But there’s an untold story as well. Some young people are answering violence with acts of courage, some quiet, some public. News stories, whether local or international, typically focus on the violence and rarely highlight these cases. Mexican outlets, under attack and facing constant threats, don’t usually search for the bright spots. But the stories are out there, and this article profiles the tales of four brave young people from Monterrey, a city under siege from drug-related violence.
Interestingly, local rights groups are quick to point out that such success stories are usually thanks to personal will or community support rather than government assistance. They blame the state for not doing enough to protect children from violence or to improve social conditions. “The risk we run in only thinking about the heroic people is that you make it sound like a personal decision,” says Juan Martin Perez of the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico. “While this individual effort is important, the state has an obligation to generate the conditions so that instead of 10 success stories, there can be 100.”
True. The country would be much better off the government were more effective. But highlighting examples of valiant children who were able to overcome the odds can be an inspiration for others who lives are plagued by violence. In fact, while a violent upbringing will stay with people throughout their adult lives, and most scientific research on the subject focuses on children who later suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, serious depression or even suicide, a surprising number of kids find ways to channel their internalized unrest into productive activities such as fighting for justice, says Ron Avi Astor, who studies the impact of violence on children as a professor of social work and education at USC. “These are kids who were able to overcome,” Astor says. “That’s an important message that the scientific literature doesn’t always stress. A really good proportion of kids who go through this figure out ways to not only survive but to maximize their potential on Earth.”
Richie is a case in point. He had been watching television late at night when suddenly he heard noises at the door. When he heard his brother Roy yelling that armed men were trying to break down the door, Richie ran to the kitchen, grabbed two knifes and gave one to Roy so they could defend themselves. Suddenly, the door burst open and some 15 hooded men with rifles overtook the house.
The brothers ran back upstairs and tried to lock themselves in their mom’s bedroom as she yelled out the window for help. The men kicked the door open and began beating Richie. Their cohorts, meanwhile, ransacked the house, stealing money, vehicles, perfume, televisions, hats and shoes. When Richie asked them to spare his backpack because it contained his school notes, they yelled profanities and took it anyway. As they did this, Richie noticed some of them were wearing bulletproof vests displaying the name of a local police force.
“Who is the oldest?” yelled a man who must have been the leader and who was staring at Richie and his brother Roy. Although younger, Richie’s size made him look older, and he knew he could save his brother by saying he was the eldest. And so he did, and the men continued to pound him. When they picked Richie up and began to take him away, Roy couldn’t take it and confessed he was the older of the two. The men paused, dropped Richie, turned towards Roy and began to kick him. They overturned the bed, put Richie and his mother inside the upside-down frame and soon were gone, with Roy.
They received a call the next day from someone demanding 1 million pesos for Roy. They could only muster about 100,000 pesos and an X-box, an amount the kidnappers eventually agreed to. After they dropped off the goods, the men called and said Roy would be freed in a half hour.
That half hour still hasn’t come. Richie and his mother are speaking out in hopes that it will. Letitia joined a group of mothers who publicly display signs praying for the return of their “disappeared” children. In August, Richie told his story in front of hundreds of people at a Texas church as part of a peace caravan that moved across the United States. “I was always afraid. It was fear that they could do something to us,” he says. “The fear isn’t very strong anymore. It’s just the love we have to find my brother.”
Those who commit such acts of violence against families like Richie’s are often no more than boys themselves.
To most in Mexico, working for one of the feared organized crime groups would seem like making a pact with the devil. After all, these groups terrorize society by beheading people, throwing grenades, and hanging victims from highway bridges.
But to Eduardo, a teenager from a poor area of Monterrey, the chance to join the ranks seemed like a godsend at first. The gang, a local branch of one of Mexico’s largest cartels, offered him the two things he most sought: the prospect of making more money than he could ever dream of, and of gaining respect and superiority over other young gang members who always had the upper hand.
Such temptations make it hard for kids to say no when they’re offered such work, especially those who live in poor areas where public institutions are weak, the quality of education is low and employment opportunities are scarce. They identify with the narco culture, its music and its dress, and they look up to the leaders. Children as young as 9 can be used as informants, while 16-year-olds run drugs and carry out murders and kidnappings. Once they join, few of them ever leave because the perks are too good or because they fear punishment.
But Eduardo was different; he made a decision most aren’t brave enough to make.
He was only 14 years old when a group of local kids offered him a job selling marijuana, cocaine and crack. Soon, he was working as a dealer 12 hours a day and as an assistant and bodyguard for the bosses. He still lived with his parents, and would tell him he was out working at a body shop. A sense of power came with the job that Eduardo had never experienced; soon, the same neighborhood kids who once intimidated him didn’t want to mess with him.
The whole gang felt that sense of power and had no problem abusing it. Some nights his group would hit the streets to go after rival gangs. Other nights, they would seek out people addicted drugs such as methamphetamines, and beat them up just because they bought such drugs from other groups. The preferred method was to whack their backsides repeatedly with heavy wooden planks or break the bones in their hands. When asked why they did this, Eduardo said simply, “for fun.”
“They completely lose themselves, all rationality, the body, the soul,” Eduardo, who declines to give his last name, says in an interview. “It’s like they’re infected. They reach a level of unconsciousness. They see people as objects. If someone has money, they say ‘let’s rob them and extort them.’”
Behind the feeling of power was fear. Eduardo and his companions knew that at any time, the army, police or another gang could attack them. Plus, the pay turned out to be much less than Eduardo had expected: he was only earning 2,000 pesos (around $154) every two weeks. But narcotics were all around them, so they would dip into their stashes to numb their unease. Soon, Eduardo was addicted to marijuana and cocaine.
One early morning, a rival gang attacked Eduardo’s convoy on the outskirts of the city. He fled unscathed, but four of his companions were shot. No one helped them, and Eduardo never found out if they were left to be captured by the other side, or to bleed to death on the concrete.
“I started thinking. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? Am I risking my life for a certain amount of money?” Eduardo says. “Giving your life for someone who won’t help you in the future, who might be the one to let you die: that was the act that made me question if I wanted to stay there.”
He was afraid to talk to his superiors because he knew there would be punishment for leaving. When he finally told them of his plans, they took him into a room and flogged him with that same wooden pole. His legs turned purple and he wasn’t able to walk for days, but he was free. He only got a warning that if he ratted out his bosses, they would kill him.
When he left that world, he worked through his addiction to drugs, and, now 16 years old, he gives workshops to kids on hip-hop, graffiti art and drug addiction. “I consider it an act of bravery because not many people think it’s possible,” he says. “Many are afraid of what they’ll say, that you won’t be able to leave.”
A Child's Voice
In some cases, just getting back to normalcy takes resolve and heroics, as seen in the case of 6-year-old Maria in the suburb of La Estanzuela. In the months following a shooting outside her school, Maria would wake up with nightmares, thinking there were shootings going on when there weren’t. “She thought every loud noise she heard was a gunshot,” her mother says. That was worsened by the drug violence that continued to escalate in her neighborhood. But a year later, Maria is back playing with her friends and not showing a severe impact from the incident.
The shooting can be experienced in dramatic fashion on a YouTube video recorded by teacher Martha Rivera that went viral. It opens with commotion and a titled shot of a tiled floor. Rivera’s voice says, “Yes, my love, everyone get down on the floor.” The camera pans up to show a group of children lying face down in a classroom. Maria is one of them and is surrounded by her classmates. “Nothing’s going to happen,” Rivera tells them. “Just don’t lift your head.” Unidentifiable noises are heard, and it’s unclear why the children are turning towards the window behind them with bewildered looks. Suddenly they get much louder and it becomes clear what’s going on: it’s the deadening sound of automatic weapons exploding outside the window.
It had been a normal Friday afternoon at the Alfonso Reyes kindergarten in an outlying section of Monterrey, but when she dove onto the floor, Maria could tell this was not normal. The class had already practiced ducking and covering in the case of a shooting—just as most schools would do for earthquakes or fires—but it was much scarier in real time.
"Do you want to sing a song?" Rivera asks the children over the sound of gunfire. “Yes.” So the teacher launches into a song from the kids’ show “Barney & Friends” about the sky raining candy, and the children follow, singing, "If raindrops were made of chocolate, I would love to be there, opening my mouth to taste them." "Who wants chocolate?" Rivera shouts. "I do," the kids reply.
When everything was over, authorities confirmed gunmen had killed five men a block from the school. Rivera caught the frightening contrast between the nursery rhyme and the gunfire on cell phone video and soon hundreds of thousands of people viewed it. People across Mexico praised Rivera’s courage and she was recognized in a ceremony with the state's governor. And the children were brave as well.. “On the Monday that we came back to class, they said let’s sing ‘Raindrops,’” Rivera says.
A year later, Maria and her former classmates weren’t walking around thinking about the shooting; in fact, they had to be reminded of the event before they could talk about it. Maria, who is now in first grade and who say she wants to be a teacher, talks about the incident with a huge smiling showing her baby teeth, as if she couldn’t recall any fear. She recalled ducking and covering and singing the song. “I was scared,” she said, but shouted it with a huge smile as it were some action movie she had seen. Her life had been forever altered by that event, but she was back to living her life, and her mom said her nightmares were gone.
A Pathway Through Music
While many kids in Monterrey’s Colonia Independencia carry pistols, Maickol only carries his accordion. Living in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the country, he’s seen plenty of kids his age go down the wrong path and decided early on he didn’t want anything to do with that. Instead, he sees music as his path to a more peaceful existence, and, a rising star in the world of Colombian vallenato music, he’s trying to use his craft as a ticket to leave the violence-torn area.
In Independencia, which clings to the side of a steep hill nearby downtown, it’s a general rule that sensible people do not leave their homes past 6 p.m. That’s when young pistol-toting gang members rule the streets. The sheer poverty of the area—marked by pot hole-filled streets, shuttered stores and ramshackle homes—makes it an ideal breeding ground for drug traffickers to train youth to join their ranks. Criminals are known to demand that businesses pay them a quota in order to operate. Some residents have even had to flee their homes after gang members demanded they pay large sums of money in order to prevent harm.
“It’s very ugly up there,” says Maickol, pointing towards his home at the very top of the incline. “I’ve seen the kids with their pistols hitting my friends and neighbors. I don’t get involved.” It’s common to hear gunshots from his house, and the violence is shutting down the bars he used to play at. “I get scared; all the people up there are scared of them,” he says. “They don’t mess with me because they know I’m a musician, that I’m a person of peace.”
Maickol’s refuge from the chaos is a government-built community center in the middle of the colonia that offers classes in all sorts of pursuits, including the music classes he attends. Just a week before speaking to a reporter, gunmen shot and killed five taxi drivers and an innocent bystander only a couple blocks away. After that, many students stopped coming to the center. But, Maickol doesn’t miss a day; inside the center, he can take out his accordion, close his eyes, and feel safe. He’s diligent and dedicated: his parents first bought him an accordion at the age of eight, and he has played since. Recently, he won first prize at Monterrey’s international vallenato festival, and now he plans to travel to Colombia for a festival.
At the community center, teachers hope kids who come to learn music will be inspired to choose a path of art rather than one of violence, says Noé Diaz, the chief music instructor. “There are students vulnerable to violence, but they prefer music class,” Diaz says. “It’s an act of bravery. Despite all the circumstances in the community, they want to move forward.”
Indeed, Maickol doesn’t say much about the violence; he’s concerned with music. “I can’t stop playing because the music is so beautiful,” he says. “There’s something that inspires me in the music.” And despite all the violence around him, his greatest concern is the instrument he will take to Colombia. “What I want most is help to get a new accordion,” he says. “A white, red or blue one.” And a few weeks later, he got his wish: a white one.
Like Eduardo, Maickol is using the arts to find meaning in his life and prevail over the violence. Richie is pursuing a campaign of justice, while Maria, perhaps without even knowing it, seems to be taking a stand by playing and going back to regular life. “If you have something to focus on that helps you buoy you through these storms, like music or family, this is actually protective,” Astor says. “It’s important to get stories out on how people have overcome.”
This article was originally published in the February 2013 edition of PODER Magazine.
Here's one from the vault! In 2014, I interviewed Chris Henderson and Chet Roberts of 3 Doors Down as part of the Jens Erik Gould Presents music series. The interview was never released...until now!
I met up with Chris and Chet backstage at a show on their acoustic tour. We discussed recent changes to the band, how they’ve been able to sell more than 20 million records since forming in 1996, and their upcoming album "Us and the Night," which was released in 2016. Enjoy!
It's been four years since I put on a diving suit inside the Chino prison and inmates taught me the basics of deep sea diving (the very, very basics, in my case!). Their determination to build new lives for themselves was apparent, and so was their kindness. If our country could have more programs like this one, I think we'd be in a better place. See the Bravery Tapes episode above, and the original article I wrote below:
On a hot day in Southern California, William Jones dives to the bottom of a deep-water tank. Clad in a heavy helmet and scuba gear, he spends several minutes at the bottom, removing bolts from large metal pipes, and communicating his progress through a radio to a dive tender on the surface.
It’s not just any surface; Jones emerges from the tank to rejoin his teammates inside the California Institution for Men, a state prison in Chino. As he explains in the above Bravery Tapes episode, it’s a much different scenario than a decade ago, when Jones made his living through armed robbery. He was caught when he intercepted a small business owner about to make a bank deposit, charged with a felony and sent to this prison. “I wanted to conquer the world one robbery at a time,” said Jones, 30, who is from Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District. “My priorities were all mixed up. I had no plan for myself, for my family, and didn’t care about anything.”
Now, Jones is a student at the Marine Technology Training Center, a state-run program inside the Chino prison that helps felons become divers, welders, riggers, construction supervisors and mechanics. The center has succeeded in doing something the state’s department of rehabilitation as a whole has failed at: consistently rehabilitating criminals. The state’s recidivism rate — the percentage of individuals released from prison who are incarcerated again within three years — was 61 percent last year.
The diving center achieves its success by offering felons a skill set that leads to a more lucrative career path than many were capable of before they were convicted. Inmates usually have little knowledge of diving or the program itself when they apply, but they’re attracted to the school because they want a way to build a better life once they’re released. Average pay in the industry is around $15 an hour at entry level, and annual salaries can climb to $100,000 within four years. That drastically reduces temptations to return to a criminal life.
Perhaps more importantly, the program’s physical training and camaraderie gives criminals a chance to build character, discipline and a sense of self-worth that helps them turn away from their former, illegal pursuits. “When I get out of prison, I’ll be going on 11 years. I missed a lot,” Jones says. “I know I can’t make up for everything, but when I get out there I want to try. I want to just live life to the fullest. My motivation is to be the best I can be, to be a good person.
That brand of motivation is invaluable to employers, and has proven more important than any uneasiness they might have about hiring ex-felons. Indeed, Chino graduates are known throughout the commercial diving industry for producing quality work. “The individual that I have working for me is hands down one of the best, most highly motivated guys I have on board,” said Bryan Nicholls, president of U.S. Underwater Services, a commercial diving company in Texas. Richard Barta, the owner of Muldoon Marine Services in Long Beach, California, agrees. “If a person comes to you and he’s turned his life around and he really wants to make something of himself, you have to look at all the positives,” Barta said.
The benefits of such a program to society are numerous. First, it saves the state money. The average prison inmate costs around $47,000 a year to incarcerate, and that’s an expense the state can avoid by investing in true rehabilitation that keeps people out of prisons. Second, it boosts the economy by churning out more skilled workers who produce value. Increased oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is spurring more demand for divers who can access platforms and pipelines, said Nicholls, whose company services offshore wells in the Gulf.
Finally, there’s the enormous social advantage of having fewer criminals on the streets. “It helps you with your morals. You have a certain pride in what you do and respect for yourself,” Jones said. “I’m a different person now. There’s no reason for me to go out there and start doing the things I was doing.”
Those benefits in Chino are even more pronounced given the pervasiveness of prison overcrowding throughout the nation. In a bid to help federal prisons that are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, Attorney General Eric Holder has stepped in to ease harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses. In California, overcrowding is so bad that federal judges have ordered the state to remove thousands of inmates from its prisons. In February, federal judges granted Gov. Jerry Brown two years to reduce prison crowding through mental health and drug treatment programs aimed at lowering recidivism. The state can take advantage of this opportunity by investing more in rehabilitation programs that have a good track record.
In addition to the diving school, some 7,000 inmates work in factories on prison grounds to produce clothing, office furniture, license plates, juice, shoes, signs, gloves, eyewear and other goods sold predominately to state entities. Participants in these programs are 26 percent less likely to reoffend and go back to prison than the average prison inmate in California. A report released by the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board said all these programs had “proven to be effective at reducing recidivism” and recommended that the correctional department work to make them more accessible. The dive center is even more effective than these programs because it helps inmates build a valuable career.
Yet, such efforts haven’t been very accessible. Historically, the Career Technical Education program, which operates the dive school, has received no funding from Sacramento; it was financed solely by the profits of the products that inmates produce in factories. “We’re on a dicey edge all the time on our funding,” said Fred Johnson, the marine center’s instructor.
That’s a shame because Johnson and his team have figured out how to address the cause of California’s correctional problem. True, inmates have to want to change in order to be rehabilitated. The physical training is so intense that 80 percent of those who sign up for the dive school drop out in the first week. Of the 200 inmates who sign up per year, only around 20 graduate. Participants are commonly sent on 10-mile runs; workouts include a seemingly implausible number of squats, pull-ups, push-ups and dips; and the training culminates in a dreaded five-mile swim.
But instructors say all inmates who pass the first week’s physical tests go on to graduate, and in so doing achieve something they thought was impossible. “The secret is we change the inmate’s way of thinking,” Johnson said. “We teach them they’re not losers; that they can be winners.”