The root of writing is language, spoken word. My roots, therefore, are in the immigrant Spanish and Black English of the Army Street Highrise Housing Projects in San Francisco’s Mission district. As Chapin immigrants, my parents spoke only Spanish with each other and with us, their children. There was actually a potpourri of Spanish in the varrio, as Puerto Rican, Cuban, Nicoya, Mexican, Guatemalan dialects sang through the Mission air. The English I learned was not from the Mayflower. My first friend, my best friend, was Black Benjamin, my Homeboy twin. My mother would simply open the apartment door and allow me to wander the courtyard, where the two baby Benjamins understood each other, somehow, some way. It was he who must have taught me English before I went to any school, before I ever learned to read or write.
By the time I was five years old in 1977, I learned to read and write. I do not remember exactly how it happened, but it must have been because of my father, Eduardo. He valued education and had some inner wisdom that was unspoken but authoritative. With this silent support, I did well in my early elementary education. I did not read and write as a hobby, except for sometimes reading comic books and trying at about eight years old to write one of my own. Once my father died when I was nine, I abandoned all enthusiasm for reading and writing and simply joined the hard knock education of the streets: Precita Park, Cortland, Holly Courts, Mission. By thirteen in juvenile hall, I would practice cholo writing calligraphy. I would read Lowrider and Teen Angels cholo magazines. I also read a couple of books about gangsters who reformed their lives.
When I started boxing at thirteen, first at the old brick and mortar armory on 14th Street and Mission, then at Newman’s gym in the Tenderloin, I would read The Ring, “the bible of boxing.” The “sweet science” articles were well-written, even hard for me to understand. Once I started boxing at Newman’s, under Johnny “Carnation” Vidal, I would sometimes cut school at one of my continuation high schools, Alamo Park High (the OC Outta Control Fill-Moe school), and jump on the 21 Hayes bus to the Civic Center’s main SF Public Library, which was only a couple of blocks from the gym. I would wander through the stacks and read boxing and gangster books. Sometimes I would venture to other sections, like philosophy, and try to read those books, in honor of my father, who I always imagined to be a genius, but I could not understand those words. Then I would stroll through the Tenderloin and go punch and get punched and understand everything I needed to know for the streets.
I could read the writing on the wall. I was seventeen years old and had quit boxing and was hard core living on the streets, in and out of juvenile hall. My brother Jeff, RIP, was in the penitentiary. I read his letters, telling me that crime did not pay, one which is reprinted below. I knew I had to leave the hood. I attended John Adams Community College and completed sixty days of course work and passed the GED and High School Equivalency Exam, which at that time equaled a community college high school diploma. With this I showed up at the recruiters’ office and joined the Marine Corps, even though they didn’t want me. By eighteen I was in the war and wanted to receive letters, just like my friends were getting letters from Loved Ones. I had to make my letters intriguing so that someone would write back to me. Perhaps this was one of my first real motivations for writing: to get the girl. With paper and pen, I started imagining. In the desert and jungles, I also sometimes picked up entertainment novels passed around by the grunts in the field.
After my four year stint in the Corps, I began studying at City College of San Francisco. I did not want or plan to go to college, had never known anyone who knew anything about school. I didn’t even know I had a G.I. Bill that would give me three hundred bucks a month to go to school. It was my brother, with all of his contradictions, who offered me that initial spark so that with some peace I could attend school. After being released from prison, he had completed a few semesters in college and had received excellent grades. Dedicated, he would study at the main campus from seven a.m. to ten p.m. In prison, he had been institutionalized very well. Like my Marine Corps experience, the penitentiary suffering had also inspired him and made him value life. He would have fun going to school, yet would on the weekends expend his unused energy on las calles, while letting people know he was a new form of homeboy who was expected to envision evolution. I took his example and tweaked it to the utmost. I became an academic writer.
The more I became involved with school, the more time studying was required, binding me to the desk. I was grateful. I became a friend to myself, perhaps for the first time in my life. And literature became my mistress. By 1995 I was reading and writing about Ellison, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Woolf, Conrad, y muchos más. I loved literature because it was dealing with the real stuff of life: human confusion and dignity naked on the page.
Creative writing was my greatest gift to myself. With this very naïve sense of my own tale and of where I was headed, I began to write stories. I imagined myself a writer, but what exactly that meant I am uncertain because I had never known a writer nor studied writers’ lives. Even at the community college level, I played with the art of words. In my first few creative writing classes, I sang short stories about the varrio’s intensity: “Vato Loco Lagrimas” and “Transmogrifications.” I ventured into my imagination, uncovered my clichés, and critiqued my cholo silliness, machismo, and honor. As I was studying great works of literature and poetry by this time, I began to strum the music of words and tease themes of substance. By reading renowned masterpieces, I was stealing ideas, rhythms, and heartbeats of hundreds, thousands of years ago. Secretly, I injected their spirits into my own.
When I transferred to U.C. Berkeley, I vowed the following: “I’m going to write the most fucked up authentic account of urban loco literature anyone has ever read.” Vowing an ultra-realistic magical story, I simultaneously desired to invoke spirit, philosophy, and literature into the homeboy narrative. By the time I graduated in 1998, I completed the first few chapters of a novel, Take Off. I was proud of and horrified at the first sentence:
“It was a soft, sunny spring afternoon when God stopped loving them.”
After Cal, I went on to teach at a high school where ten years earlier I had been kicked out. In the year-long teaching credential program, I read and wrote about educational pedagogy, especially Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In 1999, I entered into a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University and ultimately graduated with a Master’s in 2001.
But my family did not want a writer. To learn more about the “real” workings of the world and to honor my brother and mother, I studied law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law. I hated that shit, but I believed that I would learn some new tricks reading and writing legal briefs. I never lost my faith for fiction, which I believed was the truth. The law gave me some tools to see, to read, and to write. I took them and started simultaneously teaching at City College of San Francisco in January 2002. I graduated from law school in 2004 and became a full-time tenure-track English Instructor in 2005. I was el profé mas loco, having barbeques on campus for my students and trying to teach with all my heart, even though it was really the students who were teaching me.
My brother Jeff died for the Mission streets in 2008, inside of the varrio’s home headquarters, where anyone could and would stay and kick it on 21st and Folsom, a spot he had bought back in 93. In his honor I tweaked my Master’s creative writing project (thesis), originally entitled Take Off, and morphed it into Barrio Bushido for publication with El Leon Literary Arts out of Berkeley. I dedicated it to “My Soul Brother, Jeff.” That publication opened up more of the world. We had a grand premiere at the Mission Cultural Center, con danzantes, lowriders, y todo! By 2010 I had gained a following in the community even though I did not know exactly what I was doing. I was invited to speak at colleges and universities, and the community reached out to me, too. It was only then that I started blogging and writing poetry. Writing, all types of writing, had instilled in me organization and discipline, articulation and insight from many solitary hours. I spoke in favor of the Mexican Museum in SF, which will be completed this year. I spoke out against gentrification. I advocated for authentic education.
I am a vato loco, a writer, and an educator. I have always been public about my persona. Those who know me, know. When Barrio Bushido hit the streets and bookstores, Alex Nieto fell in love with my writing and spirit and volunteered to help me with anything that I had to do to further education, literature, and amor. In 2010, Alex actually messaged me the following: “Ur story struck a deep core in my being. If you need any future work with any further books or publications, let me know.” On another occasion: “Your readings from your book have deeply touched my heart. I know your book will serve to awaken young homies in el barrio.” He would always rock the Barrio Bushido t-shirt and help me create on the street in order to build love in the community. With lots of love, we would greet each other, “What’s up with the Movement, Homes?!”
How could I possibly have known that he himself would become the Movement and the reason I had ever learned to read and write? Once he was killed, for Amor for Alex Nieto, for our gente and future generations, I wrote thousands of pages of arguments, poetry, e-mails, rebuttals, notes during the trial, proposals, etc. The most beautiful words I dedicate for him and for all of us will be inscribed on the permanent Amor for Alex Memorial on Bernal Heights.
“Against the violence and injustice of 59 bullets, family and grassroots community arose as a movement to promote the positive spirit and to defend the honor of a beloved young man, Alex Nieto, who was killed by the police.
Amor for Alex Nieto.”
I kept going and people got to know me more. The Homies always knew me, as I have always been out on the streets, rolling around and raising hell. I wrote three more books but couldn’t get them published, but I kept writing anyway, living life anyway. Vida Loca. Amor for Alex Nieto. Frisco Resistance. Lowriding. Loving.
To give my most, I give to myself. Most mornings I wake at five a.m. in order to write. No one tells me to do this, but unless I do it, it will not get done. We need writers. We need new types of writers that are more than writers but also real flesh and blood human beings who action on their stories and share their craziness and agony to all and for all. In Mayan culture, the sacrificial blood on parchment paper was meant to be burned so that we could interpret the smoke’s meaning.
I look in the smoke and see visions. Because I am a writer, reader, life-long learner, and vida loca loco, I feel I can look at gente in their face and empathize with them. Writing has led me to the brink of epiphanies: reading and writing may not lead you to a “happier normal” life but may actually bless you a more intense suffering—yet I would argue even if that has to be the case, you will earn a more feeling, more interesting, more alive life.
My latest novel, Pura Neta, will be published in September 2020 by Pochino Press out of Oakland. I am humbled and honored by their faith in me and my work. This four part blog series is an introduction to my new book, Pura Neta, which roughly translated from street Spanglish means Pure Truth, which is an insanity, for how can a book of fiction also be truth?
To find out the answer, please keep reading this series and enjoying the pictures and videos.
Always in all ways, all Amor.
Benjamin Bac Sierra
P.S. I have been writing now seriously for over twenty five years. I have written on this blog for ten years and have 123 substantive postings on it. Check em out. Check out the photos and videos. Subscribe to “Todo Bodo Down: The Bac Sierra Blog” by clicking on the right hand corner’s “Follow” link or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of this page.