Renaissance Homeboy is my story, from immigrant roots through the unforgiving San Francisco streets, from Marine Corps combat through Socratic style law school. Written in clear yet poetic prose, the book tells a first person narrative of a lice-headed Guatemalan jungle boy attempting to fit into a Mexican cholo style during the American crack-era of the 1980’s. The book follows our protagonist into intense infantry training around the world and combat during the first Gulf War. Next Renaissance Homeboy describes the ten-year university education and life lessons I learned at City College of San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. The book concludes with my adventures as a front-line community college professor, curriculum developer, and author. With a fire-iron, I poke at all facets of my life, describing my inner subjective emotions and objective evaluations of education and society.
It is my pleasure to share the preface with you.
Renaissance Homeboy by Benjamin Bac Sierra
Amor for Alex
Renaissance: a rebirth.
Homeboy: About Iago—From Cassio to Desdemona:
“He speaks home, madam. You may relish him more in the soldier, than the scholar.”
I plan to blood-let. My Mayan ancestors would cut their most intimate flesh and spread the pouring blood onto parchment paper, paper that was then burned so that through the smoke that exuded from the flames, the spirits could snake out to reveal blessings and secrets, secrets that drove a civilization to the stars and that were tattooed down in books, thousands of codexes that were ultimately burned by the Spanish Conquistadores’ holy men. Alone in this room, confined to myself, to my mind, to my pride and pain, I blood-let through writing so that I can communicate with spirits, so that I can share with you secrets that were burned away so many moons ago.
To toughen us, my mother bullied us with negativity about the entire earth. She forced us to expect the worst so that no one could ever break our heart. Once in awhile, though, on a whim, she would attempt to inspire us, proudly declaring that even my sin verguenza international troubler father had been promoted from the fifth to sixth grade a year in advance of his classmates. Although that was to be his last year of institutional education, his proven “superior” intelligence was meant to motivate me to believe that I too could be intelligently educated.
But I was an idiot. Everything I did I wrecked, and it was not simply because I was a rebel or a confused fatherless child. I was an idiot. No amount of counseling, tutoring, or praying could modify me. By the time I was ten years old, I was stealing wine out of the priests’ chambers and getting drunk in the classroom closet. A drug dealer, I was smoking marijuana and sharing and selling it to my peers. Of course, after some time, my elementary school St. Anthony’s expelled me, and thus ended my formal classroom education. While I continued going to different schools for the next six years, I hardly ever attended classes. When I did, many times I was loaded, cholo scribbling, daydreaming, or fighting. School warred with my machismo. Initially, the tough purposely picked urban deans and principals frightened me with their scared straight treatment, which triggered me first to respect them but then to despise them. My wisdom at that time: that which is admired must eventually be defeated. Their intimidation act grew old. Learning their role better than they had, I became more terrifying than them, and, like them, holding onto such hatred, I mutilated myself.
At fourteen I started boxing at the San Francisco Police Athletics League club on 14th and Mission. Sometimes I would even train while drunk, but a few punches to the face would quickly sober me. When I was fifteen and already boxing at Newman’s pro gym in San Francisco’s skid-row Tenderloin district, my elderly boxing coach, Johnny “Carnation” Vidal, obtained employment for me at an auto body repair shop. With generosity and dignified pity, he knew I needed some economic stability, as by that time, I had already fathered a little girl. At the job, I tried to follow directions, but I was unaccustomed to following formal rules. Compared to others, I would take two or three times longer to scrape old paint from rusting automotive metal. If only they had simply had me take out trash and sweep the floors, then maybe I would have survived. Working with sensitive chemicals, I inhaled lead paint intoxication and tried to bang out crooked fenders. The boss expected me to take part in a subject, but I knew no subject very well so had no schema for work. A good man, the boss was patient, but by the end of that first week, he hand-shaked me some cash and offered me good luck. Firing me, he did me a favor, as I am where I am now because I was too ridiculous to keep that job.
By relaying all this, I do not intend to be totally self-deprecating nor am I attempting to construct this story so that later I can follow some script to elevate my accomplishments. I simply cannot emphasize enough that I was an idiot. Afraid of work. Indifferent in school. Angry at the world. I was a homeboy. How that factored into my life was that I didn’t expect anything but craziness, pure locura. Logic was frightening, unsettling; locura was calming. Locura was loyalty for El Indio in an American world. I craved insanity, a rush, and the crazier it was the stronger I embraced my newfound identity: I was a loco. Kicked out of schools for fighting, talking back, drunk, drugged, proud.
My goal was not to graduate from high school but to graduate to the penitentiary. My purpose was the prison revolver. My brother was already inside. Young homies were also following the painful path. We were supposed to accept la pinta as our true education. In fact, I knew that inside the walls there were rules, codes, oaths, slick moves, and tough grading. A for assault, B for battery, C for chokeholds. And if this sounds cute, it wasn’t—unless stone cold killers are cute and cuddly.
Six months after I finally dropped out of my third high school, I knew my fate and obligation, yet I wanted something more, something different. Scared, I knew I could never show it. I was supposed to accept my death with a straight face. I couldn’t choose to not be a homeboy; that would have been blasphemy. But contrary to popular media depictions, no one was forcing me to stay in the contra-culture; there would be no reprisals if I decided to become a straight shooter. However, I could not even fathom what the straight life meant. I was too obtuse to do anything in school. Even if I tried, I was so far behind that I know I would have quickly become disheartened. If I stayed in the neighborhood, I would have chosen to be with my homeboys who were out there banging, selling drugs, getting locked up, and dying on the stinking streets. Note it is I who would have chosen to be with them. Imagined or not, the duty I felt to be by their side was real to me. If I were there, I could not choose to ignore them. I loved yet hated them.
How to leave while remaining true? How to escape yet be able to one day return with respect? I had to be macho, super-macho, not exactly like all the veterano penitentiary Original Gangsters, but at least like some of them who had been on the front line. Some of our neighborhood dads had fought in Vietnam. Our movie superstars were anti-communists Rambo and Commando, action men who killed and received medals and state governorships for it. Same thing we were doing in the varrio, but in the military, they were called heroes.
At seventeen, I joined the United States Marine Corps. It was a skillful move I did not even fully realize until I was much older and could be honest with myself. A brave boy, I joined the Corps to run away. At the time, I actually despised myself for my insight to leave. But that feeling of keenness would quickly vanish once the drill instructors started shouting in my face, their spittle hitting me on my cheeks and eyeballs. In the Corps I was so stupid I literally did not know my left foot from my right. When the drill instructors would shout out drill movements, I would trip over my own feet. Constantly, they would swear I was a rock—and a rock is not a human being, a rock does not have a brain; it is not an organic living thing. Bac Sierra, the bonehead. In Marine Corps history and rifle classes, I would find myself dozing, barely able to stay awake. In the end, I made it because I knew how to hump hills and kick peoples’ asses. The Marines valued that more than reading and writing. At boot camp graduation, my drill instructors promoted me to Private First Class.
After the Gulf War, desert training, jungle jiving, cold weather freezing, and pumping overseas on three different occasions, I successfully completed my four years of honorable active service. Once out, I started college, even though I had not had any official education since about the fifth grade. Surprisingly, I did well. In classes, my street and Marine boldness made me daunting and penetratingly perceptive. I read, participated in discussions, and shocked both my classmates and professors. Then I started imagining. With a more diverse vocabulary and crass critiques, I acquired a certain amount of power and respect. Through City College of San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law; I fed like an animal on educational carcasses. Slowly I grew from being a pure idiot to being an educated one. Throughout my ten years as a full-time student of higher education, some even considered me creative, a guide, and could it be—brilliant? With humility and some amusement, I suggest this last classification, yet as I have heard murmurs and declarations about my acumen on a number of occasions, I start to believe it. Yet I also question it. How did I happen? What procedure, what pain, what luck led to my educational transformation, a transformation that has converted me from a lice-headed little jungle street boy into a tenured front-line college professor, community activist, published author, and certified shit starter?
This book will report about and investigate into my educational evolution. It is not a book intended to glorify myself. Based on my complexion and history, the world already categorizes me in certain ways. I am here to both confirm and smash those stereotypes; therefore, I seek to be brutally subjective and objective. By writing this, I will learn about me, as you are learning about me by reading it. I do not imagine that by the end I will have the definitive solution to anything. At least here in the beginning, I do not aim to have the answer. I simply offer you my blood on the page. Burn it. See what rises from the smolder. It is your analyses and critiques that will truly further fruitful dialogue.
In this book we will engage in a sliver of story. Some will be able to sympathize or empathize with my history, but I cannot wish my life to be analogous with anyone else’s. Some may see my story as an inspiration, but I do not believe I am a role model for anything except constructively selfish will or ganas. I love learning and evolving. I love being a cliché cholo, yet at the same time being unique and vulnerable. I imagine myself a leader, but where we are going you will ultimately have to tell me. The smoke has always risen for the audience.