Questions and Answers with Benjamin Bac Sierra
Interviewed by Liz O’Connell-gates
The title of your book is Barrio Bushido. What does this mean?
Barrio: Neighborhood. Bushido: The code of the Samurai warrior. Barrio Bushido is about the unwritten, illogical code of the streets. The code to purposely choose the most destructive and painful manner in any given situation. The code to be both a savage yet a gentleman at the same time.
What can you say about the image on the book’s cover which shows Our Lady of Guadalupe’s grotto in the background with a giant, clenched fist replacing the usual statue of the virgin?
Andrea Young, a great artist, developed the cover after we brainstormed. I am very pleased with the image. The brown power fist is in the audience’s face. Note that it is not just an average brown fist; it is the brown power fist with the Pachuco cross tattooed on it. The Pachuco cross is an embedded tradition of the loco lifestyle, going as far back as the 1940’s Zoot Suit era. It represents a vato loco who loves to party, dance, fight, love, and cry. Although he knows he is a sinner, he is also someone who pays reverence to religion, the structure and traditions of his identity. The fist, then, is not replacing the virgin, but it is the reason for why she ever existed. La Virgen was destined to give birth to both the love and pain of the cross. The fist is inspired by her, rises for her, pays tribute to her, is powerful for her.
Why did you write Barrio Bushido?
I wanted to find out about myself, the mysteries buried inside of me. This book was initially a labor so that I could gain some peace and perspective about my past and fuel for my future journey; it was a selfish act. I did not know where I was headed but knew I had the answers somewhere inside of me. I couldn’t articulate them to anyone or just talk it out. I needed to tap a secret source inside of me in order to release my power. Writing was my way to get to that source and find out what I needed to do with my life. I did not have any political or educational agenda. If anything, once I gained some momentum, I wanted to write an entertaining story. As the muse took over, other things happened. I wanted to write something real and shocking, something new and unique—a non-cliché of the homeboy experience.
Barrio Bushido is a book of war about Vatos Locos as Vatos Locos, not as gangsters or revolutionaries or cliché criminals. Vatos Locos as impromptu anarchists. In their craziness there is beauty, intelligence, and intense life. Once I began the “El Santo” chapter, I found myself giving homeboys an intellectual identity. I wanted the world to know that homeboy experiences do not necessarily lead to a stereotype stupidity; la vida loca can lead to depth, to a power that has value, both on a human level and at a literary level.
Is the book autobiographical?
The book is not autobiographical. Much of it delves into the magically real. With that stated, though, know that all writers use some personal experience, imagination, and research to build their stories.
Where does this book fit in the genre of literature?
This book is puro literatura. Urban literature. Latino literature. American literature. International literature. A literature for the people. I believe Barrio Bushido is a new type of literature that portrays the street homeboy as a homeboy philosopher. Most have never seen homeboys dialogue or think about existentialism or a will to power, yet the conversations do happen. The book is also entertaining. Literature does not have to be tedious. I believe a writer’s first duty, if he is writing for any type of audience, is to entertain. The audience wants and needs a story, and I love telling them. But I also believe that a good story, literature, needs depth, something profound. In literature we can discover the magic of the full human range. Barrio Bushido delivers that with many different themes, such as the concepts of good, evil, purpose, sacrifice, guilt, shame, love, the sublime.
I do understand that there may be some resistance to the way some of these themes are presented, especially because of the violence in the book. But The Illiad is literature. Like The Illiad, Barrio Bushido also exposes war and combat, but this book is not like recent types of combat novels with the men fighting for a noble cause or because they were suckered into fighting. The novel’s main characters (Lobo, Toro, and Santo) fight to fight. They fight to doom. Their purpose is pain, suffering, release, and death. Fighting as a part of existence. Because of the violence, this book is politically incorrect. Neither is The Illiad politically correct. Barrio Bushido deals with the reality that one of our oldest traditions of literature is combat literature.
How would you respond to questions that this book glorifies violence and stereotypes Latinos?
The book glorifies violence only in that it shows to what extremes the characters will go not to be normal, not to be discounted in this society. They do not perform run-of-the-mill type violence. These characters’ brand of violence is twisted beyond the normal. They find an identity in their violence, but that does not mean they are primitive. These are homeboys who discuss the greater purpose of their lives and of this universe. If these are people who can question, then why do these homeboys search for this type of violence? The common answer is that it is ultimately about power and a lust for power. In this book, it is also about shame: the shame that leads one to try to hide sins and imperfections.
As with military combat, violence leads to profound questioning and investigation of self, which of course can be very beneficial. The characters’ violence is worse than gratuitous violence; it is a numbing normal violence for them. This is their world, their language, and their actions. Lobo, Toro, and Santo are at the bottom of the barrel even in their own Latino communities, yet to understand the totality of the culture and the future of Latinos, I believe we must begin with the grassroots. These characters are the real cockroach grassroots. If we cannot understand them and find some humanity in them, it cannot get better for them, and I believe it will be very unlikely it can get better for gente at all.
Why should people read this book?
First of all this book is an entertaining, twisted story, a roller coaster ride of action and reflection, great intensity and even greater downfall. All emotions are explored and poked at with a fire iron. This book shocks and transforms. Of course I am to a great degree prejudiced about this book because I created it, but trying to be objective, I say this: I have never read a book like this in my entire life. It is a book that is politically incorrect and speaks from the first person perspective of locos. Locos as a philosophers, capitalists, and men of flesh and blood with all the lust and love and paradoxes that all humans experience. While reading and learning about the homies in the most intense situations, we learn about ourselves in the most intense situations. We cannot help but journey with them on their ups and downs, regardless of what judgments we make about them; Lobo, Toro, and Santo are that captivating, that different, dynamic, and fascinating.
What reaction will Barrio Bushido evoke in the Mission District?
The Mission has changed dramatically since I lived there, especially with the tearing down of the Army street projects, the name change of Army street to Cesar Chavez street, the gentrification of Bernal Heights and the Mission, and more recently, because of the La Mission film. Gente, I am certain, will be curious about the book, and locos will love it. Still, I deal with taboo subjects and sometimes the characters intellectualize in manners that are beyond the street culture. Some may be taken aback by the sensitive subject matter and/or find it hard to relate to the philosophical sections. I did not simplify many abstract points, especially from the Santo character. Nevertheless, overall, I feel it will be well received. One cannot help but feel proud that one of their own “made it.”
You’ve said educators are the “sneezer audience” for this book. What do you mean by that?
In his book The Purple Cow, Seth Godin refers to a sneezer audience as one who is the ideal audience. A sneezer audience enjoys the product and freely, voluntarily promotes it. Because of its passion, intelligence, and profoundness, Barrio Bushido is literature. It should be taught in schools the way other American literature is taught. Right now we have only a handful of Latino books that are used in our high school, college, and university curriculums: Always Running, Parrot in the Oven, A Place to Stand. While those books are great in their own right, Barrio Bushido speaks to a contemporary generation, one that is no longer a pure cholo generation. This generation has been heavily influenced by rap, international war, globalism, and the modern technological media. All those elements contribute to Barrio Bushido’s scenery, so I believe more modern student readers can identify with the characters and the book. Also this book has a gigantic literary value, especially for the way it deals so rawly with timeless pressing issues such as machismo, violence, purpose, and the metaphysical. This book does not pretend to have answers, and because it is fiction, it does not attempt to offer tidy solutions. There is no neat conclusion, except that we know for certain that there is much work that needs to be begun and done. Educators and students are the most likely to begin the questioning and concluding process.
What appeal will this book have to audiences outside the Latino Community?
All audiences get an authentic insider perspective of the torments and joys of the human mind. This is the stuff not just of Latino drama but of human life. If people want to learn about the down and dirty without any punches pulled, then they should pick up Barrio Bushido. If people want to have their stereotypes smashed and see what that reveals about themselves, they should pick it up. This book’s appeal is that it is a challenge to combat, a combat of the mind that can help us all grow and evolve. The appeal is to what is crazy or loco inside of us. The appeal is not only to our simple passion, but to a total illogic that feeds something primal in us.
In what way is Barrio Bushido a story of Empowerment?
Without spoiling the end, the homeboy reader comes to realize a truth and a craziness: Death is take off. This book does not sugar coat death or attempt to preach against the homeboy lifestyle. If one is a homeboy soldier, then that does not simply mean that one is a soldier in this body form; one is a homeboy in their spirit. The spirit continues no matter where he is, whether that be prison, the university, foreign lands, or in the fields picking peaches. The character Santo demonstrates that the spirit continues even after this life. An idealistic homeboy reader who accepts this should know that he does not have a duty just to this Earth. A true Santo homeboy is supposed to scope out the next world and pioneer for the rest of the homies; that requires a purpose for each other. Santo is empowered by finding beauty even in death and mayhem. Readers are empowered because they can see Santo as an abomination to our immediate life, or they can see the power of the Bushido of las calles and choose Santo’s forever. It is up to the reader to understand the power of spirit. That choice is empowering.
Why do you think Maxine Hong Kingston described you as “an American Dostoyevsky?”
I love Maxine and am humbled by her critical praise. I write with a stream of consciousness style, with the voice of a mad-man, about the themes of redemption, crime, punishment, the concept of evil. In my writing things are not black and white. In my writing there is complexity and danger. Characters persecute themselves and are exhilarated by just being alive. Dostoevsky characters meditate a lot on the concept of purpose, and I think my characters do that as well.
You say many readers will find something they have been yearning for in your work. Why do you say that?
My work sings with a jazz and operatic rhythm; it carries a street style that is not movie-ish or infantile. In Barrio Bushdio you have hipness with depth; actions are fully explained in their essence. I give readers contradictions and paradoxes, all the stuff that we like to see: the frailty of ourselves and the lust for life even in the most downtrodden situations. The book is contemporary yet not preachy.
Who is the audience for your online blog?
Everyone. Note there is homeboy work, fiction, poetry, non-fiction intellectualism, and even a law school exam! I believe my audience is a renaissance audience.
Is Barrio Bushido aimed at the same audience?
Yes, I want everyone to be able to relate to it, but especially gente. They need it, and I volunteer myself to be criticized. We need a voice that carries a street swagger but that is not a caricature of the cholo. We need someone with American wit and higher education who has not repudiated the varrio or its lessons. To fully embrace this book the audience must see there is value in craziness.
One of your goals for next year is to have Barrio Bushido taught at community colleges, state universities and UCs from Sacramento to San Luis Obispo. Where do you see it fitting in the curriculum?
All English courses, Literature courses, Latino Studies, Philosophy, Administration of Justice, y mas.
How did you end up joining the Marines?
I joined because I was scared, and ashamed to be scared but also because I was egotistical. I wanted to be the best and convince people I was a bad ass. Instead of joining prison, because that is where many of the homeboys went, at seventeen I retreated to the Marines. Let me make clear that I was not brainwashed, even though I loved the film Full Metal Jacket. Part of me truly did believe in romance and adventure, and I wanted to be a hero. I know that some would say I must have joined because of pressures, oppression, lack of opportunities, etc. but let me be real and politically incorrect, volunteer Marines want the romantic and the taboo at the same time. They want to be admired, and they want to kill. They want to get away with killing. Defending a country is a gigantic abstraction. What that means in real terms is that Marines want to shoot their weapons, and they want to be in danger. They want to get medals for it. Of course, once they are in combat, the mythology is tested, and combat comes with mental consequences, but that does not negate that Marines want to fight. People do not join the Marines for the G.I. Bill.
Did growing up in the barrio prepare you for being a Marine? How did being a marine change your life?
In the Marines, they loved me because I was a total nut case. They valued craziness just as much as the varrio did, even more. I humped hills hardest and I would fight anyone. Although I had hardly any education, and I was the shortest and youngest Marine, the drill instructors made me a squad leader. Once in the Fleet Marine Force, I was awarded praise and status because I was so stupid I would continue forward no matter what. I built in myself a confidence and came to realize that even an idiot can be effective. I learned that the loco style, instead of being a hindrance, was a special weapon. Not many had it or understood it, and it made me popular and powerful. Of course, I continued using this mad method when I started college and especially in my writing.
How did being in combat change you?
With a silent panic, I prayed to God. Later I felt ashamed for this, especially because our war had not been that bad compared to what we had expected. We had trained in the scorching desert to go into World War One style trench combat, but in actuality we ended up winning by a gigantic rout. Still, to get prepared en masse to battle hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—that does a tremendous dance on a person’s psychology. Through combat I came to understand endurance in a much keener way. Endurance is not just about completing a physical marathon; it is a psychological and spiritual endurance that is necessary to survive and continue forward. In combat I became a child again, but I kept it all inside. I saw people lose their minds and I learned what I never wanted to happen to me.
How did you end up going to college at U.C. Berkeley?
After the Marines, I attended City College of San Francisco. I had absolutely no idea what college was all about, but I had a 400 dollar a month stipend from the Marine Corps GI Bill to attend full time (note that this was the lowest GI award in the U.S. military). In most opinion related classes, I shocked professors and classmates. I did well because of my loud voice and unusual creative written arguments. The loco style made me intimidating and daunting. Aggressive, yet respectful. I would speak with conviction. I was accepted into Berkeley as a transfer student. There I fell into a writer crowd and befriended many people who are now successful in the literary and writing field.
What motivated you to go to law school?
My brother and mother wanted a lawyer in the family. I dreamed of being a writer and was in a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, but my family and I (to a certain extent) felt my community did not think too highly of writers. They were one step up from poor, lazy vagabonds. Another motivation was that after seven years of undergraduate and graduate university education, I had become much too philosophical. I was too abstract. I needed a type of education that would ground me and teach me about politics, economics, business. Law. Law kicked my ass and made me realize how smart I was not. I had to follow rules and understand the grand scheme of things in order to make an effective, down to earth argument. I learned the very elite language of the law, so power was also part of my motivation.
How did you use your law degree? In what way is writing/teaching more satisfying than law?
During externships, I represented some clients during employment and immigration legal proceedings. Immigration officers and veteran attorneys would commend me for my work. Great professors, such as Vik Amar and Karen Musalo, became role models for me. Ultimately, though, I was offered a full-time position as a tenure track English instructor at City College of San Francisco. I accepted the position because I enjoy teaching much more than doing law. In English I cover a broader range of subjects and ideas. I get to see students grow and evolve. Students many times thank me for a life changing experience. There is less stress in teaching and more control on my part. Finally, by teaching I have more time for writing.
Based on my law school experience, I use a modified Socratic method dialogue in my classrooms. Sometimes I weave in a unit about justice into the curriculum. Then we will study legal opinions. They stretch students’ minds in much different ways than other non-fiction text, and I am glad I am one of the only English instructors who is able to teach this type of material. I also use my law degree by just saying I have a law degree from U.C. Hastings, a very competitive and respected law school in Northern California. Sometimes I like to say I am a Juris Doctor. And I am ready for arguments.
Who were your role models growing up in the Mission?
The cholos and street outlaws.
Who encouraged you to write and to become the writer/teacher you are today?
My own ego. All of my professors and my peers. Once I started sharing my writing, people were enthralled. I gained a following. I would read at different places and in classes, and people would be in awe of my words and presentation. At Berkeley, especially, people thought I was going to be a great writer. Their faith fed me. The writing groups at Berkeley made me feel as if I belonged to something greater than myself. Also, as for specific professors, there was Rachel Webb, Tom Farber, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alejandro Murguia, Vik Amar, Karen Musalo, and Evan Lee.
Your brother didn’t make it, but you did. What things/people/experiences got you out safe and sound?
I made it due to luck and moving away. I became constructively selfish. I would sometimes go out with homies and my brother, visit the neighborhood, and still be nuts, but when I had to go home, I went home and rested. When it was time for school, I was a hermit hitting the books. Drinking a six pack, I would read and write. When homies came around, I would not preach about education or think I was different than them. We would party, and with a passion I would talk about all these subjects, and I communicated in a way that we had fun talking about themes and philosophies, even though they would not read books. So homeboys helped me because they were never negative about education. Yes, some people thought I was crazy and overly egotistical, but I did not base my character solely on my book knowledge; I stayed in good physical shape and still had a fervent aggression, so I was a confrontational nerd. I had fun with my intelligence, and because of it, many times I was the life of the party. Knowing how to transform intellectualism to a street party was my passion, and I saw I could be successful doing it.
When I began law school, my own family, and formal work all at the same period in my life; I told my wife, “Check out, you have to imagine I have gone to war. I am not even here.” I think that is a pretty fucked up, selfish statement, even though I actually ended up doing more than my part as a husband, provider, and father. Still, that goes to show you how goal driven I was. That mentality is what helped me out safe and sound. After each success, I began believing in my imagination of myself, even though I did not exactly understand what that meant.
You were involved in a lot of negative stuff in your youth. What was the turning point for you?
I left to the Marines. And still I was extremely lucky. When I came back after my honorable discharge, I returned with boldness, discipline, and focus. Nevertheless, it is still hard to stop being a big baby. Every day is a struggle but family and security and a positive outlook help. All of the negative stuff was training for today. The turning point is now, and it is not just for me, but for all of us who desire more.
Where does your passion and intellectualism come from?
My brother should have been mayor of San Francisco. He gifted me with his passion. He was never embarrassed about anything, and he would play jokes and match wits with white people. It was completely amazing to see him in action. He would smile such a big smile and make himself out to be a fool yet at the same time he would get everything he wanted by doing it! He was unique. My passion also comes from loving high drama. Many times I used to and still do think of things as life or death situations. This mentality is somewhat immature, but it fuels me to think of each day as my possible last, so I just go for it all.
My intellectualism also stems from having battled my genius brother. We would argue all of the time, and he would always “get my goat,” as he used to say. So I read and studied and tried out new arguments and styles of arguments in my college classrooms, with the idea in the back of my mind that these classmates and professors were really just my sparring partners. Then I would argue with my champion brother. During my senior year at U.C. Berkeley, during one of our famous arguments, and while I was on an especially vague and abstract philosophical tirade, my brother stopped me and told me, “You have passed me. I can’t even communicate with you anymore.” It was then that I knew enough bullshit to be an effective intellectual.
Are you, in your academic success, an aberration in the Latino community? To what extent do people in the Latino Community see you as a role model? What do you mean when you say that Latinos are in danger of losing an appreciation for intellectualism?
Of course I am an aberration. I am an ultra educated homeboy who dresses like a mixture between a gangster, a preppie, and a cholo. I am a Juris Doctor who drives a lowrider! I dialogue with convicts and professors. I know people, all different types of people: Latinos, Whites, African-Americans, Asians; they all first see me and know I must be a straight fuck up, but once my mouth opens, yes, both conservative and liberal gente see me as a role model. How many times I have heard their praises. But it takes people a minute to digest what exactly it is they are looking at and listening to.
It is my way with words and my charisma, my presence that makes me a role model. I act like a leader, and I have the credentials that are respected in the broader world. Latinos love to work and go to school to be practical. We are activists but those who become too intellectual many times lose their cockroach roots. A split and forgetting is created because people leave and completely change their clothes and styles. Then they demonize the past homeboy experience. Many times once we make it, we don’t want to be reminded we were like them, or we look at our pasts and assert that the loco lifestyle was all a tragic mistake. No, my past and my nostalgia are not mistakes; my past was my destiny and it made me who I am, and I can simultaneously drink a beer with you and dance on the streets and spit out poetry, philosophy, and politics because of my colorful past. I appreciate both the homeboy and the intellectual. I believe we all need to be in tune with this appreciation.
You’ve said it’s important for Latinos to understand abstractions, to be philosophical, to give a street flavor to intellectual ideas. What’s so critical about this?
By becoming formally educated, we are not sellout Tio Tacos. Once I told my brother that a classmate had called one of my Latino professors a “coconut (someone brown on the outside but white on the inside).” Amused, my brother looked at me and responded, “MMM, I love coconuts!” And he licked his lips and smiled his giant Jeff smile. How silly of me to even bring up such a conversation, he must have thought. Through his comment he taught me not to worry about the way others use their minds in confined stereotypical manners. We cannot make believe that we are still juveniles that believe that nerds are our enemies. I am a nerd, a cholo nerd, a straight up vato loco professor nerd. If we can embrace this ethos, we can twist up the entire system. This vato loco intellectual is a concept that has yet to be invented. Through me I introduce it to us now in order to lead the way for a new successful and proud generation. In the vato loco style, there is creativity, mysterious power, fearlessness, and drive. The vato loco as genius. The vato loco as genius leader.
You have mentioned the gigantic divide between passionate, authentic homeboys and homegirls and community activists who sometimes fail to validate what the populace has to say. What is this chasm about and why is it important?
Education and communication is a big chasm. Power—Educated activists see it in one way; homeboys see it in many different ways. Activists don’t imagine the way we do. Power can’t be taught to us. It is we who must become our own instructors, and we must embrace leadership roles in the movement. White activists have great hearts, and in many ways some of them are much harder working and more caring than I myself am. They are not enemies, but they sometimes believe they are the saviors, and so even with their best intentions, they belittle homeboys and homegirls.
At a recent public event, there was a veterana homegirl who shouted out, “Hey, what are you all going to do about police brutality in the Mission?” No one could respond in terms that could reach her. The homegirl then shouted, “I’m an O.G. from the Mission.” One of the panelists responded, “So you have been there since 1776?” Clearly, this question was filled with hostility and a reaction that meant something like, “Look, you aren’t intelligent enough to join in on this conversation if you do not understand the total formal history of the Mission.” Afterwards, a well-intentioned activist began to intellectualize and use formal diction with this homegirl. It was crazy. Here the activists were presenting themselves as leaders and artists of the community, yet they could not communicate with the most downtrodden and ostracized people of the hood. Until they can know how to do that, activists will not truly empower the varrio.
You see wit as a measure of American intelligence and a tool for bridging gaps between Latinos and “Whites.” Can you explain what you mean?
Latinos must realize that wit is used as a weapon. We do not need to assimilate to wit, but we must identify it, learn it, and use it to our advantage. Ha, ha, you are witty and so am I, and guess what, I am also a solid intellectual loco, too! And I have culture and style that they do not sell in the stores or display in the media. Standard America respects this type of wit because they see it as a measure of true intelligence. If a homeboy is posted and reflective, many times white people see that as stupidity and slothfulness instead of depth, contemplation, and respect. I am not advising we learn wit in order to be like whites, but we can use our mastery of wit to help break the ice during dialogue. By wit, I am not referring to a comedian type of wit; homeboy wit is about verbal comebacks and being able to look at people in their face, maddogging them with confidence and a smile. It is not a maddogging to physically fight them, but to battle them on their own terms. Once they see we can be as witty and even wittier than them, we establish a respect. They know we can see into their world. Then we can move on to more substantive issues. Wit puts us on a common ground.
You dedicate the book to your late brother. What was his influence on you?
After my biological father died when I was nine years old, my brother became my father. My brother was the toughest and happiest man I ever met in my life. To be that tough and happy, he must have suffered so much in isolation, and he did. Even with all of his faults, he tried to raise me the best he could. He made mistakes but he put his heart into even his mistakes. To the greatest degree, I am who I am today because of my brother.
How were you affected by his death?
When he died, I felt guilty. Perhaps I could have done more, but he was who he was. He used to declare, “I’ll never change.” After my guilt settled down, I became numb and desired a forgetting, so I was partying a lot, being irresponsible, looking for destruction. This novel, Barrio Bushido, helped me get out of the rut, but it was not until recently that I have really felt a duty to get back to an even better Ben Bac Sierra. I feel like I am now finally beginning my full potential.
How important is the Mission to you now?
The Mission as I knew it no longer exists. It has been gentrified. My old neighborhood is no longer a blue collar multi-cultural varrio; it is mostly a white bread white collar or hipster world. That is the reality. But the Mission lives inside of me. It is literally a Mission in me: to spread the style, the stance, the lust for life, and the crazy profound. The Mission is literally my goal and my life.
How do you maintain your connections there?
Although I live in the East Bay now, I still wear my San Fran gear and people always ask me about the Giants and 49ers, and I tell them I don’t know about that stuff. Looking at me strangely, they scratch their heads, and I tell them I am from the city, from the Mission por vida. I am constantly repping the hood in a positive manner, lowriding on the streets, still kicking it with homies, blasting the oldies, speaking at educational and community events; I maintain my connections by spreading the spirit.