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Raúl Salinas


Austin's pachuco poet

Raúl Salinas of South Austin's La Resistencia bookstore transformed himself in prison to an artist. He's been helping others in danger ever since.

By Omar L. Gallaga
¡ahora sí!

Published August 25, 2005

     When you walk in, the first thing that hits you is the smell.
Heavy and pungent, it could be incense, or revolution, or maybe both.
     More often than not, when you visit La Resistencia bookstore on the corner of S. First and Annie streets in south Austin, you will be greeted by an old man with silver hair in ponytails. He is wiry thin and wears wire-frame glasses. His dark skin may make you fail to notice the tattoos that run up his arms. He will speak to you and his strong, steady voice, the voice of a performer.
     And you may leave the store knowing that this man is known as a poet and an activist. You may have even known his name: Raúl Salinas.
     Like many people in Austin, however, you probably won't know the many lives this 71-year-old has lived. He is most recognizably a poet, but he has also been a teacher, a criminal, a father, an activist, a husband, a pachuco from East Austin and an artist reborn in a prison.

Photo by Valentino Mauricio
for ¡ahora sí!


     It's lunchtime at the restaurant El Sol y La Luna on South Congress Avenue. Raúl Salinas has a lot to be concerned about. Though he was born in San Antonio in 1934, Austin is his real home, and there is always something happening here to deserve his attention and action.
     In addition to running La Resistencia bookstore, Salinas founded Red Salmon Arts Group, a community organization that fosters art and protest. Recently, it has organized boycotts of the Gallo wine company for its opposition to farmworker unions and helped protest in front of City Hall over the Austin Police Department's handling of the June shooting of an Austin teenager, Daniel Rocha.
     "We have to keep it in the public eye," he says of the Rocha case. "We have to get church groups, civil liberties groups, political and neighborhood groups involved. If you don't, certain things don't get dealt with."
     Today, Salinas also talks about the Austin city council, gentrification, the fight to keep the technology company AMD from building a new plant over Edward's Acquifer and school financing. He cares about it all, but he also recognizes that there are more problems than one man alone can solve.
     In the next few weeks, Salinas will be finishing up a book of his poems being published in San Antonio and will travel to San Antonio for a national Latino arts and culture convention where he will be a guest speaker. He will also begin teaching a class at St. Edward's University called, "Social Control and Agitation" and travel to Los Angeles to teach writing clinics to a group of teenagers at a juvenile detention center.
     Salinas is both an intellectual and an artist. He's an agitator as well as an educator. To him, there are no separations between the artistic, academic and political worlds. "This is my world," Salinas says, "It's not a separation. I have to navigate it. I've always combined my art, my politics, my spirituality, as part of my total being."
     The journey to that complex life began in 1957 when Salinas was sent to a state prison in California on drug-related charges. He served three terms over the next 15 years, and it was here that his political and artistic births happened.
     He had developed a love of reading in Spanish and English as a child, with literature introduced to him by his mother and grandmother. He read and studied with a group of other prisoners at a time when English-language "Beat poets" like Jack Kerouak and Allan Ginsburg were becoming popular for their unconventional linguistics.
     "That got me going," Salinas says, "I read all there was to read and I abosorbed all of the beat generation happenings of the time."
     He became influenced by the rumblings of change in the United States - race relations, war, farmworkers issues and the Chicano and Native American movements all became the fabric of poetry he began to publish in prison publications.
     He and his fellow prisoners became politicized.
"Maybe we hoped to be revolutionaries. We wanted to change. That involved cleaning up your act and learning discipline and respect, things that are not necessarily common in prison."
     He says he learned about who he was in isolation. He got in touch with his "Native spirituality and indigenous self."
     But the process was slow and painful and riddled with guilt. He had left a family behind. The family suffered as well as he did.
     An hour into the interview at El Sol y La Luna, Raúl Salinas stops. His strong voice goes soft as he chokes with emotion. His eyes fill with tears as he talks about being an absent father and how those memories continue to haunt him. "You're guilt-ridden. All of that I carry. The fact that my children grew up wthout me. All I can do now is try to... alleviate that pain from others. There's nothing more I can do to undo what I did. But there's a lot I can do to prevent young people or help parents that failed miserably."

The tattooed teacher

     The summer communications class at St. Edward's University that Raúl Salinas teaches is an open discussion with reading material far outside of mainstream textbooks or news. Students are invited to debate political issues like the war in Iraq or prisoner treatment by the U.S. government in Guantano Bay, Cuba.
     The classroom includes six people on this hot summer afternoon, and they are engaged in a fierce debate. Salinas, wearing a T-shirt that says, "Free Speech: Take it Back," stays on his feet, encouraging the college students to debate with each other.
     Salinas's reading assignments include liberation literature and information from Web sites that dispute common assumptions about the media.
     Like his work to teach literature to prisoners or poetry to teens in detention center, his ultimate goal is to open minds.
     One student, Adell Cruz, a senior at St. Edward's, says the class has taught her to pay more attention to the world around her. She enjoys expressing her opinion and the class gives her an oportunity to explore other students' points of view.
     She remembers her first day of class. She didn't know who Raúl Salinas was, but when she saw the ponytailed, tattoo'd teacher walk in, she says, "I thought, 'this is gonna be a cool class.'"
     "I'm damn good with the kids," Salinas says. He gives them "Tough love," he says, especially the children most in danger of falling into the traps of addiction and incarceration that he fell victim to. He's taught thousands of them all over the country, mostly Latinos.
     He starts his classes by telling the students three truths he has come to believe:
     Poetry is empowering.
     Poetry is liberating.
     Poetry is healing.

     He asks them to read their work in front of their peers. "Chave, get up here and speak, man," he tells them. They might be embarrassed about their writing skills, but Salinas helps them to get over it.
     He is tough, but kind. He never forgets that some of these children went to bed the night before without eating. Their mother and father might have argued the night before. They are turned off or dropping out.
     But, he says, the transformation that art brings to the soul is miraculous. "That's why my transformation was so painful and ultimately came out ultimately so beautifully."

La Resistencia

     The bookstore, with its volumes about liberation and revolution, its artifacts of Native and latino cultures and its posters and T-shirts celebrating slogans of anti-authoritarian struggle fits Salinas nicely.
     It is small, but intense, a gathering place for poets and activists. It the place where many poetry readings, performances and meetings organized by Red Salmon Arts are held.
     In the time between Salinas' 15 years in prison and his emergence as a writer of bilingual poetry, he became heavily involved in Native American politics and causes. He worked against gang violence and taught at different universities while his poetry became part of the canon of latino literature taught at many universities.
     Much of his poetry deals with life in the barrio including his book of poems "East of the Freeway." He writes about the struggles of indigenous people as well as his friends and loves, his work filled with wordplay and rhythmic phrasing.
     Salinas came back to his home in Austin and opened La Resistencia bookstore in 1981.
     Since then, he has become an imposing figure in the community, a man who can be counted on to support radical causes or community movements. He has also continued to write while expanding his artistic work to include acting with local latino playwrights and collaborating with musicians on several CDs of his poetry.
     One of those CDs, "Beyond the Beaten Path," was produced by Jonathan Rosen, a man who has worked with many musicians and poets. They make an odd pair. On a recent visit to the store, Rosen, a tall anglo, shares a plate of nachos with his old friend.
     He says his manager call Rosen and Salinas, "The Cowboy and the Indian." Their long friendship came out of mutual respect and admiration. "We're very much kin even though we're completely different," Rosen says. "I stand in awe of his poetry."
     For "Beyond the Beaten Path," Rosen gather a group of musicians who worked on the recording for 20 breakfast tacos and all showed up early in the morning. "Everyone was happy to do it," he says.
     Salinas' poetry fits well with music. His work is similar to the hip-hop movement and his spoken-word performances are usually performed with musical accompaniment. He's influenced by jazz-influenced poets, and Salinas says that finds its way into his work. "I do be-bop and sounds. I hear rhythms of all kinds."
     The recordings for "Beyond" were important enough to Rosen that he spent several years finding time to put it together. "I felt that his poetry was too important not to be documented," he says.
     As he leaves the bookstore, he tells Salinas, "Raúl: it's time to do another album!"

Time for art

     Salinas would love to make another CD, but he's busy putting together the final touches on a new book of poetry.
     He's also got a bookstore to run, Red Salmon Arts events to work on and many speaking engagements and classes to attend to.
     With all these projects and committments, Salinas says, it's hard to find time to simply write and work as a poet.
     "As I become more involved, yeah, my writing suffers. The more advanced in age I get, the laizer I begin to get as well," he laughs.
     At the bookstore and with Red Salmon, Salinas is helped by a young and dedicated group of volunteers who admire his work and find themselves growing through their association with him.
     One of them, Rene Valdez, met Salinas about six years ago and has been working as La Resistencia ever since. He grew up in El Paso.
     "I struggled with culture shock when I came to Austin," Valdez says, "coming here I felt at home. I developed a consciousness that made me feel more proud of who I am and where I came from."
     Valdez says he's awakened politically and has developed a love of working to keep the Spanish language alive and to keep the stories of latino artists in the public eye. "We have a lot of passion and a lot of love," he says of the bookstore, "We want to maintain our space in the community and share what we have. It's a way to show people our role models and artists."
     Salinas, he says, has inspired him to be brave enough to create change in his own life as well as in the community.
     "It's hard to pin (Salinas) down," Valdez says, "What he's done and what he still does to benefit humanity and his pueblo and his people."
     "He has sacrificed his personal life, his family, his artistic career to help bring about a better world. He's someone who managed to change his life."
     Salinas says that although his writing takes a back seat to all of his other work, he still gets a spurt of creativity once in a while. It's tough to find time when he spends so much time greeting people at the store or traveling, he says, but can't resist the pull of new artists, cultures and new struggles to engage in. He writes personally, but thinks globally, fighting where he can to create a better community to play a part in creating a better world.
     After all, Raúl Salinas says, "The world is my natural habitat."




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