This article is excerpted from a speech April 18, 2008, The Brecht Forum, NYC
Raul Salinas, born March 17, 1934, passed on February 14, 2008, after years of struggle with a myriad of medical maledictions rooted in growing up under severe conditions of oppression in the oppressed indio-Xicano nation of Atzlan, from 15 years of incarceration, most of which was spent in the supermax hellholes of America’s prisons, all of which produced years of habits that neglected the importance of nutrition, proper hydration, and clean living.
I met Raul in the early 1990s at an annual multicultural literary festival organized by the Guadalupe Cultural Center of San Antonio, Texas. Black Arts poet Kalamu ya Salaam and I performed there in our Afro-Asian Arts Dialogue duet of Kalamu blowing poetry and I reciting the baritone sax. Raul came up to us and introduced himself and gave us a personally signed copy of one of his poetry chapbooks. It wasn’t until about a half decade later, after my frequent travels to Austin, Texas, where Raul lived and worked, after listening to his baritone profundo voice on several CD recordings he had made, that the sound of his voice, plus (of course) his revolutionary words inspired me to reach out to him to collaborate. We began Caliente! Circle Around the Sun which soon included Boriqua-Gitano poetess extraordinaire Magdalena Gomez. In the few years we were a poetry-music unit, we performed on both coasts and in Minnesota with the support of Professors Louis Mendoza (Raul’s friend and principal biographer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis) and Peter Rachleff, labor scholar and activist at MacAlester College in St. Paul.
Raul grew up poor in the ghettos of the massive oppressed brown communities of Texas, a cultural rebel and what today we might describe as “gang banger” and street person. He partied hard and began his consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. He was arrested and convicted on a marijuana possession, but typical of so many oppressed youth, lacking money and status that would make available greater dispensation in the legal system, the state basically locked him up and threw away the key. He was expected to rot in jail for the rest of his life. But as Raul told it in his collection, raulsalinas and the Jail Machine: My Pen is My Weapon (The University of Texas Press, 2006 – edited by Luis Mendoza), he was saved from despair and cynicism, and indeed transformed while in prison by the power of jazz music. He began to write music and recording reviews and commentaries, which developed into his own creative verse and jazz poetic style. The outside world began to take note of his growing literary output.
And then the revolutionary 1960s hit hard. Even America’s most desolate and isolated corners, such as its prisons, felt this tsunami of revolt. Raul became of one America’s leading prison intellectuals and revolutionaries. His writings became important communiqués to the outside world about the horrid conditions behind the walls and the growing struggles by prisoners themselves to challenge what has now come to be called “the prison industrial complex.” While in prison, Raul wrote a penetrating analysis and commentary, Un Trip Through the Mind Jail and Otras Excursions, which has since become a classic. It is a must-read for all activists with its analysis and insights about prisons as institutions of repression, social control and colonization/national oppression.
During the late 1960s, a group of socially conscious professors and students at the University of Washington-Seattle took up the cause of gaining the release of Raul. After years of steadfast diligence and dedication, Raul Salinas gained his freedom in 1972, having served 15 years of his youth incarcerated, 11 of those years in some of America’s most brutal prisons.
Raul immediately plunged himself into the revolutionary movements of the day. He founded the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, was active in the founding of the American Indian Movement, in the Marxist-Leninist party-building movement, was a major figure in revolutionary cultural work especially as a poet, native American and Xicano liberation (he has been a vanguard unity builder of an Indigenous-Chicano identity), and represented a multiplicity of movements and struggles at international conferences and gatherings across the globe, all the while being rooted in his local community of Austin’s eastside. There, he founded Red Salmon Press, and the independent bookstore, Resistencia. While it is now trendy to speak of “intersectionality” in academic circles, Raul, like so many of us, could never be narrowly pigeon-holed in his revolutionary politics: He was Indio-Xicano liberation fighter, cultural worker-poet, communist, hipster, “jazz”-lover and scholar, and so on. He not only embodied the confluence of all these movements, he was a leading figure in all of them as well.
One of the last cultural productions was our collaborative CD, “Red Arc”. Throughout his years, Raul had indeed always been a hipster, as he moved among the Beat poets; but like so much of American historical accounts, he and the other oppressed nationality proponents have been largely ignored in most white supremacist accounting of American cultural movements, both mainstream and counter-culture. Only LeRoi Jones is given recognition, while other oppressed nationality “jazz” poets of the Beat Era, such as the Japanese American Lawson Fusao Inada, the late African-mixed heritage Bob Kaufman, and others, are ignored. What makes for a “jazz” poet? Let’s listen to an example from the CD so you can hear the Lester Young-like coolness, the Thelonious Monk-like angularity, the interactivity and intrinsic improvisational primacy and existentiality of expression.
Fred Ho is a matriarchal revolutionary socialist and aspiring luddite saxophonist-composer-writer-producer who was a good friend of the late Raul Salinas. They recorded a cd together, RED ARC, which is available at www.bigredmediainc.com.