[I am writing this piece from El Barrio. This neighborhood was raided by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security) two years ago, arresting many undocumented people –a lot of them while they were having breakfast with their children. But El Barrio too has seen the birth of The Prescott Downtown Mural Project, Karma Farm, The Mice Mural Theater Troupe and the solidarity among people with different colors of skin.]
We were at the tail end of the mural protest, 6 people standing by the mural of Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona. We were holding signs like “Strength Through Diversity”, “Teach our kids love not hate”, “Colorful is Beautiful”, “Not white, not black, not brown, not yellow… but HUMAN.” Close to ~95% of all the people who engaged with us on the sidewalk or drove by in cars supported the action and could not believe that the kid in the mural (Mario, a Mexican-American who served as a model and who actually attends to the school) now had a pink forehead –the result of a petition by the school board saying that the kid was “too brown,” and therefore, from their point of view, he was misrepresenting the Prescott community (Erasing Arizona: Dark-skinned Mural Faces Ordered “Lightened” to Appease Bigotry.) The protesters were offered water, food, popsicles and smiles as we were standing in the intense Arizona sun around 2pm. Even the police offered us protection.
Officer Andy came to the school mural because the police department received a call saying that someone from the protest was trespassing on school property. He said the school had been vandalized other times. I asked for his first name, looked him in the eye and said:
“Look, brother Andy, we are here as part of a nonviolent protest and nobody that we know of has crossed the school gate. The majority of the people support us and they have brought all that water there, and signs and food. This call is probably from someone who disagrees with our perspective. We are only trying to take care of the community by promoting diversity at the surface level and unity at the heart level. That’s it.”
After a very cordial chat, I gifted him an issue of America: The Remix (and shared my inter-skin-color love story, see below at Jessica’s story), which was received with a big smile, as his bright blue eyes stared at me. As another patrol approached the scene, brother Andy gave me his card and told me: “Please let us know if someone bothers you.”
The nervousness of the other protesters was dissolved. Some of them knew that I am an “illegal” human being in this part of the Planet (if there is such a thing as an “illegal” human being). My co-protesters didn’t know what was happening between the police and me. But when you are anchored in nonviolence, there is nothing to be afraid of. Once again nonviolence works: hatred dissolves in the presence of love.
Then, right after the police left, the energy shifted when a very sad woman approached us. She looked at the mural and with tears in her eyes told us:
“I can’t believe this is happening… after all these years. I graduated from this school. I was sitting in that classroom when Kennedy was shot. I was the first African American to attend this school…I’m going to talk with the principal.”
We all felt the pain too. Sister Jessica attended this public school from 1957 to 1963. A Civil Rights nonviolent warrior. Indeed, a _girl_ Civil Rights warrior. She was supposed to attend another school but the principal of Miller Valley at the time encouraged Jessica’s parents: “these kids need to learn how to get along with each other.” I empathized with her pain and then acknowledged the incredible challenging situation for a girl with dark skin in the 50s/60s. But then she brought back that soulforce and replied humbly:
“It was nothing. A couple of kids call you names here and there but you know they are just kids playing. It’s not them but their parents who are speaking.”
A blazing light came from her dark profound eyes as if she were living again in those day of Martin Luther King Jr. We told her that, at the beginning of the protest, the principal and the school board already apologized and that the mural was about to be reversed to its original state. After the pressure of the progressive community in Prescott, Steve Blair (city council member who encouraged attacks on the mural and the artists), was fired from a radio station, only to be replaced with a more intelligent and more eloquent man who is advocating for the removal of the mural. Beware of heartless intellectuals stuck in the knowledge phase. You need (true)intelligence to convert data into knowledge but you need experience to convert knowledge into wisdom.
Then an opponent part of that ~5%, swung by the school in a car and without stopping the vehicle he yelled at the 7 of us (5 white skin siblings, Jessica and I): “America is the land of the white!” This brother was shaved and covered in tattoos, I’ve heard that sometimes people like him are referred to as “skin-heads” (if only he were like Gandhi: “Another skin-head for peace”). He went on and insulted us and then sister Jessica replied: “We outnumber you! We are more than you!” Almost at the same time I said: “It doesn’t matter what you think brother, I respect you and I will try to love you.” The response was silence, a confused facial expression and an obscene sign of a flipping finger.
Then sister Jessica was on fire. She let us know that she was a journalist and that we needed to document everything. She encouraged us to take pictures of potential aggressors and the state of the mural. “While I appreciate what you are doing here in the front lines, I don’t want you to get hurt.” She also advised us to not stay after sunset because “this is ‘gun country’ and that guy with some beers will be very dangerous.” “Write down the license plate, take a picture of the car and of him and don’t hesitate to call the police.” I thought: with women like you, who needs the police! Incredible as it seems, this is not the 1960s, but 2010. Something is going on in Arizona.
Another alumni stopped by the mural. He had white skin and he was a few generations younger than Jessica. He loved the mural and what it represents: diversity, overcoming obstacles, the joyfulness of children and minorities, the empowerment of women, sustainable green transportation, co-existing with native species of plants and animals, the art/social work of more than 300 children… Jessica and he had a very warm conversation. In the meanwhile, the rest of us were interacting with more members of the community.
Hermana Jessica was ready to leave. I approached her, gave her a big hug, kissed her on the cheek and gave her a copy of America: The Remix. I explained to her that I, myself, was another living evidence, not of the inter-racial but the inter-skin-color love among humans: my dad’s origins are from the native people of the part of the Planet we call Mexico, and my mom’s dad was from the part of the Planet we call Germany. Therefore my last name Ramos-Stierle. She smiled from ear to ear and I felt immensely grateful to have witnessed the power of this humble brave woman who wants to keep working behind the scenes for human duties (not rights). Her radiant defiant loving face will stay with me for the rest of my life. Another embodiment of the Feminine Divine.
Little did I know I was serving only as an instrument to deliver a message.
Sister Katie, whom I met at the farmer’s market and who is part of the Karma Farm (an experiment to grow healthy food in empty lots in Prescott similar to the Prescott Food Revolution), took me, first, to the mural protest and then, to the inauguration/celebration of another mural. This is part of the Prescott Downtown Mural Project: a five-year project to paint one mural per year. ARTivism at its best to honor the history of the place and its people.
The celebration of the mural at Acker Park was joined by people from the community. It started with a moving tree-planting ceremony led by a Navajo elder and his granddaughter. (He spoke phrases in Diné and the 7 year old repeated them. I didn’t understand the meaning of words but it communicated with my heart, as Krishnammal says: “we all speak the language of the heart”). The grounding Navajo ceremony was followed by some speeches from other respected community members including the mayor of the city of Prescott (Tana, the mayor’s wife, looked with lots of interest at the present–the YES! Magazine–I gave her). Food, music and a perfect weather were the preamble for the play: The Earthborn Child performed by the same ARTivists behind the Mural Project, (whom performed the play The Ballad of Heartland Wilder at the inauguration of the Miller Valley School mural). The company is called Mural Mice Theater Troupe.
The play is strong story-telling in the form of a musical, with musicians playing live (including a superb violinist!), with animals talking and sharing humor (like the hilarious raven) and wisdom (like the ‘grandpa coyote’). The play communicated in a fun and touching way the story of how the Acker Park was created and saved from the so called “development” complex. I cannot do justice to communicating the inspiring message of the play, but I can say that most of the audience, if not all of it, was captivated when the main character, Heartland (a young man who understands the language of Mother Nature, because he has the heart on the land) exploded in a powerful monologue:
“You have to listen very very careful to the breath of the Earth… let your thoughts quiet… Nature is always playing her music but it can only be heard by those who are listening.”
It reminded me of Gandhi when he said in 1938:
“When one comes to think of it one cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the World would disappear if we, fretting mortals, knew the virtue of silence. Before modern civilization came upon us, at least six to eight hours of silence out of twenty-four were vouchsafed to us. Modern civilization has taught us to convert night into day and golden silence into brazen din and noise. What a great thing it would be if we in our busy lives could retire into ourselves each day for at least a couple of hours and prepare our minds to listen in to the Voice of the Great Silence. The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to It, but it’s impossible to listen without silence.”
At the end of the play, a standing ovation was imminent. Fueled by inspiration, I went behind the stage to join the actors. I gave them a big hug and an issue of America: The Remix, many of them were looking for those kind of high quality articles about race and positive change. Then, I approached brother R Wall, the man who had the dream about the murals after he visited the part of the Planet we call Mexico and South America, to give him and the Mural Mice troupe a very special present: sister Jessica’s story. After listening with great attention, he said: “I’d like you to tell this story to the team. They have to hear it.”
Then, community style, people stepped up to the open microphone on the stage to express their appreciation and gratitude for the work behind the murals, the play, the food, the effort to save a natural resource, and the palpable love felt in that gem of space/time on the Earth Community. All the actors who talked expressed how meaningful it was for them to be part of the project and how their lives have been transformed since then (later, I was told that the “mom rabbit” was an Iraq Vet who has confessed that she is experiencing her first healing experience with the troupe since she came back from Iraq; that’s the difference between a troop and a troupe… how inspiring!). As I delivered the message, I acknowledged how the colorful tears of the first African American woman who attended the Miller Valley Elementary School, gave the last satyagraha (clinging-to-truth) touch to the creative mural and quenched the thirst, in the desert, of an ‘”illegal” human being like me. All these ripples of love were created thanks to the visionary efforts of an inspiring crew of citizens of the world like the Mural Project and the Mural Mice. The Total (R)evolution of the Human Spirit, one stroke at a time.
June 2010, Prescott, Arizona.