Creating peace is a full time job, whether it’s establishing détente between warring nations, healing the wounds after a civil conflict or calling a truce between rival gangs on the embattled streets of urban America. Regardless of the scale of violence, the tools needed to address it and the courage to use them are the same.
Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez should know. The son of migrant farm workers, Alejandrez became caught up in street life as a teenager. After fighting in the Vietnam War, he returned home to a life of drug deals and gang violence which claimed the lives of two of his brothers and twelve other family members. But at 17, while working at a local farm, he heard the legendary civil rights activist Cesar Chavez speak. His words made an indelible impression and despite battling a heroin addiction acquired during the war, Alejandrez decided to change direction.
In 1977 he founded Barrios Unidos, a community-based peace organization designed to heal urban violence. Now a non-profit organization, Barrios Unidos functions as a change agent in embattled areas, turning former gang members into “peace warriors.” Striking at the root causes of violence, BU focuses on economic development, changing social policy on the local level, and education through the Cesar Chavez School of Social Change. The group has also established international ties with like-minded organizations in Nigeria, Central America and Venezuela.
In 1993 Alejandrez co-chaired the Kansas City Peace Conference, the largest truce among gangs in American history. He has received the National Fellowship of Reconciliation Martin Luther King Jr. Award and the Sankofa Lifetime Achievement Award, while Barrios Unidos has received the Leteher-Moffitt Memorial Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies. He shared his perspectives on healing community violence and what it takes to create lasting peace.
SC: What is the connection between the civil rights movement and Barrios Unidos?
NA: Civil Rights for us at Barrios have always been at the forefront. When we looked at what civil rights leaders had done, there was incredible work but what it taught us was there was no economic development plan to continue in our communities. So we just kind of went back and forth and then we had the drug war. Toward the end, Cesar Chavez was not talking about rights just for farm workers, he was talking owning the machinery and owning the land. We are land based people without the land.
Peace can exist amongst groups and amongst communities but in the long run, if there’s hardship, people are going to go back into what they were doing.
SC: You’ve mentioned the bitter irony of people killing each other over land that they don’t even possess, which goes on so much in these turf wars.
NA: Yes, that’s the other thing. We’re made to believe that we control certain sections of the city but we don’t own anything of it. We might scare people, and people will be fearful of coming to certain areas, but that doesn’t mean that we own anything. Unfortunately as Harry Belafonte says, the baton was dropped.
SC: How so?
NA: After the civil rights movement, people got complacent. During the late 70’s and 80’s, there was not that much activism going on in communities of color. All these issues came up, particularly drugs and crack cocaine coming into the black community and the whole immigration issue in Latino communities. So you had the population explosion but there were no jobs created. Newly arrived immigrants came from countries that had been at war, including Vietnam, Cambodia and El Salvador and others. It gave birth to some violent organizations that were accustomed to war. Gangs here in the United States were involved in violence but had never experienced the type of violence that some of these newly immigrants had experienced.
SC: When you’re making an initial approach in a community to work with someone who is already in the gang life or is considering that life, how do you go about having that first conversation?
NA: I try to use the arts. I think that the arts are a path to peace, and using the arts breaks barriers. When I go into a school or a community, I usually will take some artwork with me. We have many artists in our communities and we have a silkscreen business where we do our own clothing line posters, stickers and all. So I always try to approach it through that.
If it’s a really hot area I usually go with someone that’s from that area that knows the situation and I talk to a few that are willing to talk. But just to approach a community, I usually do it through the arts and through some of the native individuals from that community.
I tell the men that I work with in prison, you have to learn to forgive. A lot of you are here because you did the same thing to someone that somebody did to you.
SC: You were involved in the gang lifestyle yourself and you’ve said that you had to teach yourself to be non-violent. How did you do that?
NA: You educate yourself into methods of non-violence and what other people have done and how you’ll be able to walk within that area. For me it was a choice. It was not that I was running from anything. I just got tired. I had read Martin Luther King, I had read Gandhi, when I was incarcerated I read Angela Davis and Malcolm X. All these individuals had influenced my thinking. I’m a Vietnam veteran and when I came back I really wanted to organize. I heard the words of Caesar Chavez when I was a kid working in the fields and that stayed with me. I had what we call ganas, the desire to change, that desire to get involved. And I also went back to my indigenous culture and looked at ways to try to heal myself from what I had experienced and what I had inflicted.
SC: What role does forgiveness play when you are dealing with people who have inflicted a lot of pain on each other?
NA: To forgive someone who has caused you harm takes a lot of heart and a lot of work. I tell the men that I work with in prison, you have to learn to forgive.
A lot of you are here because you did the same thing to someone that somebody did to you. You have to accept that we do have responsibilities. We can blame the system only for a certain amount and then the rest you have to do. You have to do the work.
The arts are a path to peace, and using the arts breaks barriers. When I go into a school or a community, I usually will take some artwork with me.
SC: You co-chaired the Kansas City Peace Summit, which was the largest truce in American history between rival gang factions. What did that event teach you about the potential for change in this country?
NA: What the Kansas City Peace Summit taught us is that we as people that work in the street or are street-oriented can come together and call a truce. But it also taught me we weren’t ready for an economic revolution. Although the summit was very successful for some organizations that had some idea of economic development, for many others it was just another gathering. There was no support from any state or government organizations. The Bloods and Crips held a major truce. It brought down the killings and it brought down the maiming of people but there was no economic base to that. So unfortunately, those truces start to break down. On the national level and with the Peace Summit, there was no community support to look for jobs, to look for businesses, for education and all that. Some of the summit participants fell right back into that lifestyle.
|Cesar Chavez||Malcolm X||Angela Davis|
SC: It sounds like you’re saying that without basic economic development and having the fundamentals taken care of, peace isn’t really sustainable.
NA: Peace can exist amongst groups and amongst communities but in the long run, if there’s hardship, people are going to go back into what they were doing. They have to feed their families, they have to buy clothes. We have a long way to go until we start seeing as entrepreneurs that we can handle some of our community affairs financially and create economic development projects.
Very few peace organizations own their buildings, their own land. What we’re encouraging and trying to tell people is that this is a road map that we learned from the civil rights movement. Within the civil rights movement there were a few dots throughout the country and we looked to those for guidance. We’re looking at building the Cesar Chavez School of Social Change. We own two acres in Santa Cruz and we have five acres up in the mountains where we are building our retreat for healing and for people just to go and relax. So we’re building businesses, we have a coffee shop, we have a silkscreen business, we’re going to build apartments so that the revenue from those enterprises comes back into the community, into the organizations.
People ask me, are you against gangs? I say, no I’m not against gangs, I’m against violence. I think that we all want to belong to something.
SC: You’re addressing violence at the root.
NA: Yes. Now, many organizations have done that, many companies, but not street organizations. That’s the difference. You find very few street organizations that are on that path.
SC: There are a lot of common misperceptions out there about gangs or street life. What would you like people to know, based on your experience?
NA: People ask me, are you against gangs? I say, no I’m not against gangs, I’m against violence. I think that we all want to belong to something, to some kind of association, whether it’s the Moose Lodge or the Elks Lodge or the local golf club. People want to belong. Unfortunately because a lot of the young that get involved in gangs don’t have the resources to be able to participate in certain activities, they hang out in the streets and sometimes make bad choices.
These are our children. That, we must not turn away from. We cannot give up on our children. Even if we send them to prison, lock them up, ninety percent of them are going to return back to the community and we can take the time to try to work with them, try to heal with them. I say heal with them because this society is ill also. It needs to heal from all that madness.
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