While I was working at the Greens Creek Mine in Juneau, AK, my father lead an effort to win lunch breaks for the miners. That’s right, according to our boss at the time, we could not take a lunch break. The boss also refused to give us any means to clean our hands or a safe and sanitary place to eat. He insisted that we eat and work at the same time.
The experience of watching and supporting my father as he stood alone against the injustice (a story that I will tell at length another time) inspired me. Over a discussion about my fathers struggle with an old-time miner, Chilo, the topic evolved from one man’s stubborn fight to that of ordinary people who fight back against injustice. Chilo talked about many people I had never learned about like Cesar Chavez and many things that I did not know about like unions.
The next day, after a double shift, Chilo offered me a little blue pamphlet from his “pie can” (this is what miners call their lunch boxes). It was the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
I was not a good student in high school. I wasn’t able to complete high school after five years. However, I was always a reader. I was always reading books that took me out of my experience in mining towns. I read books about religions that we did not have in our towns like Buddhism and poetry by rebellious dissidents like ee cummings and Walt Whitman. I never really understood rebellion in a real way but was excited by it.
The Manifesto had the same affect on me as the poems of freedom only one hundred times stronger. It made sense to me in an immediate and visceral way. Like millions before me, it set my mind on fire and completely changed the way that I saw the world and my place in it.
I remember that, despite a long 10 hours shift of hard work, I stayed up all night reading it. Though, I didn’t understand a lot of what Marx was talking about, many concepts like bourgeoisie that still and vague to me today, I did understand that he was talking about injustice. The reality of which was as real as the smell of earth and sweat from my diggers that filled my cold dark room or as the grit from my hands on my sandwich the shift before.
When I told Chilo about how his book had affected me and that I wanted to do something about injustice in the world, he told me in his heavy Mexican accent, “Well, pardner I think thees man was an ecunoomeest. Maybe you shood queet mining and go and do some of that.”
I left the mine within the year, my mind still anxious with the images of workers rising up. I returned to Arizona where I still had residency. I put my self into Mesa Community College (MCC) and began trying to catch up on all of the lessons that I missed at Ray District High School. Mainly, though, I pursued learning more about Marx’s radical view of the world. I remember taping a red paper star, that I had cut-out and colored with a crayon, on the brim of my work visor (I was a deli clerk in the Basha’s on Longmore St in Mesa, AZ) on International Labor Day.
Sometime in my first year at MCC I came across Howard Zinn’s, “A People History of the United States of America.” Though by this time I was starting to have some doubts about Marx, Zinn took me along as Marx had when I was in Alaska.
I told everyone I knew about this fantastic book that finally celebrated the “true” story about our country. Howard Zinn’s book exposed me to the stories of Native-Americans, Latinos and workers fighting back. Being older and (at Arizona State University) one of the only working-class students, Howard Zinn taught me about leaders who weren’t much different from me. This made me confident and made me feel proud of where I came from.
In 2000, as an Americorps volunteers, I had a chance to attend a conference for the program in Providence, RI. It seems like Americorps was more political and progressive back then than it is today. As evidence of this, Howard Zinn was the Keynote Speaker.
I couldn’t wait to finally hear one of my biggest heroes speak. It was a fantastic speech. Afterward, I waited in a long line to meet the man with my dog-eared copy of “A People’s History” in hand. Finally making it to the front of the line, I asked him how I could help educated people on “The People’s History.”
He responded with a question, “Well, what do you do with Americorps?” I told him that I ran an after school program for the children of Mexican laborers in Mesa at the Area V CARES Program. “Why don’t you guys read it together?”
A big smile spread across my face. He signed my book and I took a picture shaking his hand. Zinn joked as we posed, “Oh, like I’m the President? Are you the President?”
When I returned to Mesa, I started a project to read “A People’s History” after the official days end to the After School Program. A few kids hung around who had no where else to go, but we had fun ad the word spread. Soon, I had about ten kids who were there very night, taking turns reading, getting better at, learning something about themselves and this secret that was never before taught to them.
Zinn’s influence was enormous on me. I even brought it up as a Wingspread Fellow the following year ( you can read my reference to him in The New Student Politics here )
Some years later, I passed on my beloved copy of The People’s History to my sister. I don’t think she ever got around to reading it. Too bad. Too bad that many people will not ever read Howard Zinn. He was one of the most courageous American’s of the modern era. His teachings will live on forever.