Patricia, known as PJ, is a human dynamo dedicated to making life better for all, and especially the marginalized and underserved, in her beloved Santa Ana. She shares thoughtful perspectives on how love powers both activism and art, and along the way we get a few tips on how to subvert the capitalist System from within!
Patricia, conocida como PJ, es un dínamo humano dedicado a mejorar la vida para todxs, sobre todo lxs marginalizadxs y arrinconadxs de su querida Santa Ana. Comparte sus reflecciones sobre el amor como fuente del activismo y del arte; y en camino ¡recibimos unos consejitos sobre cómo subvertir el Sistema capitalista desde adentro!
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND LINKS
ORANGE COUNTY ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE (OCEJ) – PATRICIA’S WORKPLACE
URBAN LEAD CONTAMINATION & ITS REMEDIATION
THE BLACK PANTHERS & PUBLIC HEALTH ACTIVISM
Morabia, Alfredo. “Unveiling the Black Panther Party Legacy to Public Health.” US National
Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (2016)
Johnson, Annysa. “Milwaukee Black Panthers launch lead awareness campaign.” Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, Nov 3, 2018
CRUISING ON BRISTOL STREET IN SANTA ANA
Wikipedia “Lowrider” (en español) https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowrider
“Cruising Makes a Comeback,” LA Times 2001
A Police guide from 2005 about how to control the “problem of cruising”
THE 5 PER CENT NATION (NATION OF GODS AND EARTHS (NGE/NOGE))
Swedenburg, Ted. “Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent” -- a paper given in 1996 at the Univ. of
Greetings and welcome to the latest episode of “Si yo fuera una canción” -- “If I Were a Song.” We are a community-based podcast and radio show, in which people of Santa Ana, California, tell us in their own words about the music that means the most to them.
ELG: I am Elisabeth Le Guin, your program host, and Director of this project.
This project is based on my conviction that we people in the modern world need to learn to listen to one another; and that music, and all it brings us, is the perfect place to begin.
DAVID: My name is David Castañeda, music researcher here for the SYFUC podcast. I am so happy to be a part of this project, using my scholarly training and my performance experience to bring you the stories, music, and lived experiences of those living right here in Santa Ana
Today’s interviewee has a lot to tell us and tell the world. We talked for a long time, and yet it seems like we barely got started!
Patricia – often known as PJ by fellow organizers and community members – is a human whirlwind of ideas and projects, knowledge and observation, and yet they can drop easily into heartfelt reflection. I was inspired and stimulated by the experience of interviewing them, and I hope you will be as inspired by hearing our conversation.
ELG: Welcome, Patricia. I've been looking forward to interviewing you for quite a long time, and finally have you online, and really, really delighted to have you with us here. And so, I generally start things out with these interviews by just asking the interviewee to say their full name and talk a little bit about what you would like our audience to know about you, what you do, who you are. And very importantly, since this is a Santa Ana focused podcast, what it is that brought you to Santa Ana? Why are you here?
PJ Flores: So my name is Patricia Jovel Flores Yrarrázaval, or PJ for short. My pronouns are she/hers and they/them/theirs. And I grew up in Santa Ana. I like to say I'm born and raised in Santa Ana, but I always feel a little deceitful in saying that because, you know, a lot of people in Santa Ana are born in Fountain Valley Hospital, which is the nearest hospital where you can have, like, a birth and not worry too much. [laughs]
ELG: I did not know that.
PJ Flores: Yeah. So you know, from the moment I left the hospital, I was raised in Santa Ana. And yeah, I have loved my time, you know, living here, growing here, learning about myself in the world through Santa Ana. To, I guess, to say a little bit about myself: So I grew up on Parton Street in Santa Ana, like near Edinger and Flower. I say that for people who are local, I suppose. And then, you know, after that, once my parents split, I went with my mom and we lived on Townsend Street in my grandma's house. So, you know, even though I've moved around quite a bit, I've always been kind of centered in Santa Ana, on based in Santa Ana. And really just appreciative of, I guess, like the ways that, like my parents have, you know, raised me with a love for this place. Both of them, you know, emphasized since I was like a little kid, that we are who we are based on, like, who is around us, who, you know, grows with us, who teaches us. And just like the community that we live in, you know, like how that shapes who we are. They raised me with a sense of obligation that we also have to return the favor, giving back with whatever it is that we are given to share with the world, you know? And the journey is just figuring out what that is, and how best to find your place, right? In your community.
ELG: Absolutely. Absolutely. Wow, what great values to be raised with! And it strikes me how few parents take that attitude with their children. Do you think your parents are unusual in that regard?
PJ Flores: My parents are very unusual in many regards! [both laugh] But I think, you know, it is a sense that I got from the rest of my family as well, my grandmother and all that, but I definitely have to say my parents are unique in the sense that, like, they're... They were activists when I was a kid. I mean, the FBI tapped our house on Parton street when I was a kid!
ELG: You are kidding me.
PJ Flores: Yeah. You know, my mom and my dad went down to Nicaragua during the Civil War to help out with the Sandinistas. And then they went to Cuba for a little bit. I think that's probably what got them tapped by the FBI, was going to Cuba, 'cos they did so back when it wasn't allowed and all that. They really did have this sense because of how they were raised. You know, my mom, during, like the sixties and seventies, you know, she saw the Chicano Movement, the Black Power movement. Back when she was a kid, there was a Black Panther Party in Santa Ana! And the Brown Berets would walk her and my aunties to school to protect them from harassment, from men, you know, from white terrorism. And so she really grew up with that sense of, like, community takes care of each other when nobody else does. My dad's chileno. He went to go find his own dad in Chile when he was 19, and he became a Marxist because of the Pinochet regime. And so he was protesting down there against Pinochet and all that, and gained a lot of insight about community organizing and stuff like that. I think both of them because of their unique experiences, raised me with those values of, like, things get done by people coming together to take action. You can't just vote it. You can't just wish for it. You have to actually come together and create the solutions yourself.
ELG: Yeah... Wow, that is quite something to grow up in and be a part of, you know, since your early years. So tell us a little bit about how you have, as you've become an adult, taken that forward into your livelihood and what you spend your days doing.
PJ Flores: Okay. Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, since I was a kid, I felt like whatever I was going to do, it needed to be playing a part and making the lives of working families like my own better, and then also taking care of the Earth and the water that sustains us, right? And that's something that, you know, my mom being of Cuyuteca heritage from the Sierra in Southwest Jalisco, that's something that she raised us with, and my grandma too, and my great-grandma, I got to be raised with all those women! And they really emphasized that like, you know, the land is what births us. And so we have to take care of her while we're here. And... So I think that like as I was a kid, that was a big part of my imagination, imagining what the world could look like. And as I got older, I realized, like, the only way to make that happen is by doing it ourselves, you know? And so I think I be when I was around 18 or 19, I started taking more of an active role, you know, like I started getting involved with, like union organizing. I went off to school at UC Berkeley, I had to work at a cafeteria in Berkeley to pay, you know, to help pay for my tuition and stuff. And so I made friends with all the workers there in the cafeteria, and I ended up joining the union as an organizer.
I think that there's a lot of issues with union organizing, but it's also where I gained a lot of my skills with, like, building a campaign, like planning an escalation. I mean, doing like what I call "radical detective work." TM, trademark. [laughs] Which is like, you know, being able to gather information in often sneaky ways to build pressure on people with power, right? I learned that from my uncle, my uncle, my Tío Juan. He came from El Salvador after being put on a blacklist by the government down there as an organizer. And he, like, was an organizer with the same union, actually. And so he told me, like, "Well, when we want information that the university isn't sharing with us, we'll create a distraction, go into their offices and get the files." And so like, you know, doing those kind of things like, I used the fact that I was working at a cafeteria to sneak people in to do a demonstration inside the cafeteria, you know, try to charm people to figure out what's going on with the university, and stuff like that, and...
ELG: Oh, my gosh, I'm almost wondering whether we should publish this part of the interview! [both laugh] I guess it's all this is in the past now and--
PJ Flores: Statute of limitations...
ELG: --and you are no longer in Berkeley.
PJ Flores: Yeah.
ELG: Yeah. As you know, I'm an employee at a sister university to UC Berkeley --
PJ Flores: That's right.
ELG: -- And have been for a long time. And the longer I stay there, the more unhappy I am made by the structural injustices that the university embodies. Universities are very problematic places from the standpoint of labor justice, and I'm not sure how aware a general listenership might be of that fact, but I'm really glad you brought it up. And I mean, what -- honestly, what better place to learn organizing, you know, real community and union organizing, than Berkeley, California?
PJ Flores: [laughs] Yeah, I will say that.
ELG: It's kind of the mother ship, at least as least as far as the United States go.
PJ Flores: And by no work of the University, I will say. The faculty themselves, a lot of them are actually pretty conservative. But it's really the students that make it that way, and the workers, you know. Berkeley has the reputation that it does because of student movements pushing against the university's abusive policies, to be honest.
ELG: That's really important. Yeah, I'm glad, I'm glad you brought that up. So. Now, today, in Santa Ana, how do you make your living? How does your professional life weave together with this amazing background that you bring to it?
PJ Flores: So right now, I'm Director of Orange County Environmental Justice. So we're a nonprofit here in Orange County dedicated to investigating and then combating environmental injustices and climate injustices across the county. I'm someone who's very based in Santa Ana, it's my home, it's like the community that I love. But also, I see so many similarities between the struggles we face there and folks in Anaheim, Garden Grove, Fullerton, Buena Park. And so I always try to make sure that like, I'm having a perspective across the region, you know? We organize around, for example, like soil lead contamination in Santa Ana. That's one of the major campaigns that's gained us some more notoriety in recent years because we did a study with UCI public health professors like Alana LeBron and Dr. Jun Wu, as well as folks in the history department like Juan Manuel Rubio and the Community Resilience projects at UCI.
Basically what we found in that study was that the majority of the residential samples were far above the CAL EPA threshold for safety, which is 80 parts per million of lead in the soil. And that threshold is at the level at which it notably starts to affect the IQ of children. And so we're talking about neurological damage in that sense, right? And the threshold is 80 parts per million majority, I believe, were, you know, approaching 400 parts per million. But there are particular neighborhoods in central Santa Ana that had upwards of two thousand all the way to four thousand parts per million –
PJ Flores: -- that's twenty five to 50 times higher than the CAL EPA threshold for safety. And so it's a huge issue that's actually been there generationally. It's not just the lead in the paint, but lead in gasoline, because we've noticed that a lot of the most concentrated areas of soil lead pollution in Santa Ana are around the freeways and around the major streets.
That's where the majority of residents are renters. The majority of residents are low income with no college degree. A majority of residents are from migrant families, usually Latinx families, and the majority of residents are, come from families with children. And since children are the ones that are harmed the most by lead contamination, that's incredibly concerning, right?
PJ Flores: And so, that's like one of the major projects that we do specifically in Santa Ana, where we've been trying to advocate for policies to not only remediate the lead from the soil, but to do so in a way that is sustainable, right? The practice is usually that they just dig up the dirt and move it somewhere else. Um, and really --
ELG: [laughs] Right.
PJ Flores: --We want, like we're trying to use native California plants and fungi actually, to try to bio-remediate the soil, which is a lot more sustainable and something that all residents can do. And we're also trying to make sure that undocumented residents get access to health care, since most undocumented people aren't covered by Medi-Cal.
We want to make sure that the city puts in work to get them access to health care services, to address the effects of lead contamination.
And we want to push for rent control and tenant protections so that they don't get priced out of the homes that just got remediated, so the landlords don't put the cost of that remediation back on the tenants.
ELG: Onto them, yes, that... Yes, there's so many things -- I think our listeners can probably sense this from as you're talking, when you talk about "environmental justice" in a complex urban community like Santa Ana, you are talking about so many things at the same time.
PJ Flores: And the thing is that lead stays in the air and the soil gets kicked up again through traffic and it gets moved across like this kind of central area of Santa Ana. And so --
ELG: Of course, of course. And then the way, you know, that this deadly stuff that's in our soil and and intermittently in our air, inevitably, it seems, affects the most vulnerable populations in the city. And then that, of course, intersects with issues like rent control.
PJ Flores: Mm hmm.
ELG: You know, so it's like this huge complex chain of factors and they've all got to be dealt with together. It's...
PJ Flores: Exactly. And I do want to just point out, like I mentioned earlier, that the Black Panther Party had a chapter here in Santa Ana. And it was actually the Black Panther Party, locally, but also across the country, that was the first to bring attention to the issue of lead pollution and how that affects communities of color, and just youth in general. A lot of like the black veteran families that are still here, who were the ones that actually fought for desegregation locally in Santa Ana back in the day, seeing how hard they worked and how their families are really dedicated to staying in Santa Ana because of that work that they put in, I think that it's insulting that the city still hasn't done something to remediate the lead. Because they've been bringing attention to this for decades.
And it's something that's already affected so many generations of our children. And lead stays in the bones! If you grew up in Santana and in these areas, it's likely, as bones degenerate as you get older, that lead will be released into your system again. So it's something that's not just affecting youth, but it'll affect all generations at some point.
ELG: Yeah, well, I'm sure this has crossed your mind, but it will affect you. You grew up in central Santa Ana.
PJ Flores: Yeah.
ELG: It's frightening.
PJ Flores: Definitely, it's crossed my mind.
ELG: Frightening. Yeah, it's no joke.
Let's turn our attention to a song! So. Let's see. I'm kind of tempted to just play your first song without actually talking about it for him beforehand. I think it'd be nice to bring in a little music. And just let the the amazing sounds of this song bathe us for a little while.
PJ Flores: I like that.
ELG: And then kind of talk about how it connects to your ideas about where you came from.
MUSIC CLIP #1: Earth, Wind & Fire: “September”
PJ Flores: [spoken over the music] I'm dancing over here. [laughs]
ELG: [spoken over the music] Oh, yeah.
PJ Flores: [spoken over the music] I had to get up for a second to really dance to this.
[end of clip]
ELG: That is like the most cheerful nostalgia I have ever heard.
PJ Flores: [chuckles] I agree.
ELG: You know, I mean, "do you remember"-- it's definitely looking back, right?
PJ Flores: Absolutely.
ELG: But it's just so cheerful!
PJ Flores: Yeah, I mean, like the 21st of September is the last day of summer, right? of summer, I mean – and all the fun that you try to pack in as a kid, like before you have to go back to school. And everything like that. [both laugh]
ELG: Yeah, yeah... And yeah, I think one reason it's so cheerful is it sounds to me like they are having a good time as they sing and play.
PJ Flores: Oh, yeah, no, Earth, Wind and Fire, that is what I love about them, like they sound like they're having the time of their life as they're making the music and like, you can't help but do the same, you know? Like to catch off of that energy.
ELG: Yeah, it's totally infectious, and I gotta say that the YouTube video that goes with this recording, they're having the best time in those costumes! Oh my God!
PJ Flores: That's what I love about music at that time, it's just like the creativity, not just with the music, but like what people were wearing, the way they're performing, like it was all about being, like as out there as you could be creating music from the future, you know, because like, we needed that right now. That's what I really love about that song.ELG: Yeah. Yeah.:
PJ Flores: It was a difficult choice, to be honest, if I can give a shout out to the two other songs that were on the consideration list?
ELG: Oh, please, yeah.
PJ Flores: The other two songs, one was called "El Tecolote," which is a song, it's in the style of the son del Sur de Jalisco. That was going to be in honor of the town that my family comes from, Tecolotlán, which is in the Sierra Madre Occidental down in like South Jalisco, close to Colima. And, you know, like my family's culture coming from there, like all the lessons that we took from the land there, like being Cuyuteca, has a, you know, a big impact on who I am. And then, "As," by Stevie Wonder, was the other
INSERT #1: Lxs Cuyuteca, “El Tecolote”
Listeners to our show may recall Episode #13, our interview with Diana Morales, in which she talked about her P’urhépecha indigenous heritage. The modern Mexican state of Jalisco now includes P’urhépecha as well as Cuyuteca territory, which elides the fact that they are different peoples, speaking different languages.
The Cuyuteca, whose ancestral land is to the South and West in Jalisco, speak a version of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire; Tecolotlán, the pueblo of Patricia’s family, means “place of the owls.”
And here, in honor of that place and its musical heritage, is a little bit of the son jalisciense that Patricia mentions, “El tecolote,” that is, The Owl.
MUSIC CLIP #2: “El Tecolote”
PJ Flores: But really, like my mom is the person who's had like the most influence, I think, on who I am. And ultimately, I chose "September" because yesterday was her birthday! And so --
PJ Flores: -- it makes me think of her as well, because she was born in September and everything, and that Libra energy of, you know, like being like in pursuit of justice and pursuit of creating a more beautiful world, but also being able to just have a great time and enjoy yourself with the people you care about. And I think that's like what my mom has taught me the most in my life just how to like, truly love in the freest way. I think that she definitely showed me what compassion was in terms of the way that she showed up for me, the way that even when things are difficult in her own life, like... You know, for a while, it was just the two of us, you know, we shared a room in my grandma's house. My uncle was in the room next to us, my great grandma down the hall, my grandparents next door, you know, it was a packed house and you know, she was going through her own struggles. But even then, she would take the time to hear me and like, like, really listen to me in a way that I felt like other adults didn't. You know? I think that it's very easy, like for adults to dismiss children as not having formed thoughts or anything like that, you know, not having enough experience. But my mom never treated me like that. She always treated me like someone who had my own perspective and needs in the world and that I deserved to be listened to. And I think that's why I chose that song because it represents her for me and because, like, that's how I try to be in the world. My mom loves Earth, Wind and Fire. Like when she was a kid here in Santana, like cruising down Bristol Street, she used to go cruising with her cousins all the time, listening to funk music. Santa Ana used to be the funk capital, you know, of Southern California, and folks would come from L.A. down to Santa Ana to cruise and to like, just listen to music down here. Actually, you could just be able to hear funk like rolling down the street all the time when I was a kid. And so just --
ELG: Wow. And that's not that long ago.
PJ Flores: Yeah, exactly it kept going, you know, as part of the culture here, that's how like Santa Ana was known. And so I love that my mom taught me that history and shared that part of herself. And so I knew like, I'm doing this the day after her birthday. I have to do this dedication to her.
ELG: Aww...yeah, well, so a shout-out to your mom! That is just awesome in so many ways. So you said Bristol Street, was that the main cruising street?
PJ Flores: Yeah, and you know, that's my suspicion, is that they widened Bristol Street to crack down on cruising. People were always getting pulled over by the police for cruising, especially on Sundays. So many people would come out in their old cars and it's just like everyone just rolls down the street, playing all kinds of funk music. And yeah, so I feel like that's why they widened the street. So you don't see it as much anymore, because traffic's moving a lot quicker. There's like a lot more police up and down Bristol, but you still see on Sundays people rolling around Santa Ana playing funk.
INSERT #2: Cruising culture in Santa Ana
“Cruising” might be called an archetypical USAmerican youth pastime since World War II. A police bulletin I read about the phenomenon describes it, amusingly but tellingly, as “unnecessary repetitive driving.”
The question of how, and to whom, this is necessary or unnecessary, drives a lot of the conflict and repression that surrounds the phenomenon of hundreds—even thousands—of cars, many specially decked out at great expense to their owners, driving slowly up and down the main drag of a community, blasting music very loudly, and the drivers and passengers socializing from car to car.
The nature of the music differs from decade to decade, and from community to community. In the early days of cruising, disco predominated. Funk, as Patricia notes, has long been popular in Santa Ana; so too hip hop. What’s key, it seems, is a powerful bass, boosted by special sub-woofers installed in the cars.The well-known:
Santa Ana’s Bristol Street has been known for decades as a major destination for cruisers, who come in from all over Southern California despite repeated repressive crackdowns by the police. It seems that it has not occurred to local authorities to open a community dialog around cruising in which the point of view of youth of color can be represented.
ELG: Well, what a what a wonderful little window. I want to sort of circle back, just thinking about the song and thinking about how your mother used music like Earth, Wind and Fire and presumably how you, too, use it. When we're involved in very serious, very urgent work, as you clearly are, the importance of keeping our hearts open and the way music can help us do this. How music supports -- and I'm talking now more generally, I mean, yes, Earth, Wind and Fire, definitely, but they're just one example, I think, [of] how music supports activist work. What thoughts do you have about that?
PJ Flores: Well, you know, to think about that, like I think about how, you know, music is like one of the first like human art forms, right? Because like, we all have a beat already inside of us with our heart, you know? And so like, that is like the first thing that we hear when we're in our parents' womb and all that, is like their heartbeat. And then we're able to match it with our own. And that's like the first kind of harmony right there. And so I think about that in terms of as activists, a lot of times, what we're trying to do is build the communities that we didn't get to have, you know, in a lot of ways, right, like build the lives that we were denied by oppression, right? And try to do that for the people that come after us. And hopefully to fight for something better. I think that music in that way brings us back home. It keeps us with that momentum of being able to like push forward with that same beat in our heart. You know, when we're out in a march, you usually have someone, you know, leading a chant, maybe someone with a drum standing [there], or something like that. And those kind of things remind us of why we're in this, is for that heartbeat and for the heartbeats of the people around us, right? Like what keeps us alive and what keeps us going is the fact that we're taking care of each other. And that's what activism is. It's like showing love for each other.
ELG: Wow! Patricia, I just... It's so beautiful the way you put that, oh my gosh.
PJ Flores: Thank you. Yeah, I think like... Just in general, I think like with Earth, Wind and Fire in particular, I will say, like with all of that, like we need to take time to celebrate and to have joy. When I ask myself, you know, in my most depressed times, like what would make my ancestors the happiest right now? What would make them the most proud of me? What would they want me to be able to freely do right now? And that's dance, you know? Things like Ghost Dance in the United States, which was an indigenous movement to be able to remove colonization from the land, right? And that was criminalized, because people are genuinely afraid of just the ancient power of music, the ancient power of dance to actually have some magic with it to create a change. And I think that like when we're really able to just give ourselves to the rhythm, like lose thought and worry, and just be as we're supposed to be, I think that's one of the most beautiful and healing moments. And I think that we need it both as a momentum for our movements, but also as a time to heal and celebrate before we keep going.
ELG: That's one of those cool, mysterious things that music will do for us. And gosh, yeah, I mean, what a great choice, because Earth, Wind and Fire. They... I feel like so much of their music does precisely that.
Well, thank you for that choice, and I'm going to pivot us right away, actually, to your second song, because I think there's really strong connections, but obviously it's a really super different kind of music.
PJ Flores: Mm-hmm.
ELG: So let's talk about it just briefly before we listen to it. Tell us a little bit about your second choice of a song, the one that in some way for you points toward your hopes for the future.
PJ Flores: Right, so this song we're going to listen to is "Robin Hood Theory," by Gang Starr. And so... Gang Starr is an amazing group, they're a classic hip hop group from like the late eighties to nineties. And it consists of two people: Guru who's the MC, the rapper, and the DJ is DJ Premier. They're a power team like right there, and I have found a lot of healing in their music, especially like songs like "Moment of Truth." But this song in particular, really, I feel, speaks to the way that I would want to show up for youth in my community in particular. And thinking about, like, all of the ways that our families, our ancestors before us have been robbed of the chance to have the livelihoods we need, and given our labor to people who often do not compensate us, for one, but also just use it for our own destruction. And also the image of criminalization, right? And of casting our communities as thieves and stuff like that, and flips it on its head and says, "Actually, no, we're taking what's owed to us.” And so, yeah. That's I guess what I'd want to say about the song.
ELG: Let's listen to it.
[MUSIC CLIP #3: “Robin Hood Theory,
ELG: Wow. So much to talk about here, yeah?
PJ Flores: Yeah, and definitely very explicitly on point.
ELG: I was really saddened to learn that Guru died, that… You know, he says,"I'm sent to be leading the army of the century / mention me and snakes will retreat eventually." But he's not here anymore, and I was really sad to learn that.
It's an amazing, if you will, the political theory that he's putting forth here. And one of the things that really, really grabs me about this, and a lot of his music: he never sounds like he's in a hurry.
PJ Flores: Yeah!
ELG: And, you know, and it's really easy to understand what he's saying.
PJ Flores: Yeah, he calls the style "The Monotone."
ELG: Well, it's not the monotone, I just think his diction is really good, you know? The way in which his rhyming, his speaking, his rapping, just it comes into our ears very easily, this amazing clarity of expression and powerful vocal presence. And I feel like there's a... There's a lineage going on here. You can hear it.
PJ Flores: Absolutely. And you know, I will say, like with MCs, everyone takes a different approach to these things. You know, like some people come with like a message, right? Other times, lyrics are just about musicality. Like actually, you know, with the last song, "September," in an interview with like one of the singers from Earth, Wind and Fire, he was talking about, "Well, everyone has their interpretations of why I said the twenty first night of September. But actually, we tried a bunch of dates and that was the only one that sounded good with the music!" [both laugh]
PJ Flores: And so, you know, a lot of it, sometimes I feel like... With different MCs, sometimes it's about like just being able to rap and use your words in a way that, like, lend its own instrument, even if it's not about the particular word choice. Other folks, it's just about having clever rhymes. I think Guru in particular was about the poeticism and the message that he was trying to share. I think that comes a lot, you know, with the influence of the Five Percenter Nation out there. And how that was a big moment in New York at the time, recognizing the power of the Black community, you know, in shaping the world and in their own ability to like, create their own justice in this world.
And so when they have that opening line, "Whether it's Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhaism, old schoolism or new schoolism," everyone was coming out at the time with a different philosophy.
And often, you know, I see this in Santa Ana as well. There'll be debates about different philosophies of organizing, you know, like, "Are you a communist, are you an anarchist, are you a liberal?” All these different like approaches to organizing. And I've never really like ascribed to any label in particular in that way, because, you know, I agree with what the song says! Like, "No matter what we say religion is / if we're not schoolin' the youth with wisdom / then the sins of the father will visit the children." And I love that message, you know, because it's just about like, what are you actually teaching, in terms of the values for each other and for human life, right? Like what are we actually teaching about, the ways that we can, you know, get justice, to provide what we need for our communities to actually thrive in this world? Actually taking action directly, you know, and advocating for that.
ELG: Yeah, it's I mean, there's a kind of implicit question in there that it's like, OK, what have you got to show for your spirituality?
PJ Flores: Mm hmm.
ELG:] You know, what is it doing here in the world for the people that need things?
PJ Flores: Exactly.
ELG: You know, which is a pretty challenging question.
INSERT #3: The 5 percenter nationheight of its popularity from:
As the rapper RZA says, “About 80 percent of hip-hop comes from the Five Percent … In a lot of ways, hip-hop is the Five Percent.” I thought it would be a good time to explain this important part of hip-hop history because its reflects the complicated history of race-relations here in the United States and its connection with popular music.ionalist movement, started in:
As explained by Christian Baker the common thread of hip-hop in the 70s and 80s, was the “Islamic Black nationalist rhetoric and infusion from the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation specifically. “Hip-hop pioneer,” Afrika Bambaataa connected with Nation of Islam and harnessed that influence in creating the Zulu Nation to “spread socially and politically conscious ideas and ideals.” It would be safe to say that these influences have stayed with the music even to the present day. For more information, check out our references on the is yo fur website to read these articles yourself. Whether or not these hold merit is for you—the listener and consumer of the arts—to decide. Movements like the Five Percent provide a perspective to the cultural and societal struggles that individuals were living through in the second half of the twentieth century here in the United States. There are elements of reclamation, of self-defense, and of resilience in the rhetoric of the Five Percent. How effective they have been in their aim of deepening our understanding of our relationship with universe and between one another remains open to interpretation.
ELG: One of the things that this got me thinking about was that, you know, he does not sound angry, I don't think ever in this whole song. But there is anger coded into his words, very deep anger and and justified anger, and that got me thinking about the the juncture between anger and spirituality.
PJ Flores: Hmm.
ELG: So I'm going to talk for just one minute here about where I'm coming from, which is upper middle class white girl raised in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest cities in the United States.
PJ Flores: Yeah.
ELG. In the world I come from, anger and spirituality are almost divorced from one another. I think [that for] a lot of people who look like me and have a demographic like mine, spirituality is actually a place to escape from really uncomfortable emotions like anger.
PJ Flores: Hmmm.
ELG: And so I'm just so intrigued by this song, the anger that it encodes, but in a certain sense, does not express. And I just wonder what you think about all of that. What your response might be to, kind of, my perspective on the song.
PJ Flores: Absolutely, so I feel like for one stylistically like the way that Guru does it, so he describes his voice as like "the monotone" or "the drone." I agree, it's not monotone, but like what I think that he tries to do with his lyrical style is, like, he keeps the same tone evenly so you really have to pay attention to his words and what the words evoke, you know? And like, what emotions you get from those, you know?
ELG: Ahhh. OK.
PJ Flores: And so it really takes you on this ride that is completely guided by the poeticism of the lyrics. And so I think that that's like definitely one of the tools that he uses to, like, get people to think through his songs. But definitely, I think that this song is about that unity. And I think that, you know, like from my own experience, you know, like I can say that like, definitely spirituality is a source of refuge, like of comfort, when you experience those feelings of anger about like what we're going through, like... Which you can't help but experience! Like, I was a very angry kid, to be honest, even though I was very loving and like, tried to be as carefree as possible. But I was upset because there's so much pain going on around me. You know, like my family, you know, was harassed by like white supremacist gangs when I was a kid and like, there was my grandparents constantly working and cleaning homes, you know, and thinking about, like, all the health problems that they would get from all this work. I felt very helpless as a child and helplessness leads to anger in a lot of ways, right? Because it's a frustration.
PJ Flores: Yeah, and I think that spirituality could only really be a refuge to me when it was also coupled with action. I think in my own spirituality now, it is a source of immense beauty and peace for me to be able to recognize how, you know, countless generations of the people before me have created the life that I have now, and how interrelated we are with the entire world around us. That is my spirituality. It's about how can we create that heaven on earth for all of us now, you know? How can we do that work of creating justice to care for the world that we've been granted, and to care for the people that we've been blessed to be around? That is the obligation of spirituality, in my opinion, is like, if we have these values, if we have these lessons, then we need to put that into action every day. And what we're experiencing right now is a hell instead of a heaven. You know? The world that we live in that's been created by colonization is one that goes against every value of life. It is a system of death. And if we want to rectify that, if we want to restore the relationships between all forms of life here, then we need to take on that spiritual undertaking of confronting things directly, taking action against these systems and restoring the relationships here. It's a spiritual obligation. It's the obligation among people. And I think that all of those are connected when you're in this place of knowing that the oppression of your people is at the center of that destruction.
ELG: Yeah. Yeah, I'm just taking a minute here to absorb all of that. It... There's something very damaged and damaging, I think, about the idea that the realm of "the spiritual" is somehow fundamentally separate from everyday realms. You know, in the incarceration of ideas of divinity and spirit in special buildings, built just for them.
PJ Flores: Mmm.
ELG: I mean, temples are a lot of things. But if the spirit can't come out of the temple and kind of just inhabit our daily life, you know, when we're mopping the floor or picking tomatoes or marching for justice, or whatever it may be --
PJ Flores: Mm hmm.
ELG: -- then something's, something has broken, it seems to me.
PJ Flores: Yeah.
ELG: And... Yeah. And, you know, just to circle back around to this amazing song. It's not broken in the song.
PJ Flores: Yeah.
ELG: The, you know, the forward march of this beat and the forward march of his rapping is, it's like very, very integrated. What he's saying needs to happen, and what he's saying he's going to be doing about it, and what he is exhorting us to do about it.
PJ Flores: Yeah, I mean, prayer isn't just what you do, like you're saying, like in a temple or a church. Prayer isn't just when you're petitioning for help, right? in your own privacy. Prayer is in our hands and in our feet. Prayer is in our action and in our words, right? Like when he's busting down doors in defending the poor. That's a form of prayer, right? And you know, I think that all of the things that we do to show up like that are prayer, because they're trying -- they are a petition to create a different life.
ELG: Yeah. Yeah, and hence, of course -- taking it back to Earth, Wind and Fire -- the importance of dancing!
PJ Flores: Mm hmm.
ELG: Because that's your hands and feet too. And it's just taking that prayer out a little farther.
PJ Flores: A lot of the elders I work with, you know, and a lot of the healing I've done for my own self, you know, elders in my family, Indigenous elders that I've worked with, have talked about how like dancing is like, you know, you're sending energy down to the earth, to your feet, right? And that is like one of the most beautiful forms of prayer. It's something that all animals do in their own way. And I can say for sure that my family has raised me to know that dancing is incredibly important. My grandpa was known in Tecolotlán, where we were from. And then when he came here, like all the dance halls across Santa Ana would wait for him because he was a really good, like with the zapateado, he could move his feet so quickly.
ELG: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh, I wish I could have seen him.
PJ Flores: Yeah, I mean, me too. Back in that day... He did still dance when he was older, but I would love to see his swift movement back then, you know?
ELG: [Sure, sure. Well, there are few things more beautiful and moving actually than seeing a very elderly person who in their day was a very good dancer. And the way I mean, it's all about like the economy of their movements, right? Because they probably don't have as much flexibility in the joints and stuff. But the body still remembers, like, "This is how it goes," and you can see that. It's so beautiful.
PJ Flores: Absolutely. I love my grandmother for that reason. If she has music playing, she'll grab one of us and start dancing with us, which I love. She's also a really great dancer since she was a kid, you know? That's really what my grandparents did. They, like every year when there was a festivity in the, in Tecolotlán, as much as they could when they had the money, they would go back and they would dance for -- like they told me up to like four days straight, before they had to take a nap. [laughs]
ELG: I've heard stories like this. Yeah, it's a thing.
PJ Flores: I think my mom carries that tradition forward with Earth, Wind and Fire, you know, in her own way. Like, she'll dance for days straight, and I'm amazed because she can still do that. My mom... OK, I can't say on the air, how old she turned yesterday, but she doesn't look anything like her age, and she dances with more energy than I can at my age right now. So...[laughs]
ELG: Yeah. That's awesome. My goodness. All right, let's wrap things up a little bit. I'm thinking, I want to wrap them up with you by asking just one more kind of complicated, but I think very important question that has to do with this amazing intersection of joyousness and activism that you inhabit. And this would really just have to do, for those of us who are embedded in institutions -- [sighs] How shall I say this? The corruption and the brokenness that comes, as you alluded to earlier, through the fact that we're all living with the consequences of colonialism. It is structurally built into those institutions. Every single one of them, I would say. And, at least certainly the big ones, like my university, like UC Berkeley, that we were talking about earlier -- It's not an option for most of us to simply break with those institutions in order to find our own path. It would harm us economically. It could harm us in other ways.
And what are your thoughts, just in closing, about how we go on working with the flawed systems we have inherited, while holding to the radical ideals that we might have about how we could really change things. And yet we're more or less obliged, many of us anyway, to stay within existing systems that embody values that we may not completely share. How do we work that one through? Do you have any thoughts about that?
PJ Flores: I do! So I will say that, like for one, I never expect any job that I have, like within the System, to lead to liberation in any way for my people. I really appreciate the ways that I've been working with OCEJ to like, investigate environmental justice issues, give those tools to community members. But I stay active in grassroots organizing work that's not paid, because I define myself most by the work that I don't get paid for. So groups like Colectivo Tonantzín, where we work together to like, work with day laborers and domestic workers to fight wage theft and build like that underground worker economies' organizing power right? And then with groups like Protect Puvungna, working with Ajacchemen and Tongva indigenous peoples here to defend ancestral villages and sacred sites. That's the work I define myself by the most because I feel like we're allowed to imagine new worlds in a different way. And so I think it's important to have something outside of your job that allows you to think differently, to imagine something beyond the world that we're forced to engage with every day.
And I think that a big part of that also is recognizing what you bring to the table, what uniquely you bring to the table, you know, like if it's, you know, you’re a coder and, you know really well like how to create websites, how to spread information on social media, you know, everyone has a talent that they bring to the table and finding a way to work that into subverting the systems that are oppressing people.
Because what I always think about is that there are those of us like, like myself, you know, being someone like who was born in this country, who has a college degree, that are allowed to access certain positions within institutions, right? But there is then another part of our community that has no ability to access that. It could be through immigration status. It can be through race, because job discrimination is a huge factor. It could be mental health issues or disabilities, right? that prevent us from working within the capitalist system at a 40 hour work week. There will always be a group of people who is not allowed to access these institutions. And those are the people that I want to fight for: the people who, like my brother who's incarcerated, the people who are houseless, you know? folks who have addictions and mental health issues. Those are the people who will [be] constantly barred by a system that doesn't value them and those are the people who therefore we need to fight the hardest for because they have the solutions. If we fight for the people who are most vulnerable, then we'll be serving all of the rest of the people within this world because, you know, all of us have needs that fit in with that, too. So I think that recognizing that is what keeps me fighting to use whatever talent I have, whatever information I have, to contribute to that and subvert even as I operate within. So -- be a spy! [both laugh] Be, you know, like an informant! And like use whatever you can and throw it towards the people that need it the most. You know, I think that's what I tell folks.
ELG: Wow! Well, that is a great message for us to sort of wrap up with, and I'm not going to talk too much more because I want that message to resonate out past the end of this interview. Be a spy! Subversion! -- My mother used to say, "Subversion through friendliness."
PJ Flores: [laughs] You know, I've had to practice that a few times. I can shout and I can be friendly. Both are helpful.
ELG: It is true, it is true. Oh, my goodness, thank you so much, Patricia. Just a beautiful, beautiful interview and so much wisdom from such a young heart! I predict great things for you, and I am going to be proud and happy to be in your orbit for as long as possible.
PJ Flores: Thank you. That means a lot.
ELG: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. And I'm going to wrap things up here
Patricia mentions so many things of interest that we were not able to delve into in her interview: The Brown Berets, the little-known role of the Black Panther Party in developing public health policy in the United States, the way lead-poisoned soil correlates with resource-poor communities, the importance of subversion (and some useful tips & tricks about how to practice it), and perhaps most centrally, the ways in which the social, musical, spiritual, and political elements of life weave and braid together inextricably.
We’ve provided some links for further reading and exploration in our Research Bibliography for this episode, and we hope you’ll be able to follow some of the pathways there that we didn’t have time to follow today.
Would you like to know more?
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Julia Alanis, Cynthia Marcel De La Torre, and Wesley McClintock are our sound engineers; Zoë Broussard and Laura Díaz hold down the marketing; David Castañeda is Music Researcher; Jen Orenstein translates interviews to and from Spanish; Deyaneira García and Alex Dolven make production possible. We are a not-for-profit venture, currently and gratefully funded by the John Paul Simon Guggenheim Foundation, UCLA’s Faculty Grants Program, and the Herb Alpert School of Music.
For now, and until the next interview—keep listening to one another!
I’m Elisabeth Le Guin, and this is, “Si yo fuera una canción -- If I were a song…”