By Raymond R. Beltran
He orbits around the microphone with tattoos of penitentiary experiences and the tastes of the pachuco lexicon submerged in the body of his poems. His words mingle with the bass line by Bobby Figgins, while the audience sits stultified, experiencing his viajes in their mind as this poet-curandero tugs at the strings in the centers of their chests with Xicanindio poetry. His voice is deep and experienced. His words are intelligent, and they both parallel the hip-aged, Indio style of his long gray strands of curly hair, pulled tight and braided down his back.
Raul R. Salinas, known as the Pínto Poet from Austin, Texas, is prominent for his provocative penitentiary poetry as well as his active role in the human rights struggle within prison walls, in urban streets, and on Native American reservations where he reconnects with his Coahiltecan blood. Today, November 15, 2002, Salinas will be receiving the Louis Reyes Rivera Lifetime Achievement Award in Amherst, Massachusetts for his contributions to Raza all over.
This poet, author of Un Trip Through the Mind Jail y Otras Excursions and East of the Freeway, visited Voz Alta in downtown San Diego to perform and discuss his experiences and poetry in the event, “Beyond the BEATen Path.” Salinas, the son of a housewife and multi-sports involved father, was born in San Antonio, Texas and grew up in a working class environment in Austin with the influence of the pachuco lifestyle in the barrios amidst the mid-20th century.
“I would imagine, reaching back into my memory bank, I had the same aspirations like any youngster growing up, especially before the fall of innocence,” says Salinas. “I think, like many other children whose dreams are deferred, it was just wishful thinking and desires. I had artistic ones, but along with moving out into the real world, beyond that secure enclave, that cocoon, comes the busting of those bubbles, and [it] results in losing one’s innocence.”
Salinas’ innocence fell in 1957 at the age of twenty-three when he was incarcerated at Leavenworth Penitentiary for the duration of fifteen years. “What led me there was the involvement in activities that one comes in contact with as a result of being in the streets, and the responding call of the streets.” Salinas explains. “So many young people, still today, see the streets bringing glitter, glamour, and instant gratification, which later is very devastating. So, I get caught up in all the nightlife, and drug life, and I wound up in prison. That’s where the writer emerged from, out of the ashes of that.”
Along with civil rights icons, such as Malcolm X and George Jackson, Salinas opened his eyes to political injustices through reading, writing, and self-education within the prison walls. It was here that he says that he “died and then was born.” With the 1960’s Black Power Movement and El Movimiento going on outside in the “free world,” Leavenworth inmates began to recognize that their rights were being disregarded, and Salinas found himself at the forefront of the prisoner’s rights struggle, which, even though he has been out of prison for thirty years, he is still very involved in today.
Being inside prison and associating with others who were in touch with their Native American ancestry, Salinas reconnected with his “indianess.” “My grandma was Coahiltecan,” he reminisces. “I was always conscious of her indianess from the get go. I was her Little Indio, and she was my Indian grandmother. She had her hair braided and dealt with life differently than anybody else. [I grew up] knowing we were native people, but we had existed under other titles and labels: ethnic, native and otherwise. But again, prison brought out that consciousness about myself.”
The poet attributes his literary accomplishments to influences such as his mother, his grandmother, whom were the first two people to open his eyes to literary art, and Beat Poets like Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. He has said that his style of poetry is structurally scattered like the events that have taken place in his life. His pieces such as “Tragedy” are marvelous examples of his style and form. The poem jumps around in tone, voice, and content, but in the end it has itself made a very intelligent trip from isolation, to ritual, to contemplation of self, and opposition to incarceration, and with a hint of the urban ‘beat’ influence.
“Developing as a writer and learning from reading and researching, I came to develop a different world view,” he says. “And that world view enabled me to see the injustices, violations, and trampling of people’s rights and made it a more universal experience for me to speak out against injustices and to speak out for people’s rights, human rights, treaty rights, and prisoner’s rights. All of that influences my writing as well. My political development was taking place along side the poetic development. They’re very part in parcel.”
After a soul-out-of-body experience, that still to this day Salinas is sceptical about discussing, he spent three days of consistent writing. When he was done, he spent some time cutting and tailoring the piece that is known now among many cultural literary circles as “A Trip Through the Mind Jail.” This most prominent piece expels his soul from his body, while lying in his cell, and travels back to his youthful years in the barrio of La Loma. But what is significant about this poem is that it is not just for La Loma, it is a tribute to all Chicano barrios across the world. In fact, Salinas admits that it doesn’t belong to him anymore, but everyone.
“As far as compiling [the poems], everything I wrote, I published,” explains Salinas. “Some critics felt some [poems] could have been left in the trash, but I knew what I was trying to do. Without any academic credentials or background, I was trying to show the trajectory. Here’s what happens when you throw an individual in a cage; here’s a poetic discourse; here’s case study of an incarcerated being with access and some skills, too. So, as far as my book ... everything’s in it.”
Salinas’ release from Leavenworth in 1972 was what he refers to as “mind-blowing.” His encounters with with “freedom” brought about a new character in him that was politically active, and very conscious of his own role as a Native American/Chicano. He started to deal with the incarceration of the outside world and being “an exile in a part of the country where [he] had never been to.”
“When I was released, I went to Northwest and went on the river fishing rights struggle and became part of that movement,” reflects Salinas. “Then I met a lady from the Sycuamish Reservation and met Leonard Peltier and other people. Later, I became part of the family there on the ‘res,’ and I began my political Native American rights work.
“ ‘Seeking rains of loneliness, which later became therapeutic balm, the solace of the rain forests and the snow peaks and the waterways combine with that whole indigenous spirit.’ All of that goes into my poetry at that time,” he says. “And til today, that influenced my poetry for the next twenty to twenty-five years. Now, I still write about things going on around the world that affect people and humorous stuff. And now, I write all of it.”
With the knowledge he attained while incarcerated, Salinas has been an active member in the Free Leonard Peltier Movement, which he never leaves home without a button of. He has been a supporter of the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional in the guerilla wars of Chiapas, and was drawn to the advances in education and art at the height of the liberation struggle during the revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua as well. His book East of the Freeway displays many photographic testimonies of his traveling and activity.
“Right now, I’ve been concentrating on teaching my communication course at St. Austin’s University in Austin Texas,” says Salinas. “I concentrate my work on working with the youth, in creative writing in the juvenile facilities, and now, I’m part of the anti-war community.”
It seems that there are a few more projects headed his way, including a collection of poems written in Spanish about his experiences in Chiapas, Nicaragua and Cuba. The working title is Cantos a la America Latina. Salinas is also the owner of Resistencia Bookstore in his hometown of Austin, and has two spoken word c.d.’s available, Beyond the Beaten Path and Los Many Mundos of raulrsalinas: un poetic jazz viaje con friends.
Salinas also frequents juvenile facilities, speaking to incarcerated youth offenders before they turn eighteen years old are transferred to the adult prison population. He has been witness to the power that poetry, such as his, can bring, and has manifested it’s uses in drug and alcohol rehabilitations treatment centers.
“I don’t know what poetry should do, but I know what it can do,” Salinas says about his views on his talent. “It makes people feel better and it’s liberating. Poetry has been used as an empowering tool because it’s healing agencies. It liberated me mentally and physically from jail, and it made me feel good about myself. So, that’s how I put it out there. I don’t know if that’s my theory or my prescription, but that’s what I have found.”