root - Posted on 18 November 2003

An interview with George Tirado- a narrative essay

by Jasmine Syedullah/PNN Media Intern (Facilitated by Dee)

One morning in February I was roused from dreaming, as I am every morning, by the hypnotic drone of NPR. Between reports of Bush’s preparations for war and North Korea’s preparations for the production of nuclear weapons, came an announcement that penetrated my half-asleep dozing and made me bolt right up from my warm sheets and comforter. Mr. Rogers had died. I listened to the report fighting sleepiness to catch every word, “at age seventy four… of stomach cancer…”. I leaned slowly back into bed.

At four and fives years old I was not lacking in positive adult role models or affirmation. My father was the only preacher in our small church in Tulsa, and I was his only child, which put me smack in the middle of a whole congregation full of adorations and watchful eyes. The report on the radio ended with one of the bright piano melodies and smoothing voiceovers that had become like icons to me. At the end of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, he’d reassure me that he liked me “just the way I am”. That there is no one in the whole world like me. I came to expect and perhaps even depend a little bit on these small daily words of appreciation. Mr. Rogers had surpassed the status of mere children’s public television host and became, for that moment in time, my personal hero.

After stirring myself out of this wistful land of memories, drying my eyes and making motions to get ready for my day, I continued to think about heroes. Where had they all gone? A class of middle school students over at King Estates told me last week that a hero is someone who helps you out when you’re in danger, helps to keep you out of danger, flies around town in tights and helps old ladies cross the street. This was cute, but not exactly what I had in mind. When I was little I needed someone who told me to love myself and other people. Who helped me find helpful ways to deal with my anger, confusions and concerns and explained to me some things about the way the world worked that I was not yet aware of. Not much has changed. But now, here I am at 24 and I sense my childhood heroes are dying with no adult ones to stand tall in their place. Are heroes things of comic books and make believe? Where can we find them when we really need them? Without the aid of a weekly show-time and theme song, how am I even supposed to know one when I see one?

On May 17th I met George Tirado on assignment at a community organizers meeting in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, “The War on Terror”. Met might be a strong word, witnessed may be more appropriate. George spoke for about twenty minutes about how Bush’s “War on Terror” was affecting him at home. “We live in a police state. Face that… The politicians have politicized homelessness. It doesn’t have a face, its an issue now…”. This man is straight up keeping it real, no pretentious motivations. No sugary song and dance to convince you he’s right. There is no neatly coifed and parted hair or bright green cardigan that are gonna make you trust this guy. He certainly didn’t seem like someone I’d want to intentionally piss off. He’s gotta stand at least a head and shoulders taller than me tipping on my toes and thick and round as an old red wood. My first instinct was skepticism. Who is this guy and why is he so adamant about the limitations of our freedoms? I can do basically whatever I want. Right? Well, there was that time last Summer at JFK when I was asked to unravel my head wrap and explain to security that my grandfather had converted - had converted to Islam and that’s why my name is Arabic. And just the other week one of my youth from the YMCA got arrested during a dance for being too big, black and at the right place at the wrong time. There was nothing I could do. Is this what George meant by police state?

“What we have to do is look where we’re at right now… over in my neighborhood, in the Mission, people are dying in the streets. I see mothers crying, but no protectors, no activists”. As George says, “this is a war of attrition..”. Over the next couple weeks, though I got laid off from both my after school jobs, I wasn’t the only casualty. Twenty or so more displaced youth of color became youth at risk of becoming POWs of a system that doesn't give a fuck, or may be would even prefer if they’d fail. I was definitely going to need a battle plan.

A couple of weeks after the meeting I was fortunate enough to speak with George over the phone. I was tired. The prospect of being forced to deal with the Employment Development Department people was depressing. I had been reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X on the bus ride through the Mission to Bay View to work, getting worked up at eight in the morning about Child “protection” services and the racial exploitation that’s been going on in this country since before my great grandmother’s great granny was branded and whipped until she died. It was Tuesday, executive board meeting day, providing me a whole hour with no one in the office to interrupt my call to George Tirado for an interview and maybe some clarity and direction. I tried to sound gracious and not too nervous when he picked up the phone. “Hi. George? How are you, this is Jasmine. Is this still a good time to talk”?

He said it was a good time and mentioned that he had a stomach ache. He was taking the day off work because he’d been under a lot of stress lately. Mr. Tirado works at Hospitality House in the Tenderloin. He explained that it’s a one stop agency for homeless services, job placement, harm reduction etc. I learned that as of July 1st the 60% of the drop in center’s budget the Department of Public Health is responsible for will not be going to fund the center which was responsible to 10,000 folks last year. George wouldn’t be the only person feeling ill.

I only worked in the TL for nine months, but I know for a fact there are not enough services in that neighborhood for everybody. Before last summer I had only been in this time zone once, when I was four to visit my godparents and Mickey Mouse, the later of whom I ran away from traumatized and in tears. When I lived in New York, full of adolescent cynicism, California still maintained that same image, a place full of larger than life, fake stuff that was supposed to be fun but was really just scary. I interviewed for a job in the Tenderloin YMCA within the first week I was out here. After the interview, I walked out of the Y and turned to walk up Leavenworth towards Ellis. I felt like I had walked through a time portal and ended up in 1986, smack in the middle of the crack epidemic. It was larger than my life. It was scary. But not because it was fake. It was scary because it was please don’t reach out and touch me real.

George moved to the Bay from Huston, Texas via L.A and Flagstaff, Arizona. His education was found on the streets and in the books. He graduated with a BA in English and Philosophy. He toured with a punk rock band, got into drugs, lived in shelters and just “stewed for a long time”. “There’re a lot of cats like that. We’re the most dangerous ones… because we chose to be there… We could stay where we were or chose to get out”.

Everyone has their personal heroes and for George, it was James Tracy who flew in with the tights and cape. Tracy turned George onto his own culture. He led George to re-educate his mind and re-orientate his life through the stories, mythologies and poetry of his ancestors.

“Revolt of the Cockroach People, Chicano writers, Mayan and Aztec myths… friends like James Tracy brought me back to poetry.. I spent a lot of time reading Che Guevara in shelters… I started volunteering at Coalition on Homelessness and Tracy taught me how to organize”.

We continued to talk right up until the end of the board meeting. Our conversation picked up later on that afternoon. I think what impressed me about everything George was saying was that his philosophy, his identity, his poetry and politic are one- the way of the warrior.

“A solider is a paid mercenary. A warrior does what he does because he has to”. Warrior, hero sage. This guy is pretty powerful. He models for me what it means to truly reject this culture of oppression, not just in theory, but in practice.

“I’m anti-US, anti-colonialization… for 515 years they have been doing this in the name of democracy and freedom while the CIA and FBI have total access to all our health files, therapist visits, clinics everything”. The statement he’d made earlier about this being a police state no longer sounded like the rantings of a far fetched fanatic. It sounded like an emergency. I was beginning to feel like every moment that we don’t protest this progression is a moment of consent. The boat is sinking and eventually everyone’s going to get wet. I asked George what resistance looked like to him.

It came as no surprise to me that George Tirado rejects passivism. “I will not allow myself to just get beat by the cops. Cops come with real tear gas, real clubs and real rubber bullets – they come to hurt you. If you want to just stand there, be my guest. But if they hit me, I’ve gotta hit back. You’re not hitting a man, you’re hitting the state”.

I told George not many folks would be down to take a risk like that. “You have to know the right time to take that kind of action… that’s why I don’t agree with all direct action”, he responded.

He went on to recall the actions of some of the more radical protestors during the anti-war protests in late March, just after the US started dropping bombs on Iraq. While the Black Block was provoking the riot ready and armed cops, “thirty feet away you have a big group of pregnant women. Now that makes no sense…”

I asked George what he does when he feels the way I did at the time, that things are too big and that hope is hard to cling to. “I look to my elders” he said, “to Luis Rodrigez, James Tracy. I look at myself. If I don’t have hope I don’t believe in my cause.”

And there it was; the nihilism that constantly keeps me in the land of but what ifs. What if, like Tupac said, things will never change. What if nothing I do really matters? I had thought that George was going to say, If I don’t have hope I don’t have anything or something cliché like that, but if loosing hope means that you have no more faith in the cause you’re fighting for then that’s spiritual suicide. Maybe, what feels like loosing hope is really just feeling afraid to act on the hope you do have. Maybe.

“If we didn’t have politicians, we’d have a free society”, George’s voice took on that sense of urgency I remembered from the community meeting.

“You mean we could govern ourselves?”

“Tribal life in the third world was self-sufficient”, he responded. Its amazing how quickly we forget lessons they failed to teach us in school. George blames a lot of the anxiety we experience as a culture today on colonialization’s necessary break down of community. Without the support of our peers elders and collective stories, hope faith direction and purpose have to come to us by other means. In his neighborhood, the Mission District, this break down results in gang violence.

“All these guys are dying for land, if they were smart, they’d turn their guns n the landlords…” The concept of ownership is another mental disorder of colonial takeover. George explained that before land was a commodity it was a gift.

Truth is like cod liver oil. Tough to swallow, but sure to keep you regular, just like your daddy said. As I sailed home on my bike through the Mission, George’s words echoed around in my head. I was still freaking out about finding another job and battling the folks at EDD for a check before the 1st of the month. But I was 600 years of oppression filled cells waiting to explode. I felt reinvigorated. “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive/ such a hap-py feeling you’re growing inside…” I have to laugh when I find myself singing good old Mr. Rogers tunes, like some people find themselves reciting prayers.

This search for heroes is really just boiling down to a search for faith. So some of my faith comes from a TV show. So what! These are desperate times. Faith is faith, wherever it comes from is sacred. George said that it one of the wholly personal things we take with us to the grave. And you just can’t touch that.

The Narrative Essays on PNN are created by Interns in The Poverty Studies/Media Activism Institute at POOR. The class is co-facilitated by Dee and strives to attain journalistic excellence on issues of poverty and racism by combining literary art with journalism.


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