The poet Brenda Cárdenas has sent us this bulletin from the protests in Wisconsin. It is the second of a series of reports from the ground.
Bread of the Earth: One Worker’s Perspective on the Wisconsin Struggle for Justice
The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and German working class people who at one time belonged to Wisconsin’s Socialist Worker’s Party, I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 60’s and 70’s. I’ll never forget my grandpa Cardenas’ stories about the abuse he and his brother suffered as non-union tannery workers, how his brother died of an illness related to those labor conditions, and how only when my grandfather finally, in his 40’s, got a job as an assembly line worker in a union shop, did he feel like he was treated as a human being at work. His gratitude was such that years after he had retired, he would march on the picket lines with his union brothers when they were on strike. My father started his working life in a factory; my mother, in her 70’s, still works an office job because she cannot afford to retire. Aunts and uncles on both sides of the family labored as electricians, clerical staff, telephone operators, bookkeepers, truck drivers, grocery clerks, foundry workers, and barkeeps. They always worked, sometimes two jobs, in both the public and private sectors, both with union support and without, but no matter, they never believed that the right to collective bargaining was anything but a human right. Even the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (item 2A) defines “freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain” as an essential right of all workers. Scott Walker is in contempt of the United Nations.
My grandfather, whose magnificent storytelling I credit as a major influence on my own writing, died of cancer not long before I would leave Wisconsin for a 13-year stint living in Ann Arbor, Michigan and then Chicago. In the “city of big shoulders,” I met the Chicano Wobbly artist and poet Carlos Cortez, also a transplant from Milwaukee. Over the years, he had become an abuelito to many in Chicago’s Chicano/a and activist communities, especially in the barrio Pilsen where I made my Chicago home. Watching Carlos teach children how to create linocut prints, as he told them stories—his high regard for their creativity and their humanity, his spirited laughter reflected in their eyes, and his love for community—became one of the strongest lessons I’ve ever learned about teaching—about that human connection that opens the windows and doors to learning. His commitment to civil and human rights, to progressive social change inspired my own continued activism and still serves as a model for living. I’ve taught for the past 26 years at almost every level of education from middle school and community after-school programs to a doctoral program at the research institution where I currently work. And I’ve never forgotten my roots or the gifts bestowed upon me by my many teachers from Carlos; to university professors; to Mrs. Benda, the fifth grade teacher who suggested I become a writer; to my electrician uncle who can fix anything in this world that breaks except the shattered justice we suffer in Wisconsin today.
In the past several weeks, I’ve made about six trips to the Madison Capitol to protest Walker’s “budget dis-repair bill” and biennial budget. On the first trip, I found myself among 10 or 15,000 others. By day three, the crowd had swelled to 30,000 who were flooding the elevators, hallways, and stairwells to the third floor, trying to out shout any possible Senate vote when, in a surreal moment, thousands of “Shhhhh’s” flew across the rotunda like a flock of swallows. Then the news that the 14 Democrats had fled the state to prohibit the corrupt vote. The roar that followed erupted louder than any I’ve ever heard at any concert or sporting event, even those filling stadiums, perhaps because it was a desperate roar, one born of ransacked hopes and hearts. In the following days, the crowd had blossomed to 60, then 70, then 100,000, and our activism spread from the Capitol all over the state. In Milwaukee, I joined colleagues and community members to form a homemade coalition that is working in myriad ways against the devastation this bill will unleash on the poor, the working and middle classes—really anyone but the wealthiest—in our state.
This past Wednesday, I found myself addressing a group of about 800 students, staff and faculty members at a campus rally. Only a few days before, I had driven past a new mural in the community where I live—a mural by Colin Matthes from the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative that depicts Carlos Cortez and highlights his labor activism. Many murals and exhibits honor Carlos in Chicago, but it was heartening to see this homage to him at home during some of the bleakest days in Wisconsin history. I’ve always understood best in my heart those moments when time and space collapse and converge to remind us that we are part and parcel of something transcendent and fully awake, that these moments exist to keep us strong in our resolve, yet open to what is always shifting and changing. At the Wednesday rally, Carlos’ warm coyote laughter snuck out of my heart and into my throat. I told those gathered that this revered Chicano Wobbly poet had been quite fond of saying, “Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your generals!” and that I didn’t think he’d mind one bit if I changed his dicho (his twist on the old IWW saying) to fit our present circumstances. So together we chanted, “Workers of Wisconsin, Unite! We have nothing to lose but our governor! Students of Wisconsin, Unite! We have nothing to lose but our governor!”
Carlos was there and is here. My grandpa was there and is here. Cesar Chavez, Joe Hill, and Mother Jones have been marching in Madison for weeks, sleeping on the marble floors of the Capitol and outside on its concrete steps when they were cast out… and they are here. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Ronnie Gilbert, Leadbelly and Victor Jara, the Coal Miner’s Daughters have been harmonizing with our chants all over Wisconsin, and they are here. Sonia Sanchez, Thomas McGrath, and Federico Garcia Lorca, Mahmoud Darwish, Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova have been whispering in our ears, and they are here. MLK, Fanny Lou Hammer, Anna Mae Pictou Acquash, and Corky Gonzalez have passed through Teamsters, custodians and sewer workers; labor leaders, teachers and firemen; nurses, policemen and anarchists; veterans, students, and EMT’s; business owners, lawyers, and sanitation workers; bus and taxi drivers; clerks, artists and actors; singing grannies and babies dressed in diapers that read, “I poop on your bill!”; Lesbians for Labor and ministers; United Farm Workers and snowplow drivers; rainbow coalitions and farmers. They are taxpayers, they are citizens of the world, they are the bread of the earth, and they are here. The 14 Senators who fled so that the truth would be exposed are currently harbored in Carlos’ and my second home… and they are here—shape-shifters shaking the earth beneath Walker’s feet. In his dreams, he is falling like a cracked wall, its chinks chiseled open by the workers who have learned over many years of labor how to wield their tools.
And I could give you all of the facts and statistics from the hundred or so articles and independent policy studies I’ve read; maybe I’ll do that in a separate piece. I could give you a reason for every day of the year to explain why this bill and budget, this declaration of class warfare, this overtly racist denial of a decent education to any child whose parents are not wealthy, this stripping of every right we’ve come to hold dear, this slap in the face of human dignity, is not only unethical or amoral, but criminal. I could give you that, but it is so dark there/here—a cavernous dark to which the eyes never adjust—that I can only manage to write today about the lights I remember.
March 4, 2011