Nane Alexandrez returned from Vietnam to a community struggling with drugs, violence, and poverty -- but became determined to reach young people with alternatives to violence.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Barrios Unidos (United Neighborhoods) Center in Santa Cruz, California, is the warmth. There are the warm colors of the murals that cover the walls. The staff are welcoming, the young people are intensely engaged. Outside, the streets look like any other sterile California urban street—wide roads, few pedestrians, everyone’s a stranger. Inside, it’s like an extended family, with young people at the center of everything. Many of these young people are those whom other people have given up on. They are Latino youth, some who have been in trouble with the law, some who were into street culture, drugs, and alcohol. “If I can’t be a success,” one said. “I decided I would be the most outrageous failure.”
Today,- some are attending high school at The Cesar Chavez Freedom School located on the Barrios Unidos campus. Others are working in a professional silk-screening workshop making silk-screened T-shirts portraying symbols of strengths, ranging from Malcolm X to an Aztec warrior. Some of the designs come from the kids themselves (why spray paint your art on a wall when you can put it on a T-shirt and get paid?). Others come from inmates locked away in California’s growing prison system who otherwise become invisible to the outside world.
The staff working with youth at Barrios Unidos know something about the lives the kids are leading. Many of them spent their formative years on the streets, got involved in drugs, and saw family members imprisoned or killed. And they know something about what it takes to overcome poverty, the drug culture, and hopelessness, and to claim a role as a leader of the community.
Barrios Unidos was started in 1977 by Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, who had recently returned from military service in Vietnam. Nane came home from the war with a heroin addiction and soon fell into a life of drug dealing and gang violence that took the lives of two of his brothers and other relatives. Nane began Barrios Unidos out of the trunk of his car in the desperate hope that there could be another way. But he knew that to be effective, he would one day have to take on his most powerful enemy, his own heroin addiction.
Sarah: Tell me about how you got started with Barrios Unidos and what you were doing in the early days.
Nane: Barrios Unidos started back in the 1970s. We wanted to educate our young people about the root causes of violence, but it was hard because we didn’t have any resources. I worked out of the trunk of my car. I’d carry around all my fliers, paints, and slide projector in that car. We sold tacos, tortillas, T-shirts, and after a few years we were able to get a small office. But it was really hard to keep it going and I often put my family second to do what needed to be done in the community.
We had a vision of finding a home in Santa Cruz, a community center where we could have classes and dances and music—a place where young people and elders could come together. After many, many years of work, we finally were able to purchase a site in Santa Cruz, which promised to help us reach our goals.
Now, we have an alternative high school called the Cesar Chavez School for Social Change. We also have a multi-media lab, a computer lab, a dance studio, a TV studio, and also a kids’ radio program. We also have programs in a number of high schools, in juvenile hall and in various prisons throughout the state. We currently have two economic development projects going including video productions and the silk-screen business. The money we get goes directly back into the organization to provide services.
Sarah: You were addicted to heroin during those early years, even while you were trying to help young people. What made you decide to turn your own life around?
Nane: I came back from the Vietnam War a heroin addict, returning into a family and community where drugs were everywhere. I got involved in drug dealing and violence.
There were many times when I wanted to stop doing what I was doing because I was reaching out to young people and yet not being true to myself. I would talk about stopping the violence and community change, but I wasn’t making personal change. I would get money from a speaking engagement, but I’d buy drugs. I wouldn’t talk about drugs, although I knew they were affecting the community. So there came a time when I had to look at my own problem.
One time I overdosed on heroin. I was flashing through this tunnel of light, going real fast, and all of a sudden I came to this sort of stillness and this light, and in that light I could see the image of my brother Leo, who had passed on in 1986, and Leo was telling me, “Go back, Nane, go back!” And where the light was farther away I could see the image of my brother Tavo who had passed on in 1982. Tavo was the oldest in my family—he was always the protector, he always looked out for me. He was also telling me to go back.
When I came to, I was outside the emergency hospital. That experience had a big impact on my life. After trying to figure out what had happened, I finally came to the conclusion that something that night had allowed me to see that my brothers were okay, and to let go—to be able to work on Nane. I had used my loss as a crutch. I had lost my brothers and lost other family members, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t want to feel the pain, so I’d numb it. But after that experience, I decided there was probably a reason for this having happened to me and that I should stop using drugs and give it a chance.
About the same time, I was beginning to explore my indigenous background and my history and my culture and I was finding out who Nane really was. I discovered that there was a lot of pain there. I found out I could deal with the pain because I could ask for help. A lot of times us addicts don’t want to ask—we think we’ve got all the answers. But I was able to ask for help, and that carried me through. A good friend, Walter Guzman, had also been a user, and he had been clean for a couple years. Walter helped me out. He took me to a recovery center, and whenever I had to go to court, he was there; when I needed to eat, he was there—whatever support I needed, he was there. He understood the pain I was going through.
After being clean and getting back into indigenous ceremonies, getting a job, I started to do more work with Barrios Unidos, and I could really focus on the work. I had a family to support. I knew they loved me, but I was so caught up in drugs that I almost lost them. So I give thanks to the Creator for the vision that helped me make a decision to work for change—to work for my people.
Sarah: What gave you the strength to tackle your addiction and to do this very difficult work for the community?
Nane: I was influenced by good people in the early part of my life—my father, my grandfather, my grandmother, and my mother. I felt the pain of growing up in the labor camps and the fields, and when you’re poor, you don’t forget that. It’s always there. There’s no drug that could make you forget it, because once you’re off of it, the pain is there again.
When I was a farm worker kid, Cesar Chavez was the first one who got me involved in positive activities. He inspired me to call a strike, at age 17, out in the fields, and that got us a higher wage. So I knew that by uniting we could make change. I always knew that I could do something—I knew that if I left the drugs I could make change.
Sarah: Tell me about some of the kids that you work with at Barrios Unidos.
Nane: The young people who come into the community center are from various walks of life. We have about 20 students in the high school; most have been pushed out, kicked out, or they just couldn’t survive in mainstream schools.
One of the things I tell students when they come to Cesar Chavez School is that if they don’t want to be loved, then they’re in the wrong school. Because people are going to love them and give them support here. The adults are going to know them by name. The students know that they are going to be in a safe environment where they can learn. They know that whatever they need, we’re going to try to get it for them.
We also have people at Barrios Unidos who just come off the street because they need help. Some are strung out. Some want to get involved in the movement and find ways to join the mural projects and other artistic endeavors.
Sarah: What have you been bringing from the spiritual traditions into this work?
Nane: I really believe that this is a spiritual movement. I believe the reason we’ve survived is because of the spiritual nature of our work. We follow a lot of the traditional teachings of the indigenous peoples of the Americas—we have gatherings, we have elders who teach us the old ways, and we have councils.
We have developed an annual gathering of young men and boys that we call the Warriors’ Circle. Throughout the program, young men are encouraged and supported in going through rites of passage ceremonies. A lot of our young men, if nobody works with them, are going to be involved in violence directed at their girlfriends, their partners, or each other. They have their gang rituals and drive-by shootings. We say, instead of getting jumped in when a young man turns 15 or 16, he should get to go to a ceremony where he’ll be honored, offered a hawk feather or a dance. We take the young men to the sweat lodge and talk to them about what it really means to be a man. We take them hiking, we do chants, we do history, we do art projects. We take them out to the beach and we introduce them to different cultures.
And what happens to them? A lot of these young men have no fathers, or their fathers are in prison or on drugs and they were abandoned. So we try to break that chain so that when they get to be fathers, they can be good fathers for their children.
We’ve been working with this group called Simba Circle; they helped us to start the Warriors Circle. For years now, they’ve been taking young African-American men through this rites of passage program—they feed them and love them as strong black men. We’ve been trading cultures and trading ideas on how to work with these youths, and it’s a beautiful feeling to see the two cultures working together to uplift our young people.
Sarah: Are you also doing circles for young women?
Nane: We started off with the young men because men perpetrate the most violence, and because we need to change that attitude that men feel they have all the answers. When we had a Young Warriors’ rites of passage, recently, some of the young women came up and said, what about the rites of passage for young women? In response to this request made by the young women in our programs, the women of the organization organized the first annual circle for young women and girls, which we call the Adelitas Circle. Adelitas were the women who lived and fought alongside the soldiers in the Mexican Revolution. We chose this symbol as a symbol of the strength and perseverance of women, to honor, acknowledge, and celebrate their courage creativity, and loyalty to the cause and to the family and community. We want to foster and encourage strength and independence as well as a sense of community and the benefits of working together in the young women we work with. Our first annual Adelitas Circle was a great success and is just the first of many to come.
Sarah: Tell me about your work in the prisons.
Nane: We’ve been working in institutions for the last eight years. We started off with cultural and spiritual programs, working to create some unity amongst the different factions that pit the inmates against one another. We go in with respect, whether we’re supporting a Native American powwow, Cinco de Mayo, or a Juneteenth celebration.
Our communities have been deeply affected by incarceration. Twenty-three members of my family are in prison right now in California. Imagine all the families that have been affected—all the fathers, grandfathers, grandsons doing time.
We need to stop the flow of men into these institutions. The prison-industrial complex is a multi-million dollar operation. It costs so much money to incarcerate a person that we could send him to any university in the country for the amount of money it takes to keep him behind bars. We also have to ask ourselves, why do we have so many people of color in the prisons? Does the community really feel safe by putting all these people into prison?
What we do know is that it’s broken up many families. And we know that if men are getting out of institutions with nowhere to go, no jobs, and no skills, they’re going to go right back to where they were.
When they come out, we want to make sure that they have some support so that they don’t start committing crimes and so that they can support their families.
Sarah: You’ve been very involved in helping to make peace between different gangs, and I was wondering what approach you take.
Nane: We’ve been working real close with my brother Gaylord Thomas out of Chicago who brings the African-American experience, and Albino Garcia, and other individuals who are trying to bring different cultures together to say, “Hey, we’re the ones who’re going to jail. We’re the ones that are killing ourselves. We’re the ones that live in poverty and stand in welfare lines. We’re the ones who live in these run-down houses, and yet we’re still creating violence against each other!”
We are not the enemy. We need to educate ourselves and come together in a spiritual way so that we can understand each other’s cultures. And we have to learn to be more caring about each other. We have to let go of many negative ways that we’ve learned and come together as a family to treat each other with respect.
Sarah: You mentioned a distinction between peace lovers and peacemakers. Could you clarify that?
Nane: There are a lot of peace lovers out there, but we want to create more peacemakers.
When we talk about peace, we not only talk about peace in our neighborhoods, we talk about peace around the world. As a young man going to war, I had never heard of Vietnam before. I had never had a problem with the Vietnamese people, as I have never had a problem with the Afghani, Palestinian, African, or Central American people. So we need to ask who are we going to war for? And who are we going to war against? If we don’t really know who our enemy is, maybe they never were our enemy.
How do we stop this madness of war and revenge? We need to educate our young people, but we need to say even louder to those in power that war is not the answer, and if we are seeking revenge for revenge’s sake, then we are no different than those who create violence against us.
I have tried to teach myself how to be a nonviolent person, and it’s taken time. I think that there are more and more people picking up the banner of nonviolence, and I would like to see that more in my community. The more we educate people to become peacemakers, the better we’ll be able to take care of Mother Earth and our children.
Sarah: You’ve been at this work for 25 years. What sustains you?
Nane: My family has been very supportive, so I give thanks to them. What else sustains Nane? Seeing young people grow up and join forces with some of the veterans and march in the streets. And being spiritually grounded allows me to be a long-distance runner. I have learned from my mentors that we have to take care of ourselves.