04/13/2012 02:18 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2012

The Politics of Jesús: A "Xota" Activist From Salinas, CA

By Pablo Rodriguez

More commonly known by those who love him by his sobre nombre, Jesse is a self-described Xota (jota) artist and community advocate. A BA in History, Chicana/o Studies, and Native American Studies from U.C. Davis, a master's in History from the University of Texas, and master's in Marriage and Family Therapy from Sacramento State University allow Jesse to navigate confidently in and out of the worlds of academia, public health, community-based research, youth development, community organizing, and mental health. Drawing from his Tejano and East Salinas roots he can do all the above in English, Spanish, Spanglish, or whatever he chooses. Add his love of Morrissey and tragic corridos, and you start to get a sense of who Jesse really is.  

To truly understand Jesse, you must understand his politics. When I say politics I do not mean the callous politics of bargaining and compromises and power plays. To say Jesse is political is to understand his world view and his commitment to demanding that we address not the symptoms of people's struggles and suffering, but to work to dismantle the political, social, and economic structures that are the root causes of people's suffering.

I was raised to know the gentle and kind Jesus of the New Testament. I struggle to remember any service where Jesus was not portrayed as meek and non-threatening. But, when I read the stories of the Bible, or heard my mom and dad read the bible I didn't see a meek and mild Jesus. I saw a man with the conviction to stand with and fight for poor and exploited people.

This following is a brief portion of a recent conversation I had with my friend Jesse; a man of conviction who critically challenges the status quo and gives voice to the voiceless --just like Jesus did. 

The Genesis of Faith and Politics

Is there a story behind why you were named JesúsI would love to illustrate a lustrous narrative as to why I was named Jesús. But, I was simply named after my father. And he was named after his. Jesus in the bible had a loving relationship with his two dads. My relationship with my father is T-R-A-G-I-C. So the world provided me with my grandfather and my tios.  My fathers are just as unorthodox as Jesus'. I learned how to pray by watching my grandpa. I would sneak out of my bed (floor, couch, huevo foam) and basically watch him. He would be there for an hour and give thanks and pray for all of us. Then he would get on his bike to collect aluminum cans to supplement his income. He would tell me not to follow my grandmother to church; that Dios was within us and everywhere--'no mas te falta la entrega'--and you can always be with creation. He told me we don't need a special church, or someone ordaining our relationship with creator.  Today, even in his high level of dementia, my grandpa hugs me, tells me he loves me, and tells me some dirty jokes, which I'm all about.

What was the process of you becoming politicized? My earliest memory of thinking about injustice was going to Safeway in East Salinas with my grandpa to join the UFW boycott when I was about six years old. Even as a child I knew my family worked hard, lived in shitty conditions and were treated poorly by bosses. I experienced, firsthand, working as a child housekeeper in places like Monterey and South Salas (Salinas). My mother was known in the family and community as a traditional healer. I was very curious about what this whole tradition was about so I started asking my family about our background and started to understand two things: we are Indigenous and there was a stigma tied to that.  My mother would beg me to not share with folks her practices in fear of being called a witch, especially by the church, which she also attended. So, there I was, understanding myself as coming from a people who struggled with issues of work and faith. By the age of 12, I had begun danza, another political process for me. Through danza I learned the red road version of "La Cultura Cura."  I am forever grateful to mi familia of Danza Izkalli, and my brothers and sisters in Watsonville, Ixtatuli, and White Hawk Indian Council. Danza led me to Barrios Unidos. Alma Hernadez, who I consider my madrina, brought me along to Barrios with other young danzantes and we created a space of sharing our native tradition and practices of healing for our streets in Salas. I started paying more attention, saw my peers get into trouble, saw family get treated by the unjust climate of the Central Coast. I got pissed, I got involved, and I have never been the same.

The Road Ahead

Can you talk about Queer Raza within popular culture and society? The "It Gets Better" videos are important, but they speak to a particular reality that often doesn't connect to the issues facing Queer Raza. We all know nothing gets better without a collective action and a mission greater than ourselves. For Jotas, the collective is often our family and our survival in these communities, pero hay various temas about family sustainability, particular to Queer Raza that wreak greater havoc. "Getting better" slogans are not gonna save our mijas, who have become sex workers 'cause they no longer have blood family who love them and support them. Within a public health lens we need to address basic living needs. Issues of immigration, mental health, lack housing, and injustices in the workplace are symptoms not the root cause. We need to recognize and challenge the forces that have created a society with such a large gap in access. We can't keep turning a blind eye. We need to stop acting like teenagers who don't have sex and protect them. We can't address it if we can't even talk about sex. I argue the same thing with sex workers. We need to talk about this, especially with kids killing themselves; especially with these latent republican homosexuals creating public policy havoc for us proud and out queens.  We have to be careful where we point the finger though. We need to make everything about de-colonization and liberation, but when it comes to sexuality, too many of our gente revert back to some archaic Iberian/patriarchy/homophobia.There's a lot we need to change, but things change when we start to pay attention and address the root causes of people's struggles and suffering. Things change when we understand the needs of people are complex but not complicated.  Things change when we treat the needs of all people as holy. And as my Grandpa always says, "No mas te falta la entrega."

Pablo Rodríguez is the Executive Director of Communities for a New California (CNC), a statewide civil rights advocacy organization. Pablo is committed to achieving public policy that is socially, economically, and environmentally just for California's families.