Yo Cris, Are you ready for a blast from the past? I bet you never expected to hear from me, at least not for a long time to come. There’s a guy in the cell a few doors down from me; we trade music and sometimes he gets a paper from up around Seattle and surprise of surprises, your picture was in it. I damn near fell off of my bunk. You were speaking at some kind of immigration rally or something. So I decided to write you this letter and send it to your college. I really hope it gets to you. I can’t lie, I was really surprised to see you on some political, super-mexican stuff. That’s definitely not the Cris I know. How does your Dad feel about this stuff? Remember when we had that beef with those Mexican kids from El Camino High? You was the main one pushing that line. Anyway, it was really great to see your picture and I felt really proud to see you in the paper like that. If you get this, please write me back. I know I messed up when I caught this case, but I’m done with all that and I’m really trying to turn my life around. Write me soon, Julian (J-Money)
Julian, Man, I can’t believe it’s really you! When I opened the envelope and saw your handwriting I got dizzy. It was like a gust of wind. Nah, you said it best: more like a blast from the past. Got lightheaded and started to tip over on some mailboxes, man, I was tripping. You would have laughed to see me lose it like that. I didn’t fall all the way over though, and good thing, too, because there were plenty of witnesses around, and you know I hate to be caught slipping in public. Anyway, I pulled myself together pretty quick and hustled through the rain back to my dorm to read your letter. It is always fucking raining in Tacoma. Look, J, lemme just say right away that I’m ecstatic to hear from you. The letter you sent brought some things to the surface. These memories have got me all off-balance and shit, sideways, mixed up. Been unfocused in lecture and at my job at the radio station. My head feels heavier and lighter at the same time. More important, II wa want to nt to apologize. For no t be apologize. For not being there ing th ere when your trouble when your trouble st started, and for arted, an d fo r not reaching out not reaching out in in th the aftermath. e af termath. I should have been I should have been ar around tohe help ound to lp shoulder the burd en, li shoulder the burden, like we ke we always used to do always used to dofo for each r ea ch otother her as kids. But when as kids. But whenI Iheheard ard ababout out you getting locked you getting lockedupup, , I Icocouldn’t uldn’t move a muscle. Co uldn’t wrwrite, move a muscle. Couldn’t it e, couldn’t talk, co uldn’t ththink. couldn’t talk, couldn’t ink. I I froze, not knowin g whwhat froze, not knowing at totosasay y oror what to do and th ere wawas what to do and there this s jujust st this static in my brai n, brbro. static in my brain, White o. noise. It’s no excuse, I know. This probably sounds like some bullshit, and I realize I am rambling. You used to always tell me to get to the point in my
writing, to stop being so flowery and just get at the damn truth. The point is, I’m sorry. There’s no excuse. Anyway. I’m guessing you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about those days leading up to the trouble. If you want to talk about the past, let me know, I am 100% down for that. But if you want to leave it be, we can talk about the future instead. All that matters to me is that we keep writing. Now, about this protest thing. I know it must be ridiculous to see me acting hella latino all of a sudden. When we were growing up in the Bay, I was always effectively the white kid in the group. It was known that I was half-Mexican, half-white. But my skin was and is light enough to pass for white, and since everybody else in the squad was darker than me, I played the role. I mean, my mom made me enchiladas and all that at home, but at school I was the white homie. We never really talked or even thought about it too much, but that was the dynamic. It just made sense. There were no problems. I mean, why would anyone ever complain about being seen as white? Now it’s different. Man, Puget Sound is not the Bay. It’s small, insulated. I look around and all I see is green lawns, grey fog, and mostly white faces. White people are all around me. It’s odd. Not bad, usually. Just nuts, you know? All of a sudden I’m one of the dark ones. Can you believe that? I haven’t experienced any straight up racism or anything, but people just be asking me these questions I’ve never really had to answer before, like “where are you really from?” It’s all about backdrop. It’s all about how your face looks outlined
against the faces of those all around you. When you and I were growing up, the backdrop was mainly black and brown, and my face showed up white against it. Up here in the North, the backdrop is foggy and pale, and now I’m the dark element. On a related note, something has been bothering me. Last weekend I was just chilling with some friends at one the frat houses here. I was sparking up a blunt and we were already a little bit stoned. All of a sudden, I felt like opening up. I told them about you. I told them about how we grew up together and then got separated all those months ago. I told them about you getting locked up. The whole time I was talking, though, I was just looking down at my hands. I was nervous, and I just couldn’t look into their eyes. When I was done telling our story--whatever that means--I looked up at the faces around me. I don’t know what I expected to see in those faces, but something felt off. They spoke sympathetic words, even asked some clarifying questions about you. But something about the way they asked their questions put me on edge. I don’t know. It was like their curiosity came not from kindness but from some kind of hunger. Their eyes twinkled, all glassy and wide. Their mouths damn near watered. I think I might have made a mistake by telling them about you. It was like they were picturing you as some sort of fantasy, this delightful exposure to a world of crime and blackness and danger. It was wack. Because that isn’t some fantasy world. But it was like there’s this TV screen between our world and their world. I couldn’t prove it to myself, though, because on the surface their words weren’t mean or condescending. I wondered: if your story of blackness and
prison interests them as this kind of fetish, do they have similar reasons for keeping me around? Like, now that I am, in your words, on my “Supermexican stuff.” Are we just exotic mascots to them? I don’t know, maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe it was just the smoke. That would make sense, too. I’ve got to end the letter soon. Bouta rush to a meeting with my friend, Angie. She’s Puerto Rican and has been helping me with my Spanish (so that I don’t get exposed as some sort of fake Mexican). I want to hear about you, though. What have you been thinking about? Who do you run with in prison? How do you pass the time? I wanna hear whatever you’re comfortable sharing. I know these past months must have been real complicated, and I won’t push you to talk about what you don’t what to talk about. But I do think that writing can help. Listening can help. Let’s keep telling. I’m sorry I failed you when the shit went down. It won’t happen u again. I burned a bridge, and you d yo , an I burned a bridge u yo built it back up up ag again. Thank you k an Th ain. it back ilt bu ve ha for that. I wonder what would have d ul wo at wh wonder for that.ifIour happened roles had been en be d ha s le ro happened if our switched? switched? Best wishes, Cristián
Dear Cris, Thanks for writing me back so quickly. It was great to hear from you. In your letter you talked about not being there for me. Man, I want you to know I see it just the opposite. I’m glad you got away from this mess and I never want you to feel like you left me behind. The truth is, I left myself behind. When we got into it with those guys, you may have started by pushing a line against them, but when you realized that things could get serious, you also tried to talk us into leaving it alone. I think that was why you started taking your education so seriously. Maybe it’s even why you’re up there in the boondocks going to school, instead of back home in the Bay. I remember, right before things went bad, that you tried to talk to me. But at the time, I thought I had something to prove, and I really couldn’t understand your point of view. Things were hard for me back then. I’m mixed, and on the block light-skinned blacks first had to prove that they weren’t pretty boys. I know you’re mixed too, but I think it’s different to be mixed White and Mexican, than to be White and Black. I felt the pressure
at a young age to prove that I belonged, and I learned that if I wasn’t the predator, then it wouldn’t be long before someone thought I was the prey. That’s why I used to act so crazy back then, and I know sometimes you thought I was going too far. I think now that you were probably right. It was that mindset that made me take our beef with those kids from El Camino so seriously. When you’re young and you’re Black, you can’t let nobody get away with nothing. The crazy part is, when I came to prison, all that race stuff was turned all the way up, and that’s when I really started to see how stupid it all is. In here, Blacks eat with Blacks, and every race has their own showers, tables, cells, just about everything. And that way, we don’t have no race riots. As a guy with a White Mom, and White grandparents and cousins, it was jarring to be told that I couldn’t go certain places and kick it with certain guys, because I’m “Black.” Besides, you know how we rolled. There was me, you (who was basically a White guy), and Danny and Lee; our two Asian-persuasion homies. Danny used to always call us the United Nations. By the way, we used to tease you about being
an undercover White guy, but now I think that you was the one who actually got it right. I can tell you now, that now that I’m in prison, I hate race. I hate it when people classify me by my skin and think I’m supposed to act or think a certain way just because I got curly hair and a little melanin in my DNA. Judging by your picture at that immigration rally, it seems like you are going the opposite direction. I would warn you though, please learn from my mistake. I know, you’re in college and I’m in prison. Both are schools though. In here I’m learning the end result of what happens when everyone is reduced to their race. I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t get caught up trying to prove you’re Mexican. You have a chance to leave all of this crap behind. I wish I could pass like you, cause to be Black or Mexican in this country is to be either a criminal, or illegal. Please don’t put yourself through that. Anyway, I’m sorry if I sound kind of preachy. I go to church nowadays. It’s one of the only places in here where you can get away from the race stuff. Take care, Julian
Julian, How’s it going, hermano? Glad you wrote back. Yo, it’s kinda funny, writing these letters. Not something I’m used to. But I’m rocking with it. It gives this freedom to the mind. Don’t have to rush anything. You can take the time to think, to turn things over, to say things in exactly the way you want to. I wonder if this way of talking is more or less honest than face-toface interaction. Remember how it used to be? To talk to each other we never needed writing or texting. You’d just hop on your bike and roll down the street to my house if something needed discussing. It made sense. Got to the point that my mom used to make a little extra mac-n-cheese in the evenings, just in case you decided to show up to drop off a comic or hoop or talk about the newest trash mixtape at school. Speaking of school! I hadn’t thought about that beef with the Mexican kids in a minute. Makes me smile and groan at the same time. And it makes me curious, too. I’ve been thinking about what you wrote about how racial that event was for you. Like an opportunity to prove yourself as full black man. Squaring up against the mexicanos was a way to maybe define yourself against another race. I can’t totally relate, obviously, cause I’m not black. We’re both mixed, but different kinds of mixed. But I can empathize a bit. I remember how mad you used to get in History class, when that girl-what was her name, Tracy?--would call you “Mr. Lightskin.” Or
when that older kid Benny would laugh at your nickname and say: “J-Money? The fuck is that? You think you black as night, huh?” Your jaw would lock up, and your knuckles would turn white. One time you snapped a pencil. But you pretended to ignore it. And I pretended not to notice. That’s the weirdest part. How come we never talked about that stuff? Now that I think about it, El Camino High School was stratified as fuck. Racially. Everybody was going at each other’s necks all the time. Why? Is it natural to kids? Did we get that anger from our parents somehow? It was almost automatic, like oil separating from water. But we never talked about it too much. We just knew who was us and who was them. I wonder why all that never kept you and me and Danny and Lee from becoming close. You know what? I can’t even remember how or why that beef popped off. I don’t even remember the names of the other dudes involved. Another thing that stuck with me from your last letter was all that about you moving away from the world of race at the same time that I’m moving toward it, in this “college world.” It’s weird, from your writing, it sounds like San Quentin has got a few things in common with El Camino High. I can see how in a place like that, the presence of race would become real heavy. no It must be so tiring to have no to have so tiring be st mu I It . choice in how you’re seen. I seen how you’re choice have theinprivilege of passing. ssing. pa of e eg privil the even haveyou, But though you’re you’re even though u, yo t your Bu mixed, get stereotyped foryour dfor pe t stereoty ge d, try xe mi yo blackness no matter what you utry matter what ackness no tobldo. to do.
I don’t know. I do see what you’re saying. Why stir shit up about race when race has never been a problem for me? Why act brown when I have the privilege of passing as white? The truth is, I don’t have rock-solid answers to these questions yet. I just know it feels right. These DACA Dreamers, for example, could be me. These could be my cousins under threat of deportation, they could be my homies, they could be the high school kids I tutor after class on Tuesdays. If people wanna see me as Hispanic now, I’m down, and I’m gonna do it right. If I’m the only representative, I’m gonna represent, you know? Race is impossible to avoid, so I won’t try to. I don’t want to just hide behind a white-passing face anymore. Anyway. I’ll sign off for the moment here. I know you’re holding it down over there. Let me know what’s on your mind, or if I can help out in any way. Write me back when you get the chance. Cris
Cris, You may never get this letter. I don’t want to bring you into my world. I don’t...man, I don’t know what I want to do. I’m frustrated, exhausted, and though they say there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, I can’t find it. Still, you didn’t come to prison, I did, and I know it’s not fair to put all this crap on you. After all, what could you do about any of this? At the same time, you are probably the only person who would get me right now. So I’m going to write this, and maybe I’ll send it to you. Probably I won’t. I met a guy in here who reminded me a little bit of you. He was Mexican, but you could tell he’d grown up around Blacks. Though it’s against the little race politics here, we used to trade CD’s. His cellie found out, and last week they stabbed him. Just for swapping CD’s with me. Just for having a Black friend. cism is as It woke me up. Ra ball. As American American as foot . As American as as rock and roll to for not wanting lynching niggas be niggas. When I found out what they did to my friend, I tried to get my own knife. But the dudes here was too afraid of a race riot. Blacks got the numbers here, but no Black was willing to risk their life over some Mexican getting hit. They couldn’t see that it wasn’t about him, it was about us. They disrespected us. And I can’t believe that I actually thought you could get away from race. So when my so-called homie wouldn’t help me get a knife, I decided to make my own. But my cellie saw what I was doing and told a few others. They jumped me at breakfast yesterday, then told
me they would kill me if I didn’t get off the yard. I had to go to the guards to tell them to put me in the hole. My God, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So, I’m writing this, if I decide to send it to you, to tell you that you were right. There is no ignoring race. Trying to ignore race is like walking into a mass shooter situation and trying to ignore the bullets flying all around you. They keep shooting at us. I can’t just live my life as if it doesn’t matter that I’m Black. It’s all anyone ever sees and it’s the first thing they judge me by. Just last week my teacher told me I’m articulate. What does that even mean? That I can articulate words? We say Black lives matter, but it’s obvious that my Blackness matters even more than my life. It’s my cross, my living stigmata, and I can tell you from experience; the blood doesn’t cleanse, it stains. I used to think that prison was a jarring counter to the principles of America. In here, there is no democracy, and very few rights. Now I see that pr isons are actually the soul of America. It’s the place where America connects most intimately with its determin ed oppression of pe ople of color. Prisons embody th e patriarchal, misogynistic, fu ndamental faith in violence that fueled this nation’s rise fr om rural outpost to cosmopolitan center of all th e world’s vices. I once heard that the soul is the seat of our emotions, and emotions themselves are responses to our values, whether they are upheld or violated. Being here in prison, so close to the center of America’s values, is like living closest to a leaking nuclear reactor. We are infected the most and our brutality towards each other
over race is impressive to watch. Uncle Sam would be proud. Please don’t worry about me. Soon, they’ll transfer me to a new prison, and I won’t make the same mistakes there, that I made here. I get it, and I’ll act accordingly. J-Money
Julian, You remember Khiem’s? That old Vietnamese joint around the way? How we used to skip class and head over there before lunch break, because you and me were both swooning over that older girl Cassandra who worked the register. We didn’t really have the money to cop a sandwich or anything, but we would go up to her with stupid grins plastered across our faces, and she’d look over her shoulder, making sure her parents weren’t watching, and hook it up with some free potstickers. We were shorties then. I wonder if she’d recognize us now. I wonder if she’s got somebody to take care of, who takes care of her. There was that one time when she waved us over and, eyes wide, showed us her new tattoo. That cartoon napping cat on her waistline. She covered it up quickly, and said: “You tell my parents, I fucking kill you.” We nodded, awestruck, and she smiled, ruffling our hair. “My lil bros. You guys really get me.” I still remember her voice. The lowness of it. It was like when she spoke, the sound would be coming from inside my own diaphragm. I bet you felt that, too. Remember how that one time Lee’s cousin, Caroline, got messed up in a car accident? He was so scared to see her all broken and bandaged in her coma, so we all went with him to the hospital. When we got in there, Lee’s mom and aunties kept telling him, talk to her, talk to her. But he didn’t know what to say. He just stood there, trembling, staring at all the tubes sticking out of his cousin, speechless. That’s when you went up to him and put your arm around his shoulder. You would listen
to Lee’s whispers, and then turn to Caroline. “Lee says you should get better soon. Lee says you tougher than that. Lee says he loves you.” A week later the four of us were in the hallway when Caroline finally passed. All at once, the sound of Lee’s relatives wailing in unison came down the hall to our ears. We all wrapped Lee up and held him while he shook. That time, too, the quiet way his shoulders sobbed felt like it was coming from inside my own chest. His tears were my tears. I know you felt that shit, too. Look, Julian. I know it’s hard, buddy. And you’re not wrong about America, not in the slightest. I don’t have any hard-fact arguments to prove to you that this country isn’t, like you said, “a leaking nuclear reactor.” These states are still in many ways a wild frontier, terrorized by an amazingly adaptable monster called Racism. It keeps killing, and looting, whispering in powerful ears, and then hiding. Denying its existence won’t dispel the monster, or change the way it operates; and yet we insist on running blind, refusing to truly reckon with this thing we have created in the United States of America. It is because this monster hunts with stealth, subtly, in the shadows of our policies and daily conversations, that we can allow ourselves to pretend blindness. But it ain’t all like There is also be that. auty in race, and soli darity across race. Right? We know this. When we treat ra ce the right way, with respec t and openness and a willingnes s to make and address mistakes , we have a lot to gain. Our co mmunities thrive on difference. Like us as kids.
The United Nations. I understand that being in prison, you are most commonly exposed to the ugliest manifestations of race. Where it divides and damages, instead of enriches. I hurt for you and for your friend that got jumped, J. Really I do. I feel helpless and I hate that I can’t put hands on the guys who did you like that. At the same time, though, man, I beseech you not to let the monster of Racism fill up your whole world. Maybe you’ll find this useless and sentimental, but I believe with all my heart America is as much ours as it is theirs. Fuck, I don’t even know what to claim as my own race, but I know that I belong here. Because this is where I do my living. This is where I do my loving. aspect. And Prison is just an e. There are ’s not all you ar that your identity, so many levels to you to understand so many ways for g more than a race as somethin d confusion. es ce of madn s an sour Just take a few moments and look through your memories. Our memories. Most of them are evidence of how solidarity across racial lines can exist, does, and must. You and I are alive today because we protected each other, with our fists and with our words and then, other times, just by seeing each other. We had our rough spots, but ultimately we had us. And isn’t that fact enough to keep writing? But alright, though. In the end, you know best, and you choose yours. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I recognize that you’ve
seen these horrible things raw and fresh, with your own eyes, and I haven’t. I haven’t even seen your face in almost a year. But please, keep these letters around, just in case. I don’t know what it is, yet, but I think there’s something in these worth preserving. Something lifesaving, even. Whenever you’re ready, you write me back. Your Friend, Cris
The full of the fictional letter correspondence written through a collaboration between writers James King (San Quentin) and Marc Osborn (St...
Published on Oct 1, 2018
The full of the fictional letter correspondence written through a collaboration between writers James King (San Quentin) and Marc Osborn (St...