Emily Mendelsohn, Fulbright Fellow, to direct Asiimwe’s play in Uganda

Emily Mendelsohn Photo Credit: Cal Arts' 24700

A Fulbright Fellowship will take director Emily Mendelsohn (MFA, CalArts ’09) to Uganda where she will study how artists use traditional performance to tackle pressing problems in society. While there, she will direct  Cooking Oil, by Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe about the impact of international aid in developing countries.   In previous years Mendelsohn studied  genocide and conflict resolution during study tours offered by Cal Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Program in Rwanda. (See my post, “Making Art In Troubled Times”) .

While in Uganda Mendelsohn will also  audit courses in peace and conflict resolution at Makerere University in Kampala.

For more on the Fulbright and the production of Cooking Oil see this article in 24700. and check out  this video  featuring interviews with Emily Mendelsohn, Deborah Asiimwe and filmmaker Qadriyyah Shamsid-Deen, another Fulbright Fellow.   All three women are graduates of California Institute of the Arts.


Undocumented Students: The Change We Can Believe In

Photo: elcanche.com/blog

They’re  smart, hip and politically motivated.  Undocumented students  want a path to citizenship, and they’re not stopping there.  They want comprehensive immigration reform for their families and  environmental justice for their communities.  Growing up in inter-racial neighborhoods, they have broad world views.  They can envision a different kind of future where open borders and fair labor practices exist throughout North  America.

On Memorial Day, I joined a bus caravan of undocumented students and their supporters on a trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix.  They students there to protest Arizona’s tough new immigration laws and speak out for passage of the Dream Act, a federal bill that would give young immigrants a path to citizenship.

Looking for inspiration?  Forget Obama.  These kids get that democracy starts from the grassroots.  They may be progressive America’s best hope for “the change we can believe in.”


June 21, 2010 – By Lydia Breen

She looked like any other college kid on UCLA’s campus.  But for most of her life, Nancy Meza, 23, was afraid of being deported from a country that in every way but one is her own.   Last month, Meza’s long-held dream of a university degree was about to come true.  Why did she risk it all by publically revealing she is an undocumented immigrant?

Born in Mexico, Meza moved to the United States with her parents when she was six years old.  College was her long-held dream.  An excellent student in high school, she was offered a full scholarship to Berkeley then had to turn it down because she wasn’t  a citizen.   Ineligible for government loans, she held down  jobs and slowly worked her way through community college before transferring to UCLA.

At  commencement exercises last week Meza and her family were jubilant.  But reality was already setting in: without citizenship,  her hopes for going on to  law school would not come to pass.  A low paying job in the grey market economy may be the best she’ll get.

UCLA grads. Photo: UCLA

During UCLA’s commencement exercises, keynote speaker Gustavo Arellano gave a nod to young people who fight for immigrant rights.   A UCLA alum and journalist, Arellano writes the award-wining column  “¡Ask a Mexican!”.  The son of immigrant parents,  his said his father “came to the States in the trunk of a Chevy in 1968.”  In spite of the odds, his parents had three children, all with college degrees.   Speaking of the battle for comprehensive reform Arellano said:

Think what you will of our current immigration wars, but don’t dismiss their courage as weepy-moany propaganda. Gustavo Arellano, keynote speaker at UCLA’s 2010 commencement exercises

Dream Activists say they'll keep fighting for the rights of their families and communities. Photo: Lydia Breen

“Ya Basta!”

Over the past six months, a growing number of  smart, committed and savvy undocumented students like Nancy Meza are speaking  and acting out.   Frustrated by the inability of Congress to fix the country’s broken immigration system, they have focused their attention on one particular piece of legislation –  the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, commonly called  the Dream Act, designed to  provide undocumented young people with a six-year path to citizenship.

Young immigrants  must have entered the U.S. before they were 15, have a high school diploma or G.E.D., and be “of good moral character.”  Once approved,   they have to complete at least two years of college or military service, then wait 6 years to apply for legal residency.The Dream Act has been stalled in Congress for nearly a decade. (Dream Act  requirements are spelled out in this site: The Dream Act Portal.)

Undocumented students like Meza say they have been holding up their end of the bargain – getting good grades, staying out of trouble, contributing to their communities but  they still can’t get a break.  She and other “Dream Activists” claim that each year that the Dream Act is not passed, 65,000 high school graduates are doomed to live their lives in the shadows.   (In 2007, the bill failed by 8 votes in the U.S. Senate.)

A growing number of young immigrants are speaking out and  participating in acts of civil disobedience.  It is not clear why – perhaps it is the anti-immigrant sentiments epitomized by events in Arizona.  But Dream Activists seem fired up with a fierce determination  reminiscent of grassroots efforts like those carried out by the Farmworkers Movement for dignity and fair labor practices or the  Freedom Riders in the South.

Politicians on both sides of the Congressional aisle express concern about the Dream Act.  On the right, opponents say the Dream Act  would reward law-breakers at the expense of our own citizens and  those who came to the country legally.  On the left,  some  immigration rights activists say passage would require them to make unacceptable compromises with Republicans, that would dilute their desire for more fundamental economic reform.  For example, Republicans want a border fence a proposal that would effectively kill  hopes  for open borders and  fair trade policies that incorporate  just labor practices throughout North America.

But Dream Activist Prernal Lai writes that young  immigrants need a win. She argues that the Dream Act energizes young people of color, gets them interested in the political process and encourages them to stay in school.   She and others don’t wait another four or mor years to set out on the path for citizenship for some that would be too late.

Father and son team joined the caravan from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Photo: Lydia Breen

Support for the Dream Act may be gaining ground in Congress.  If passed, Dream Activists say they won’t  forget their undocumented family members and neighbors; they’ll keep on fighting for comprehensive immigration reform.


Dream Activist bus caravan from Los Angeles to Phoenix Photo: Lydia Breen

On Memorial Day weekend, Nancy Meza joined  more than 100 members of the Dream Team in Los Angeles and Orange County, travelling by bus caravan from Los Angeles to Phoenix to protest Aizona’s tough new immigration law, SB 1070 (see Cafe Libre’s previous post)  and to show solidarity for the state’s young immigrants.  Some in the caravan were undocumented, others were U.S.-born or naturalized citizens.

During interviews conducted  on the trip,  many said they felt hurt by the passage of SB 1070, a bill which they say turns them and their families into  criminals.   Some expressed disappointed with President Obama who campaigned on the promise of   immigration reform. (As president Obama has increased deportation  by 5 percent. Although the program promised to target criminal,  the majority of those deported  have no criminal record.)

Before leaving the students decided to leave their i.d. at home.  If the caravan were stopped,  they decided to take an act of civil disobedience. If asked, they would refuse to identify themselves to state troopers in defiance of SB 1070.  .

Freedom Riders rode on interstate busses in the 1960s to challenge racist laws. This bus was burned in 1961 near Anniston, Alabama.

En route, trip organizer Nadi Dominguez was interviewed by telephone, explaining the trip would shod how young people acting together they have the power to change society:

“For a long time the youth have been existing in institutions where we were told invisible and silent to make sure that we could survive.  …Now we are seeing an uprising of the youth who are saying: ‘ Enough is enough… I am going to stand up for myself,  my family and  my community… More than anything that has been the driving force for the youth, to be able to tell a young person in high school that to be undocumented is not something we should be shameful of and that we have power and we can create change.” – Nadi Dominguez interviewed on KPFK’a Uprising, Friday, May 28, 2010

Thousands took to the Phoenix streets to protest SB 1070. Photo: Michael Schennum, The Arizona Republic

An Arizona man chats with a veteran civil rights worker from Louisiana at a rally held after the march on grounds of the state capital building in Phoenix. Photo: Lydia Breen

With the passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s conservative politicians  did what the progressive movement has  failed to do: bring a coalition of brown, red, black and

white people middle class, working and poor-out into the streets.

Mural from the Museums Without Borders Conference in Los Angeles. The painting was a collaborative effort between the street artist RETNA, Mear One and conference visitors. Credit: digitalretna.com/blog

Protestors at the Memorial Day event in Phoenix included undocumented families pushing children in strollers, veteran black civil rights workers from Louisiana ,   white university students from Maine, peace workers from Tennessee, church-goers from Tucson and Native Americans from South Dakota.

As they marched and sang under the desert sun young people energized the other protestors,  including some high school and elementary students who walked by their side along the five-mile route.

Dream Team Orange County joined by local youngsters. Photo: Lydia Breen

Young people were the most important element at Saturday’s event.  They are the key to the immigrant rights movement.  There is no doubt about that.  As we speak, they are mobilizing. Isabel Garcia, Coalción de Derechos Humanos interviewed on KPFK in Los Angeles.

Favianna Rodgriugez, San Francisco artist who designed this "Undocumented Unafraid" poster along with Orange County Dream Team member Bao Ngiyen Photo: L. Breen


After the march, Nancy Meza was one of the speakers who addressed a crowd of thousands at a rally.  She said she was “undocumented and unafraid ” to  fight for passage of the Dream Act and defeat SB 1070. Standing by, Arizona State troopers made no arrests.

credit: Lydia Breen

Stalled in Traffic, Hate Radio Host Cries: “Wah!”

It wasn’t the first time this year that Meza flirted with deportation.  Weeks earlier,  she helped but did not directly participate in an act of civil disobedience that blocked rush hour traffic for a few hours in Downtown Los Angeles.  Acting as media coordinator for a group of Dream Activists,  she wrote a press release saying where the event would take place, identifying herself as an undocumented student and providing her cell phone number.   The action was taken to highlight the failure of Congress to pass  the Dream Act.  Nine protestors, all U.S. citizens, were arrested.

Spot the accountant. Radio hosts Jon and Ken Photo: KFI-AM

Ken Chiampou was one of many Angelenos caught up in the jam on plush Westside of town.  A nationally syndicated co- host of KFI-AM radio’s  “Jon and Ken Show,” Chiampou was outraged that a bunch of “illegals” had wrecked his day.  Chiampou, an accountant in his previous life, gave out  Meza’s cell phone number over the air and urged his listeners to call ICE and have her deported.  KFI listeners – (the station has one of the largest audiences in the country) responded enthusiastically to his clarion call. Meza was inundated with calls and emails :

“On the first day I got more than 500 calls and hundreds of emails and text messages,” explained Meza during an interview on the bus to Phoenix. “They wrote all sorts of things from  ‘Go back to Mexico’ to  ‘Who the f#!k do you think you are?’  I couldn’t believe it.”

Sidebar: Venom as fashion accessory

T-shirt, $23.99 Photo: Skreened.com

Skreened.com  in Columbus, Ohio offers a “Deport Nancy Mesa” T-shirt for  $23.99.  The  company website  says:  “Don’t let this illegal immigrant cause any more disruption in your life! The back of this shirt has the toll-free number to report illegal immigrants.”  ( Ironically,  Skreened promotes itself as an ethical company that sources  to green manufactures committed to fair practices for workers.  It also claims to make Kiva microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. )


poster design: Favianna Rodriguez

The police are investigating some of the more serious threats made against Meza, but she says her personal safety is no longer her primary concern: “When we say undocumented and unafraid, we mean it. It’s more of a risk to remain silent. But it’s a risk that I am ready to take. Once we put a human face on the problems we face, most people are very receptive.”

Her chief frustration with the protest in downtown Los Angeles was that the media focused its gaze on her instead of the Dream Act.  Of the nine protestors arrested that day, all were U.S. citizens. Until now, none have been interviewed by the media.

Jonathan Bibriesca, Dream Team Orange County

Jonathan Bibriesca was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for blocking traffic in downtown Los Angeles. Born in Mexico, he is a naturalized citizen, he was attached to the Marines, serving six years as a medic in Iraq.   He is currently a  full-time student at UC Santa Anna.   A few years ago Bibriesca  joined the  Orange County Dream Team after observing  undocumented students struggle through college.  “Students work hard to get where they are,” said Bribesca while interviewed on the bus caravan. “They work two, three jobs and still manage to get into college and get good grades.”

In addition to his advocacy work for passage of the Dream Act, he also  gives pep talks at high schools where he encourages undocumented students to keep their grades up and follow their dreams, no matter the odds.   The support he gives seems especially to kids in Orange County, a conservative GOP stronghold where immigrants can have a hard time.

The Dream Continues

Patriots come in all colors

Undocumented students are chasing the same dream that Martin Luther King imagined for young people like Barak Obama.  They want dignity and hope for a better life for themselves, their families and a country that is, short one piece of paper, their own.  They are eager to contribute their energy and talent.

They just want a chance.


Making Art in Troubled Times

“Untitled #10” Adam Wolpert, 2009

“Our lives are attended by a remarkable beauty, a beauty that extends to the dark things.  I have come to see that light and darkness are dependent on each other.  There is a tenderness that emerges when you come to love both. ” – Adam Wolpert, environmental artist

Survivors of  genocide suffer traumatic experiences unknown to most of us.  Art may help us understand.  But making art from other people’s trauma can be both ethically challenging and emotionally draining.  On study tours to Rwanda and Uganda artists learn to bear witnesses to the stories they hear from survivors.   The first step is to master the art of  silent, compassionate listening.


by Lydia Breen

On a summer evening in 2008, four young Ugandan women sit outside their classroom under the glow of a single battery-powered light bulk, talking to a small group of visiting playwrights about the 20-year reign of terror they experienced under the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Child from Northern Uganda Photo credit: Joseph Michael

“It was a theatrical setting,” said dramatist and teacher Erik Ehn who organizes study tours to promote conversations between artists and survivors of mass violence. The trips are a collaborative project between California Institute of the Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in Rwanda (IGSC). 

The four Ugandan students belonged to a group of of war orphans and former child soldiers who had been traumatized  by Uganda’s brutal war waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Anea Grace (who is not connected to this story) was abducted and forced to have a child with an LRA commander. She was shot in the leg while escaping. Credit: V.Vick, NYTimes

“They were members of a community of people who had experienced trauma at a level unknown to the rest of us,” said Ehn, explaining that the headmaster at the school encouraged his Ugandan students to testify as part of their healing process.  Still, Ehn remembers feeling uncomfortable with the encounter:

“We heard these very harrowing stories. It was not the first time the students had told them.  But there was something about me that felt like a butcher.  It was abrupt, brutal and incomplete but not entirely inappropriate.”

Conversations begun on the tours continue at the Arts in the One World Conference held at the California Institute of the Arts in the United States  to help artists, students, teachers and scholars discuss how to make art in times of extremity. At this year’s conference ( January 21-24, 2010) the group explored the challenges artists face writing about the traumatic testimonies of survivors.

Ehn says that survivors’ testimonies can help the outside world understand what people have been through.  But artists would do well to receive these testimonies  with humility and respect.   The first step is to act in a way that  invites a person to talk.  The process of silent, compassionate listening can help survivors believe in themselves and be themselves.

Director and writer Emily Mendelsohn was a Cal Arts student when she visited the Ugandan school with Ehn and others. Now an alum, she co-teaches a class to prepare students for future trips. She says one of the main goals of the tours is create opportunities for artists to hear survivors’ stories first-hand.  “There is directness in sitting down to say: ‘I want to hear your story and you want to tell it. Our role is to listen to what happened to people and learn where they are now. We aren’t there to solve problems.”

What are her own recollections of the meeting with the four Ugandan women?

“I have a memory of images, faces and bodies. It’s a feeling that is very heavy,” she says. “It was an intimate encounter, but it didn’t lead me to feel that I knew these girls, that I could appreciate the fullness of their experience.”

"Christopher Oyet, 18, was kidnapped at age 9 and forced to help with rebel killings. 'Now, I am scard of myself, ' he said." Photo credit: Vanessa Vick for the NYTimes

"Christopher Oyet (who is not connectedto this article) was kidnapped at age 9 and forced to help with the killings. 'Now, I am scared of myself,' he said." credit: Vanessa Vick. NY Times

 How can an artist bear witness to a testimony when he or she can not fully understand what the survivor went through?

Mendelsohn says it is this kind of question that keeps her returning to the region. (This summer will be her fourth trip.)

Ehn, who was dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts and now heads the playwriting  program at Brown University,  says the  process of using art to document trauma  can be a difficult undertaking. It may yield imperfect results,  but  it is important to try.

“We can’t accept that atrocity is unspeakable,” Ehn says.  To do nothing is “to allow tyrants to triumph.

Although the tours can provide only a partial glimpse into the human toll of extreme violence,  they allow participants to stand face-to-face with survivors and try to understand what they have been through.

Ehn drew on his memories from the Ugandan school to write  Dogsbody, his new work about force and trauma, told from the point of view of child soldiers.  The play takes a  journey to a world of unending violence and war, where two child soldiers hack their father to death and another child uses a human head as a soccer ball.

A dog in a genocidal circumstance is grotesque. I know that dogs are to be deeply feared. – Erik Ehn

Erik Ehn's "Dogsbody" at the Theatre of Yugen, 2009 Credit: Mark McBeth, SF Chronicle

Drawing on themes from The Iliad, Ehn says his playdoesn’t take on the cause of violence.  It is about violence itself, violence that is unredeemed and unexamined.  It’s about the damage. “

Mendelsohn directed a partial reading of  Dogsbody at the 2010 Arts in the Once World Conference.  In the first act of the play (“Trauma Ward”) she says Ehn draws on the stories from Uganda to take a journey of the mind, to create an emotional landscape where the normal markers, including one’s sense of time and one’s trust in other people, have been removed.

Deborah Asiimwe's "Forgotten World' at Cal Arts, 2009

Playwright and Cal Arts alum Deborah Asiimwe was also on the Ugandan trip.  Her new work, Forgotten World, was informed by the testimonies she heard there.  Asiimwe, who is from Uganda, says the play looks at a variety of conflict situations where children forced to become soldiers and sex slaves.

Pictured: Playwright Deborah Asiimwe. A reading of her play "Forgotten World" will take place on May 21st at 7:00PM in N.Y.C. at The Public Theater during the NEW WORK NOW reading series.

“It’s not just about Uganda,” she said. “It could also be about southern Sudan or Darfur or the streets of L.A. – any place where children are forgotten.”   Ethical concerns were very much on her mind at the time she was writing the piece.  She remembers hearing about a  conceptual artist who paid people in a poor village in Central Uganda to legally change their last names to that of the artist in exchange for a goat or a pig.   The artist then exhibited the pictures he took of the villagers holding up their new identity cards, all with his last name.

“I remembered thinking this is not right,” she said.  “I started questioning my own art, questioning how art has turned these stories into a commodity.  I asked myself:  ‘How can I as an artist tell these stories without taking center stage?’  I don’t have the answer yet.  But I know there has to be a responsible way to tell someone’s story.”

Child soldier, Burma

Tens of thousands of child soldiers have been recruited to fight in all regions of the world. Most are under the control of non-state armies.

Forgotten World was produced at Cal Arts in 2009 and directed by Obie award-winning actress and director Laurie Carlos.  The final scripting and staging involved an unusual degree of collaboration between the writer, director, cast and crew, a multi-ethnic group who brought their own experiences with  to the production. Asiimwe says she felt extremely supported as an artist.  “It was the best gift that Cal Arts gave me,” she said.

A few month later,  when Asiimwe started working on a re-write of the play, she reported feeling like she did when she was struggling with the first drafts:  “I’m back to having strange nightmares…dreaming of guns…getting into my own world again. Emotionally and physically, I find myself being a witness alone, as opposed to witnessing collectively.”

Genocide separate peoples from the things they hold dear - family, home, culture, community. Testimonies of their experiences can help the outside world understand what they have been through and, in some cases, how the world has failed them. Credit: V. Vick, NYTimes

Artist who tackle war and extreme violence in their art may find the task daunting.  But Erik Ehn says they should try.  If  words seem inadequate to describe the experience,  he suggests discarding language and trying something else – or experimenting with different points of view:

“If you are writing about rape, you can describe it or you represent it, ” he says. “You can replace the rape with something else.  If you are doing that, you might as well make it as creative – like ripping a paper in half.”

Erik Ehn was dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts until 2009. He now heads the playwriting program at Brown University and continues to collaborate with Cal Arts and the IGSC in Rwanda. Credit: Kagami

Television images can sometimes be emotionally overwhelming.  He says,  “You can’t compete with the event itself or with the news reports. You can write about your own sense of helplessness. Or see..what your helplessness looks like… Beckett never writes: ‘I don’t know why I am alive.’  He shows how that thought affects his mind.”

The wages of genocide are manifest in the stories of survivors.  Their testimonies shine a light on our collective conscience.  Artists who allow themselves to be transformed by these stories may find themselves on a difficult creative path. But  Ehn believes it is worth the effort.  He says life (like art) “is at essence a dialogue.”  The place to begin is to embrace survivors with tender silence.

“Silence is the most perfect gesture of inclusion.  It is like the darkness of the theatre.” -Erik Ehn



 Lydia Breen is a freelance writer and filmmaker who worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Switzerland for more than ten years.   In 1991 she made the first  film for an international audience about the effects of war on children.  The film drew heavily on the testimonies of child soldiers from Mozambique.  She went on to interview, write and make films about child soldiers and other children living under armed conflict in Sri Lanka, Somalia, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

With the exception of Somalia, which is a failed state, the United States is the only member of the U.N. that has  not ratified the 1989 Convention on the Right of the Child.  In 2002, the U.S. did sign certain Optional Protocols which obliges it to afford certain protections to child soldiers.

To date, children in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be held in detention by the U.S. military.

Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay has been held there for seven years

Children should not be prosecuted for war crimes: Omar Khadr was ten years old when his family moved from Canada to Afghanistan where they lived in Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle.  When he was 15, he allegedly threw a genade that killed a medic with the U.S. Special Forces.  The U.N. and human rights organizations believe that Omar was essentially brainwashed.  They say child soldiers should be rehabilittated not incarcerated. (See Washington Post article, Feb. 10, 2010)


ACLU’s  “Soldiers of Misfortune”

Coaltion to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. and the

Enough Project

Nicholas Kristoff’s colum and excellent video on rape used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo and one courageous doctors’ efforts to help.


Homeboy Shaun White Wins Gold!


Homeboy Shaun White talks to kids at YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA. photo credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

by Lydia Breen
ENCINITAS: Sammy Lee, instructor at the Ecke YMCA Skatepark, encourages a seven-year-old to get his speed up by pumping himself over a ramp.

Shawn White warms up

Shaun White warms up at Ecke Skatepark in Encinitas, CA. during the summer of 2009. Credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

He calls out: “O.K., Noah, do it.  Really grab it!”

A handful of pre-teen-aged boys on boards rush by in slim black jeans, strands of hair flying out from under their stickered helmets.

“Some of these kids get good fast,” explains Lee, 21. Like many, Sammy refers to the sport (some say art) of skateboarding as ‘skating.’  “It’s so rad, looking at these kids.  It reminds me how I felt about skating when I was first starting out. “

An eleven-year-old glides along a rail at the street course, landing on the ground with a thump. Sammy Lee smiles like a Cheshire cat.  “That noise–the ping of the truck (axel) sliding on the rail. I could go to sleep with that sound.”  A young skater nods in agreement.

shawn white 008

Break time at the Y's summer camp for skaters Photo credit: Lydia Breen

“Skating basically saved my life,” says Lee whose mother died when he was twelve; his father passed on three years later.  “Skateboarding kept me out of trouble.  Any kid has the potential for trouble.  But if you give ’em enough outlets, they’ll go home tired at night.

Sammy turns back to the course and calls out: “Kyle, as soon as you feel yourself pop off to the top, lean forward. “

If you don’t know much about the fastest growing sport in the nation, you couldn’t find a better place to see it in action than the Encinitas YMCA. The facility has reached near iconic status in the skate world, where  Tony Hawk and Shaun White are claimed as homeboys.  It’s a hidden gem, tucked away in a corner of the Y’s massive sports complex, close to Interstate Highway 5 and downtown Encinitas, CA.

“There’s so much young talent here,” says Mike McGill, one of the most innovative skaters of the 1980s and a driving force behind in establishing the park in 1989.  McGill continues to be one of its most enthusiastic supporters.   “These kids really inspire me,” he says.  “They’ve got a lot of enthusiasm and creativity.

Mike McGill: These kids...have lots of enthusiasm and creativity. Photo credit: Skaterock.com

Shawn White and lots of other top pros train at the Skatepark.  It has a street course, two world-class cement pools (bowls) and a vert ramp that was used at the 2003 X Games and designed by Tony Hawk.    Parents can’t seem to say enough good things about the Skatepark’s exceptional facilities and staff of skaters who monitor sessions, oversee the after-school program and teach classes to kids as young as age three.  Beginners learn how to step on a board, balance, and push themselves up a ramp.  The Skatepark is run by co-directors Heather Randant and Mike Wilson.

“It’s hard for the little kids at the city parks; they can get pushed around,” says Jeff Timpson, a father who helped build the ramps.  Jeff’s 12-year-old son, Zane, was recently featured on a show for Fuel-TV.  “The Y’s young adult staff has taught so many kids how to skate.  They pump ’em up and give ’em confidence. ”

Jeff recalls a time he saw a young kid skate the cement bowl for the first time, a scary moment for anyone:


Annika Vriklan Photo credit: Lydia Breen

“Mike Wilson was standing at the bottom, inside the bowl, holding  his index finger up towards the kid and said:  ‘All you have to do is track my finger,’” explained Jeff. “ The kid did what he was told and was off.  It’s wonderful to see the kids conquer their fears and challenge themselves.  That’s an exhilarating feeling that will stick with them all their lives.”  The Y’s rules are strictly enforced.  Everyone must wear helmets and youngsters under-18 have to hear elbow and knee pads.  There’s also no swearing, bullying, smoking or drinking.  Still, the Ecke YMCA Skatepark maintains enough of an edge to appeal to kids.

“This place is unique,” says Mike McGill who continues to skate there regularly. “There’s no other park around where parents can have confidence and kids can have fun.”

“There’s a saying,” says Y staffer Sammy Lee: “’ A little nonsense is cherished by the wisest of men.’ Adults sometimes forget what it’s like to have a good time.”

Long-time skaters say some of the brightest, most creative people they know grew up skateboarding.  Many liken the ramps and bowls to a canvas. There’s a lot of freedom, style and imagination at work.

Skate pro Andy MacDonald agrees.  “Skating is about self-expression; it’s about being creative. I grew up playing team sports, but skating

Andy Macdonald credit: LAT34.com

is different,” says Macdonald. “Once you learn the basics of skateboarding, there’s no right or wrong way. It’s all trial and error.  You learn at your own pace.”

Articulate but unassuming, Macdonald won the World Cup Skateboard series eight years in a row.  He has competed in every X Games since it started and landed more medals than any other pro skater.

“You won’t find a lot of rivalry and competition at this park. It’s like a family or a club,” said Macdonald, who started skating at the Ecke YMCA in 1992.

McDonald  is amazed by how fast today’s young skaters learn new tricks and make innovative changes to old ones.  “I didn’t start until I was 12.  But the age keeps going down.  Kids are starting at six or seven–or younger. They skate like they’re made of rubber.”

Television and skateboarding video games get some of the credit for helping kids execute tricks that took the previous generation of skaters years to invent and perfect.  They say the visuals give young people something for their minds to chew on.


YMCA skatepark instructor, Sammy Lee, tells kids: "You're gonna fall down, but then you get up try again. That's how I learned."

“The kids will see a skate video that a dude worked on for over a year to get right,” explains Sammy Lee.  “He’ll be doin’ gnarly things, going really fast.  Kids will watch the video and study it.  The ones who feel ready to take it on will say: ‘O.K., let’s go out and try it.’ “

Twelve-year-old Sammy Schoonderwoerd is one those kids.  An Ecke Y regular, Sammy recently mastered the McTwist, a 540 degree backside aerial turn, well-known to insiders, that was invented a quarter of a century ago by Mike McGill.

“At first I was just messing around–it’s a really hard trick,” confides Sammy.  “Then I got serious. One day, I landed it but slid. A few days later, I landed it after about ten times.  After that, you pretty much have it.  My record is three times in one day.”

Sammy may be one of only five or six kids his age who can do the McTwist.  It doesn’t hurt that he shares the vert ramp with the guy who invented the trick.  Skate videos also help.  “I can slow down a video and zoom in on a certain position, maybe see where they’ve got their shoulder when they go into a turn,” explains Sammy.

“It took me six years six years to do the McTwist,” says Andy Macdonald. “It took Sammy three weeks. I can remember so clearly the satisfaction I felt the day I got it down.   Here at the park, I get to know the kids and see them progress as they take their tricks to the next level. That inspires me.”

Summer Camp at Ecke Skatepark, 2009 Credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

The inspiration works both ways.  “Skating alongside so many pros, seeing them try the same trick over and over again…an environment like this creates a lot of passion among young kids. It motivates them and gives them a sense of determination.” says Sammy’s dad, Rick Schoonderwoerd, who helped build some of the Skatepark’s ramps with Jeff  Tinsdale and others. “Some days there’s so much talent at the park that I feel I should pay to watch.”

Parents say the pros that skate at the Y are genuinely nice people, many of them fathers themselves, who are generous with advice and support.  They search for an equivalent.   The Lakers shooting hoops at a neighborhood court?  Tiger Woods practicing alongside amateurs?

The experience can be invaluable.  “One time I saw a kid go off the vert ramp– it was his first time,” says Zane’s dad, Jeff Tinsdale. “He ‘squashed the bug,’ which means he fell pretty hard. The kid sat on the bench and sniffled, trying hard not to cry.  Andy McDonald went over and brought him his board.  Andy said:  ‘Hey, I’m proud of you, that took a lot of courage,'” Tinsdale recounted.  “Can you imagine what it meant to that kid for one of his idols to say that to him?”


Kieran Anderson, 12, knows what that feeling is like.  He credits pros at the Skatepark for teaching him almost everything he knows.  He learned the Miller Flip from watching Chris Miller at the park. Pro Josh Nelson gave him tips on doing hand plants.

These days Kieran prefers doing lines in the bowl to the vert-ramp Photo credit: Lydia Breen


Josh Nelson, a Skatepark regular, skates feverishly up, down and around one of the Y’s cement pools, grinding the edge with a ferocious

Josh Nelson's invert photo credit: smallbeating

sound.  When asked what he is looking for  in up-and-coming talent he replies: “I like a flowing style, a sense of fearlessness, a kid who’ll ride the whole bowl with a sense of power.”

Nelson grew up in Northern San Diego County.  “It’s the birthplace of skate parks. The first cement pool in the world was built here.  A lot of those early pools disappeared for insurance reasons. Now they’re coming back. I grew up skating with Tony Hawk.  We all thought we’d be done early.  But I’m nearly 39, and I’m still skating. Now these guys are fathers;  they are coming back to skating, and they’re bringing their kids with them.”

Josh Nelson looks down into the bottom of the cement bowl and smiles at a  handful of excited six and seven year olds, like beetles skittering on a hot sidewalk.

“The sport promotes a healthy alternative lifestyle. It’s becoming more acceptable.  In our day and age, dreaming is so lost.  Around here, there area lot of happy people because they are living their dream…Skating has never let me down.”

Shaun White: We fall, pick ourselves up, get back on again. and credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

Coming To A Community Near You? Arizona’s Volatile Immigration Battle


"Is this the change you promised us? Barack Obama Where are you? What's next?" Banner at May 1st rally in Los Angeles. More than 50,000 people attended. Photo Credit: Lydia Breen

 If you think  SB1070 has little to do with you or minorities in your community, think again. At least ten states are considering legislation similar to Arizona’s law.  Democratic lawmakers in Washington are  also studying aspects of  to see if it can be used as a template for tough measure on comprehensive immigration reform.   During May 1st demonstrations across the country,    tens of thousands of people called for a boycott of  Arizona , demanding comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. Will Latinos  get President Obama  to make good on his promise of meaningful, just immigration reform? Or will the “Big O” equivocate while nativists  score political points by spreading fear in local communities?  The following article takes a closer look at SB 1070.  ( The bill has not yet gone into effect. Legal challenges could block it all together. 

Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio seems as happy as a pig in mud with SB 1070. The bill has emboldened his nativist supporters. Now Arpaio says he may run for governor. Credit: change.org

In Arizona, it seems like the “birthers” are running the ranch,  where folks like  Sheriff Joe Arpaio bask in the glow of the SB 1070.  Even Republicans are split on the bill.  Business and civic leaders in the state are upset  that the backlash from a boycott could have a troubling economic fallout.    The right-of-center  Arizona Republic went on the war path in a front page editorial last Sunday, saying  the bill panders to people’s worst fears about immigrants while doing little to bring about badly needed reform   [Click here to watch a great interview with David Zirin talking about  how pro atheltes are speaking out in favor of a Arizona boycott.]

Congress is responsible for passing laws that will secure our borders and regulate immigration in a just manner.  But, for years,   Congress has lacked the courage to act. Not ones to miss an opportunity, the birthers  (who don’t even believe the President of the United States is legally in the country) are ready to take up the slack. 

Ten states are now considering immigration laws similar to Arizona’s SB1070, including Missouri, Maryland and Nebraska – none of which have high numbers of undocumented people. In Ohio,  sheriff Richard K. Jones is backing a state-wide initiative to get an Arizona-style  bill on the ballot. (This in spite of the fact that Ohio’s Hispanics, most residing legally in the state ,  constitute  2.5% of the state’s population.) 

For some insight on how this plays out in local communities, a new documentary shows how immigration was used to divide a community in Prince William County Virginia, an area far from the nation’s southern border.  Watch “95000 Immigration”.  Click here for  THE TRAILER then check the schedule on the web site to see if it may be playing in a theater near you. 

The voice of tomorrow: "Legalization or No Re-election"

SB1070 – low hanging fruit 

A central measure of the bill would make  it a crime for undocumented people to seek work as day laborers. This targets the poorest of the poor immigrants while doing little to crack down on drug traffickers and terrorists. Nor does it g after sweatshops owners, agribusiness and others  who exploit undocumented workers. 

May 1st rally in Los Angeles protests Arizona SB 1079. Photo Credit: Lydia Breen

 Instruction manual not included 

Under SB 1070, if  a police officer stops someone for any reason, the officer  must inquire about  their immigration status,  provided  the officer has “reasonable suspicion” that  the person stopped is in the country illegally.  (Previously, Arizona law required an officer to ask about immigration status only if a serious crime had been committed or if a serious crime was being investigated. ) 

A few days after it was passed, the bill was amended to say that an officer may not use race as sole grounds for reasonable suspicion.  But it does not specify what criteria  (accent, clothing, demeanor??) should be used.  Further, if a citizen who has reason to believe that someone is in the country illegally, the citizen can require the police to investigate. 

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik didn’t mince words, calling the bill “disgusting,” “racist” and “stupid.”  In an interview on Democracy Now he said: 

“This law will have no impact whatsoever on illegal immigration. None at all. We already have the authority. We didn’t need it…When the law was first passed… every Hispanic in this country, especially in Arizona, must have [felt] like they’d been kicked in the teeth, like they’re now second-class citizens.  They have a target on their back because when they leave the house they’re going to have to take papers with them and prepare to be stopped and questioned. That, overnight, has made Hispanics second-class citizens.  ” – Clarence Dupnik, Pima County Sheriff  

 Officer Martin Escobar, a naturalized U.S. citizen with the Tucson Police Department went further  by saying he would not comply with the bill if it gets passed into law.  Escobar has filed suit against the state saying it is impossible for police to enforce the law in a non-discriminatory 

"Life, Love, Family" a band from the Baldwin Park neighborhood of L.A. participated in the May 1st rally

May 1st Rally focused on Arizona's immigration inequities

manner.  He claims the bill will sour police relations with immigrant communities and hinder investigations of serious crimes.    Not all law enforcement officials agree. Some, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is delighted with SB 1070, as he continues his raids and rampages in the immigrant neighbors in Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix and Scottsdale.)   But a recent L.A. Times article state that  70% of the people arrested by Sherriff Arpaio and his boys in the  Sherriff’s Department had Spanish surnames. This,  in spite of the fact Maricopa County  is only 31% Latino, most of whom are legal residing in the or U.S. citizens. 

Arpaio, who made his name by profiling Latinos (he says “illegals” are his top priority, more so than drug addicts) and forcing prisoners to endure disgusting conditions,  has  molded his own profile on along the lines of a stereotypical redneck cop.   No matter  Thanks to SB 1070,  the guy liberals love to hate is drooling in the limelight, claiming he may even run for Governor. 

“Help Wanted” , “No Trespassing” 

Faith leaders are taking up the call. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles spoke out eloquently against the bill,  calling it “unconstitutional ” and racist.  While Mahoney has lost much moral high ground by equivocating over  protecting children who were abused by priests operating under his authority,   he has long been a strong advocate for immigrants’ rights. 

photo credit: Lydia Breen

The cardinal criticized Governor Jan Brewer and Arizona lawmakers for failing to provide a definition of  reasonable suspicion when writing up the bill.  ( “They can’t,” he said in a L.A. Times article.”Because you’d come up with ‘brown skin, black hair and ‘listens to ranchera music.’ “) 

In his recent blog post, “Arizona’s dreadful anti-immigrant law”,   Mahoney writes: “the tragedy of the law is it’ s totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources. That is not only false, the premise is nonsense.” 

Mahoney goes on to describe the inherent contradictions of the bill: “What led the Arizona Legislature to pass such a law is so obvious to all of us who have been working for federal comprehensive immigration reform:  The present immigration system is completely incapable of balancing our nation’s need for labor and the supply of that labor. 

“We have built a huge wall along our southern border, and have posted in effect two signs next to each other. One reads, ‘No Trespassing,’ and the other reads, ‘Help Wanted.’ The ill-conceived Arizona law does nothing to balance our labor needs,” he wrote.– Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Archdiocese of Los Angeles  

A day laborer waits for work where he can get find some support at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, 2008. Credit: NY Times Institute

Church members will not comply 

Other faith leaders are also speaking out. The Reverend Alison Harrington, pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church recently told a large crowd of the faithful: 

It is immoral, unethical and unjust; and as faith leaders we are called to struggle against sin, to call our leaders into repentance and to call our community into action. 

The new bill forbids citizens to hire and/or transport undocumented people.  But members o faith communities around Tucson Arizona say they drive  undocumented people to Sunday church services.  Calling the bill a “sin,”  Harrington and others say they will not comply with the law. 

Big Brother:  binoculars and a database 

It’s hard to see where all this is going without a national biometric identification card, to be required by all working citizens.  The current draft of the Democrats bill in Congress proposes as much, preferring the more palatable term “biometric employment verification.” But groups like the ACLU have strong concerns about the proposal.’s impact on our privacy – a on-going battle during the Bush Administration. 

Concern that fear mongering on immigrant issues will lead to an erosion of our privacy were underscored by an article published Sunday in the Arizona Republic.  The article describe an increased use of surveillance cameras throughout Phoenix,  which Arizona ACLU’s Executive Director Alessandra Soler Meetze said may lead to a “surveillance society”  without a  transparent reporting process in place. 

Adding weight to the argument, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wondered  if Republicans wondered where Republicans will stand on the issue of identity cards.  Will they try to sink the idea as another attempt by  Big Brother Obama  to stick his nose in our business? Or will they let the idea fly, as they did by giving  Bush got a green light to fight terrorists by accessing citizens private telephone numbers. 

 A country forged by dreams 

The dreams, talents and hard work of our immigrant ancestors shaped this country.  While it is true that we now live in different time, with different pressures on our resources,  the values that guide us are the same as they were when our country was founded. 

The dream goes on

Current day immigrants continue to help keep our country strong.  At a time when we are face with so many complex, difficult questions, we need all the help we can get.   SB 1070 could set a tone that codifies a system of second class citizenship.   It is a concern that compelled Archbishop Desmond Tutu – a man all too familiar with pass laws – to write: 

I am saddened today at the prospect of a young Hispanic immigrant in Arizona going to the grocery store and forgetting to bring her passport and immigration documents with her. I cannot be dispassionate about the fact that the very act of her being in the grocery store will soon be a crime in the state she lives in. Or that, should a policeman hear her accent and form a “reasonable suspicion” that she is an illegal immigrant, she can — and will — be taken into custody until someone sorts it out, while her children are at home waiting for their dinner. – Archbishop Desmond Tutu  


In 1985, two years after the birth of her son in Tucson, Lydia Breen produced and directed the  documentary, “The Lord Is Blessing Me…”about Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson and the decision  members made to declare their church a sanctuary for Central American refugees fleeing the fighting in their region. Reverend John Fife, then Southside’s  minister along with several church members were arrested and convicted of harboring  illegal immigrants. Now retired, John Fife and current pastor, Rev. Alison Harrington, and others at  Southside  say they will refuse to comply with SB1070. 


Leucadia: The Sunday Farmers Market With Rosie Daley

Rosie Daley goes green at the Sunday Farmer's Market in Leucadia.Credit: Bob Bretell

Shopping with Rosie Daley is like boarding a roller coaster –you just hold on and go along for the ride.  A dedicated  locovore,  this vivacious chef believes that  good food shared with friends and family  is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Perhaps it was her enthusiasm for fresh food and healthy living  that motivated Oprah Winfrey to hire Rosie in the 1990s as her personal chef.  The two collaborated on a book, “In the Kitchen with Rosie: Oprah’s Favorite Recipes.”  Rosie co-authored another book,  “The Healthy Kitchen: Recipes for a Better Body, Life and Spirit” (Knopf, 2002), with integrative medicine expert, Dr. Andrew Weil.

Apples for apple date bars. Photo Credit: Bob Bretell

 Most Sundays you can find her at the Farmers Market in Leucadia (Sundays 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. /185Union Street (at Vulcan) Encinitas, CA. / Map /  on the school playground of the Paul Ecke Elementary School)   where she shops and chats with neighborhs like fire fighter Steve Meichet who plays with “TheLeucadia Locals.” (See related story, below.) 

Rosie, who calls herself a culinary artist,  takes a spontaneous approach to cooking, planning her meals according to the food available at the market,  in her own garden, and the staples on hand in her kitchen.   “There’s nothing pre-meditated about coming here,” she says. “That’s the fun of it.”

Because it’s at the school yard, it’s more like a family outing.  The kids get to meet the farmers and see where fruits and vegetables  come from.   It’s a chance to talk with your neighbors,  get some fresh air and exercise.  There is also music, and smiles.  It’s a social occasion.  Rosie Daley 

Richard Frost and Rosie Daley at Farmer's Market in Leucadia Photo Credit:  Bob Bretell

Richard Frost and Rosie Daley at Farmer's Market in Leucadia Photo Credit: Bob Bretell

 Cruising along the rows of more than 65 vendors, she stops at a stall to get  composting tips from  Richard Frost, a geologist and passionate gardener who sells seeds, starter plants and mulch.

 At another stall, she inquires about a farmer’s health.  “He’s been sick and we haven’t seen him for a while,” she explains. “Whenever anyone is not here, we miss them.” 

Tasting a gigantic plump date, she pronounces  it “delicious”  and considers how she can used dates in the meal she will cook later on for guests.  

  “I can serve them in a salad with greens and feta cheese,  or stuff  them and bake them for an appetizer.  Apple date bars for desert is also good.”

Bakery goods and prepared foods also on offer. Credit: Lydia Breen

Get live reports from the farm. Photo Credit: Lydia Breen

 Guavas are in season, so she scoops some up to decorate her kitchen counter. Moving on, Rosie buys feta cheese and greeens, and some locally-grown blood red oranges; she will freeze the juice in ice cube trays and add them to hibiscus flower tea.

 Making the case for locovores, Rosie Daley says locally-grown food stays fresh longer and requires little preparation.  “When you have fresh ingredients you don’t have to do that much to them.”  She  says she likes to shop regularly at the  market because the items on offer change frequently.  “If you don’t come for a week or two, you can miss out on something.”


The market has seven certified organic growers. Photo credit: Bob Bretell

 A few more  items go into Rosie  basket and her shopping is complete.  At the shaded picnic area, she joins Donna Butnik, a fellow members of the 101 Artist Colony.  Both women painted banners for the Arts Alive Banner Contest and volunteer to work with kids to make art from recycled materials.

 The market has seven certified organic growers, a drawing card for the many health-conscious surfers, runners, bikers and practitioners of yoga who live in the area.  Locovores say they make the Sunday Farmers Market in Leucadia  part of their weekly routine. Many like to walk or ride their bikes there, whiling  away part of the day shopping, listening to music, visiting with friends and eating – Jamaican, Indian, French, Mexican, etc.  Parents love the market because the fenced-in schoolyard is free of traffic  and it  has a play ground.


Green Power

In cooking demonstrations she occasionally hold around the country, Rosie talks about how  people can incorporate healthy foods and healthy living into their lives.  “I try to show them how to make food fun.  And I tell them to make sure that they don’t miss out on what’s important in life.” 

Rosie Daley’s trip to the Sunday Farmers Market in Leucadia shows she likes to practice what she preaches.

Photo: Lydia Breen

Leucadia Farmers Market – Sundays 10 a.m. p.m. /185Union Street (at Vulcan) Encinitas, CA. /Manager: Ron La Chance / (858) 272 7054/ Map /   On offer:  65-70 vendors (7 certified organic vendors).  You’ll find produce, prepared food, plants, jewelery etc.   Covered picnic tables, fenced-in playground and music most Sundays http://www.sdfarmbureau.org/BuyLocal/Farmers-Markets.php 


  Loco and Laid Back:  The Leucadia Locals Garage Band

The Leucadia Locals will play at the Farmers Market in Leucadia on the last Sunday of the month throughout the summer. Pictured: Steve Meiche, guitar; Harley Feinstein, drums; Kirk Cumming, guitar and Oliver Kolpin, guitar.

 The Leucadia Locals are a garage band without delusions of grandeur.  “We like playing  for our neighbors,” says guitarist Steve Meiche, who claims the Sunday Farmers Market in Leucadia  is a perfect venue for them.  “When  you play in a club, the audience can be very critical.  The vibe here  is so accepting.” 

 These guys are in it for the fun, playing a mix of Honky tonk, country and rock, a style that Meiche calls “a funky blend, much like Leucadia itself.”  In May, the Leucadia Locals  will be play at another hyer-local venue,  The Encinitas Sports Festival on Moonlight Beach (May 15-16th).  You can also hear them throughout the summer on the last Sunday of the month at the Farmers Market in Leucadia.

Most of the musicians have other gigs:  guitarist Steve Meiche (fire fighter), drummer Harley Feinstein (attorney),  guitarist

Tile artist Roz Light. Public installations featuring her work can be see around Encinitas.

  Oliver Kolpin (C.P.A),  Tony Horner (pediatrician)  steel pedal guitarist Bob Siggins (neuroscientist)  and saxophonist Baird Whatley (architect).  Guitarists Kirk Cumming and trumpet/guitar player Tim Winter are  full-time musicians who  play occasionally with the band. 

The group’s size changes from five to seven members – or more, depending on who is around at the time.  It’s an easy-going approach to playing together that is reminiscent of  the neighborhood brass bands in New Orleans.

The group  came together when  Meiche was practicing in his garage and his neighbor came over and asked  if he could join in.  In time,  other neighbors and friends came on board.  (It’s how things seem to work around Leucadia, an informal place full of creative people.)     

 “When you walk through the streets of  Encinitas, you can always her music, “ says Meiche who who books gigs for the band.    “From professional musicians to amateurs… jazz musician Peter Sprague lives around here, so does  guitarist Nina Anderson and Ben Redmond of Super Wave.”

In April, they  played at the Encinitas Garden Festival and Tour, where plenty of  local art –  including art by of his wife, tile artist Roz Light,  was on display in backyard gardens, fences and walls.   “There  are a lot of artists here,” explains Meiche  “ It’s all about art and music.”

For more info on the Leucadia Locals,  email Steve Meiche:  stevemeiche@gmail.com 




Shaun White Finds Inspiration at YMCA Skatepark

Shaun White at the YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA credit: ESPN Magazine

“I’ve been coming here since I was six.  I’d beg my parents to take me and they’d eventually drop me off for a couple of hours. I skated every day at this park. I learned all my tricks here. It’s my inspiration.” Shaun White on YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA as quoted in ESPN Magazine, 2008


See Related Post: Homeboy Shaun White Wins Gold!

by Lydia Breen

ENCINITAS, CA. Shaun White isn’t the only pro to skate at the Ecke YMCA Skatepark,  but he and Tony Hawk are surely the most  famous.  Many of the world’s best skaters have honed their skills here, skating side-by-side with kids as young as five, some even younger.      The entire sport has been enriched by the interaction in Encinitas between skaters of varying abilities.   In 1995 Tony Hawk took a talented nine year-old Shaun White under his wing.  Other local skaters surely helped White advance, including Mike McGill who invented the McTwist. in 1986.  Twenty-four years later at Vancouver, White seconded McGill’s act with a Double McTwist 1260, nailing his reputation for skating the half-pipe heads over, under, around and through the competition.   (For the science of Shaun, see this clip on:  “The Double Cork.” another of new trick White had up his sleeves at the Olympics.  For great videos of snowboarding tricks see this link. )

Shaun at 18 Credit: Shaunwhiteonline.org

How does White manage to get so much air out of the pipe? Mike Wilson, co-manager at the Ecke YMCA Skatepark, ventures a guess: “I think his pumping technique helps him reach those heights. The way he bends down and positions his legs. When he’s pumping, he’s putting a lot more effort into it…He lands tricks like they’re nothing.”

White goes heads above the competition Credit: wiwi.tv

To see how Shaun gets so much air, see: 60 Minutes segment about Shaun White and Tony Hawk doing tricks at the YMCA Skatepark.  (See also cool photos from that shoot)

Mike Wilson was a 15-year-old street course skater, entering competitions around Encinitas, when Shaun White was just coming up in the sport. “At first he couldn’t do an Ollie or a kickflip,” explains Wilson.  “But he got good real fast. His progression was so good – faster than anybody else.”

Mike Wilson, co-manager, Encinitas YMCA Skatepark (foreground) as a young skater, Caleb Van Neil, watches Paul-Luc Ronchetti, a skater to keep your eyes on in up-coming competitions.

Could White’s skateboarding skills have helped him win the Gold in snowboarding at Vancouver?   Wilson thinks it’s likely:  “You learn to be more technical when you have to land on wheels…”

(For Shaun White’s own comments on his altitude see this link. )

Homeboy Shaun White talks to kids at YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA Photo credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

During the summer White takes a break from snowboarding.  That’s when you might find him at the Encinitas YMCA, where he is able to shed his superstar status, relax and be treated pretty much like everyone else.    “He’s a really nice guy,” says Wilson, who explains that the young skaters think it’s normal to share the park with so many well-known pros.

YMCA skatepark instructor, Sammy Lee, shows how it's done.

“I think Shaun has good memories here. He grew up skating here.  When he comes, it probably makes him feel like he’s a kid again.” – Mike Wilson, co-manager Ecke YMCA Skatepark, Encinitas, CA.

Mike Wilson eyes new crop of talent a day after homeboy Shaun White won the gold at Vancouver Credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

Wilson’s first job at the Y came in 2002 when he got a summer job at the skatekpark.  By 2008, he was co-manager, along with Heather Randant.  The job fits him like a glove: “I really can’t imagine doing anything else.  What job could possibly be better than this?”

San Diego County is said to be the skateboarding capital of the universe and the Encinitas YMCA Skatepark sits at the center of this world.  Skaters have moved here from afar – Brazil, England, the east coast – just to hone their skills at this park.

Annika Vriklan is a dedicated skater at YMCA in Encinitas Credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

Mike Wilson is a gifted, generous teacher who is glad to share what he has learned from years of street course skating:  “I feel like I get the sport. I’m happy to spread that knowledge with the kids here.”

Caleb Van Neil gets pointers from a pro Photo credit: Lydia Breen

Caleb Van Neil gets pointers from former pro Neal Mims Photo credit: Lydia Breen

Lesson accomplished Photo credit: Lydia Breen

The Virgin Had This Homeboy’s Back (Fabian Debora)


"Mi Madre de Los Angeles" Fabian Debora

by Lydia Breen

Fabian Debora grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles.  He survived gang violence, drug addiction and prison.  Now he works as a substance abuse counselor at Homeboy Industries, helping at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth.  Debora’s  art, which is largely based on his life experiences, has opened up new worlds for him.  It is also inspiring the  young people he works with to pursue their own dreams.

Debora’s paintings are  on display at “Canvassing Peace” , an exhibit sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee ( on view now through Augstu 12, 2010 at AFSC’s regional headquarters in Los Angeles, 3rd floor, 634 South Spring Street).


Artist Fabian Debora calls Los Angeles a territorial place.  “There are guidelines you have to follow, places you can’t go,” he says.

Growing up, the walk from home to school felt like it was littered with landmines.  “There were eight gangs in my neighborhood,” he says. “It was like it was infested. “

He wasn’t looking for trouble. All he wanted to do was his art. He explains:  “When I left the projects where I lived, they would ask where I was from.  I’d say, ‘I don’t bang.’”

It didn’t help.

“The place I lived, the way I dressed that automatically placed me in a gang,” he said during a recent interview in his office at Homeboy Industries.   “Once I walked out of the projects, it was basically like a free-for- all.”

Boyle Heights bridge credit: static.guim.com

The river was his refuge.  He used to ditch school and spend hours there.  The cement walls were his canvass, a place to experiment with graffiti and mural art.  He made friends with homeless people who lived under the bridge.  They gave him advice (get an education) and he gave them his bag lunches.

On the way home he got hassled all over again.  “I was trying to stay out of trouble, but it was hard,” he said. “My dad was a heroin addict who was in an out of jail.   I couldn’t look to him for protection.  And my mom had to work two jobs.”

Eventually, he gave in to the pressure and joined a gang.  But he kept on doing his art, adding tattooing to his repertoire.

Home life was tense.   “My mother would tell me: ‘You have a problem.’  I told her she didn’t understand.  I was very rebellious and had a lot of anger. We were first generation Mexicans,” he says.  “I wondered why I was suffering so much, why my father was an addict.  I took it out on my mother and continued to blame her.  I told her she should never have had me. I even tried to commit death.”

His grandmother was “the spine of the family.”  An ardent devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Debora recalls:  “She told me the Virgin would always watch over me. This was my first teaching.”

Artist Fabian Debora says gang members are more than the sum of their mistakes.

Tattoos and T-shirts with the Virgin’s image have been criticized as “gang-related apparel that has been banned at some schools.   Debora says that misses the point: “ Outsiders who see all these cholos with tattoos of the Virgin Mary – that’s not a gang thing.  A homeboy wears the Virgin for protection due to the mess he is in.   It’s like he is saying: ‘I’m out here in the street.  I am out here crying.”  (See video, below, of Debora applying a tatoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe.)

“Just because we are in a gang, that doesn’t me we have no morals,” he says. “The Virgin holds a lot of respect because of what we were taught by our mothers and grandmothers.”

He says gang members are more than the sum of their mistakes:  “We wind up getting judged by the wrong decisions we make. It doesn’t mean we don’t have morals.   It doesn’t mean we have the absence of hope, or that we don’t want to be protected.”

He concedes that a homeboy wearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe doesn’t always send the right message:  “You have guys who glamorize it in a way that can cause harm.  The minute you disrespect the Virgin Mary,  you are going against everything she believes.”

By 1994 he began to remove himself from gang life.  Then he spent five years doing Methamphetamine.  “I was hurting everyone,” he says.

Looking back, he sees how his past life – the violence,  Meth addiction, stints in prison and suicide attempts – were especially hard on his mother:  “I realize now what I put her through.”

A failed attempt to kill himself was the turning point:  “I was smoked out, loosing my mind, loosing my pride, my dignity.  I told myself I didn’t want to live anymore.”

High on Meth, paranoid that the police were after him, he ran out of his mother’s house, and kept on running,  through the projects to a park, where even a lake didn’t stop him.

“I ran into the water, got covered with seaweed and kept on going.  I jumped over the freeway wall  to the other side.” When he landed he bit his tongue – hard.  Bleeding profusely, he ran on to the highway, into the path of an on-coming suburban vehicle.

“I said to myself:  ‘This is it.’ ” His sense of reality altered, he heard a whirring noise: “ It was like I was in slow motion. I was ready to feel the impact of the truck.  Then I remembered:  ‘My kids!’”

The vehicle missed and Debora kept on running.  He reached the median strip and collapsed in a heap.  As the vehicle disappeared in the distance, he sensed his life was about to change:

“I felt like the truck took all that disease away.  The sounds returned, the sound of birds and the wind.  Then the police came. They tried to call me to come to them, but I ran away back to the projects.”

Debora wound up at Dolores Mission, the school and church where he grew up.  But he was not supposed to be there, it wasn’t safe for him.

“I called my mother to come pick me up,” he said.  “She started yelling at me for being where I was.  I told her:  ‘Mom, I almost got killed today.’  She got very quiet. ”

Debora: "I looked like a zombie, a calavera"

Debora sets the next scene as if he was considering it for a future painting:  “Can you image a mother rolling up in her car, seeing her son nearly half-dead?   It was like the Virgin when she came to help her own son.  My tongue was hanging out from where I bit it.  I was full of blood. I was wet from the lake. I looked like a zombie, like a calavera.”

Before driving away, his mother gave him an ultimatum:  he had three days. After that, he’d have to go to rehab.

Fabain Debora spent the next six months in rehab. When he got out, Father Gregory Boyle, a priest he knew from Dolores Mission who now heads Homeboy Industries, gave him a job.  It’s been three years now that he has worked  as a trained substance abuse counselor and art instructor.

Debora’s brush with death on the highway had a lasting effect.  “I became very spiritual,” he says. “I believe it happened for a reason.”

He gives a lot of credit for his recovery to his mother.  “All that time my mother never gave up on me.  She always tried to guide me.  I have been sober now for approximately three years.”

The Virigin as Homegirl: "My Virgin of Mary in relation to Tonantzin" Fabian Debora

In his 2008 painting My Virgin of Mary in Relation to Tonantzin,  Debora connects his old life with his new one.  The top-left corner of the painting appears in black and white to symbolize the past.  Also in the past, the cement under the Boyle Heights bridge, tagged with the names of friends who died in gang violence. (One his friends was shot in the head).

The corn in the painting represents the maize that used to be grown along the river by Indians before the area fell into the hands of Spanish colonialists.  Debora added a totem-like statue of the Aztec earth goddess Tonantzin,  an image that Spanish missionaries conflated  with the Virgin of Guadalupe.  (See Café Libre: “The Virgin as Spin-Mistress.”)

St. Juan Deigo with image of Virgin of Guadalupe

Debora explains:  “The Catholics had to enslave the Aztec people to make them believe.

Feast Day of Virgin of Guadalupe, L.A. 2009

Debora says the fact that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before Don Juan, an impoverished Indian peasant, shows that she cares for and represents the people.  “She is ‘the  mother of Mexico’  a powerful icon for the Mexican people, a symbol of hope and strength. She ties in all the aspects of my beliefs.”

He says he likes using cultural images like the Virgin, the corn and the bridge in Boyle Heights because:  “ They connect me; they help me stay focused. They help me be creative.”

Before it was put on display at the  “Canvassing Peace” exhibit, The Virgin of Mary in relation to Tonantzin” was on view at Homegirl Café, where Debora used the painting as a way to talk to homegirls about “their power and beauty and their capacity for caring.”

He believes his art can help give young people confidence.  By painting the Virgin as a homegirl, he was sending a message:   “When a homegirl said to me that she liked that painting, I told her:  ‘That can be you!’”

Preparing food at the Homegirl Cafe credit: latimes blog

“A lot of the homegirls have suffered from domestic violence.  They’ve been demoralized by their man.  Some of them loose their kids.  Gangs use them as scouts to go into other neighborhoods…[They] don’t value them.  I hope I can pave a path for [homegirls], tell them that education is powerful.”

“My art can have an impact on others.  If it helps people see they aren’t alone, that’s a good thing. But it is first of all for me.  When I paint, it’s therapy. I am trying to heal.”

Debora’s most recent work, Madre Frida, is a vibrant portrait of Frida Kahlo as the Virgin of Guadalupe.   “ A lot of people respect both women,” he explains.  “Both had a lot of pain. But at the same time, both were powerful. “

"Madre Frida" Fabian Debora

Throughout  his difficulties, he says he always held on to his art:  “It has been a life saver. Art gives me a sense of freedom. There are no boundaries.  I can be myself. It has help me find a new form of identity”

Considering all the up’s and down’s he has been through, it is not surprising that an element of fatalism creeps into his thoughts:

“Now I’m focused, but that’s also where the fear comes.  You expect tragedy to hit.  I worry that something will happen that won’t allow me to succeed.”

But his vitality and his life story suggests that he has strong survival instincts and a capacity to use his art to heal.

He wants to go back to art school “for sustainability” and to learn new techniques.  His dream is to become an animator and mark the events of his life in pictures.

In his life-sized 2009 piece Falling Star, Debora paints himself and his 18-month old daughter. (The 33-year old artist has five children:  three boys, aged 10, 6 and 4 and two girls, aged 3 and 18 months.)

“In the painting I put her before me.”  He says sometimes he looks into his daughter’s bright eyes and, thinking about all his own struggles, he worries about what lies ahead for her.

“She’s holding my heart in her hands. It’s hers.”

"Falling Star" portrait of the artist and his daughter