With his tenure at the city’s Office of Immigrant Refugee Affairs ending, Seattle activist Magdaleno Rose-Avila is back at his typewriter to carry on a life-long struggle for civil rights.
This Martin Luther King Day, a lot of people’s minds will be on another monumental civil rights leader.
That’s definitely the case for Magdaleno Rose-Avila, outgoing Director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA). He recently resurrected a poem he wrote about Nelson Mandela and South Africa during the apartheid era. A condensed version of the poem will be performed by a small cast of local activists at this year’s MLK Rally at Garfield High School.
“The connection between King and Mandela is in the speech [King] made in 60s,” explained Rose-Avila referencing a very controversial address given in 1964, where Martin Luther King Jr spoke to a London audience calling for England and the United States to use economic sanctions to end apartheid.
It is in this situation, with the great mass of South Africans denied their humanity, their dignity, denied opportunity, denied all human rights; it is in this situation, with many of the bravest and best South Africans serving long years in prison, with some already executed; in this situation we in America and Britain have a unique responsibility. For it is we, through our investments, through our Governments` failure to act decisively, who are guilty of bolstering up the South African tyranny.”
In an intimate chat at the Jus Bar in Columbia City, I talked to Rose-Avila about the roots of his own activism and how he became interested in South Africa.
“What set the foundation for a lot of my writing and thoughts is being racially discriminated against as a child,” he said. “We had no Native Americans, Jews or black, so the group that was discriminated against was Mexicans. We had no organizations standing up for worker or people’s rights.”
Rose-Avila grew up in a small community in southeast Colorado, one of twelve children in a poor farm worker family. He began writing poetry when he was 11 years old. His first exposure to activism came in the form of a racist civics teacher who was a veteran of the Korean War and spoke at length against Malcolm X and Muslims.
Knowing nothing about either subject, Rose-Avila and his friend Paul Fernandez went to the library to research what was so offensive to their teacher. After reading everything they could find, they decided that their community was in need of its own Malcolm X. The next time, their civics teacher began to speak poorly of Malcolm X, the two boys used their gym towels as prayer mats and began to pray to the east.
“I’m Mohammad Fernandez and he’s Malcolm Avila and we’re Muslims,” they proclaimed.
Their teacher was outraged, insisting: “No, you’re Mexican. You’re two good Catholic boys.”
Not knowing how to end a Muslim prayer, they crossed themselves, and for the next few months, anytime their teacher brought up the subject of Malcolm X, they prayed to east as their form of protest.
From then on Rose-Avila made it his business to engage in political movements. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was the only Mexican at the University of Colorado to stand in solidarity with the black athletes in their demonstration for an ethnic studies program.
“People really hated you for standing up in that atmosphere. When I wasn’t with the black athletes the fraternity brothers tried to beat me up,” Rose-Avila recalls.
This proved no deterrent. Since those days, Rose-Avila has worked with a variety of organizations from Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union to Amnesty International.
“I have spent the majority of my life working for organizations that promote human rights and civil rights. And right now I join millions of people who are unemployed and who are looking for new opportunities,” he said, referencing his departure from OIRA with the change in Seattle mayoral administrations.
During his year and a half tenure as director there, Rose-Avila says the office made great strides to connect immigrants with the city of Seattle.
“Our greatest accomplishment was demystifying city government for immigrants and refugees,” he says, noting that his only regret is feeling that the city still has more work to do in terms of providing forums for immigrant and refugee communities to express their needs and be met on their own terms.
In searching for new opportunities, Rose-Avila returns to his writing. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled “Driving to the Moon,” which is a collection of personal narratives and poetry.
“When you are an artist, whether you’re painting, writing songs or dancing all we do is reflect the voices around us. We’re like the wind testers. We listen to the wind and are able to get messages that other people maybe don’t get in the storm.”
Rose-Avila identifies apartheid in South Africa as one of the storms he found himself immersed in. The message he received took shape in the form of a poem called “We Are South Africa.”
Written 28 years ago, the piece is collection of voices representing the archetypes of people impacted by apartheid; the exiles, the students, the ministers, the families, people of all colors and backgrounds with one the common denominator of being South African and wanting to be free.
“I had just read about another shooting of African students by the police,” Rose-Avila recounted. “I sat down at the IBM electric, we didn’t have computers yet, and wrote the poem ‘We Are South Africa’ I only performed it once or twice,” Rose-Avila said.
Then the poem disappeared into a pile of paper stacked in a box and set aside.
In the wake of the passing of Nelson Mandela, Rose-Avila resurrected the poem to share with a few friends, which turned into a 12 person reading for the congregation at Bethany United Church of Christ.
“I heard about the poem when Leno asked me to part of the ‘cast’,” said Bob Barnes, a member of the Musicians Union, Local 76-493, who read the role of miner and narrator. “It sounded like an exciting and important thing to do, and who can say no to Leno?”
That sentiment was echoed by Kristen Beifus, a Community Organizer for United Food and Commercial Worker’s Local 21.
“I felt unsure. I want to be an ally. This being a South African struggle I didn’t know if being a white person would be additive, but then [Rose-Avila] gave me the part of the white woman. And that felt like a part I could play and be authentic,” Beifus said.
In fact none of the cast members reading parts in the poem are South African. The common thread between them and their tie to the piece is in the activism.
“The poem has had a growing impact on me,” explained Barnes. “Each time I hear, read or participate in it, I feel the reality of the message and feel a real part of the ‘we’ in the title.”
“In a way I’m nervous,” confessed Rose-Avila. “I’m nervous because many…young people, don’t know how difficult the struggle was in South Africa and I’m hoping the poem communicates to them that struggle which is a part of worldwide struggle we have in this country.”
When I got the call to participate in the reading at Bethany United myself, I didn’t fully understand what I was joining. There was a poem that a friend of a friend had written about South Africa, words that needed to be read and could I lend my voice.
But when I looked around the room at the faces of friends and strangers I would be reading with, this uniquely diverse collection of people who had come together to perform the poem, I realized that this was more than a commemoration of past activism.
Rose-Avila gathered to him a collection of local activists to breathe new life into a collective memory of a struggle, and to bring to the forefront our current struggles and how they will be viewed by history.
No matter what leader, or what specific struggle you’re closest too, isn’t that what Martin Luther King Day should be about?