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All You Need is a Good Heart

photo credit: Dana Schuerholz

October 20, 2021 - 9:57 am

What does it take to effectively demonstrate for human rights?  Community organizer and writer, Magdaleno ‘Leno’ Rose-Avila reflects on his first protest in high school.

Rose-Avila has dedicated his life to community organizing for human rights, starting in the fields as a Colorado farmworker. He went on to organize and speak for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union in Colorado.  Later, he served as the first Director of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and was a former Executive Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Today, he is Founder of Building Bridges offering help to non-profit organizations assisting deportees and immigrants at the southern US border.

Producer: Mari McMenamin, Yuko Kodama, Fadumo Ali

Photo Credit: Dana Schuerholtz

Y K 0:00

91.3 KBCS music and ideas. Listener supported radio from Bellevue College, I Yuko Kodama. Next you’ll hear from Magdaleno, Rose-Avila. He’s the director of Building Bridges, a human rights activist and former director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He described his first demonstration as a high school student to me in 2019.

 

Magdaleno Rose-Avila 0:22

I did drugs early in junior high. So by the time I got to high school, I wanted to be on the wrestling team. And in particular, my senior year, I can barely read and write in English and very little in Spanish. And I need a C average to be able to stay on the sports team. So then my friend who’s introduced me to a lot of things in life, Paul Fernandez, who was a short guy, very muscular on the wrestling team, and very handsome guy. I told Paul, I said, You know, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, because I don’t understand what they want me to do for my senior papers. He said, Well, he says, I’ll help you. I’ll write them for you. He said, but on the condition, that every time I start a fight, you have to help me. I didn’t know short guys like to fight a lot. So I ended up beating my neighbors, my cousins, and they would say, ‘Well, why are you kicking me?’ I suppose writing my paper tonight, man. If I kick you good, I’m going to get an A on it. So that’s how I got out of high school. And Paul still laughs about that. Because he would basically write the same paper that he wrote for himself, but for me, in less legible handwriting. But Paul also, you know, when you’re a young guy, and I didn’t think about this ‘tiil much later, but because now that people see me protesting, and they go, Oh, you’re smart. You’re organizing these things.

So in high school, because I couldn’t read or write very well. And we had a teacher, civics teacher, Mr. Brining, who was a big racist. You know, we had no Blacks. We had one Japanese family, no Jews, and we knew of no Muslims, no Native Americans in my hometown, just Mexicans, whites, and the whites really hated us and mistreated us. So Brining, in class, he would start bad mouthing black Muslims, and in particular, Malcolm X, who was very popular then. And so you know, he’s talking about them in the way. I know, they talked about the Mexicans. So asked Paul Fernandez, I said, ‘who is Malcolm X?’ So we went down to the library, got all the newspapers, magazines, we could. We read about Malcolm X, and I told Paul, we need a Malcolm X in this town, because you know, they’re just mistreating Mexicans.

So then, that next week, Brining got off on the Islamic religion, the Muslims and really bad mouthing them as an evil religion. So I asked Paul, ‘Well, what is this Muslim religion?’ So he said, well, let’s go to the library. So we went to the library, and we read everything about the Muslims. And Paul says, you know, they pray five times to the east and have prayer rugs and Paul says next time Brining, talks about the Muslims or Malcolm X, we’re going to pull out our prayer rugs and bow to the east. I say ‘How are we going to do that? They don’t even sell…’ all they sold in my hometown was linoleum, no rugs, you couldn’t find a rug if you if you you know, you had $1,000. So he said, we’ll use our gym towels.

So sure enough, the next day we go to class, we take our gym towels, put them under that new slot under your desk, and Mr. Brining starts going off on the Muslims. So Paul gives me the high sign. So we get to step away from our desk, roll out our towels, and we bow to the east. And Mr. Brining says ‘What are you boys doing?’ Paul says ‘We’re Muslims and we have to pray’. He says ‘You’re not Muslims. He said you’re good Mexican Catholic boys get up from there’ Paul says ‘No, we’re Muslim’ they kept going back and forth and and he’s getting louder and all the other white kids. They’re Mexicans. They don’t know what’s going on because they don’t know what a Muslim is. They don’t know what Islam is or Allah and so we’re over there praying and and it gets getting louder and Brining: ‘Get up Get up your not Muslims!’ and Paul says. ‘Yes, we are we got to pray to Allah’. And finally he says he’s screaming almost at the top of his lungs. And Paul says ‘I’m Mohammed Fernandez and his Malcolm Avila’ we kept praying you know, bowing our heads and it’s going on and on.

This is my first demonstration because I don’t know how to do these things. And then, you know, I’m getting a little nervous and because you know, my first demonstration, front of the whole class, I don’t totally understand Islam and all of that. And so when I look at Paul, you know, like, give me the high sign when I can get up. So give me the high sign and not knowing how to end Islamic Muslim prayer. We made the sign of the cross and got up and nobody knew the difference? So every time Brining would start talking about Malcolm X and the Muslims, we’d have to roll out our towels. And finally, we just get up and he stopped talking about the Muslims. So eventually we just got him to shut up.

Now he could kick me out of class, but not Paul Fernandez. I was on the wrestling team. But I wasn’t a star. Paul Fernandez was the star and our wrestling team was either conference champion or co-champ every year that I wrestled. But, so we were the big highlight in the school athletically, but otherwise we would have been kicked out, you know. So who’d want two Mexicans praying to the east, in, in a civics class.

Wherever people enter the system, and start confronting it and raising their voices, that becomes important. One of the things that I’ve found is you don’t have to have a PhD, you don’t have to have a law degree to stand up for human rights. You just have to have a good heart.

 

Y K 5:59

That was Magadaleno Rosa- Avila, Director of Building Bridges and former director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. For more KBCS stories and to support our work with a donation you can visit kbcs.fm.