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Who Asked Us? -- My America -- A Letter from the Left-Behind

New America Media, Commentary, Michael Cabral Posted: Oct 10, 2006

Editors Note: Michael Cabral, a prisoner at Californias maximum security prison at Pelican Bay, has only just celebrated his 20th birthday. He contributes regularly to The Beat Within, a weekly publication of writing and art from juvenile and adult prisoners across the country. In a personal letter to Beat Within editor Michael Kroll, this man-childs moving description of the life he knew makes a mockery of the slogan, Leave no child behind.

There were many, many days when only the dream of one day being able to get away from all the nightmarish realities that are my American home gave me hope. I remember walking through my neighborhood one day. I was 16 years old, and I was on my way to meet up with the "homies" and get drunk like we did every day we could afford it (and even some days when we couldn't).

I walked past the park where I saw Shawna, Jessica and a few other girls exiting the public restroom laughing, stumbling, waving when they saw me. Shawna and one of the other girls lifted their shirts and flashed their breasts to me - more laughing. "Don't worry about nothin'," I remember telling them, smiling more than just some. "I'll be back in a little bit."

Across the street in the soccer field somebody was getting beat up pretty badly by three or four others. The words bitch, "fool," "punk," and "now what" could be heard very clearly. But they didn't yell out any neighborhood, and I didn't recognize them, so I figured it was none of my business, and I kept on pushing. Then I walked past "The Yellow House" - a crack house in the alley painted yellow, like crack, ha ha.

Hanging out by the front door where you could always find him was Alex, a little boy no older than 8 or 9. He was dirty, wearing nothing more than a pair of underwear, and smoking a cigarette. "Go put some clothes on, Alex. It's cold out here."

"Eff you!"

I miss that kid.

Not 20 feet away, Chuck was sitting on a metal folding chair and, true to his at least 35-year-old self, was hitting on a crack pipe. "Come on, Chuck, what the hell are you doin'? At least take that shhh out back, man."

"Ha, ha, ha," Chuck started laughing you know, like I told a joke. Then he petted that big ugly dog I've never seen him without, and said, "What's up, Tuffy? Oh, and hey, check out what I got." He turned his back to me, not even waiting for a response, and pulled the collar of his shirt down, exposing his new tattoo - a proudly waving red, white and blue American flag on the back of his neck.

I remember it occurring to me at that moment (vaguely, though, and I still can't quite explain it today) that proudly depicted on the flesh of an all-American crack head is exactly where that flag belongs. Because for all my 16 years, this: Dirty little kids with no clothes; teenage girls who never learned how to respect themselves and were never taught just how important as women they are to our communities and world; scared young boys fighting, shooting, killing each other, just "having" to prove to the world that they're "real men," but only because they just can't deal with or even bring themselves to acknowledge the lost, hurt, yet beautiful people they really are; just enough welfare money for our parents to get a couple grams of dope; neighbors that are just like Chuck; 12- and 13-year-old immigrants working our fields in the day time because schools don't pay. Besides, schools aren't safe. They mean trouble, and trouble means jail. Jail means deportation, and deportation means yet another family left alone in this country with even less than the nothing they already have; etc., etc., etc.

This is all the red, white and blue has ever been willing to offer me, Alex, Shawna and thousands upon thousands more just like us. This is our home. This is our "freedom." This is our "one nation under God."

I wish I could explain it but anyway, I never made it to the spot where the homies were drinking; I never made it back to Shawna - not that night. I just turned around and walked away with nowhere to go. After a couple of blocks, I lifted the hood of my sweatshirt over my head so nobody would see my crying. I felt like shhh, worthless, and I didn't even know exactly why.


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