My Quest To California: 2017
with Nane Alejandrez, Barrios Unidos
by Alexis O. Diaz DeJesus

Walking off the plane in San Francisco felt unreal.  I still couldn't believe the opportunities I've been given. I was thrilled I let myself take a leap of faith into a once-in-a-lifetime chance. 

To get the opportunity to spend time and work alongside Nane Alejandrez and the amazing program he spent four decades building showed me I have to work hard and passionately to achieve my goals. 

Nane means, walking in peace, given to him by his grandmother a Navajo that inspired Nane to bring his Native  American practices and ceremonies to heal young people.  Both his grandfather and father dedicated there life to farming but encouraged Nane to go to school he decided to go to school.  After going through much pain and coming out prison Nane saw he needed to make a change. Nane understood that the same despair that nearly destroyed him was running rampant in all our cities. He decided to build a community program, with the support of friends and family. 

Barrios Unidos began from the trunk of Nane's car. It provides a great service to the communities by giving youth and those who were incarcerated a chance to learn new skills and get their first job out of prison. They encourage youth to finish school and  chase their dreams. They teach them about determination and setting goals. They seek to provide a curative space in the face of oppression. They seek the end of mass incarceration - and meaningful pathways for youth -- economic, political, interpersonal and spiritual. They also seek a community where the importance of culture is understood and individuals can draw strength from their authentic selves.  Barrios Unidos looks forward to a world that is truly just for all, moving forward knowing peace is possible when we come together with understanding, respect and love. Bringing a sense of tradition and culture brings people together in order to honor and respect each other's heredity and stop violence.   

At Barrios Unidos Production, youth are provided with the opportunity for vocational training, technical skills development and a sense of workplace, community and themselves. 

At this Young Warriors training, I met young Latinos from all over California.  When I gave them my Report on Holyoke Youth, they thought it was great.  Consciously and also unconsciously my life is changing in a way I never imagined possible.  In just a week I met and got to build great relationships with some amazing people. 

Nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains is Barrios Unidos' Walter Guzman Retreat Center.  It supports youth by connecting to them to the land. At the heart of the Center is a hand-made Native American sweat lodge.  This was one of my favorite memories on the trip.  I'm not going to lie.  I was nervous and didn't know what to expect.  Luckily, I wasn't alone since it was the first time for other youth.  While Nane tended a huge fire heating the lava rocks, he taught us about the Ceremony and how to be respectful. Before the Ceremony we received tobacco that we could throw into the fire along with our own special prayer. To begin the Ceremony Nane blessed us with sage and directed us to crawl on our knees like babies and repeat the words: "All My Relations".  Men wore no shirts and women wore traditional skirts and shirts.  Women entered first then the men.  Once inside we saw the middle was a dug-out hole filled with super-hot lava rocks.  While Nane played a drum and another played a flute, he taught us Native American chants.  As we each prayed, Nane threw water on the lava rocks, which turned to hot smoke and heated up the whole tent.  At times, it was hard to breathe but little by little it got easier. That night we did four rounds, and a few of us did an extra one with Nane.  It was really an out-of-body experience. The drums played to the same rhythm as my heartbeat and the flute playing in my ears made it feel like being awaken from a dream.  I learned a lot about the power my mind and how to change it for the better. We went around the circle and each one prayed for someone who passed in their family.  Many stories were painful.  The world is smaller than we think and many of our communities share the same problems and have similar stories.  

In light of local, national and global news/events, this trip was especially powerful, and meaningful because while I'm learn how I can work to stop the violence.  When violence happens,  it drives me more to want to stop it. I don't want to focus on the negative but I want to bring it to the light because it's only more reasoning on why things need to change. The morning I left my city to head to the airport, there was double murder - right across the street from my house. Just before the sweat lodge, I  learned that the shooter was a childhood friend.

Spending time with other Latino youth made me realize that talking about the issues we face is helpful and resourceful. Sitting in a circle and all the youth sharing information about what is happening in the world and how we could work out ways to improve them or stop them. The group mentors spent countless hours sharing their experiences about how youth can learn to make better decisions and provide guidance and answers to important issues. Being organized like Barrios Unidos and Brown Issues makes the movement more professional and serious to cause real changes. Being surrounded by the peacefulness of the wilderness I recognized how important it is for youth to sit together and talk about anything they want to talk about or fix.  I also realized how very little it happens in my City.  I really believe a community organization like Barrios Unidos would make my City thrive with positivity by providing the drive for change. Another great example of a great program is called Brown issues. A Sacramento City College Club that's been running for ten years. They work on educating high school and middle school students about community issues pertaining the Latino/Latina communities. They also focus on working with one another to become positive leaders and role models.  These programs could create such a positive impact in my own City. All my City needs to do is work together, set our differences aside to deal with problems that affect us and our communities. Slowly but surely, I'll put all my effort into bringing as much change and positivity I can to my City.  What is left for us to do right now is to figure out how to work together.  
Visiting California impacted me in such a positive and constructive way that will change my life and give me the drive to be successful in my life and my career.  To become successful I must be prepared to learn and be a mindful thinker and listener. I appreciate what I've experienced and the small things in life so much more and will apply myself and remind myself to stay positive. Having long meaningful conversations with Nane were amazing, very helpful and full of knowledge and wisdom.

To me this experience means that I am meant to do something great in life and that whatever career I end up in I will become successful to better my people and be an example of why it's important to stay positive and work hard. 

Sustainable Holyoke Youth Leadership Initiative *