Amor and Vida Loca: Benjamin Bac Sierra on his new book Pura Neta
Benjamin Bac Sierra was raised by a widowed mother and the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District. After serving as a grunt in the Marine Corps, where he participated in front-line combat during the first Gulf War, Ben completed his B.A. in English at U.C. Berkeley, earned a teaching credential and a Master’s in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and merited a Juris Doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Since 2002, he has been a professor at City College of San Francisco and a community innovator and keynote speaker throughout the Bay Area. Ben’s essays and stories have been published in newspapers and literary magazines, including World Literature Today, where he was featured as a prominent emerging author. His first novel Barrio Bushido was presented a Best of the Bay Award and an International Latino Book Award. In 2016, U.C. Hastings College of the Law La Raza Students Association honored him as a Distinguished Alumni of the Year for his community leadership and legal analysis of police killings. Pura Neta, his latest novel, is published by Pochino Press.
Here he speaks on his new book, Pura Neta, out this fall from Pochino Press.
How did you decide to write Pura Neta as poetry rather than prose? What do you think the poetic form adds to the book?
I believe what I have written is somewhat unprecedented in that I integrate both prose and poetry throughout the story. The plot of the story is written in standard prose, but throughout the novel, the characters many times speak, think, and dialogue using stanza-style poetry.
Both the prose and poetry are rooted in imagination and amor. Blood, too.
My Mayan ancestors would cut their most intimate flesh and spread the pouring blood onto parchment paper, bark cloth that was then burned so that through the smoke that exuded from the flames, the spirits could snake out to reveal blessings — mysteries that drove a civilization to the stars and that were tattooed down in books, thousands of codices ultimately burned by the Spanish Conquistadores’ holy men.
Something spiritual happens when I am writing alone in my room, confined to myself, to my mind, to my pride and pain. Through writing, which is like a blood-letting, I communicate with spirits, so that I can share secrets burned away so many moons ago.
We learn from trying and failing and trying some more.
So, one night in January 2018, after a few shots of Ta-kill-ya and chuckling about my life as a writer, perhaps a little frustrated about all of it, I jumped at the epiphany of combining all of it together: the fiction, the essays, the poetry, all of it and more into a gigantic jambalaya. Pura Neta is actually a jumbo of a lot of different projects fused together to create a coherent story. Some of it comes from a non-fiction book draft tentatively titled Bone Mountain. Some it is from drafts of two novels I wrote called The Homeboy and the Gypsy and The Revolt of Los Locos. Some are poems from a draft of a book entitled Gangsters and Guerillas, love poems, existential poems, political poems. All of it is life, vida loca.
The poetry parts of the book force readers to slow-motion the world, to concentrate on specific words and images. The poetry invites readers to feel the music of language. The blending of both prose and poetry forces readers to rethink language and how it forms ideas. It challenges readers to a new imagination.
Revelations from poetry are authentic education that nobody pays for and also that nobody pays you for! And that’s ok :) The school system tricks our youngsters to believe that education ain’t worth nothing unless you make money off of it. That’s the same message technology brings to the hoods. But the blessings of consciousness aren’t easy and can’t be gained in a formulaic fashion. Poetry helps you get into a funk and starkly see things for what they are.
Do you think that your background in law and as a professor contributed to how you thought about and wrote Pura Neta?
I hated studying law.
I didn’t believe in the law. I didn’t understand it nor care to understand it because I was so mistrustful of it. In the law there were tricks purposely meant to confuse lower economic class people and to keep them ignorant and, more insidiously, scared and hopeless. Simply to have a single legal form submitted to the court could cost you thousands of dollars in attorney fees. You weren’t good, smart, or wealthy enough even to fill out the blank space designated for your own name, so you were supposed to hire a lawyer to do it!
To speak to a suspicious wealthy lawyer or judge was to confess my utter stupidity and feel ashamed and angry. Varrio gente took that anger out not on the law, cause they knew how futile that fight was, but they took it out on themselves and other innocent destitute victims, until the gente were nothing but dry bones. The law, you always knew, was an unrepentant killer.
That was my wisdom coming out of law school, three years of torture and anxiety. I hated it, but am glad and grateful I went through it cause I had to learn those things to be able to understand them better than the bosses understand themselves and to be able to rebut them. This legal education and writing style has come in very handy when I have had to fight for the community, whether that is to make a political point or to fight against police brutality and killings. But I would be very stupid, I believe, if I thought the law was truth.
Pura Neta is poetry, which is a paradox.
As far as being a professor, I try to teach, but I actually gain more, I think, from the students than they may gain from me. I am who I am as a teacher because of them. I have listened to them for over twenty years. Being on the frontline at community college, I learn from my real-world students. This, I am sure, influenced me to want to write a book for the grassroots, a book that would entertain them, challenge them, and educate them in some way.
What sorts of, as you put it, amor actions are going on in the Mission today? How and where do you see the original spirit of the area asserting itself?
This is an insane unprecedented time. We are all in lockdown, Homes!
Despite all of the turmoil, the Mission community, and many other varrio communities, are doing their best for gente: organizers are, with boxes of groceries, actually feeding people who need food. On the streets, organizers are testing Loved Ones for COVID. That’s lots of love; that’s amor action.
In Pura Neta, the characters Lobo and Cartoon implement a naturally rooted amor action in the hood. That means it is not only about big policies that make a difference in people’s lives, but it is the present moment of amor that is important in everyday life. The OG Mission still lives in churches like Victory Outreach, which is led many times by Homeboys and Homegirls who have been through vida loca on the streets. The lowriders are still bouncing down the block in ballet style, showcasing colorful heart art. The musicians are still out there playing their rancheras on the streets, and that music and spirit affect everyone who hears it. Some OG veterano Homies are still out there, but because of gentrification, they are living under the freeway. Those homeless Homies represent the last of that loco spirit. I see them still, and they fill me with lots of love because they are the hard-core Loved Ones who stayed true to the street code. I am not romanticizing them; I am saying that they have spirit and secrets to survival that represent lots of love.
It is a miracle
To be cherished
To be shouted at by a
In the middle of the street
You are special
That’s amor action.
Interesting what you’ve said about the guys you grew up around being equally ready to fight or go on about philosophy. What would you say is the role of formal education, book learning, etc in your books?
In the varrio there is something instinctual about what we do that is beyond logic. We try to get back to natural roots. We sing songs, invent art, raise our children, and laugh at locura.
Somehow, someway many of us knew formal education was a lie. Because of our innate intelligence and our revolutionary defiance about being oppressed, many of us simply refused the educational system, regardless of the consequences that it had upon us, even if that meant incarceration and/or death.
Pura Neta challenges formal education. My life challenges formal education. In fact it was best for my consciousness that I dropped out in the seventh grade. If I would have stayed in school and accepted instruction, I would not have the insight I have today. Nevertheless, I still value all I have been introduced to learn, whether I agree with it or not. Good teachers, professors, writers touch upon issues that confront all of us, and I have learned from the best, most imperfect of us: Camus, Dostoevsky, Dickinson, Loynaz. I learned about magical realism, absurdism, existentialism and at the same time learned to value our varrio philosophy — vida loca and natural roots.
In Pura Neta Cartoon states this:
You be a good person
I love my gente too much to betray them
Together in hell is better than your heaven
What formal institutional education taught me is summed up best by Shakespeare’s Caliban:
“You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.”
Education is not necessary. I mean, you will continue to exist with or without literary consciousness, unless, of course, you are dead, but if we are in this thing called life, I feel we all want to feel alive while we are alive. Feeling is more important than abstraction. Literature, interestingly enough, because it deals with the imperfect human condition, can be one way we feel more. Education is one way to question our feelings. It is not a solution to anything, but it is something that can entertain you and, perhaps, help you understand opportunities. The best I can hope people will get out of my books is that they feel that it is important to live while alive. It is your life.
I got to all these preceding paragraphs by reading and writing, so the words/ideas themselves play a significant role in my books.
How does your work challenge or redefine the stereotypes of what it means to be a Latino in the Mission (or in California in general?)
Pura Neta showcases that we are the same as all locos y locas around the world. We do not believe in being normal or assimilated Indios. We refuse being brainwashed. We must keep our distinct flavor, but also stretch beyond it so that we can keep imagining ourselves in this new era. A big point about identity in Pura Neta: truth is not just truth. Truth was once simply imagination that then became truth, and truth does not remain static, but it lives. That means we must constantly keep grasping at it and ourselves, even though it is a futile fight. The fight for truth helps us know ourselves and be somewhat at peace with vida loca, which is always the root. That is a tenet in all my writing. We are in vida loca. Nothing makes sense. The Homies are cool with that, so no matter what happens, they continue to thrive and live life while they are alive.
The universe is absurd, but that does not mean I am a nihilist, because I fight even against nihilism, even though I have no answer, because there is no ultimate answer. Inside of Pura Neta, there is a message of unity, despite our oppression:
I am brown like shit
That fertilizes flowers and food
I am brown like dirt
That sustains skyscrapers and sueños
Brown hot coffee
Fuel for faceless forms
Inspiration for tired troops
Back broken coffee picking
Because what else is there
When you have nothing
But muscles and brown skin?
On Cinco de Mayo,
I down Corona beer
And get drunk like a Mexican
My parents were from Guatemala
It doesn’t matter
We are all brown pieces of shit
Who share suffering and smiles
Heartbreaks and heaven
We know how to live
And how to die
Con Safos, Homes