Sunday, March 13, 2016

Un Chicano, Sin Fin

Joe Olvera was a friend and mentor. I, like many people, was saddened to hear of his passing and have struggled to put the words together that would be a fitting tribute to Joe.

We became friends several years ago when he sent me an email about something I'd written. I was surprised he even knew I existed and truth be told, a little star struck. He had the voice that a vato like me could only aspire to, but never achieve.

The highest compliment I can pay a man like Joe is to call him exactly what he was, a Chicano.

Most of you reading this don't understand what that means. Sure, you're probably familiar with the term, or consider it a label with either good or bad connotations. But only a few actually know what it  means to be a Chicano.

When someone calls themself a Chicano, it's more than an ethnic identifier. It's a political badge of courage. When you call yourself a Chicano it means you are politically active and culturally proud. It means you have shed the yoke placed upon you by mainstream American culture and that of first generation Mexican culture and have embraced what it means to be different than both, but rooted in each.

So when I call someone a Chicano, it's a compliment of the highest order.

Joe was also pretty critical of me. The voice of my conscience is my Dad's voice. But if it wasn't my old man, it would be Joe's voice. He pushed me. He challenged me. He used to email me or call me and tell me when I wasn't raising enough hell about an issue. And every once in a while, he would email me a piece I wrote that he liked and the email would only have the phrase, "Te aventaste."

I used to print those emails out.

I wish there were more of them.

Later he would send me articles he'd written for Rio Grande Digital before they were published. It was my own personal VIP reading of his work before anyone else got to see it.

I often fell short of his expectations and disappointed him. During one heated exchange about a campaign we were on opposite sides of, I actually apologized for not living up to what I thought he wanted me to be. He responded firmly, but affectionately in a way a father does when he's correcting a son and told me, "Don't be sorry vato. Be stronger. Don't let an old man like me get under your skin. If I had a nickel for everyone I've pissed off over the years I'd be Paul Foster."

When I went through some hard times following my arrest, Joe was one of the people that reached out to me. He told me to ride it out and that I'd be stronger for it on the other side.

He was right. And I am.

It has been a long time since I got an email from him, but it was "Welcome back. Kick some ass. Keep raising hell. Sin Fin"

Every email ended with Sin Fin.

The Times described Olvera as quixotic.

For a man who made his living with words, that was the perfect personification of Joe. It's exactly what he was, exceedingly idealistic and often unrealistic and impractical.

And I'll be damned if that isn't what I loved most about the guy. It's those figures we often see as quixotic that are the ones the change the world. The world was never changed by vatos that go along to get along.

It's the guy that stands in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, the woman who won't move to the back of the bus, and yes - the brash and idealistic Chicano who takes on the rich white banker.

Those are the people that change the world.

Joe wasn't just Chicano, he was fist-in-the-air Chicano - like a lot of people from my dad's generation. It's a lot easier to be Chicano in an era where there are Chicano studies courses taught in universities, when people are now claiming their brownness instead of denying it, and when raza is finally taking baby steps toward realizing our place in board rooms and ballot boxes.

It was a whole lot harder for that generation when they were punished for speaking Spanish in school, weren't American enough when they joined the military and weren't Mexican enough for people from the other side of la frontera.

Joe is gone now but he is one of the few people that you can actually say left a legacy. He left a mark on this community.

His voice will live on.

Sin Fin.


Lily said...

Beautiful tribute to a true Chicano. Descansa en paz Joe.

platners said...

Beautiful eulogy! Nothing less for a Chicano who made it easier for future generations. c/s...adrian

Anonymous said...

Touching and eloquently written, Joe would be proud!