Thursday, October 05, 2017

Danny Trejo kicks off reading at Vets' Hall

Danny Trejo kicks off
reading at Vets' Hall                                              
Daniel Cano                                                                  
                                                           A Spiritual Connection

     Culver City AMVETS Post 2 sponsored a reading by Otilio “O.T.” Quintero at 7:00 P.M. Saturday, September 23rd, at the Post’s historic Pete Valdez Hall.

     O.T., who retired in 2016 from his assistant director’s position at Barrio’s Unidos, a non-profit organization specializing in gang prevention and non-violence among Chicano/Latino youth throughout central California, says that after 25 years in the non-profit world he needed a change.

     It was a difficult, but a necessary transition, Quintero told me before his reading. I asked, “Does that mean not everyone at Barrios Unidos was happy with your decision?”

     He smiled, and said, “You could say that.”

    A natural raconteur, Quintero confessed he wasn’t sure where his new path would lead. He told the audience he felt like Moses heading into the desert.

     A mountain of a man, with a soul to match, Quintero said that in 1976, he’d stayed with a Chol Mayan family, near Palenque. His mentor had been a Mayan named don Manuel, who led him on an excursion into the spiritual world. Otilio wasn’t exactly sure why the family had taken him in, but he was glad they did. The experience changed Quintero’s life and set him on a spiritual quest.

     He described how his work with Barios Unidos and Homies Unidos, though gratifying, had shown him the dark side of life with adults lost in the prison system to kids suffering in juvenile hall. In El Salvador, he’d watched as street children, some no more than four years-old, huddled in groups sniffing glue just to make it through one more day. "We have no one but each other," one child told him when Otilio asked why they would do such a dangerous thing. Knowing that these children would succumb to the streets, Otilio remembered crying out to God one day, why? The answer came back, “How do you think I get my angels.”

    He has met and worked with many influential people, including Cesar Chavez, Tom Hayden, and Father Greg Boyle. Meeting Hugo Chavez was a highlight to his career. In 2005, Quintero was awarded the California Wellness Peace Prize. So, after all of this, where was there to go?

    Quintero began writing, mainly to clear his head. As he wrote, he began to explore the incredible journey on which “the creator” had led him. A funny thing happened. He couldn’t stop writing, even at times when his fingers cramped so much, he felt he couldn't continue. Before he knew it, he had written the story of his life, starting with his childhood, growing up in Three Rocks, a housing project for farm workers, a few miles outside of Fresno, “A real hell hole,” as he described it. It seemed that for many unfortunate souls in this “purgatory”, drugs or death was the only way out.

     Ultimately, Quintero completed a manuscript he called “Memoirs of a Barrio Warrior.” When he thought he needed a more literary title, he realized the title captured his life, exactly, so he left it. That’s what he’d been, in his youth, and in his professional career: a barrio warrior.

     The evening opened with a welcome by Francisco Juarez, a Vietnam veteran and Post 2 board member, who helped organize the event. Juarez said he is trying to connect, in a creative way, military veterans with the community, an effort to unify everyone, culturally. As a veteran, Juarez told the audience, “When military veterans and barrio warriors get together, something special happens.” With that, Juarez introduced actor/activist Danny Trejo, who attended the event to support his friend O.T. Quintero.

     Trejo picked-up on Juarez’ theme regarding the association of military veterans and barrio warriors. Trejo said, “I watched most of the Vietnam War from my cell in San Quintin, and I couldn’t understand why they’d send those beautiful kids to fight [a war] when they had an abundance of convicts in the penitentiary.”


     Irma Velasquez, a spiritual leader and teacher from Puebla, Mexico started the night with a cleansing and meditation, which Quintero said helped create a sacred place for the audience and for himself.

     Quintero told the audience that for him, a reading was like a rainbow. His manuscript was the rainbow, and choosing what to read was like choosing a color of the rainbow. Sitting at a table, opening his manuscript, Quintero welcomed everyone, and began reading.

     Overall, Quintero read for more than two hours, taking a short break in between. Quintero’s strength is in the rich, though often, tragic situations he has experienced. Though, as he says, he always comes back into the light.

     One story that resonates was when Quintero and his group, visiting El Salvador's Homies Unidos, boarded a city bus. Trying to be friendly, Quintero turned to acknowledge a kid in the back. The boy returned the look with a blank stare. Quintero wrote that he’d felt annoyed with the boy. He waited a while and turned to look at the kid again. This time, the boy held his stare. After a few seconds, the boy pulled back his jacket to reveal a grenade in his waistband. Quintero prayed, thinking that his life was about to end. Luckily, the group leader announced they were disembarking at the next stop. As Quintero stood, he turned again to the boy, who, this time, nodded, his lips shaped into a smirk, maybe a smile. Quintero wrote that he was so shaken, he could hardly explain to the group what he’d just witnessed.


    According to Quintero, his book will be released soon. It is now with the editor. I congratulated Otilio after the reading, and I told him that all of us could use good editing. Unfortunately, for many of us who publish with small private or university presses, good editing is expensive, and a luxury, and we don’t get enough of it.

     Some say that without a great editor like Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Hemingway, Wolf, and Fitzgerald might today just be second-rate writers. What I wouldn't do for a friend like Gertrude Stein, who mentored Hemingway while he was an apprentice writer in Paris.

     A big abrazo must be given to Francisco “Frank” Juarez, Chase Rivera, his staff, and Ray Delgado, and the veterans who assisted with the event. It might be true that special things happen when military veterans and barrio warriors get together.

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