St. Paul’s Carlos Garcia-Velasco: Been there, lived that


I remember I was running across campus with my mom and I was wearing a “Question Authority” shirt, and saying “Mom, why are you making me wear this?” and her saying, “Oh don’t ask! Just wear it!”

The son and grandson of migrant workers, father of four children, youth worker for various Boys and Girls Clubs, and executive director of WSCO for the past five years, Carlos definitely is, and has been in his 36 years, “a little all over the place.” He spoke with the Twin Cities Daily Planet about his upbringing, community organizing, youth work, music and motorcycles.

Did you grow up on the West Side?

We moved around a lot, we lived in rural areas at first. We had always lived like on our grandma’s couch, in a panel truck in Corpus Christi, a garage in Texas. We lived in a mobile home when we first came up to Minnesota.

Then we moved and we were like, “Oh wow! We got this brand new house! And it’s clean!” We thought we made it to the big time. Well, I come to find out later that these were the McDonough projects. So, they were brand new at that time, but it was project housing.

My mother was born in a time when, typically, Mexican heads of households wanted sons because they could do work and produce. Well, I think my mother was the toughest of them anyway. My dad was a young, kind of a homeless cat who was probably pretty cool and tough and ran the streets and did what he wanted to. He showed interest in my mother, and my grandfather Neto basically said, “Here, you can have her.”

And so they sort of worked something out where she became, essentially, a possession of my father. He took her—and all of us—to California. My dad’s mother used to take me back and forth to Mexico and I guess I would consider it kidnapping. It was a way for my father to say to [my mom], “if you get any ideas about leaving, you know Carlitos is going to Mexico.”

There was a lot of violence and abuse happening in our household at the time.

How has your upbringing shaped the way that you are as an organizer?

West Side Community Organization
According to WSCO’s website:
The West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO) unites more than 16,000 residents, business people, and organizations in building a community where people want to live, work, and play. For more than a quarter century, WSCO has brought West Siders together to develop and preserve what makes our neighborhood great—safe and affordable housing; a healthy environment; accessible parks and recreational facilities; and high quality education. WSCO promotes a positive image of the West Side and nurtures pride and respect in our community.

WSCO isn’t a social service agency or political organization that represents just a few. It isn’t a government body or an exclusive club. WSCO is a volunteer-driven organization that encourages the involvement of everyone—people from all backgrounds who live and work on the West Side—in decisions and activities that affect our community. With a scope that ranges from land use issues and riverfront development to recycling, education, and community celebrations, WSCO informs, educates, and empowers people to advance our shared goals.

It makes me be able to relate to the real barriers that exist in young peoples lives, especially those that are dealing with cycles of poverty, oppression, chemical abuse and dependency and cycles of violence.

I think it gives me credibility with young people to say, “Hey, I know what it’s like to be sitting in class and not caring at all about what’s on that test because I ate doughnuts for dinner last night and I didn’t have breakfast today.”

It also allows me to use my heart as my moral compass and not make judgments based on what I’ve been taught. I say to [young people], “What has happened to you is not who you are. This just happened to have happened to you, but that’s not who you are.”

I’ve heard you talk a lot about education and its importance.

Yeah. I saw my mother, who was a young single parent, advance generations in her one lifetime. I like to tell people that I feel like we’re the homo erectus chart. But instead of the first one being an ape, it’s us in the fields and it’s through education that we became standing upright human beings having self-awareness and actualization.

She was involved in the Chicano movement at the University of Minnesota when she went back to school. So, the U of M was my playground. The student housing at the Commonwealth Community Terrace right behind that State Fairgrounds…well, it was like a United Nations out there. You’d throw a ball on the field and you’d be playing with Argentinians, Venezuelans, Chinese, German kids, kids from Belgium, the Philippines, Togo.

And it was all around a ball on the field. We had a real global community out there.

And I remember when the Chicano student cultural center was a mop closet. There was this farm building where they said, okay, here’s the Asian student association, here’s the African American association. And we had a mop closet. I was only a young kid, but even I could see the inequities.

We kind of laugh about it now, but I remember I was running across campus with my mom and I was wearing a “Question Authority” shirt, and saying “Mom, why are you making me wear this?” and her saying, “Oh don’t ask! Just wear it!”

It’s kind of a joke, but she was planting these seeds of consciousness. It started making me think of things, and it was starting to turn me on to these deeper social issues, and I was actually firsthand witnessing what an organized group of young students could do for their Chicano studies department.

You’re involved in the music scene. What role does music fill in your life?

Well my mother turned me on to a lot of good and hip music. I remember candles being lit. I remember Stevie Wonder, Earl Klugh, George Benson, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. Really it was soul music as healing, as a companion, as a way of crying and celebrating, as spiritual practice.

One of the things I do is I support a local hip-hop artist named Angel Darcourt. She’s a Chicana, Cubana. Lesbiana, hard core rapper. And she spits fire. There are folks who have been in the rap game for so many years and they can’t even carry her microphone. So, that’s my way of getting out there and staying connected with some of the younger people.

And now I play and I write music. I also have a three-piece band and we might be playing a little in the spring. I would call it Chicano roots music. It’s very grassroots, soul, rhythm based. I guess it’s, uh, it’s jamtastic. Mostly, we like to have a good time.

Have you seen any change in the way people view organizing since Obama came on the scene?

I think that a lot of people now want to say they’re organizers. It’s kind of like a flavor of the month right now. A lot of people just want to take that label and toss it around without really understanding the tools or the history of what it takes to be an effective organizer.

If people wanna go ahead and put that label on some of the things that they’re doing, I really feel they need to go through training, to understand the tools, to practice and to have some time out in the field doing some organizing.

People always see you around on your motorcycle. Tell me about your bike.

We used to ride up on the Rez when I was a young kid with my brother Duane. We would be up at White Earth Indian Reservation where his grandfather had a cabin. And they would leave us with gas for the dirt bike and the boat, and enough cereal and enough sandwich meat for a week. You know there’d be a cousin down the street or this or that, but we were basically by ourselves.

So we’d give each other rides on this old beat up Hodaka, which was basically—well the clutch was held together by tape—and it was probably pretty dangerous us riding around with no helmets.

But it gives me a feeling of solitude when I’m on my bike alone. I can go far distances. It’s kinda like my war pony. When I’m on two wheels, it’s the closest I can feel to flying without leaving the ground.

There’s just nothing like the feeling of those two wheels, you cranking the throttle, and you going.