by Tyler Woodsmall
Frank De Jesus Acosta and Henry A. J. Ramos curated and edited a book of testimonies which includes poetry, essays, letters, and art from incarcerated young Latino men. “Incarcerated people of color” is an abstract concept, far enough from reality you can safely watch a television show about prison life and only be marginally disturbed. Not disturbed enough to stop watching the show—consider the rise of television documentaries and reality prison TV shows in the last ten years. The idea that prison is a system that molds men and women into hyper-dominant, aggressive, dangerous subhumans is an appealing narrative to the viewer sitting on the couch. The fantasy of a tough animal-like caricature of a prisoner has fueled an entire mainstream entertainment subcategory of reality television.
The book Latino Young Men and Boys in Search of Justice: Testimonies might serve as a direct response to the gritty myopia of prison life as entertainment. I wanted to put it down and never look at it again. I mean that in the best way possible way. The book isn’t jarring for gritty violent TV-like stories, but because you’re reading the thoughts and feelings of young people who won’t get their lives back. The poetry and art solidify empathy and you can’t help thinking that these boys are capable of much more than writing from a prison cell.
The common theme of these testimonies is young men constantly feeling like outsiders, until they eventually became the outsiders they were already seen as. George Galvis writes about the beginning of his school career as an academically gifted, lower-income Latino student in a white middle-class school system.
“I began to rebel in school and seek my validation by the rules of the street among people who looked like me. Over time, after some hard knocks, I ascertained the falsehood of the laws of the street and gang culture. For awhile, though, this was my path and vehicle of rebellion, my warped place of belonging.”
Prison literature is an ongoing political revolution that insists on being read. Just the act of writing and publishing while in prison is a form of protest. The noise of reality television can’t silence an entire class of people with thoughts and ideas who have no other outlet. The concept of “doing time” is supposed to be a time of reflection for the crimes the prisoners have committed. Why is entertainment so disinterested in those reflections? Is it because it doesn’t sell as much? Or is it because the reflections might reveal a system that has made a commodity from their crimes? Every piece that is written from a cell begs those questions, even if they aren’t directly stated. The system in which these people are writing is just as important as the writing itself, which is why this book deserves to be read.
Latino Young Men and Boys in Search of Justice: Testimonies, by Frank De Jesus Acosta (Author, Editor) and Henry A. J. Ramos (Editor)
Arte Publico Press 2016