I am not a marijuano by any stretch of the imagination, and yet, I recently found myself attending my first NORML meeting. Actually, I wasn’t just attending, I was the keynote speaker. As I made the long drive into El Paso, I couldn’t help but marvel at how I had I gone from laughing at the idea of marijuana legalization less than a decade ago to joining the Drug Policy Alliance and actively working for its passage in all 50 states.
As a kid, I used to join my pop on long drives up the Interstate-5 freeway and remember listening to him hum old Jose Alfredo Jimenez corridos while pointing out towns where he used to be a farmworker. He would show me the scars on his hands from picking cotton and tell me about the suffocating summer heat and shooting pains in his back from years in the fields. The moral of all his stories was always the same: go to college and get a good job, stay away from pendejos and don’t do drugs.
So you can imagine how excited I was to learn about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. California recently observed Cesar Chavez Day and a new biopic on the labor leader is in theaters now. The UFW’s “si se puede" mantra would go on to encapsulate everything integral to my identity: my family, my culture, and the struggle for justice. I knew then that I wanted to work organizing Latino communities and I mistakenly thought marijuana reform had nothing to do with those goals.
I was a recent transfer student at the University of California Santa Barbra majoring in Chicana/o Studies, sporting a thick black mohawk fantasizing about moving to Chiapas to join the Zapatistas in their armed struggle. (FYI- The closest I have ever come to participating in guerilla warfare was playing IKari Warriors on Nintendo in the late 80s.)
I was committed to si se puede, not “Legalize It.” And that was that.
I had real work to do in the Latino community: passing the Dream Act, promoting juvenile and racial justice, ending mass incarceration and police brutality. The irony being that I was already fighting the war on drugs and working to "legalize it" without even knowing.
Ten years later, the mohawk’s been replaced by a receding hairline and I am standing in a dimly lit bar less than a mile from Ciudad Juarez, the site of over 10,000 drug war related murders in less than five years, saying “legalize it” and si se puede because marijuana reform IS a si se puede issue. It helps veterans with PTSD, serves as the only effective medicine to severely ill people suffering from all sorts of ailments. It’s also popular with abuelitas, moms, and pops. And that’s exactly who was present at that meeting.
I am proud to be a Chicano working at the Drug Policy Alliance using my si se puede to “legalize it” and end the failed war on drugs.
Jeronimo Saldaña is a first generation Chicano working on the Movement Building Team at the Drug Policy Alliance.