More than two dozen Spanish-speaking men had the chance to take off their machismo masks and speak from their hearts to the grandson of a worldwide icon because of a groundbreaking self-help program in San Quentin.
Cesar Chavez’s grandson, Anthony P. Chavez, sat in on the May 27 session of Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP).
GRIP is a 52-week comprehensive offender accountability program that takes offenders on a healing journey deep inside themselves. Participants learn how to heal wounds originating in oftAen violent and fractured lives—wounds that cause feelings of disconnection and a lack of responsibility to others, according to founder Jacques Verduin.
“You are some of the tenderest tough guys I’ve ever seen,” Chavez told the group.
Chavez said he was seeking a dialogue on the similarities in the struggles of farm workers and the incarcerated and on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
“If it wasn’t for the compasaros (farm workers) I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Chavez said as he shared a poem, Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle. Three stanzas, he said, would drive the discussion.
Help me to take responsibility from my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world.
“You have to change laws and systems. But at the same time, you have to change the hearts and minds. That’s why I want to work in schools,” Chavez said about applying the stanzas to the dialogue.
The session began with 38 men sitting in a circle. They listened to Lucia de la Fuente explain the day’s lesson.
De la Fuente culturally adapted and translated the curriculum into Spanish in 2015, making GRIP the first program in California prisons for Hispanics, who make up 41 percent of the state’s inmate population.
Marco Villa led with a meditation exercise.
He instructed the men to take notice of any tension in their body, breathe into it, and release the stress.
Each session has a check-in component when men say how they feel physically, emotionally and spiritually.
With GRIP principles, scrolled in Spanish, the white board was angled for all the participants to see. One section instructed the students how to prevent violence by responding to stressful situations instead of reaction.
Sensations: What do you feel in your body?
Emotions: What are your emotions?
Thoughts: What are you telling yourself?
Actions: What did you do?
This exercise was tied to what Verduin called the moment of imminent danger, which is the time between thought and violence.
“Everything speeds up,” Verduin told the men. “Being aware that you’re in a position of imminent danger gives you the chance to slow it down,” he said while spreading his arms wide.
In the next exercise, called Unfinished Business, the participant was given the opportunity to tell a loved one something they wished they’d said, but never had said.
There were two chairs in the middle of the group, a box of tissues placed nearby.
One of the men stood next to a chair and addressed everyone. He said he wanted to apologize to his parents for disgracing the family.
He read from a hand-written letter. His pace was slow as he turned the letter over and continued reading.
Afterward, he took questions from de la Fuente and other participants.
The man, in his 60s, was solemn, his eyes reddening from the emotions aroused by reading such a letter.
Verduin, smiling, applauded the man speaking in Spanish.
One person in the group dropped a bombshell. He’d recently learned his mother had a stroke and was comatose.
In tears, he talked about his regrets, failures and the remorse he’d gained from GRIP.
GRIP allows partakers to dig deep within and talk about the circumstances leading to crime. Doing so helps the person create empathy by connecting with himself and understanding the impact of crime on others, which significantly reduces chances that the person would commit future acts of violence.
Verduin repeated GRIP’s most significant lesson: hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people.
“When I think about the circle process, I think of the tremendous power of the group and how it is a way for everyone to be a teacher,” Chavez said.
“Pain shared is pain divided, and joy shared is joy added,” Chavez said. “I can respect the humanity in this place. That’s why I come here to share the struggle.”