Thirty years ago last month, San Franciscan Ben Bac Sierra was a 19-year-old Marine on the ground near Kuwait in the final battle of Operation Desert Storm. Today he’s an author, an educator and an advocate for life and love.
“I was a grunt in the infantry,” said Bac Sierra, remembering the four days of toe-to-toe combat that ended the war. “I prayed, if I could get out I would do something – I didn’t know what – in this thing called life.”
Today, professor Bac Sierra holds graduate and postgraduate degrees from University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State and a juris doctorate from Hastings College of Law, though he decided he could not put his faith in an unjust system. Instead, he looks for ways to share his experience, help others and spread the love he’s found through writing.
“Now more than ever, writing is an extremely valuable tool to not only be able to express yourself, spur your imagination, gain some type of elemental power and action-out your ideas, but a way to live what you write,” said Bac Sierra, now in his 20th year teaching at City College of San Francisco. “It doesn’t have to be static. Ideally if you write it down, it can be true.”
His second and latest book, “Pura Neta,” tells the story of Cartoon, “a Homeboy” who’s spent some time away only to return to his barrio remade: It’s dotted with “microbreweries and cheese schools” and needless to say, bad things ensue. But there is beauty at every corner and when the neighborhood’s original inhabitants reclaim their streets, this part-fable, part- fiction, part-poem becomes a magically real vision of post-gentrification and post-pandemic life.
“We’re in this real funky place now. From now on, nothing will be the same,” said Bac Sierra. “Education, work, the economy, everything will be totally transformed. How can we reimagine ourselves? There’s just one way through: You’ve got to go back to the root of who you are.”
Born and raised here by his widowed mother originally from Guatemala, Bac Sierra was a true child of the streets.
“I didn’t know there was a city of Richmond or Berkeley. We went to Oakland once every few years,” he said.
He dropped out of school in the seventh grade. “I realized, school is not going to be able to solve my immediate issues. I learned more consciousness living the vida loca,” he said of street life. “I was in and out of juvenile hall.”
His brother, three years older, served time in prison and was released, the year before Bac Sierra returned from the war.
“He was a street legend. He was part of that first generation of mass incarceration. He lived and died on the streets,” he said. “It’s because of him I went to City College. He said, ‘Ben, I’m signing you up,’ and he picked the classes —- a full load.” Bac Sierra didn’t know anyone who had gone to college.
“I didn’t know about the GI Bill. I didn’t know what a degree was,” nor did he immediately take to the campus environment.
“I wouldn’t go to class, I was so traumatized. I didn’t want to be around people, but I went to the library and looked through the stacks.”
What he found at CCSF were not only books but encouragement. He hopes to be that kind of teacher to his students.
“City College is the greatest institution on planet earth and I’ve studied and lectured — from North Dakota to NYU and UCLA — at many,” said Bac Sierra. “I have a certain kind of educational, instructional and linguistic knowledge but they have the heart and soul. Thousands of students have taught me so very much,” he said. “Especially how to listen.”
During the pandemic, the adjustment to remote learning and the general disruption in people’s lives has given Bac Sierra cause to listen even deeper.
“I let them know what I’ve been doing. I let them see me as a human being and I see them as human beings,” he said. “If someone in their family has COVID, we talk about making a plan, reducing their worries.”
Bac Sierra had anticipated some of what the year ahead might look like when we were ordered to shelter-in-place a year ago, again, based on his brother’s experience.
“I knew that we could get through this hunkering down,” he said. “People in prison are so creative when it comes to getting locked down: Working out, reading, drawing, playing chess through the walls…they’re experts at being locked down and staying sane. The imprisoned spirit has helped me,” he said of his own pandemic regimen.
“I’m up between four thirty and five a.m. I have a schedule for writing. I have workout routines, I get some good walking done. Thoreau wrote a lot about the idea of walking — being rooted in nature. It’s beyond words, beyond thought. By nine I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.
It’s writing, he said, that changed him from the inside out.
“I carried guns everywhere I went. I was trained to be violent. I didn’t know how else to be. Drinking was my medicine. I didn’t even know how to smile. It wasn’t until I started writing about these things inside of me that I did not feel the need to be so aggressive. I would never have imagined that love is one of the staples of who I am.”
Love is what he brings to his work on the Amor For Alex movement, in remembrance of his friend Alex Nieto, who was shot 59 times by the San Francisco Police Department on March 21, 2014.
“This man had never been arrested in his life,” said Bac Sierra. “He was a beautiful man. I have the law degree, I understand San Francisco and I was in a position to be able to fight for him. I’ve been in combat, been on the street. I used all those tools to push for his honor.
“Based on my studies, this was the biggest movement ever to defend a Latino victim of a police killing and it came from San Francisco, the Mission District, and became a Bay Area, statewide, national and international movement,” he said.
“Seven years ago no one supported a movement against the police. Now we have a district attorney who was voted in who will fight against the police. This is to a certain extent a success. It’s not a solution, in a system that’s corrupt, but it’s a movement that we built with love, which is more powerful than justice,” he said.
“I hope I don’t sound too transcendental,” he said, seeking to circle back to our theme of life in The City.
“San Francisco is named for St. Francis, San Pancho…We are rooted in the ideal of amor. San Francisco can use the pandemic as an opportunity to go back to its roots.” He pointed to the 9-foot statue of St. Francis at CCSF, sculpted by renowned San Francisco artist Beniamino “Benny” Bufano, commissioned by Mayor Joseph Alioto in 1968 following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; both are depicted in a mosaic, along with John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
“They melted down guns from a buyback program to make the statue,” said Bac Sierra. “It’s called ‘St. Francis of the Guns.’ We need to stand for what our name stands for,” he said. “I wake up and think to myself, how can I spread some amor today? If it doesn’t involve love, I’m not interested.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.