The Lam Vo You(r’e) Looking For

Over a long career, a teacher can have thousands of students.  Over time, years blur into each other, and many students are all but forgotten as the successive classes come in and take up places in my heart, mind, and soul. Former students whom I may have had more than 20 years ago come up to me on the streets of Oakland all the time, asking if I remember them.

I always want to say yes, but except for a special few from each year, mostly I do not recall them with any clarity. I will most frequently recall the artists, the writers, the most academically successful, and the ones who disrupted the class the most.  But mostly, I remember the class dynamic, how it interacted as a group.

I did not hear back from Lam or know what had happened to him after he failed to graduate in June 2009. I moved on to my new position in the district, and did not really think about him much after he didn’t respond to my inquiry and offer of assistance.

Then one day I was reading the Oakland Tribune online, and I came across this headline: “Gang member admits shooting 16-year-old girl; will be sent to prison for at least 25 years.”

I skimmed the story quickly – as I often do – to see if I recognized a name. I rarely do. But when I saw the name Lam Vo, I was pretty certain that I  knew the young man described as “an admitted gang leader.”  He’d pleaded no contest to blinding a 16-year old girl with a bullet to the head, leaving her prone to lifelong seizures.

I held onto a lame hope that maybe “Lam Vo” was the “John Smith” of the Vietnamese communities, and it was just a sheer coincidence that the age also matched about how old I thought he was.

At the time, I had a blog for SF Gate and wrote, after reading about him, that “I know people always say this, but he really didn’t seem like the type; he was quiet, respectful towards teachers, did good work, was actually a bit brighter than many of his peers; seemed to have some goals.  It would make sense that he would be attending adult school, if he was unable to go straight to college, because he had the type of mindset and skills to continue his education..  Being in school and in a gang; yes, I could see him with one foot in each of those worlds. 

He was (or is) just another Oakland kid getting swallowed up by the perverse siren call of the streets. I think of the many years of history that caused his path to cross with that of his victim. His family – refugees from Vietnam, finally settling in Oakland, only to face a different kind of brutality; the young girl probably also living in some neighborhood characterized by random violence.  Two more lives ruined.

After reading about Lam in the paper, I thought about him quite a lot, although I made no attempt until this year to get in touch with him, or even learn for certain that he was indeed the Lam Vo I’d had as a student.

I sent him a letter last July, asking if he were the Lam Vo that had been my student. I said that if he were that young man, then I wanted to invite him to share his story with me for this project.

It took nearly six weeks to receive a reply.

In the first line of his first letter, he wrote,“Dear Ms. Gordon, Unfortunately, I am the Lam Vo your (sic) looking for.”

 Next time: Writing to Lam in priosn and learning about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Reactions: Cop-on-Black vs. Black-on-Black

Cop on Black, Black on Black                               R. Owens

By Ron Owens

Hundreds of people showed up two and half weeks ago for a rally at Oakland’s City Hall, protesting the police brutality and racial profiling that they said resulted in the shooting death of Alan Blueford, who was an 18-year-old high school student.

There was no rally for Hector Matias, an 18-year-old restaurant worker who was Oakland’s 108th homicide victim of 2012. Or for Wilbur Bartley, the city’s 107th victim who was shot dead inside his cell phone store after being robbed. They were not shot by police.

Hector and Wilbur were the victims of thug brutality, not police brutality. They weren’t killed because of racial profiling by police. Nobody organizes a rally to protest thug brutality.

It seems that if you’re not killed by a cop, you’re a just a garden variety homicide victim. People don’t get too upset. You might get an impromptu curbside memorial, with shiny helium-filled balloons in various shapes and sizes. You might get veladoras – those candles adorned with religious figures. And empty beer, wine and liquor bottles, with their contents poured out in commemoration. And RIP signs on cards or spray painted on buildings.

The typical, garden variety homicide victim in Oakland will get a mention in the local newspaper. If the homicide victim was a noteworthy person in the eyes of the journalist – say a business owner or an athlete of some sort – the article reporting his death might be longer than the usual 80 or so words.

The local TV news might mention the killing in passing. The well-dressed, impeccably coiffed anchor might say, “A man was found fatally shot inEast Oakland today, near 73rd and Bancroft. It was the city’s 110th homicide this year. Last year at this time, there were 109 homicides.”

Then the newsreader will move on to the next story, unless a reporter happened to encounter any relatives or friends or neighbors of the victim at the scene. In that case, there will be close-up shots of the  distraught acquaintances, expressing their horror and disbelief, and exclaiming that it was so wrong and so unexpected that something like this happened.

And then, the victim of the day will be forgotten until the next man, woman, or child gets shot and killed. Most likely the next dead body will be that of a young black man, shot and killed by another young black man. And, most likely, the killer will get away with murder, given the Oakland Police Department’s low rate of success in solving crimes, as evidenced by the annual report of the OPD’s criminal investigation division.

People seem to get up in arms only if a cop does the killing, à la Oscar Grant or Alan Blueford. If it’s black on black, it’s business as usual. But if it’s cop on black – oh, damn, it’s on! Now we’re going to get mad and go out in mass numbers and protest with fists in the air, waving slick, screen-printed protest signs.

It’s like using the N-word. It’s OK to use that racist term if you’re black, but if somebody from some other race dares to use it, there’s going to be a federal case made out of it. And all the while, rappers and their (white) record companies profit from the sales of N-word-powered product that would be condemned as racist if anyone but black artists were making it.

That’s the problem. It’s OK for black people to be racist toward each other. It’s OK to profiteer in self-hate. But as long as the self-hate goes on, the “garden variety” killings will grow. There will be no en masse protests, unless somebody other than the usual suspect does the killing.

Lam and I Both Move On

During the Fall semester of 2007, I was teaching in the OUSD Independent Study Program, seeing about 30 or so students per week, individually and in small groups by grade level and course.  Lam was in my group of 11th grade students. We were studying American history since Reconstruction and reading American literature from about the same period through the present.

At the same time, I was in my 16th year with the district, and I was considering my next option as an educator.  I liked teaching, loved the Independent Study Program where discipline was rarely a factor, and I could get to know students in a more human way. I felt I was at the top of my game.

Still, I was starting to feel a bit restless, in need of a new challenge. I had completed certification in online teaching and learning, and then I got a job as the Distance Learning Coordinator for Oakland Adult & Career Education. I was scheduled to start that December.

I had been considering a change for a while, but I had certain misgivings about leaving in the middle of the school year.  A change of teacher in the middle of the school year often has a negative impact on the students left behind. I also was not sure what I thought about leaving my identity as a classroom teacher and moving into a non-instructional assignment.

In the end, I decided, though, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I told my colleagues just before winter break, but I didn’t tell the students until the last meetings that I had with them.

I wrote all of my students a personal note when I left mid-year to accept another position

I wrote each student a personal note, and gave each of them a small candle in the shape of a heart, and some chocolate candy.  To Lam, I wrote:

Dear Lam:

It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and have you as a student for the past two and a half years.  I’ve been impressed with the growth you’ve shown and your attitude towards school and your life this year.  I wish you much sweetness and light in your life. Feel free to write to me from time to time or if you ever need a reference

 Best always,

Ms.  Gordon

In my notes about Lam to the next teacher, I wrote, “Pretty good attendance, gets work done. An occasional absence.  A bit behind in math but catching up.”

I quickly became totally absorbed in the new assignment, and mostly lost touch with my students. I went back to visit Independent Study at the end of the school year to see my seniors graduate. Not all of them made it, due to either not completing coursework or not passing the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Would they have been more successful if I had stayed? I could not say, but I felt sad.  There is always a sense that when a student does not achieve academically – or even otherwise  - that I should or could have done more.

A year later, still feeling attached to my former students, I wanted to attend the Independent Study graduation, because some of “my” students, including Lam, were supposed to walk.

But a colleague told me he was not graduating. I sent him this email in May, 2009:

Hello Lam,

I was just recently talking to Ms. R_____ at Independent Study about attending graduation, and she seemed to think you were no longer enrolled at Independent Study.  Have you transferred somewhere else and will graduate from there?

If there is something I can help you with, please let me know. If you recall, when I left Independent Study, I started working at Oakland Adult & Career Education.  Adult school might be an option for you if you are not graduating elsewhere.

 Hope all is well, but if you need help, let me know!

Debora Gordon

He never wrote back.  He also went on to new adventures, which eventually landed  him in prison, but I did not know this at the time. A year and a half later, in December 2010, I read about him in the Oakland Tribune.

 Next: The Oakland Tribune Story

Restitution & Reparations


By Michael Holland

In 1934 Henry C. Williams was born in Helen, Alabama on a sharecropper’s plantation. That would explain why he has spent the greater part of his life fighting for a cause that is very near and dear to his heart: reparations for all black people.

As a black man going thru financial ups and downs, that sounds very good to me.

But there is more to his story and his plight. Over the years, he has compiled an onslaught of paperwork – documents that he enjoys sharing with anyone willing to listen and look for a minute. Papers like The Slavery Era Insurance Proclamation, and a whole file of claims made by the Freedman’s Bureau.

He also has numerous clips and snippets from his life as an activist and community leader, as well as a VHS tape of him conducting numerous interviews throughout his life.

He speaks in serious tones as he goes through the papers and produces a document that reads like a giant receipt. But it’s way more than that. It’s a bill of sale for his grandfather.

Some of the Onslaught of paperwork for Bishop Williams case.

I had always heard about the Willie Lynch Letter, slavery, and the Middle Passage. But seeing this document really brought home the business of buying and trading humans who are kept in bondage. In the document, his grandfather was repeatedly referred to as “the stud.” His grandfather fetched a whopping $250 – a small fortune at that time.

Most of the papers were photocopied or printouts from the web. Still, some of the documents had that ancient scroll feel – used and worn like that – undoubtedly from the numerous times he has presented them when telling his story, and making his case.

Williams’ argument for reparations centers mainly around the mid 1860s, when the debate over slavery came to a head with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the final battles of the Civil War, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the beginning of Reconstruction.

When Lincoln declared slaves free in 1863, Williams alleges, the president also said that each of them was to receive $300. He showed me a document that proved that, from the Freedman’s Bureau – a federal organization set up after the Civil War to help emancipated slaves transition to lives as free Americans. Blacks never got that money, Williams says.

I can sense the animosity in his tone as he goes on to claim that Congress also allocated additional funds for freed blacks, but that they did not receive any of it.

Williams’ Seven Ways – the bishop’s family gospel group.

As a result, Williams says his movement is asking for “$21 billion per year from Congress each year from now on to build and rebuild for us homes, businesses, schools and all the things we need throughout the community.” That is a tall order!

Williams says his bold reparation package would “put thousands of people to work.” He then shows me a box filled with letters from supporters.

But it isn’t all reparations and postbellum US history with Williams. He’s got lots of other things in that pile of papers. He pulls out a picture of him and his six children, posing as Williams’ Seven Ways. He explains proudly that it’s the gospel group they once had together. Williams brought up all of his kids in the church – “the only way to raise them,” he says.

Bishop Williams is a man with a cause and he has a lifetime of stories to tell. I was very honored to have met a black man like him.

If you would like to learn more about Henry C. Williams’ case for reparations, contact him at (510)507-3424 0r He would love to hear from you.

VIDEO: Raid on Occupy Oakland – One Year Later

Protesters, spectators, passers-by, and police gathered at Oakland’s city hall plaza on October 25, 2012, marking the one-year anniversary of  the day the police tore down Occupy Oakland’s tent camp encampment at the plaza.  West Oakland resident Janay Smith, 20, talks about the anniversary event and the relevance, and the irrelevance, of the Occupy movement.

Heart and Soul – ‘Ladies Rock Da Mic’ Brings Harmony to Oakland

Tamika Nicole works to unify communities like Oakland through music. Photo courtesy of Elise Evans.

By Katherine Brown

As the three-piece band takes the stage in the dimly-lit room, the crowd begins to sway and snap their fingers to the music as Tamika Nicole takes the stage. Just as Nicole so elegantly approaches the microphone – with soul and grace – she begins to sing “At Last.” Etta James would be proud.

But Ladies Rock Da Mic is not your average mini-concert. This event is an opportunity for concert-goers and performers to give back to communities in Oakland. These monthly concerts allow singers to “do good in the neighborhood,” says Nicole, who co-founded Ladies in 2011. Some of the funds from tonight’s event will go towards the American Cancer Society in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Nicole, 37, has been an Oakland resident for more than half her life, and is determined to show that there are more positive aspects to Oakland’s communities and their members. Each singer that performs donates their time and talents to raise funds and awareness about issues that are impacting Oakland – such as breast cancer, prostitution, education, and violence.

The singers sometimes have personal connections to the issues. In 1999, Nicole lost her mother to breast cancer. “It came sudden, fast, and in a hurry,” she remembers.

Hosting a fundraiser to fight the disease is in some ways and opportunity to honor the legacy of her mother – who Nicole credits for her giving nature. “Growing up near 82nd and Bancroft, we didn’t have much,” says Nicole, “but my mother would take me and other kids on the bus to the museum.”

That community-focused spirit of sharing is a driving force behind Ladies. For two soul-filled hours, the audience is treated to the raw talent that each and ever singer possesses. Each act brings to the stage their passion for helping others and for singing. The energy is infectious as the singers lead the near capacity crowd in rock, R&B, and jazz songs. With their voices, the singers unify the audience in song, and in the spirit of giving.

Monica “Lady Soul” Murphy, 36, is a long time Oakland resident, and has been a part of Ladies since she participated in one of their open mic events earlier this year.  For Murphy, not only are these events opportunities for her to give back to Oakland – her hometown, they are also chances for “women to come together and sing as a group – with positivity and no judgment,” she says.

Murphy also wants the world to know that there is “a lot of talent in Oakland. The city is more than killing and prostitution.”

For Ladies Rock Da Mic, the heart and soul that comes through their vocals has the ability to lift and unify Oakland.

‘Negroes With Guns:’ My Black Panther Reeducation

Increasing anger and frustration displayed on posters calling for “war on the OPD.” E. Cervantes, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Edward Cervantes

Recently, posters were plastered on an electrical box in front of the liquor store at 5th and Foothill that demanded “vengeance for Alan Blueford” and called for a “war on the OPD.” The sentiment struck me as a bit severe, frightening even. Regardless of what may have happened on May 6th, inciting further violence seemed counterproductive.  And vengeance isn’t justice.

Banner displayed at the October 12, 2012 celebration of Black Panther Party History Month at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Downtown Oakland. Howard Dykoff, Oakland Voices 2012.

The day after first seeing the poster, I attended a rally celebrating the 46th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party here in Oakland. As part of Black Panther Party History Month in October, former members of the controversial political organization gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza for speeches, awards, and performances that highlighted the Panthers’ good work in this city and other communities around the country.

The event later moved down the street to Geoffrey’s Inner Circle for a meet and greet with influential early members and recognition of current volunteers who carry on the Panthers’ legacy of promoting economic and social justice.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the poster and I wondered if, with the passing of time, members of the Black Panther Party had changed their views on guns and violence.

I pulled up a picture of the poster on my phone and showed it to a former member, assuming he would tell me that the Black Panther Party wouldn’t condone violence these days. My ignorance of Panther politics must have been immediately apparent. He got silent, leaned back in his chair, and like a frustrated professor, sent me away to do further research. I was instructed to look into Robert F. Williams’ Negroes With Guns.  After that, I could contact him if I still had questions.

Leaning toward the more radical end of liberal politics, I’ve always assumed support for the Black Panthers. But in doing the suggested research, I realized that I had a one-dimensional understanding of the Party’s politics and ideology.  It could just be a blind spot in my knowledge. Or maybe it would have been different had I not grown up in a mostly-white suburb.

But I see it now: the Panthers have a complicated history that has been mischaracterized and unfairly stigmatized. “Black Panthers” for many conjures images of armed Black militants. At best, the Black Power Movement invokes Tommie Smith and John Carlos – the two Olympic medalists who were banned for life from the games after raising their fists during their medal ceremony in 1968.

I did not associate the Black Panthers with projects like the Lil’ Bobby Hutton Literacy Campaign.  Named after the Party’s first recruit – a 16-year old who was later shot to death by Oakland Police. The campaign is entirely volunteer-run and aims to cut Oakland’s high illiteracy rate.

Addressing #5 of the Ten Point Plan, the Lil’ Bobby Hutton Literacy Campaign is always in need of more volunteers. CCBBP 2012.

Coordinated by Eseibio Halliday and Melvin Dickson, the campaign struggles to secure grants for its work because funders are wary of its association with the Black Panthers.  But they do what they can, where they can.

Halliday, a young rapper who’s soft spoken in person, performed for the crowd at the Frank Ogawa Plaza rally. He was later recognized for his dedication to the 5th point of the Panthers’ Ten Point Program – quality, culturally-sensitive, historically-accurate education for the Black community and all oppressed people.

Dickson was an early member of the Panthers and long-time editor of The Commemorator - a publication of the Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party. He also ran the Party’s free breakfast program in Oakland during the 1970’s.

The Free Breakfast for School Children Program was perhaps the Panthers’ most successful and influential initiatives. But like the literacy campaign, their efforts to address hunger go largely unnoticed. Still, Auntie Francis, an early Panther and caterer for the event at Geoffrey’s, continues to fight hunger and runs the Love Mission Self-Help Hunger Program here in Oakland.

Francis has used her own resources to launch the program but is pleased with the way her neighborhood has started to rally around the effort. Neighbors offer a few dollars, donate a casserole, or share their time in order to feed the hungry in their own communities.

So what would the Panthers think about the call for “war on the OPD?”  The group’s original full name points to an answer: The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

In Negroes with Guns, Robert F. Williams – who heavily influenced the Party’s founders – did not incite unnecessary violence. He believed that Black communities should protect themselves from violent racism “by any means necessary.”  In this vein, the Panthers organized “police patrols” to monitor OPD’s behavior in black neighborhoods. The model was replicated in cities and town around the US.

Today, mainstream media depicts a Panther demise into pimping, drug-dealing and gangbanging, but that history is questioned and should not remain as the Party’s legacy.  In 1968, the police were the soldiers of a racist system and acted with impunity. The Panthers offered black communities much-needed protection, and through good works like teaching and feeding children, empowered and mobilized people to stand up against racial violence and rampant police brutality.

It is easy for those of us who are not regularly harassed by the police to condemn the unattributed “War on the OPD” posters, but peace and non-violence don’t block batons or bullets.  Most of us would defend ourselves “by any means necessary.”

When asked if the Panther ideology had a role to play in 2012, Mr. Dickson immediately said, “it’s up to young people to create the change we need,” before going on to explain that it’s the responsibility of elders “to share the knowledge and experience they’ve gained.”

The poster’s smaller text reveals the desire to overcome racist obstacles, for “lives worth living.” E. Cervantes, Oakland Voices 2012.

The posters may seem extreme and out of line, but considering the OPD’s well-publicized use of excessive force, perhaps the anger is justified.

A closer look at the poster reveals a call for the creation of “beautiful, passionate lives” through support of friends and family. More than a call for war, it’s a call for community. “Look out for one another,” it goes on to read. Maybe the Panther spirit is alive and well in Oakland.

Click here for more pictures of the Black Panther Party’s 46th Anniversary event.

Fall 2007: Lam Writes About His Crime

When school resumed in September 2007, English teachers across the district invited their students to participate in an essay contest sponsored by Alice Walker. The theme was “How I Changed My Life,” and my students all submitted essays, including Lam.

He wrote about the events that had landed him in Juvenile Hall for a couple of weeks at the end of the previous spring.

The essay described an evening in May or June of that year, in which he was riding around Oakland in a car with some other teenage boys he claimed not to know very well. At some point during long the way, they gave Lam a gun, and the boys together attempted to rob a corner store.

I no longer recall if they actually robbed the store, or were arrested during the robbery. But at some point, they were apprehended, and sent to Juvenile Hall. That’s when his mother came to see me at school, and attempted in broken English to explain where Lam was. After that, he sent me an email.

In the essay, he wrote that while in detention, he was observing the behavior of the other boys – their arrogance and their disrespect of the Juvenile Hall staff and others assigned to work with them.  I can recall my own experience teaching at Juvenile Hall on 150th Avenue in San Leandro, in summer 1993, where I actually found the boys remarkably cooperative. But perhaps things had changed in the ensuing 15 years or so.

Observing these other boys, Lam wrote that he found their behavior to be foolish and pointless. He could see that they were making their own situation much worse, and made up his mind at that point to go straight by focusing on school and staying out of trouble.

I read his essay with dismay and hope.  I also really did not know how much of the essay was the unvarnished truth. Did he really not know the boys he was riding with that night? Did he really not know they were planning to rob a store? Did he really not know they were going to give him a gun? Maybe the only part I really believed was that he was going to get more serious about school.

But maybe I only believed that because I really wanted to believe it. Time would prove otherwise.

Next time: I read about Lam in the Oakland Tribune

Rising Local Talent Rayven is Ready To Soar

By Sheila Blandon

There are many artists in the Bay Area, but Rayven’s passion and motivation sets him apart from the rest. He has came a long way, from being a part of a group along with his brother, to now launching his own carreer.

Born and raised in East Oakland, Rayven Justice and his younger brother Raymen attended Westlake Middle School and Oakland High School. They were always very well-known kids.

Rayven knew his voice was a gift, but didn’t really acknowledge it until one of his neighbors next door overheard him singing one day. ”He had a studio and asked me to come get on one of his songs, singing the hook. Ever since then I just loved singing and practiced everyday.”

Rayven and his brother Raymen eventually began producing their own music. Rayven sang for the most part, and Raymen would rap on the track. Back then, most of their songs revolved around girls and relationships. Their classmates knew the brothers’ music from YouTube and mix tapes floating around the school. It only made the duo more popular.

The brothers seemed bound for a bright music career when Raymen was shot and killed near Oakland High on September 21, 2010.  This was a very difficult time for Rayven. “My brother’s death put me in a dark place. I had thoughts of suicide. I wouldn’t eat or drink. I even had a panic attack.”

But it also influenced Rayven to go harder for his little brother. ”When I returned home from the hospital I laid in my brother’s bed and thought to myself, ‘what would he want me to do?’ So from that moment on I committed all my time into my music.”

Rayven’s dedication to his music has given him amazing results. He currently has songs featuring more than a dozen artists like Kafani, Gucci Mane, Too Short,  Trina, J Valentine, Pleasure P and many more.  A  lot of his music is played on our local radio station 106 KMEL.

Through hard work, Rayven has also created his own clothing line called, EXACTLY – a name he choose “because I say the word a lot.”

And he’s not stopping there. Rayven said his goals are “to have a hit single that goes big all over the world, and to have a music video on MTV and BET, (and) to perform at the Summer Jam.”

Even as he plots his career, Rayven is always thinking about his family. With success, he also wants “to buy my parents a house and new cars. the list can go on and on,” Rayven chuckled.

Rayven wants to keep his brother’s spirit alive through his music and making sure Raymen will not be forgotten.

Rayven’s new single “Cheater” is out now – on 106 KMEL and iTunes.


Artist Rachel-Anne Palacios Brings Multicultural Soul & Spirit to Oakland Students

Rachel shows some of her nichos, in her home art studio near Lake Merritt
Oakland Voices/August 2012 Debora Gordon

By Debora Gordon

Rachel-Anne Palacios’ grandmother was the spark that lit Rachel’s artistic fire. “I never did any kind of serious art,” she says, “but I would make things for my grandma for her birthday that were inspired by folk art from the Middle East and from Mexico, and grandma was saying ‘Every time people come over, they’re asking me, “Where did I get that?,’ and if they could buy it.’”

Even though Rachel was not completely convinced her art was anything special, she decided to pursue it.

“Art is part of my soul. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night because I’m thinking about this or I had a dream,” Rachel says, “and start carving at 2:00 in the morning.”

Rachel creates nichos - Spanish for “niches.” She makes aluminum boxes decorated for commemorative and other purposes, light switch covers, decorated gloves, floral designs, and mandalas.

She also draws mendhi – traditional henna skin decorations common in South Asia.  She likes the ephemeral quality of henna. “It is like the cycle of life. Stuff is born and stuff dies. You can come back and get something different. Henna is natural. It’s temporary.”

Right before her daughter was born this past summer, Rachel had henna art drawn on her hands and belly.
Photo: Josh Silver

Growing up in East Oakland, born and raised on East 21stStreet,  Rachel was drawn to the henna design she would see on her neighbors’ hands. She started teaching herself how to apply henna, making up her own designs.  Eventually, she was taken under the wing of a woman who has a Berkeley-based bridal store, who offered to promote Rachel as a henna artist, who soon found herself with new clients.

“I started going to Mexico every year, and starting look at the arts and crafts, and thought the designs were sort of similar to henna with similar designs and types of lines.  I’m also really into Frida Kahlo, and she was into crafts, such as frames and shadow boxes, and that kind of inspired me, and I started doing boxes, with pictures of Frida, or (the Hindu goddess) Lakshmi and the Virgen de Guadalupe and I would use my 3-dimensional paints and do henna designs on the frames.”

Since Rachel’s work at the Oakland Museum has a significant focus on the Day of the Dead, it has been both difficult and rewarding to work with high school kids. “They’re the most affected by what’s going on. Often they’ve lost parents, siblings, friends. In order to get through death, doing I offer them something creative to help them get through it.”

Rachel is able to share her own experience of loss through violence when she was in high school and someone she was dating was killed at a party. “It was the most traumatic experience I ever have had, having someone taken from me by violence.”

Many students have had similar experiences. Rachel shares her story with them. “I’m from Oakland, I’ve been through what you guys are going through art.”  She teaches students from all cultures how to make ofrendas - Day of the Dead altars – which has become a basis of her teaching practice, to promote a global understanding of how our culture relates to death and make it something positive and beautiful.

Rachel has been deeply influenced by many artists, particularly Frida Kahlo. “I love the passion that Frida Kahlo had in her art and life style. I feel as if I most relate to her combination of insanity and creativity.” She has also  been a dancer all her life, including  ballet, folklorico and belly dancing, traditional Aztec dancing focusing on traditional indigenous pre-Columbian dances.

Rachel loves her work as an art teacher at the Oakland Museum, but she is considering going back to school to be a labor/delivery nurse. “I want to challenge myself. I’ll still do art, I’ll never give that up. I’ve been an artist for the past 15 years, but now we have kids. My husband and I need a better income.”

Click here to see more of Rachel Anne Palacios’s art work.