By Catherine Lee
The new book “Barrio Bushido” by City College English instructor Benjamin Bac Sierra serves as an engine, driven by cylinders of intellect and action, for Sierra’s empowerment movement to transform street culture into positive educational energy.
“Barrio Bushido” combines book knowledge, delving into abstract and critical ideas, with street knowledge, reflecting harsh realities and life lessons.
“Intellect combined with action leads to power and fulfillment,” Sierra said of his book’s motivational message.
The book release party on Feb. 17 at the Mission Cultural Center was filled to capacity. Overflowing lines of neighborhood kids, students and book lovers waited to get a signed copy of the book.
The event was conducted in “true Mission style, with Aztec dancers, low-riders parked on Mission Street and poets spitting barrio wisdom,” a Facebook page for the event said.
Sierra doesn’t use a marketing plan, he’s got a better plan — a lesson plan. It’s a virtual classroom for “homeboy and homegirl scholars” to synthesize book smarts and street smarts through his public readings and blog.
Sierra’s lesson plans are extensive and detailed. The second chapter’s study guide alone includes 32 thought-provoking questions.
He previewed his greater plan in his blog where “you will find the beginning of an evolutionary literary movement.”
“‘Barrio Bushido’ transforms the urban Latino homeboy experience to a new intellectual, educational, literary and artistic empowerment movement,” his blog said.
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Sierra enrolled at City College where he was inspired and guided by teachers who encouraged his creative writing.
Sierra began writing “Barrio Bushido” as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. He finished the book for his 2001 Master of Fine Arts thesis at SF State.
In addition to his MFA, Sierra holds a bachelor’s degree with teaching credential and a law degree.
In 2008, a tragic event changed Sierra’s life.
“My brother passed away from an overdose. He was a really important person to me since my father died when I was nine,” Sierra said.
He published “Barrio Bushido” in his brother’s honor.
“I thought I was done with the book when I got it out of my head, but I was wrong,” he said.
Since then, he has begun advocating the book’s example-setting life lessons.
“Somehow, disadvantaged kids got a message that being smart is bad. People have said things to me that basically are shorthand for ‘Being smart means being white,’” Sierra said.
The author’s blog posts reflect his effort to reach beyond preconceptions and challenge readers to seize the “opportunity for empowerment and promotion of our unique intellectual and spiritual identity. ”
Sierra believes the book is capable of inspiring a life of the mind. His characters have “philosophical and intelligent conversations. Even though they may speak in street language, their discussions are complex and existential,” he said. “These are very smart characters.”
Sierra hopes the book’s exploration of shame, pride, purpose, life and good vs. evil will foster a worldview in which “it’s not treacherous to think.”
As a result of a reading Sierra did for the City College Literary Club, City College English instructors John Isles, Amy Miles and Shawna Ryan added “Barrio Bushido” to their curriculum.
City College students will be on the forefront of Sierra’s intellectual movement if they enroll in these English classes.
The professor in Sierra lives and loves the life of the mind. But unlike some academics, he also lives in the outside world.
His solution to reconcile the streets with the schools is to exchange the ivory tower for the community center, embracing the power of culture and art, including literature.