Note: the following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Three words that describe you.
Astronomical, radical, love.
What’s ARTivism for you?
I think that it’s the way we integrate our mind. As we're having this conversation, it's important to not perpetrate the same old paradigms and systems of oppression. For example, if we refer to “regions of the planet”, in a certain way, that reinforces imaginary lines. We need to be way more creative than that. I'm convinced that at the deepest level, science and art merge because it’s a never ending flow of creativity and wonder. And it’s the humility to understand that there are things that you can’t know, that you can't see. There's a known, there's an unknown – and then, there's the unknowable.
So if we can get back into that and let that energy flow at its deepest level, let that vacuum or emptiness fill you with that creativity, then we become instruments of emergence, instruments of service and love and kindness. Then, we are just swimming in the oceans of compassion and joy, and loving kindness, equanimity and peace. The role of the artist-activist is to be beautiful, it’s to be appealing, and so attractive that you don't have to say a word. In a way, it’s effortless…
I've been saying this for a while: I think activists need to become spiritual and spiritual people need to become activists. It's another way to say that we need to put together the inner revolution with the outer revolution, in order to have the total revolution of the human spirit.
And what was it that led you to become an activist?
It was a deep disappointment and frustration: I was at the peak of my scientific career, working on a dream come true mission, as a graduate student at NASA with the Kepler Mission. I was writing these programs and analyzing data to find the first habitable Earth sized planets, working with really incredible scientists from all over the planet and really sweet advisers. Then, all of the sudden, these conditions I'm a part of are developing “safer” nuclear weapons. First of all, that’s the craziest oxymoron I've ever heard!
In Lockheed Martin, these guys are the manufacturers of all sorts of nonsense from nuclear weapons to airplanes to things like that. I was like, really? I’m participating? And again, our research had nothing to do with war, nuclear weapons or anything, and yet we're used as a facade. Our intellectual wealth is used as a facade to justify the madness of nuclear weapons. I no longer wanted to participate in this madness.
At that point I was already very involved in activism but my 50-60% started tipping more on the activist fighting side and I didn’t want to receive a title from responsible institutions.
So I decided to stop cooperating with the University of California and become a full time volunteer with an organization that was teaching nonviolence and how to bring about change from the inside out.
That’s where later I was introduced to the radical inner revolution of meditation. I received a lot of inspiration from Gandhi and other folks that largely emphasized meditating the mind to let the heart speak.
Then one of my teachers [Michael Nagler] was like, “I think you’re right for a 10 day Vipassana silent meditation retreat.” And once you get bit by the bug, then it’s a rabbit hole. So after those ten days I became Pancho 2.0. That was eleven or twelve years ago.
Tell us more about that transition from leaving your PhD to fully committing to nonviolent activism and meditation?
Well one thing that I’d like to stress is that I didn't leave my PhD program but rather, I stopped cooperating, working in a nonviolent way to make things happen.
I already knew how to tweak the systems, I had a Masters in astrophysics and I was a year away from getting my PhD. I could easily pull it off but I chose not to.
So when I decided to stop cooperating with the university, I started volunteering. I was living in the Redwoods for three years. This was around 2007, 2008. I also choose to not work for national currency, my work was too valuable to be sold.
I've been really lucky. Since then it’s been 12 years that I've been living without currency. I’ve just been giving and I keep serving. Being present and truthful to the best of my ability and trying to bring a different kind of awareness, to remind us that we are of the earth – to think of ourselves as an individual cell in the body, contributing to our collective spirit.
As someone who has been living without currency for some years, what is your idea of wealth?
I don’t want to be a language crusader, but when we speak about wealth, we need to acknowledge that there are multiple forms of wealth. There’s the materially and financially poor folks who are so generous of heart. Here, there is an incredible wealth of time and existence. On the other side, there may be affluence, materially speaking, but the spirit can be really poor. It’s a mystery, big time. It’s the slums of generosity.
Here, we have the slums of trash and sewage, and it can be really stinky. And there’s also those officers working for money, or working for the Border Patrol and ICE, thinking it’s okay to put children in cages. So that's kind of the slums of the heart, the slums of the spirit.
We don’t want to condemn them, but just to show support, to be of service, show how can we heal together collectively.
We met you on the 62nd day of your walking pilgrimage from Northern California to Mexico. Tell us more about it.
Back in November 2018, when we were hearing the news of how kids were getting locked up in cages, we thought it was just unacceptable. Instead of being put in cages, these kids should be celebrated. Why don't we have the largest party the world has ever seen? A welcoming party. What are we doing on Christmas? Bringing down these nonsense walls and imaginary lines was the core of the mission.
But Mother Nature was saying not to start a pilgrimage in the middle of the winter and I’m glad we waited because there was so much rain that last winter. So I started walking on March 12th, the anniversary of the Salt March of Gandhi, which started with 78 people and ended with 100,000 people at the beach. That march brought down the British Empire, without firing a single gun. March 12th also happened to be the date when my mother gave me birth. And this year (2019) was going to be the first birthday I had without her physical presence, as she passed away unexpectedly in April 2018. March 12th also happens to be New Year's day in the Aztec calendar, and since I grew up in Mexico City, that’s my roots.
It was pilgrimage with no plan, not knowing what was going to happen at the border. We didn't know if I was going to continue walking down to Mexico City. Then the last month, another sister Sonya was doing grassroots work in Tijuana and said I was going to fall in love with one of the churches here that had been doing this work for three years, this labor of love and family.
One of the beautiful things about this pilgrimage is that it’s the first time I ditched having an agenda. I'm only doing this out of love for these children. They should not be putting kids in jails and these kids should not be planting seeds of hate and violence and trauma in their hearts; but instead wonder and playfulness. That’s why I walk.
It’s part of the artivism - you could fly and keep burning fossil fuels to go take care of the kids but you’re destroying the world we are leaving for them (by doing that). So I wanted to walk. Our means are our ends in the making. And not only that, I am going to go without food, without water, without shelter. For ninety five days.
It was just great to surrender to the unknown and be used as an instrument to create bridges among human beings. The idea is to create a bridge at the personal level – the most difficult bridge of all – between the head and the heart. Because we're having a spiritual crisis, clearly, which then manifests as a social crisis, we also need to create bridges among ourselves. Then we have a planetary crisis, so we need to have an ecological bridge.
The pilgrimage is an interpersonal and social bridge, connecting with human beings regardless of where they come from or their political beliefs. I met a lot of Trump supporters that were really loving. This lady came up with her Trump 2020 cap as I was walking with my big bag and the Earth flag on a three meter bamboo stick. Very skeptically, she approached me and asked: “What is your cause?” I told her I had walked 80 days and was on my way to San Diego and Tijuana. She said “Wow, that’s great. It’s time we start treating each other right. I love your cause. Can I give five bucks?” I didn’t accept, but for me, it was just creating that bridge.
I even connected with police offers – with the brother behind the uniform. I was not willing to water my reactive mind and separate the “other” human being. They ended up offering me water. When they asked if I had ID, I said to forget about ID, that I’d left without water, without food, without shelter, and I’m still walking joyfully. They generally felt that I was doing this out of love without saying it. I was happy and they felt that. I was amazed that I received nothing but love and respect. It’s such sweet moments, creating those bridges.
Describe your everyday at the church / volunteer center?
A couple months ago, I was spending most of the time driving every day and bringing in 60 families and children from the U.S detention center. They just kick them out and don’t give them any resources. Sometimes they kids have not been given any drinkable water for three days. They get dumped on the Mexican side and that’s where we rescue them.
Locally, the Mexican government created a branch that is called the Secretary of Well-being. They give them tips on where to go, what shelters, so they don’t become a target of organized crime. But still, the kids arrive with lost gazes and sad. When I pick them up, I take them directly from a concentration camp-like environment to the beach, a loving and free environment. The beach heals you without words. And they see dolphins crossing back and forth, pelicans flying near the water passing that nonsense wall.
The wall is one of the monuments of human stupidity. There is Artivism, like the mural of kinship they created, and on this side (the Mexican side) there’s all sorts of beautiful sayings. That wall ends up at the water and it just dissolves. You see seagulls making fun of, pooping on the wall, as they should.
Once the kids arrive on the beach and see the color, the food, other families having fun and enjoying the ocean and the breeze; then their eyes start shining, and that happens, the parents’ eyes come back too. So that’s the first thing I try to rid of right away – the nonsense. Taking them from hell on earth to paradise on earth.
Everyday is different here, but I have a routine. Meditating an hour early in the morning, an hour in the evening. The kids really love to clean up outside afterwards. We have some gratitude circles. Sometimes we practice yoga. Yesterday I promised to bring them a lot of soccer balls because we have a refugee who is 17 and was on the national team in Columbia. He knows how to do these crazy flips and the kids are really into it. So we decided to have a workshop of soccer.
How can people follow and support this journey?
Right now, we see the kids are really hungry for having a space where they can learn and they can play games and a little playground. So we’re working on that. That’s the main focus right now: to build a school, a clinic and playground.. Here’s a bit more info to support this project: Fundraiser by Love and Compassion in Action
What’s the most valuable thing you think you've learned on this journey?
To react to nothing and to respond with love, moment by moment. That was an insight I had on my first 30 day meditation retreat. Perhaps five years ago? The beauty of that is that if we don't react, we can continue to really quiet the mind as much as we can. It’s interesting how it’s a very sharp tool that could become your best friend or your worst enemy.
Do you still carry your Earth flag?
Well it's not my flag; it’s our flag. People love the earth, it’s a giant mirror and people feel included and they belong. It’s glorious and beautiful and it doesn’t have a single word.
People were saying “You should have a banner or something.” And that is the banner. It’s not a fiction or something analytical or something abstract like the other flags that are symbols, but are nonexistent.
This is an actual picture of reality. And that reality is beautiful. That beauty is that’s it’s you and it’s me and it is all of us, all without words. There’s a connection and recognition that we all belong to that, and that’s glorious.
Pancho is currently based in Tijuana, Mexico.
For more info: https://earthfamilia.org/