Lauren Zuniga

by Donna Schoenkopf

Let me introduce you to Lauren Zuniga.

Yeah. Right?

Did you cry? Did your stomach clench? Did you laugh that wry laugh of recognition of pain and anger, realizing you have been there, right there, in her shoes?

Well, I did.

This is not the first poem I heard or read of Lauren’s. It’s the latest. I found it on YouTube and because it’s exactly (almost) what happened to me, I am starting off this piece with it.

I was eight months pregnant with my daughter and the mother of a five-year-old and a two-year-old little boy. The father of my soon-to-be born daughter was messin’ with another woman and not home with us. I was in a state of continual pain over that abandonment and the incredible poverty I was living in.

It was a bright, sunny day, the usual bright, sunny day of California, when I heard a knock on the door, opened it, and found two suited men on my doorstep.

“Are you Donna?” “Yes.” “We have a warrant for your arrest. We’ll be taking you in now.”

What???! I thought. And said.

And what was my crime? A broken taillight I had never taken care of. Gone to warrant when I hadn’t appeared in court. I hadn’t appeared in court because court was way off in Ventura, I had no car by then, and I had no money to repair the long ago taillight anyway. It was low on my list of priorities.

“What about my boys? What’s going to happen to them?”

They’ll go to juvenile hall, unless you have someone who can take them. But it has to be right now.”

My choice was juvenile hall or my neighbor, Sylvia, Crazy Sylvia, Sylvia who once walked into the local bar with her skirt over her head and no panties on, singing out, “Who wants to screw me?”

What a choice. And, like Sophie’s choice, I had to choose that very moment. Was I wrong to choose Sylvia? No. That time in the bar was a one-time thing. (I think.) And she was like everybody else (sorta) most of the time. It turned out she did a great job. And in my mother’s heart I knew she would. God, if you’re there, bless her.

A female officer, just like Lauren’s, took me on the long ride to Ventura, and just like Lauren I cried and cried. And cried some more.

After the long weekend in jail because there was no one to bail me out, with me talking to my baby in utero and fielding questions from the women in the day room about what I was in for (I felt like Arlo Guthrie and his “litterin’” reply) I appeared before the judge, like a giant orange beach ball in my jail jumpsuit.

“What are you trying to do? Make me feel sorry for you?” he snidely asked. “You could have avoided all this by showing up in court.”

“I had no money and no car.”

“Have you ever heard of the bus? It’s only fifty cents.”

The anger I felt at his pompous reply filled me with a white-hot rage.

“I don’t have fifty cents,” I said as calmly as I could. “I don’t have a high-paying job like yours. What do you make? A hundred thousand a year?”

I heard a gasp of disbelief behind me from the other poor souls in court. (You are not in that court if you have money. You’ve either already paid your bill or sent your attorney.)

And he let me go. He let me go, me and my Big Mouth. He let me go because he had to, even though he really, really hated me. He hated me because he was exposed as a member of the ruling class, beating up on the poor.

And THAT’S why I love Lauren Zuniga. Because she is me. And she is All Women. We all find ourselves in her words, if not in specifics.

We had all been told about her. Lauren Zuniga, slam poet, was coming to Shawnee’s Poetry Night. Yeah, I’ll come, I said, because I had read her poem asking progressives to please not leave Oklahoma even though they felt alone and that things felt hopeless in this rigidly conservative state. It was a call to stay here, here, and not give up the fight, because you are needed. If anyplace on earth needed you, it is Oklahoma. It is where the heart of the fight is.

She was barely late. She had rolled back into Oklahoma City early that day after a long tour. She had forgotten, she said. Straight out. No subterfuges. She doesn’t use niceties or half truths. She had forgotten because on top of being tired and spent (I added that) she was dealing with having come home to a robbed house.

She was a star, standing here at the front of the room, feeling honored to be here, apologizing for being late.

I’ve been thinking about that. Why would she really and truly feel glad to be here? I think it’s because she’s on a mission. She’s Lauren Truth Seed, planting her words wherever she goes.

And without any kind of explanation of anything (which all of us locals do when we read our poems— “I wrote this when ...” “I wrote this because ...”) she launched into a poem so deep and personal and universal that it took my breath away. She used her whole body to dance her words. I looked around the room. We were all crying, locked into her story. It was our story, too. We cried because it was true and touched us where we lived.

She introduced her sister, sitting at a table at the back, as the bravest person she had ever known and asked her permission to perform the poem about her. Yes, of course. It was a poem that didn’t cloak anything in niceties and euphemisms. It was direct and hard to hear. I felt every word. Her last line,“If we promise not to try to change you, will you promise not to leave us?” The love and respect between the two of them were palpable.

The night went on. Not a creature stirred. We were rapt. And unwrapped.

At the end of the night Jim, our host, looked at me over the milling crowd and said, “She’s like you, Donna.”

His words sang in my heart. Here I was, an older woman, entering the last part of my life, being compared to someone so clear and bright. Actually, I think he was thinking of my Big Mouth, which has gotten me in trouble, has roiled friendships, and once in a while has done some good things. Yeah. I can accept that.

And then the night was done. We would have stayed for hours more, but all good things come to an end. A few of us went to Knuckles for an after-reading drink and I sat next to her and we talked.

She had told the audience earlier that she had left the Democratic Party and was now an Independent. I asked her to plug in the word “Democrat” in place of “Oklahoma” in her poem. We needed her in the party. We lefties fall apart and don’t coalesce very well because we are so idealistic that any deviation from our list of priorities makes us want to move to higher ground. Compromise is a dirty word to us.

I, too, had left the Democratic Party, back in the ’60s, and joined the Peace and Freedom Party and voted for Eldridge Cleaver. And got Richard Milhouse Nixon. Twice.

My darling daughter had left the Democratic Party to vote for Ralph Nader. And got George Dubyah Bush. Twice.

So some of us Democrats know that when we don’t join together because the perfect is the only thing we’ll settle for, we get something we never bargained for. We know the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Of course, she did not agree. She is on her mission of truth and justice. She will not sell out. She will speak the truth and not sell out. I think about the loss of her powerful self in our party. Maybe, maybe, she’ll come home.

The conversation went on. We talked about me being an Atheist Catholic and how I don’t believe in free will. That intrigued her. She told us of the meditation exercises that had calmed and stilled her racing mind until she literally saw the light.

And then, she stood up in that crowded and noisy bar and in her clear, powerful voice launched into another poem, a gift for the people in that beery room.

She was halfway through before people began looking over to see what was happening and slowly they caught on. They realized they were seeing something they might not ever see again, a little miracle that comes around maybe, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime.

When it was over we all applauded, long and hard, with smiles and tears on our faces.

Mission accomplished.

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


What a lovely story, Mom. I’m so glad you go to poetry night.
Taillight, huh? I always tell people it was failure to obey the leash law.

2011-03-21 by rebecca

I am devastated that I missed her appearance.

2011-03-21 by Jo Davis

Yes, my sister Lauren is fantastically real!  I am so glad I had the chance to present at Poetry Night.  Sorry she missed my puny radical poems, I think she would have liked them.

2011-03-21 by Clark Shackelford

Anatole France once savagely observed,“The Law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”  From the War on Poverty, we’ve now got the War on the Poor.  Big profits in for-profit privitized prisons, big profits in the drug trade, big profits in off-shored jobs.  There’s no profit in healing and helping people. State of the Nation.  Fly the flag upside down. S.O.S.  The country is dying, bleeding out on a floor of its own making, its throat slit by its own hand, using the ballot to do the deed.

Brave, brave Lauren Truth Seed. Brave, brave Donna Tail Light.

2011-03-22 by Ann Calhoun

Once again, I have to say I love all your stories. This one was very inspiring.Really admire Lauren and you, too, writing and telling the truth,like it is, with you. My life has been protected both by my men and their money, but I have thought without those cushions, I could have got into a bunch of trouble!

2011-03-22 by margo

Ann, you are on target.  Remember all those gazillions of dollars in hoarded corporate cash which was to come out and reverse the high rate of un/under-employment?  Well it is coming out, but it is going into massively increased stock dividends (more transfer of wealth to the ueber-rich) and into mergers and acquistions, to benefit from an economy of scale (read: more layoffs).  So those who have exported all the jobs overseas seem to be happy without the American worker.

2011-03-22 by Clark Shackelford

I think spoken word is a superb art form, and beyond the artistic form of the delivery, I connect to what she says. Not that I actually follow up on it, but I’m cognizant. Ha. I do try.

Anyway, heres some Smiffs:

2011-03-23 by robert hagen

2011-03-23 by robert hagen

You are right, Donna, Lauren Zuniga, breathtakingly real…I am still blown away by her reading in Shawnee.  She is the woman I want to be when I finally grow up. 

I was toying with the idea of becoming a registered Independent also because it is so hard to be an Oklahoma Democrat.  But I will stay a Democrat as long as I know there are women as devoted as you. What a shame, we sure need all the Lauren Zuniga’s we can get…what a voice she has.

2011-03-28 by vicki edgin

There is life after the USA. In response to Clark and the exported jobs, my husband and I exported ourselves to Costa Rica and found we could live without America quite nicely, and we could make it on a fraction of what it cost us in the States. What really surprised us were all the other transplanted people we found who had done the same with varying degrees of success. Those of us who left the American Dream to find something else are assimilating well but those who have tried to transfer the American concept of having to have it all at any cost are moving back home. Interesting. They don’t seem to realize the Dream is not the same anymore. USA is no longer a country by the people for the people, and the people are too tired and poor to do anything about it. I keep waiting for the elected officials to volunteer to a cut in benefits and salary but that doesn’t seem to be on their agenda. The days of shared sacrifice seem to be over.
Thanks for sharing your story…It is refreshing to live in truth rather than the fantasies that so many still create for themselves. We need more truth in this world.
Your hometown friend,

2011-04-19 by Jeanita Ives

Hi Jeanita, did you find a good job in Costa Rica?

2011-04-19 by Jo Davis

Response to Jo Davis: Expats, referred to as Gringos down here,  who have jobs they can handle via computer do quite well here. Costa Rica law is that you can’t take a job that a Costa Rican, (referred to as Ticos) can fill. That still leaves all sorts of work for creating your own businesses and such. Currently we are not worried about “jobs” as we are old enough to take advantage of our US Social Security. We are focusing on using our photography talents and US based Send Out Card business for our “play” income. That leaves us lots of room to play on the beach or mountains and take lots of photos while learning about our new home. Costa Rica does have its challenges and logic is not currently in the problem solving part of the equation. But you have to love the Ticos and their don’t worry, be happy attitude. Creative, innovative people who know something about running a business can do well here if they fill a niche that needs filling and play by the rules. You do need to learn to be flexible and learn to laugh a lot at some of the things that happen to you along the journey. But that would be a whole book in itself. I am always happy to pass on what we have learned in our 2 years of living down here.

2011-04-19 by Jeanita Ives

It sounds like paradise for some Jeanita. I’m retired as well but I can’t give up on America.

I just joined Lauren’s mailing list and learned that she will be at the Paseo Art Festival, May 28th on the main stage.

2011-04-20 by Jo Davis

We haven’t given up totally, we have 3 children and 2 grand kids in the States so we still vote and keep politically active, view US news, and read a lot of US papers. But when living outside USA one discovers how very isolated and uneducated we are about the world in general. Costa Rica is the size of West Virginia. They have to deal with Nicaragua, Panama and many other close neighbors intimately. Many in US know very little about their neighbors to the north or south while Canadians and Latinos know a lot about the US. Our US friends who have moved down here are opening up to other ways of dealing with things and discovering other cultures. And sometimes that is challenging. But if something isn’t right with the government in Costa Rica, the voters let their leaders know loud and clear a change is needed.

I fail to see how the US can continue to impose laws so unequally and why the voters put up with the inequity. It is a land with laws for the wealthy and those who can pay in $$$ don’t pay with jail time. As the women who wrote the above story can testify to personally. It seems like it is expected that money will talk and laws are not for the wealthy….CNN showed last night how the system works (or more correctly doesn’t) as they asked some hard questions about why $36 billion that the oil company in New Orleans area still has to pay out to compensate all the people who lost their husbands, and livelihoods after the oil spill are still waiting for the pay check they were promised. Some widows have yet to be compensated fully, fishermen have no jobs, oil continues to contaminate beaches, and the are planning to put in a lot more off shore oil wells before they have even cleaned out the last mess. After one year only $4 Billion has been paid out to those harmed by what all investigators have determined to be negligence by the company that managed the oil well. And all those who donated their time and boats to personally help in the clean up and were supposed to be compensated are still waiting for their pays checks.

All those thing my generation fought for so hard for the middle class and women’s rights seem to be passe. Are our voices gone, are we just talking to deaf people, does anyone really care? It continues to puzzle me. Voices have become screaming matches. Talking is like a game as to who can throw out the most insults and cross talk the most. Name calling and veiled threats are the norm. Something is not right in America. Ann Calahoun summarizes what has happened in the USA to bring us to where we are today. The question I have—Is it too late to reverse the process and reclaim the America that really cares about the least of us?

2011-04-20 by Jeanita Ives

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