Francisco (“Pancho”) Ramos-Stierle was pursuing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley when he learned that the University’s Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories had contracted with the federal government to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons. The news transformed his life: he “stopped cooperating” with the institution and became a more involved activist. As a result of that decision, he has at times been houseless, living with friends, or in what he calls “the Redwood Cathedral.” For the past three years he has lived in the East Oakland neighborhood known as Fruitvale—a gang-torn and graffiti-tagged part of the city known for gang violence. Ramos-Stierle counts the police as one of the gangs, an impression justified in the film Fruitvale Station, about the shooting of a 22-year-old black man by BART police.
An avid student of Gandhi, Ramos-Stierle practices ahimsa, which is popularly translated as “nonviolence” in thoughts, words, and deeds. He is a fulltime volunteer of the nonprofit organization, ServiceSpace, and a founding resident of Casa de Paz (House of Peace) at Canticle Farm, an urban organic farm worked entirely by volunteers, with product that is distributed as a gift throughout the community. The residents of Casa de Paz use no intoxicants; practice two hours of daily meditation; eat a vegan diet; and keep no locks on the doors. Anyone can enter at any time—and they do: teens seeking a hang-out; adults volunteering to work in the garden or coming by to pick up produce; neighbors looking for friendly comfort and support for whatever it is they’re going through.
Ramos-Stierle gained a bit of unsought publicity a few years ago when he was arrested for meditating at Occupy Oakland. Images of a peaceful, smiling Pancho being taken away in handcuffs were all over the Internet. A more recent video of Pancho’s life at Casa de Paz is on KarmaTube, inspiring me to interview him for this issue of The MOON.
Pancho lives without salary; Casa de Paz is supported entirely by donations, which are never requested. People are inspired to give, or they don’t give, and Pancho is content with that. If anyone is peaceably defying the conventional wisdom of what it means to live the good life, it is Pancho Ramos-Stierle. He spoke with me by computer phone from Casa de Paz. — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You seem to be living by a different definition of “success” than most Americans. Can you tell us what your definition is and how you arrived at it?
Ramos-Stierle: That’s a loaded question, because it involves both definitions of success and what it means to be “American.” From my perspective, an American is any person who lives in any part of the continent—from the tip of Patagonia to the top of the Arctic Circle. My definition of success is taken from our indigenous ancestors, who measure success in the health and happiness of their children; in the vibrancy of their environment; in things that elder David Korten calls “real wealth” versus “phantom wealth,” which is the wealth of Wall Street, bank accounts, cars, houses, and the abstractions of conventional currency that we call “money.”
Coming from the part of the planet we call Mexico City, I grew up in a very competitive environment. The cruelty of greed is fueled by competition and comparison. I had a brain that was good at retaining data—a well-developed left brain—so I usually brought home good report cards. That’s why I say that I’m a “recovering left-brainer.”
I was also good at sports—again success by comparison and competition—so I ended up being able to get scholarships to colleges and universities. You could say that I was so successful that I was living my dream—being paid to study astrobiology, which is the study of life in the universe as we know it—and as we don’t know it. Because there is no “astrobiology” graduate program at UC Berkeley, the closest thing was astrophysics, and I was working with an incredible team of scientists searching for extra-solar planets in the galaxy.
Though I was “successful,” I witnessed many of my colleagues suffering as their programs were shut down and their budgets reduced to zero. Why? Because the government of this part of the planet needed to pay for killing human beings on the other side of the planet, in the part we call Iraq. This is what this government calls “responsibility.” Cutting funds for research, education, and healthcare at home to pay for killing human beings overseas.
So, though I was happy that my own research program was intact, I also empathized with the situation of my colleagues—which reflected a crisis of priorities. Of course, this crisis of priorities is visible in so many places. We have the wealth to eradicate poverty, but we choose not to do it. That is a crisis of priorities, not of economics. So I began to evolve my definition of success. It wasn’t just about me getting to do what I wanted to do; it was finding a way for all of us to align our hearts and our minds so that they are working together. I soon found that it involved quieting the mind so that it can hear what the heart says. Or, another way to say it is “How to combine the ancient wisdom of our ancestors, who knew that success is happy, healthy children, a harmonious community, and a healthy environment, with modern technology so that we use our technology for the well-being of all.”
My definition of success also includes accepting reality as it is, which is not always pretty; it’s often painful. Facing that is also success. You don’t make up a story about it, or hide it under the carpet, but instead success requires you to be as authentic about it as you can.
The MOON: Can you say more about that? That’s another thing I appreciate about your spirituality: you don’t slap a smiley face on everything.