Editor’s Note: I didn’t mean for this to turn into a story and be thousands of words long, but it is. Read it anyway; it’s fun. Also, this is Anthony. There is no editor here (that’s obvious), but if I wrote “Anthony’s Note” it would sound like I was reminding myself of something. Go read…
When working on a political campaign — particularly a Presidential campaign featuring a youthful, charismatic, barrier-breaking, boundary-crossing, force for change who happens to be in the process of inspiring masses of first-time voters and/or participants in the political process — you meet a lot of people. And most of them are frighteningly strange as well as almost immediately annoying. Having patience with those people is the most difficult part of the job (for me, at least) and meeting people who are interesting — and not “interesting” as in “interesting like a science experiment” — is about as rare as hearing a solid, reasonable idea from a campaign volunteer on their very first day at the office.
While working on Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008 in Northern California, I met a lot of people who were hard workers, upstanding citizens, devoted volunteers, loyal to the cause, and not completely unpleasant to be around, but very few people who I considered a friend. By August 2007, we had been running with our regional campaign operations at nearly full speed for close to six months and, in Sacramento, we had such an efficient and effective organization that the national campaign looked to us as a model for getting local campaign groups up-and-running. In early August, we gathered in San Francisco with other leading organizers from California and Nevada for what I believe was just the second “Camp Obama” retreat outside of the national headquarters in Chicago (I believe the first Camp Obama outside of Chicago was the previous weekend in Burbank).
That’s where I met one of my few campaign “friends”, Sarah Hernandez.
Actually, Sarah and I met in the backseat of a volunteer’s car (that sounds like it involved far more sex than was really involved — which was zero) on the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco. Camp Obama started with a sign-in/orientation meeting on Friday evening, and I believe we got to the Longshoremen’s Hall at 6:30 PM or 7:00 PM. There were four or five of us from Sacramento in the car that Sarah and I drove down to San Francisco in, and we all knew each other pretty well, but it was the first time Sarah and I had met. I’m not positive, but I think Sarah had just recently started volunteering and Camp Obama was one of the first “big” events that she volunteered for. It was quite a commitment, too, as we were told that sessions would be lengthy and jam-packed until the camp ended on Sunday night.
Anyway, Sarah and I hit it off right away, mostly because we’re both pretty terrible human beings with mean-spirited senses of humor. You know — the type of people that political campaigns must love. Also, we both grew up in the Del Paso Heights/North Sacramento area of the city, so it was basically like we were in the same gang. Plus, everyone else in our group was kind of square. I mean, they were nice people and everything, but it was a Friday night in San Francisco and it’s not like we were going to get sent to the Principal’s office or grounded if, God forbid, we tried to squeeze some fun into the Camp Obama weekend. It was an organizing session for a political campaign and we felt that we had organized ourselves pretty well already, so how tough could it be?
After the orientation session ended at around 9:30 PM on Friday night, we all went to the empty apartment of a San Francisco volunteer who had recently moved in with his girlfriend and still had the lease on his old apartment, so he allowed us all to have a slumber party since Camp Obama lasted from Friday to Sunday night. Everyone staying in the apartment debated whether to go get a drink or to be responsible and get some rest. Sarah and I — already working our evil in tandem despite knowing each other for only a few hours — talked almost everybody into joining us at the Irish bar downstairs which, as Sarah fondly remembers, had a “real Irish bartender”.
While everybody initially joined us, not many of them stayed for very long. The “real Irish bartender” must have sensed our political leanings because he was Liberal with the alcohol. As Friday night turned into Saturday morning memories turn hazy. I don’t recall who was hanging out with Sarah and I after midnight, but it wasn’t more than one or two people, and that person or persons didn’t last much longer. Since Sarah and I had just met that evening, we realized that we had 27 years of catching up to do and attempted to do so in the hours between Camp Obama’s Friday night session and its next phase on Saturday morning. From the Irish bar, we traveled the lovely and scenic and totally-safe-after-midnight streets of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, as well as its drinking establishments. I do not remember much, but at one point I did have to drag Sarah from a bar with my hand over her mouth as she started to pull some Del Paso Heights out on a bartender. We also stockpiled a treasure trove of inside jokes that, to this day, only require a few words to send the other person into hysterics: phrases like “la puta rosa”, “the Character Breaker”, or “Calvin Klein ice chest” do the trick. Or mentioning two seemingly innocuous subjects such as the legendary, heroic Harvey Milk and peeing on San Francisco’s majestic City Hall. These things mean nothing to people reading this, but Sarah will laugh when she sees it, just as I’m laughing as I write it.
It was a lot of fun and it’s safe to say that Sarah and I were very drunk by the time we got back to the apartment and realized that all of the responsible people who had accompanied us to San Francisco in order to further then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for President of the United States were soundly sleeping in order to be at their best in the morning. We realized that as we loudly crashed up the stairs, laughing and stumbling into walls and over people. We tried to find places to sleep, and, about 90 minutes later, everyone’s alarms went off because it was time to wake up. Oh fuck.
When you hear “Camp”, you think of swimming and games and relaxation, right? But Camp Obama was a training camp for foot soldiers on the front line of one of the most important, world-changing Presidential campaigns in American History. We had to arrive at Longshoremen’s Hall at 7:30 AM to help set up. The Saturday session — the session that Sarah and I would be confronting with devastating hangovers — was scheduled to last from 8:00 AM to 9:30 PM. THAT IS THIRTEEN-AND-A-HALF HOURS. Our responsible teammates woke up just fine, bright-eyed and ready to change the world. I don’t know about Sarah, but I was still drunk until about 1:00 PM that afternoon. I was so out of it as we all got ready to leave for the Saturday session, I needed to ask someone to show me how to turn the shower on.
Saturday morning was brutal. I’m not sure if Sarah was in as bad of shape as I was, but she couldn’t have been much better. It didn’t help that Camp Obama wasn’t exactly like being in the middle of the prime-time rally at the Democratic National Convention. It was very academic and there was a lot of talking. One of Camp Obama’s focuses — one of the tactics that the Obama campaign wanted supporters to utilize in 2008 — was to have regular people tell their personal stories and connect it to why they supported Obama and why they wanted and needed change in our country. It was effective and personal and, often, quite emotional. But after drinking all night, sleeping for 90 minutes, and being stuck in that dead zone between being drunk and being hungover, I had no interest in anyone’s personal story unless it included a sincere, immediate wish that I be allowed to take a nap.
Camp Obama had a secret weapon, though. As Sarah and I zoned out and passed notes back-and-forth where we talked about how stupid we were for drinking so much (and wandering around the Tenderloin at 3:30 AM aimlessly as if it were Golden Gate Park), how much the chairs made our butts hurt, and exchanged rude observations about literally everybody in the Longshoremen’s Hall, Camp Obama made it impossible for us to NOT try to pay attention. See, deep down, Sarah and I are both political/history nerds with a special affinity for activists, Hispanic leaders, and revolutionaries. We’re both fascinated by people like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, José Martí, Pablo Neruda, and, like the good part-Mexican Californians from the Central Valley that we are, Cesar Chavez. So, despite the bad choices we made the previous night and the long hours ahead of us, Sarah and I perked up as we met and listened to hours of lessons on political organizing by Marshall Ganz. When members of the national campaign staff — usually people our age who just happened to live in Chicago instead of Sacramento or San Francisco — were speaking, it was difficult to focus and imagine that their biographical and professional experiences were all that different from ours.
But Marshall Ganz? Marshall Ganz could teach me — even half-drunk, half-hungover, fully-tired me — the definition of political organizing. Marshall Ganz worked for SNCC. In the 1960’s. In Mississippi. Marshall Ganz volunteered for the Mississippi Summer Project while he was at Harvard. Marshall Ganz helped the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with their historic attempt at being seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. And, of course, Ganz spent years shaping and organizing the efforts of the United Farm Workers alongside Cesar Chavez. Ganz wasn’t just a face in the crowd marching with Chavez from Delano to Sacramento; Ganz helped organize the march and the grape boycott and many of the other efforts of the United Farm Workers. The Obama campaign wasn’t Ganz’s first experience with Presidential politics. He met President Kennedy when he was attending Harvard. He helped Fannie Lou Hamer gain the attention of President Johnson at the 1964 convention. On the night that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Ganz was waiting backstage at the Ambassador Hotel for RFK to finish his speech so that he could introduce the candidate to some of the farmworkers that Ganz and the UFW had made sure got to the polls to cast their ballots for RFK in the California Democratic Primary. At Camp Obama in San Francisco, we were hungry and tired and crabby and sometimes bored and obsessed with making snarky comments about people in the Longshoremen’s Hall who were working much harder and far more earnestly than we were on that day, but we also were schooled in the art of political organizing by an icon who helped — not merely “supported”, but HELPED — a leader like Cesar Chavez, who is practically a Saint where Sarah and I come from.
Sadly, even the presence of Marshall Ganz couldn’t keep my new friend Sarah from being a bad influence — the little devil on my shoulder attempting to trick me into misbehaving and forcing me into irresponsible choices. All I wanted to do on that Saturday was stay at Camp Obama from the time we arrived at 7:30 AM until the time Saturday’s session ended at 9:30 PM. All I wanted to do was focus on crafting my personal story so that I could make connections with regular people, tell them what I felt and what I believed and who I supported and why, and hopefully do my part in helping to change the world. My new friend Sarah wanted to be irresponsible. Anthony wanted to change the world. It’s truly that simple.
I couldn’t change the world, though. Not on that Saturday at Camp Obama. Sarah’s boss had given her tickets to the San Francisco Giants game at beautiful AT&T Park, just in case she could use them. I don’t know why Sarah thought that she could use the tickets. After all, the baseball game started up before we even adjourned for our 45-minute lunch at Camp Obama. Irresponsible Sarah decided that, at lunch, she would skip out of Camp Obama and go to the Giants game for a little while. My plans and dreams of working hard all day to begin changing the world were dashed because, as a gentleman, I couldn’t allow a lady to travel the lengthy distance from the Longshoremen’s Hall to AT&T Park by herself in the middle of the day. Not in the dangerous world that we so badly needed Obama to make safe. Against my wishes, I accompanied Sarah to AT&T Park and unwillingly sat in the fantastic seats that her boss had given her. As our friends and co-workers and devoted volunteers rushed through their lunches and plunged back into the work at Camp Obama, I was forced to sit in the amazing weather of an August day in San Francisco, with my seat overlooking McCovey Cove and the sparkling waters of San Francisco Bay while also enjoying unobstructed perspectives of the baseball diamond, as well as the San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge. It was torture to sit there in the midday sun with a cool breeze swirling into the ballpark and ignore phone calls and text messages from my fellow Camp Obama attendees as Sarah, against my will, forced me to watch a Major League Baseball game and eat the famous garlic fries at Giants games when I could have been where I wished I could be: sitting on a hard plastic chair, in the stuffy Longshoremen’s Hall, eating old sandwiches from Costco and drinking bottled water but not the good bottled water like Fiji Water, and listening to a “working mother” from Modesto or Daly City or San Mateo or Cupertino share her story and tell us about her two kids that she hopes will be able to go to college without going broke and that she’d totally be okay if one of them were gay and that the war in Iraq was wrong but she still supports the troops and feels bad about the environment because she loves her SUV and couldn’t possibly give it up even though she feels guilty when she sees a sad dolphin or pelican that’s pissed off because it has bottle caps stuck on its wings. See, because of Sarah’s bad influence, I missed unique stories like that and for what? To watch a baseball game in the middle of a perfect day with gorgeous weather at a breathtakingly beautiful, state-of-the-art stadium in one of the most scenic cities in the world? Where are our priorities?
Finally, I convinced Sarah to return to Camp Obama so that we could get back to the world-changing, but because we decided to sneak out at catch almost an entire, nine-inning professional baseball game, there were only about six hours left in that day’s session. What could we possibly learn in just six of nearly fourteen hours of work that day? The festivities of the previous night and our decision to catch a baseball game for lunch were catching up with us and, quite frankly, some of our fellow Camp Obama mates thought we were assholes. I can’t say that they were all that wrong, but it was completely, absolutely, 100% Sarah’s fault. I succumbed to peer pressure. Also, she threatened to harm me physically.
We behaved for the remainder of Saturday’s Camp Obama session. That night, more of our crew from Sacramento were up for going out to the Irish bar and having a few drinks. Sarah and I, by that time, looked like survivors of the D-Day invasion who accidentally stumbled into a recruiting office full of eager new soldiers. We had fought that battle and our Saturday night festivities were decidedly restrained despite the fact that more of our teammates were drinking than the previous night. We did have some fun with a couple of bar patrons who weren’t from our group who played Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” so many times consecutively on the jukebox that I eventually got up and unplugged the machine.
Sunday was the final day of Camp Obama and we again had to be at the Longshoremen’s Hall early in the morning. Starbucks and Pepsi were what got us — not just Sarah and I, but pretty much everyone at the retreat — through that final day. There was no misbehavior or ditching school from us on Sunday; we just did whatever we could to get to the end of the day as quickly as possible so that we could go home. I think I got back to Sacramento at 10:30 PM or so on Sunday night. It was quite the weekend, but it was fun because — despite her bad influence on me and her unfortunate choices — I had met a volunteer for the campaign who was fun to hang out with.
Sarah, however, had some sort of revelation or discovery. Even though she didn’t hesitate for a second to involve herself (and, by association, poor, innocent me) in shenanigans and, yes, even hijinks while we were at Camp Obama, Sarah decided that changing the world was a good idea after all. And while working on a political campaign to help elect a potentially transformational President of the United States is one way to go about changing the world, Sarah went even further. Now, I’ve thought about the path that Sarah ended up taking and have realized that there are only two possible explanations for the amazing journey that she embarked upon a couple of years ago. The first possibility is that Sarah thought about her inappropriate behavior at Camp Obama — drinking too much the night that we arrived, wandering around the Tenderloin after midnight, yelling at bartenders, slandering the good name of Harvey Milk, defacing City Hall, making fun of a homeless man’s Calvin Klein ice chest, ditching Camp Obama’s Saturday session to go to a baseball game, passing notes like a junior high schooler, do I need to continue? — and recognized that she was fortunate enough to learn from a legendary activist like Marshall Ganz that one person can make a difference, so she decided to seek redemption by helping others.
The other possibility — and the most likely conclusion — is that Sarah met a remarkable, inspirational figure that weekend in San Francisco who motivated her to reach for the stars, to think bigger than the streets of our neighborhoods, the boundaries of our states, the borders of our nation. He inspired Sarah to see the people of our world as one people and helped her to recognize that even she, who once made a street performer on Fisherman’s Wharf break character, could help all of humanity. His words and his wisdom made a believer out of Sarah, allowing her to see the truth and to see the path for her redemption — that her service could be larger than something political or industrial. Instead, she could reach people individually, cure their ailments, treat their illnesses, repair their injuries, and heal their pain. It took a great man to rescue Sarah from the trail of darkness and deception that she was traveling down and lead her to a path of enlightenment and harmony. That great man, that ray of light, that beacon of insight, that big, fat, juicy pile of goodwill is, of course, me.
You don’t have to thank me, but you’re welcome, Sarah.
Alright, alright. My story got out of hand and I may have embellished my role in motivating Sarah, and by “embellished”, I mean “totally fabricated”. And perhaps I was not exactly an unwilling participant in the debauchery in San Francisco when I met Sarah during Camp Obama in August 2007.
What is certain, however, is that Sarah did make a choice a few years ago — a choice to take a journey that will absolutely help people, individually and collectively, and which I truly believe, as I have told her, requires bravery, courage, and a sense of adventure and faith and hope that I genuinely envy.
In October, Sarah will begin what I believe is her fourth year of medical school. In Cuba. Sarah is one of the thousands of international students — although one of only a few dozen Americans — attending Havana’s Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM), or Latin American School of Medicine in English. Because of the frosty relations between the U.S. and Cuba over the past half-century, it was only within the past decade that the United States loosened restrictions due to the 52-year-old trade emargo against Cuba in order to allow a small number of American students to accept spots in ELAM originally offered by Fidel Castro. Since the U.S. embargo is so strict, ELAM students like Sarah are considered a cultural exchange, otherwise Sarah would be charged with violating the embargo whenever she spent money while away at school.
Most American students at ELAM are minorities — African-American, Native American, or Hispanic, and Sarah is classmates with medical students from around-the-world, particularly Latin American nations but also many Africans. The Cuban government operates ELAM and provides students with scholarships to attend, so Sarah’s tuition and housing is paid for by Cuba. However, she does have expenses. In September, Sarah will take her first board examination and she is required to pay for the exams. Other expenses include her groceries, travel expenses, and the main connections that she has to stay in contact with her family and friends while living in Havana — internet time and calling cards. Sarah welcomes donations from any angel investors interested in helping out through PayPal (https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=QGL9KUPM4CM8E).
For those who are interested in Sarah’s progress and her story, she has been making entries every now-and-then in a blog, and I suggested that she use Tumblr so that I can help her share her experiences. I have always had a fascination with Cuba — long before I knew Sarah or heard about ELAM. As I’ve written before, to me, Fidel Castro is one of the most extraordinary figures in history — not just Cuban history, or recent history, but in all of history. There are positives and negatives about Castro and I’m not downplaying any hardship or pain suffered by Fidel’s opponents, but I find his life to be remarkable from his youth up until today. I find his drive and ambition to be incredible, as if it was his destiny to lead and somehow survive despite the forces that were arrayed against him, so intensely and so long. When I was younger and worked with kids back in Sacramento, I had a Cuban family that in the program that I operated and got to know the family well enough that they always invited me to visit their family members who remained in Cuba. I knew that I would likely never do so, but I never completely ruled it out. Now that Sarah is living in Cuba and attending school there for a few more years, I have put more thought into attempting a visit. I’d really love to make the trip while Fidel Castro is still alive. When he is gone, it may take years before drastic changes take place, but there’s a mystique that still envelops the island as long as he is living and I’d want to experience that.
During her time in Cuba, Sarah has regularly e-mailed updates to friends and family along with the blog posts that she does her best to update as often as possible for a medical student training to become a fully-accredited physician (California, which has the toughest standards of any state medical board in the U.S. gives full recognition to ELAM graduates, so upon graduation Sarah will be meet eligibility qualifications for a residency anywhere in the United States). I’m always happy to read her updates because they are fascinating and usually funny because Sarah is hilarious and makes the observations that I hope I would make if I were in her situation. There’s also something very touching about Cuba’s people and their culture which makes the island sound like a welcoming place. As Sarah often notes, because of the watertight embargo that the United States has imprisoned Cuba with for over 50 years, living in Havana feels like living in 1959. Photos of cars driving on Havana’s streets make it look like Sarah is on the set of Happy Days or inside Mel’s Drive-In. It is surreal just to see photos and read a friend’s e-mails, so I can’t imagine what it is like to experience.
Sarah’s most interesting stories, however, revolve around the Cuban people that she encounters. As part of their training, ELAM students spend time in community health clinics providing preventive care and treating patients young and old. The people that Sarah meets and the experiences that they often share with her make her blog posts a must-read. One glaring piece of irony that I continuously find is that this little Communist island which is trapped in time and shackled with restrictions for, amongst other reasons, alleged human rights abuses takes care of its people — from a public health standpoint — whether they are poor or financially secure, young or old, sick or healthy far better than we do in the United States (Cubans have a higher life expectancy than Americans). Cuba not only provides for the health of its citizens, but with ELAM, provides an institution to train others — at the expense of Cuba’s own government — to practice medicine from the tundra of Canada to Cape Horn. I think that is something worth being redundant about — this is something good that Cuba provides and people benefit from.
I’ve told Sarah how much I admire what she is doing. While she is chasing a dream and is fortunate for the rewarding experience that a scholarship at ELAM provides, I personally believe that it also requires a great deal of sacrifice and courage. Sarah had a relatively comfortable life in the United States, a nice job, lots of friends, and family nearby. Attending ELAM is a deep commitment, not only in time and effort and money, but also personally. Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. It’s a lot closer than soldiers who are stationed in Afghanistan, but it many ways it is much more distant. It’s an island with no diplomatic relationship with the United States, trapped in 1959 due to decades of sanctions and a trade embargo. Few Americans live in Cuba and while Havana of 2012 is far different than Havana of 1962, it is still a tightly-controlled Communist society. Attending ELAM is a lot of work and Sarah doesn’t get an opportunity to visit home, or contact her friends and family as often as she would like. Cuba can be an awfully lonely place for an American medical student, hot, humid, forbidding and strange for Americans used to little luxuries that may not be important in the big picture, but are familiar and comforting. There is a lot out of Sarah’s control and, for that reason especially, I admire her strength and determination and sense of purpose.
As Sarah enters her fourth year at ELAM in Cuba, I continue to admire resolve and envy her ability to make a leap of faith and chase her dream. I wonder what the hell I’m truly doing by trying to make my living writing magazine articles, studying Presidential History, and reviewing books while my friend is learning how to save people’s lives, serving strangers who speak a language that she didn’t originally speak in community clinics on a tropical island, and protecting the public health in Cuba so that she can come home and do the same thing in the United States. I am proud of my friend, and that’s why I’m sharing Sarah’s story with you. I think it’s something you would continue to find as interesting as I do, even if you don’t know Sarah personally. Her blog sjhernandez.tumblr.com is full of great details, entertaining experiences, and compelling conversations that she has with people that she meets and treats in Cuba. And I wouldn’t be an awesome friend if I didn’t suggest making a donation to the Help Sarah Become A Doctor While Not Getting Eaten By Mosquitoes and Living In A 1950’s Movie Fund. On her blog, Sarah includes a rundown on the expenses she has or is expecting, so if you can help, I know she would appreciate it. Also, tell her that since I wrote several thousands words about her, I probably deserve a box of Cuban cigars.