by Mary Jo McConahay, Elizabeth Bell and Sandina Robbins
Journalist, investigative poet, and social activist John Ross died peacefully Jan. 17 at Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico, where he had lived on and off for the past 50 years. He was 72. The cause was liver cancer.
A young generation Beat poet and the national award-winning author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction and nine chapbooks of poetry, Ross received the American Book Award (1995) for “Rebellion from the Roots: Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas,” and the coveted Upton Sinclair Award (2005) for “Murdered By Capitalism: 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left.”
The first journalist to bring news of the indigenous Mexican Zapatista revolution to English-speaking readers, Ross was widely regarded as a “voice for those without a voice,” who stood with the poor and oppressed in his brilliantly stylized writing, suffering beatings and arrests during many nonviolent protests.
An iconoclast who took every chance to afflict the comfortable and educate the public, Ross turned down honors from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2009, which had praised him for telling “stories nobody else could or would tell,” and as an organizer for tenants’ rights. In the chamber, Ross recalled an appearance before the Board 40 years before when he was dragged from the same room for disturbing the peace. He blamed an “attack” by the San Francisco Police Department for the loss of his left eye. Ross told the Board, “Death was on our plate” when he went to Baghdad as a human shield during U.S. bombing, and again, when he was beaten by Israeli settlers alongside Palestinian olive farmers.
“Life, like reporting, is a kind of death sentence,” he said. “Pardon me for having lived it so fully.”
Born in New York City, Ross grew up amidst the pre-Civil Rights era folk and jazz scene, influenced at an early age by the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach and legendary sports figures like the Harlem Globetrotters. He is survived by his sister, artist Susan Gardner; his children, Dante Ross and Carla Ross-Allen; and one grandchild, Zoe Ross-Allen.
In addition to his popular accounts of Mexican life and politics, chronicled in the series “Mexico Barbaro” and “Blindman’s Buff,” John Ross reported for the San Francisco Examiner, CounterPunch, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Pacific News Service, Pacifica Radio, LA Weekly, Noticias Aliadas, La Jornada, Sierra Magazine and many other print and radio organizations. In 2010, under treatment for liver cancer, he toured nationally with his latest book, “El Monstruo: True Tales of Dread & Redemption in Mexico City,” already a cult classic, using a hand-held magnifying glass to read his words before packed audiences.
One of the earliest resisters to the Vietnam War, Ross spent two and a half years as a prisoner of conscience in a federal penitentiary for refusing the draft. On release, he recounts in a poem, when a prison authority walked him to the door,
Ross he told me with a look of disgust
written all over his smarmy mush,
you never learned
how to be a prisoner.
Memorial services to be held in San Francisco, Mexico City, Humboldt County and New York City will be announced at a later date.