Embracing Non-Violence with Magdaleno Rose-Avila

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By Sean Yoon


Every life is sacred. Choosing to embrace non-violence, peace and love as a way of life, Magdaleno “Leno” Rose-Avila is a human rights activist. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968, someone came to him and said, “You have to stand up today. If you love Martin Luther King, then you have to defend what is right.” That is when Leno made a promise to himself that he would dedicate his life to helping people. From that moment forward, he became an activist and started demonstrating and defending human rights.


“If you don’t value other people’s lives, why should they value yours?”


For over a decade, Leno has worked with former gang members in El Salvador and LA through the organisation he started called “Homies Unidos,” or “Homeboys United.” Homeboys United worked with former gang members and youth to help them break away from violence and gain life skills through education programs, employment programs and various forms of mental health support. Leno recalls listening to former gang members for 90 days before he even said anything to them. “How can I talk to them if I don’t know their reality?” He said. “Most of the time we don’t take the time to listen, we always have an answer for somebody. What about listening? What is your pain, what are you thinking, where are you?” Leno came to discover that the people he met with were often very smart, but they were poor and have had very few opportunities to lead lives other than through violence.


What is the value that we place on a person’s life? Leno once had 70,000 dollars in his retirement account. He spent it all to start Homeboys United, and then put another 30,000 on his credit card. People went on to doubt him, telling him that he was going to die poor. His response to that was, “Well, I was born poor so what’s the difference?” For Leno, if 100,000 dollars could change one person’s life, it would be worth it. But what if it that number turned out to be not just one, but in the thousands? Through organisations like Homeboys United and Homeboy Industries, which is a larger organisation based in LA with the same goals, thousands of former gang members and youth have had their life situations vastly improved.


Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.00.50 PMGrowing up in Colorado during the ‘60s, Leno comes from a family of immigrant farm workers from Mexico. Though they were poor, Leno’s family was not alone in their experience immigrating to the United States, as a lot of his relatives and friends from Mexico came and immigrated with them. However, in a community where there were primarily white people and Mexicans, Leno swiftly became a victim to racism. He remembers that, “You could go get a job doing farm work, but you couldn’t get a job working in the store. You couldn’t get a job as a fireman, you couldn’t get a job as a policeman. They made fun of our language. They told us Spanish was a dead language, that we couldn’t speak it in school.” For Leno who dreamed of going to college after high school, he had to leave his hometown and go to California. He didn’t believe at the time that he was going to become an activist because the thing that he really wanted to do was to become a lawyer. Leno wanted to take everyone to court that had robbed his family of their wages, or had mistreated them for years. He never became a lawyer, but he was pushed to dream for more beyond the struggles of his childhood.


Leno’s current battle is the struggle to end the death penalty in the United States and around the world. In 2003, he founded “Witness to Innocence,” an organisation dedicated to stopping the death penalty in the United States by educating the public about innocence and wrongful convictions through actions such as public speaking, testifying in state legislatures, and media work. Witness to Innocence has found that on average, an exonerated death row survivor spends 9.8 years in prison before being released. This is because it is extremely difficult to convince and prove to the courts that a death row prisoner is innocent. It is through the dedicated work of attorneys, journalists and students who investigate and get people exonerated.


“There are no reliable safeguards against the execution of innocent people – innocent people are freed from death row not because of the system, but in spite of it.” – Witness to Innocence


Life as a human rights activist has not been an easy path for Leno. He’s had friends that have been killed, threats on his family and his own life, and he has experienced economic stigma where no one would hire him. But because he knew that what he was doing was right, he would not, could not stop fighting for human rights.


“I’m not afraid of death. Death is easy. The hard thing is to live. The hard thing is to be alive and to know that you can make a difference. That’s why I have to live, that’s why I have to do this still. Not because it’s good for me, but because it’s good for others.”




It began with the dreamers

         Those who would dream with a double dose of hope

                                                       With a triple serving of faith


            Those who would dream the impossible

                             Across the many borders

                                             Some International

                                              Some just across the street

                                                    Others just across the room


               It was those dreamers

                   Which could escape to multicultural rooms

                   In search of new families. And friends.

                   In search of a new and brighter day


It began with a vision

            Of a faithful few …of like dreamers

             Visionaries of a better world –

                Who would give of their hearts?

                                              Their minds

                 Who would give of their dreams?

                  Who would give of their sweat-equity

                    and often would give of the water from their eyes…

                                                          ( a greater gift does not exist)

it began with a faith

                that we could change the world

                                                      of one woman

of one man

of one child

of ourselves


it began… with the knowledge

                            that we could give hope

                                where there was despair

                  that we would teach and be taught

                   that we would be a catalyst for change


it was the individual prayer

                 that this human approach

                  would be a lesson of peace

                                  a lesson of love

                                   of individual respect.                                              

                      a practice to be repeated

                                               time and again


it was this wind of yesterday

                  that pushed us to dream and do

                                                   the impossible

                          and quite often we


                             someone in our group would do it…

                                   (it happened  more than once)


it was a history written in the hearts and minds

                so that it could be rewritten every night

                                                                      and day                                      


                          so that we could sing the dance 

                                           and  dance the song

                        and run amongst  the stars

                         taking many others with us

                                    into all the rains and moons                                                         

                                                                            to come


it was the dreamers


           that let us dream


                     and do


                                                                      –magdaleno m. rose-avila    


This poem was inspired, composed and read at Peace Corps Inter-America Sub-Regional Youth Development Workshop, San Jose, Costa Rica, October 1996 and discovered five years later in the catacombs of Paul Sully’s computer.  Magdaleno was working for Homies Unidos at the time this poem was written.