Children of Struggle
By Chuck Armsbury
My daughter Jill’s mother and I divorced when she was four years old. Jill lived with me and her brother Joe in Eugene, Oregon in 1966.
I was a graduate student and teacher at the University of Oregon, then suddenly a single father.
Later, I fell in love with the young mother who had the neighborhood Kool-Aid House across the street from ours. Sonja is African American, had three children, and those days neighborhoods were open-doors, yards and sidewalks filled with kids playing outside if not in school or asleep.
Sonja and I were married early 1968, our blended family living happily on a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac in Eugene. Jill began learning about other people’s lives, of racism, and class struggle. I learned about race politics and class struggle alongside my young children.
The children, all of them, listened to impromptu lectures wherein Sonja would lay things out, real plain sometimes. She could explain what I didn’t understand when white people glared at our family. At 68, I can agree with some of my friends later who would try to explain that I was an educated idiot.
The transition made in most of my thinking that time in my life made just about everything I’d learned in the UO Sociology Department useless — or so it would seem on April 4th, 1968 when we had to tell our children that Martin Luther King was dead, and how he died. We grieved, ranted, cried. There was no way to shield our children from the raw emotions that ran through the University campus, our progressive community of colleagues and our friends. A few months later, we’d have to explain to the children that Robert Kennedy had been shot dead.
That summer of 1969, through contact with black students on campus, Sonja and I heard about a Panther conference in Oakland. Our expanding political knowledge had been limited to cultural nationalists on campus, and direct experience as a mixed-race couple. Class-struggle ideology appealed to both of us. We were curious, committed. Elsewhere in the Bay area it was the Summer of Love, our campus in Oregon had been dubbed the “Berkeley of the North,” and so the 1957 VW bus was packed yet again, this time, bound for California. We took our youngest, newborn son, Chon, to Oakland.
Before the year was over, Jill was walking to the Methodist Church a few blocks from our house with her African-American brother and sisters to have breakfast and attend Liberation School. The programs and school were organized by the Eugene Chapter of the Black Panther Party. As many as sixty children were fed and schooled according to the 10-Point Program.
This is the background summary to my first daughter, second child, Jill Maureen Armsbury.
The background music of her childhood, in a literal sense, was like the times, innovative, changing and full of social messages. Jill loved it — every kind of music from the Jackson Five and the 5th Dimension to every sound that poured out of a window, or played on anyone’s radio. Our home was full of students from all over the world, and they brought their favorite records, political discourse and dance. Jill had an eclectic audience for her earliest performances.
By the time Jill took part in the protest on the courthouse steps urging the judge to release me from the jail in 1970, she had known a world of struggle, the kind that threatens to beat you down and the kind of struggle that can make something better.
I was in, then out, then back in prison. A friend, Arupo, took Jill into her home and family in 1976. These became stable years for Jill, and Arupo’s daughter Debbie and Jill were best friends. She kept ties with her brothers and sisters living in Portland, too.
The 1970’s ended, and I’d spent much of the decade in prison, where the struggle continued. When I got out in 1978, I returned to Spokane and became a plumber who’d get a job teaching sociology now and then.
Jill stayed in Portland with her foster family, performed with Portland’s Jefferson High School Dancers, was awarded a scholarship from Martha Graham School of Dance in New York City. She moved there in 1980, then cleaned houses and walked dogs to pay for voice lessons, always believing in the notion of struggling against impossible odds. She did indeed become a professional singer and entertainer the hard way.
During more than 25 years as a performing artist based in NYC, Jill’s stage name was Jillian. She learned Spanish, singing in two languages to her salsa fans, accompanied by international Latin jazz musicians. I wasn’t surprised as much as relieved that she was living her dreams.
Jillian’s El Telephono was a number one song in Cuba in the mid-1990s. Before that she performed at the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall with renowned players, including bandleader/husband Johnny Almendra, close friend Tito Puente, and many others. With her big voice, Jillian and Johnny’s Los Jovenes del Barrio wowed jazz festivals across the country, and grew a loyal following of salsa dancers at crowded NYC clubs. In 1998 she and Johnny brought the 13-piece orquesta to Spokane, igniting a local love for salsa music that’s flourished to this day.
I traveled to New York occasionally to watch her perform. Afterward, we’d always recall her childhood years, sometimes laughing about her big hair, big personality, the occasional strangeness of being white in an African-American family––sometimes crying about the long and hard years of separation.
Children are abandoned in chaotic times, my children falling into the battle lines we drew back then.
As a young woman, she would maneuver her now country-living, middle-aged father though the maze of city streets, if by car or public transportation, mostly with the same wild energy she put into everything. In our travels throughout NYC what always stood out was how she would be on the lookout for a child in trouble. Or was it easy for her to see the look of composed panic in the eyes of a child on a busy subway platform - a child who’d lost a parent? It was as if she had some magic, she could spy the child who was far enough from parents to be considered dangerously separated. Taking a hand, Jill would return the boy or girl to parents who usually hadn’t realized their child had wandered away.
Jill was at home with all people, of all ages. I remember her presentation to a Bronx audience of black and brown youth. She shared her life’s story, emphasized hard work, overcoming difficulties and reminding them they should commit to constant study. She ended the presentation by breaking into an opera song in Italian, finishing off with her Cuban hit in Spanish. The kids loved her. She sang her heart out for them.
Memories are cut short, Jill died in January 2009. Exposed somewhere to asbestos, she died of Mesothelioma. She struggled hard to live, and did for five years beyond her terminal diagnosis.
Jill didn’t install asbestos on steam pipes, or handle vermiculite in house insulation. No certain source of contact, just early death for a singer at age 46. I am left to wonder if her asbestos exposure was fireproof stage curtains, or was it the burnt-out factories in the poor neighborhoods of Portland. I wandered through them, sometimes curious, sometimes furious — we’d warn the children to, “stay away from there.” Or was it a whoosh of sudden and terrible exposure when the destroyed World Trade Center came down? I’ll always wonder.
I’ll always marvel at her drive, but I do understand it. Short months before the end of her life, Jill drove to a Florida prison to visit Kent and Sandra Ford’s son, Patrice Lumumba, a childhood friend serving a 20 year federal sentence, charged under the Patriot Act. She sang to Lumumba through the phone, plexiglass shielding any personal, real contact, but even so, was glad she went to Florida to see her friend.
She lost a lung, but continued to perform. Days before her passing at home, she was living and working on a new album with her husband, Leon Pendarvis.
Jill’s hair, red and wild, became part of her personality, her persona. It was never hard for her to get attention, and lucky that she loved to entertain. She had talent and an electrifying stage presence.
Through a childhood of abandonments, neglect and at times having to resort to basic instincts, she would often remind me that her passion for music, and wanting to share it, kept her focused on survival. And that remained through her final days. Something always hard for me to acknowledge, but I do because this is part of the legacy of struggle, and the struggle’s children.
Chuck Armsbury currently lives and works in Colville, Washington. He is the editor of The Razor Wire, a newspaper of the November Coalition, a national nonprofit group founded in 1997 to oppose the mass incarceration of drug law violators. In 1969-70 Chuck was defense captain for the Eugene branch of the Patriot Party.
To listen to Jillian online,“El Telefono” and other performances visit YouTube: