Thursday, April 21, 2011

Floricanto en DC: Part II

Ed. Note: This is in the new issue of Brooklyn & Boyle and reflects on a trip made several months ago. It seems to be gestating and gelling in parts. There will be in the end, three parts, I believe. And when they are finished, I hope to collect them in one complete monograph or chapbook. Please accept my humble gratitude for your patience and your willingness to follow along, even though there will be other posts that don't necessarily adhere to a specific chronological order.

While leaving the ballroom auditorium where Zurita has just delivered a series of epic poems, I am able to greet LA translator and poet Jen Hofer briefly before Francisco Alarcón, Odilia Galván, Javier and I must rush to prepare for the official Floricanto in DC, which is being held at the True Reformer Building on U Street in the U Street arts corridor. Dedicated on July 15, 1903, the building was the first in the nation to be designed, financed, built, and owned by the African-American community after Reconstruction.
Spacious and well appointed with all the modern conveniences, it now serves as the home for the Public Welfare Foundation. The second floor auditorium is nearly full by 7 p.m. Poets from across the country have gathered for an event being presented by Acentos Foundation, Poets Responding to SB1070 and Split this Rock, the organization behind the annual Split This Rock Poetry Festival built on the premise that poets “have a unique role to play in social movements as innovators, visionaries, truth tellers, and restorers of language.”

Looking around it has become obvious that more than just the two-dozen or so previously confirmed writers have gathered to share poetry in protest of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation. In addition to the confirmed list, which includes Francisco X. Alarcon, Tara Betts, Sarah Browning, Regie Cabico, Carmen Calatayud, Susan Deer Cloud, Martín Espada, Odilia Galvan Rodriguez, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Randall Horton, , Dorianne Laux, Marilyn Nelson, Mark Nowak, Barbara Jane Reyes, Abel Salas, Craig Santos Perez, Hedy Trevino, Pam Uschuk, Dan Vera, Rich Villar, and Andre Yang, Chicago area poet and activist Susana Sandoval, has jumped on board to lend her voice and her considerable experience as a press liaison. Roberto Vargas, the honorary poet laureate of Bay Area Mission District has actually flown out from San Antonio, Texas where he now lives, to participate.

It is thrilling to see that even literary luminary Sonia Sanchez, who had appeared earlier on a panel celebrating the work of Langston Hughes at the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, has come out share her words and her support for the wellspring of poetic action as well. On a personal note, I am moved almost to tears when I see my older sister Gloria in audience at the back of the room. Because we are scheduled to read alphabetically, I take advantage of being near the end to slip out and grab some chili at Ben’s, across the street. The weather is cold and damp. According to my sister, the residual snow that still glistens on the ground is from a storm that has blown through several days before.

Ben’s Chili Bowl is an institution. The crowd at the dining counter is three deep, yet the small bowl of chili and a small order of thick steak fries come pretty quickly. Back in the True Reformer, the poetry is round and full and powerful. By the end of the evening there is a sense of joy and euphoria that floods the room. People don’t seem ready to leave. It is the first opportunity that many of the Facebook Poets Responding to SB1070 have had to meet face-to-face.

A group of us spend the next hour looking for a restaurant where we can all eat together. Because the group is large, we are unsuccessful. Every place is packed, and it’s nearly impossible to seat us as a party of 14 during the late evening rush. It’s Friday night in U Street section. Walking by a restaurant called Poets & Busboys, a place named in honor of Langston Hughes, we see LA poet/author Luis Rodriguez, founder of Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural in Sylmar. The handshakes and hugs between him and so many of his long-time colleagues and contemporaries from around the nation are contagious. Luis is in D.C. for the AWP Conference and a meeting with the author of a book Tia Chucha Press is preparing to publish.

After finally giving up on the possibility of finding a restaurant nearby, we are invited to the home of Carlos Mauricio and his wife Ruth Goode. who live a short drive away. Their apartment is in a classic older building, which feels very New York or Chicago. Our hosts are both very involved in cultural affairs here and outside of the U.S. Ruth is a consultant on several U.N. projects and Carlos is a photographer with roots in El Salvador who spent many years in San Francisco where he documented murals and became acquainted with the Mission District Latino arts community. I say goodbye to my sister and those of us that are left begin sharing poetry around a living room coffee table. Ruth and Carlos have gone on a grocery run and I’m later enlisted to help prepare a modest dinner as well as a salad.

The poetry and the pasta are incredible. I feel so entirely privileged to be part of a new poetic family. We listen to jazz music and sip red wine while we listen to each other share. Am I dreaming? It this real? In the middle of it all, I wonder if I won’t wake up back in our own beloved Boyle Heights barrio where all of this began. To Be Continued...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tejaztlan Tour, Again

The sky is gray and heavy with the rains that haven't come. My daughter Alma Ixchel and I are sitting with Mamá Cynthia at the 24 Diner next to the legendary Waterloo Records where we've just missed a free set by Los Lonely Boys, who have just released a phenomenal new record called Rockpango (a play on huapango, for you LA pochos who don't look past the son jarocho or the norteño standards we all grew up with). A surprise encounter with Alejandro Escovedo reminds me that I come from a community of musical brothers. I'd nearly forgotten about a translation gig I did for him when he was being interviewed by Telemundo a while back. A fortuitous reunion, it results in a guest list slot for me at his Continental Club show tonight. We're in a hurry because mi'ja has to be at ballet folklorico practice by 7 p.m. This trip to the ATX is the result of the poetry in response to Arizona SB1070. The Washngton DC Floricanto and its impact both online and in Mexico have led directly to the invitation from the National Latino Congreso to organize a Floricanto Tejano in Response to Arizona SB1070 and Texas HB 12. It's always so strange being back your hometown. It's where I first wrote about music for magazines like The Austin Chronicle, the equivalent of the LA Weekly, except that the music coverage is about ten times as good, perhaps simply a function of the fact that Austin is a music city in a way that LA can never or will ever be. Here you have son jarocho and Chicanismo alongside Tex-Mex and bluegrass and country dosed with straight-ahead rock, indie-rock, rock en español and blues. This is the city that made Stevie Ray Vaughn a legend. It should come as no surprise that Ozo and Santa Cecilia try to play Austin as often as possible. The food is good. And the city is an oasis for craft brewers. I've had a Pecan Porterville, a Jester King-brewed Black Metal, which is like a sweet espresso with a kick, a Fireman's 4, and at least least four other locally brewed and bottled beers, this go 'round and I have to say it's definitely part of what makes the city I was reared in great. Imagine listening to young Chicanos in a group called Son Armado in the back yard at an Eastside home which you find out three hours later belongs to a girl you went to high school with. Reggie Villanueva has opened her house to the future and still remembers me from Spanish class in Mrs. Olivares' Spanish for Native Speakers 5th period blow-off hour. Later, I find myself and my younger half brother, Abraham, who I call a Chicatracho (Chicano-Catracho, beause Catracho is slang for Hondureño, gente) at a trendy downtown bar called Beso Cantina, where a rock en español band called Kalua with a skinny lead singer who sounds like a cross between Roy Orbson and Buddy Holly sings a rock version of La Malagueña. You can't make any of this up. It's so real in its beauty and so beautiful in its realness. I do miss Boyle Heights and the family that I have there. I honestly wish I could bring everyone here. It was great to see Matt Sedillo fly himself to Dallas where he visited with his father, who then drove him down to Austin for the Floricanto, where he was able to see his son Matt "Seditious" Sedillo bring the down the house with his poem. I can honestly say it was the best reading I've ever seen Matt present. It was just as great an honor to see Sarah Rafael Garcia, founder of Santa Ana's Barrio Writers settling in and making her way as a writer/performer in Austin. She was nice enough to read at our Floricanto, and she's also in the middle of cooking up a really cool beer blog. I hadn't realized that when she said she would be in Austin, she meant that she had relocated here permanently after visiting a sister that lives here. She's actually preparing for a move to the Eastside, my other Eastside, East Ostion, East Austin, East of the Freeway like the title in Raul Salinas' book. East of I-35, because in Austin it's all about two zip codes... the 78704 and the 78702, the former being the South Austin hippie-ville turned trendy, somewhat gentrified hipster, coolified "SoCo" (South Congress Ave), and the latter being what was once a mostly Mexican American barrio that kids on my high school gymnastics team used to worry about. Can't tell you how many times I heard "Uh, oh. We're in the Eastside, better roll up your windows and lock the doors." on the way to tournaments at high schools on the black and brown sides of town. No modo. Everyone wants to live in the '702 now, much like they're finding their way to the '033 in LA. Seeing the parallels simply makes me wonder how we live and work around the inevitable. Is the Wyvernwood housing project in Boyle Heights doomed to go the way of downtown lofts and condominiums? I'm just glad sisters like Sarah are making their way to traditionally Chicano neighborhoods and doing creative cultural work with young people. Stay tuned... Maybe my older brother Tomás has the right ideas with a little tree-lined, open land spread outside of town and a back porch with a hammock and a beautiful paint horse, a mare he calls 'Spérame Sister, because "she's a fast girl." So more on the homecoming as it transpires. The Congreso was firme. Agenda and policy were on the front burner, but they made space for la poesia y la cultura. I was pleased with the opportunity to interview Nativo Lopez, a leader at MAPA (Mexcan American Political Association), based back in Boyle Heights. The internationalization of our struggle as indigenous people is on, he says, and we stand firmly behind those wise words. The fact that he's been branded an "American traitor" and a "menace" by the yahoo minutemen commando wannabees of "American Patrol" is just funny. Let them add me to the list of menaces who make sure they go the way of the cowards who killed Brisenia Flores and her father.