Monday, July 9, 2012
It’s me and Chapulín. This kid calls me maestro, and there is no more humbling an attribution. We’re at a neighborhood bar working on our second or third beer after walking through the Mobile Mural Lab which has been stationed strategically at the regular Friday afternoon Boyle Heights Farmer’s Market. It’s getting cool, and until just moments before taking a seat on these stools, our pockets were empty. For poets, this is not a surprise. Penniless poet is a redundancy.
“No problem,” I had uttered an hour or two earlier. We see a client and a Brooklyn & Boyle contributing writer, a successful attorney who supports the arts and advertises here regularly. He doesn’t have a problem with an advance payment on the next issue. Chapulín is a poet, and, of course, poets never think about the weather or whether they’re dressed appropriately. He’s in a t-shirt, shorts and the inevitable Chuck Taylors. As the sun goes down, I can see he’s having a tough time with the drop in temperature.
“We have to start your Eastside poe-tour and cantina crawl with a stop at the Proyecto Pastoral segunda to get you a long sleeve flannel, homie,” I tell the young vato sporting a goatee and Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses. Bronze and maybe just a bit on the chonchito side like me, he is covered in a grip of tattoos. Daniel Morales León, AKA El Chapulín, is the resident poet at La Mina Collective, over in City Terrace. Relocated from South Central to LA’s Eastside, he is part of a circle that also includes the charmingly magnetic boys in a lively cumbia band called La Chamba, young dudes who also happen to take political organizing with a zeal and a seriousness that provokes and inspires. They are LA’s first and foremost exponents of cumbia chicha, a Peruvian variation of working class cumbia where the accordion has been supplanted by the electric guitar. Daniel’s jefitos are from Oaxaca, and they don’t necessarily always understand, he says, that he is a “poeta necio,” a handle I’ve managed to get friendlier with myself over the years.
“They have a hard time understanding just exactly what it is I do,” says Chapulín, who has also begun extending his Eastside residency with regular gigs as the host of the Corazón del Pueblo bi-monthly open mic series, Flowers of Fire.
“You know why we named it Flowers of Fire, right? Flores de Fuego,” I say. “Not really, but I can pretty much guess,” comes the reply from a sage and wise young bard who I’ve watched the sun come up with more than once already.
“When we first came together as the original Corazón del Pueblo collective board, we were thinking of the floricanto, you know, ‘in xochitl in cuicatl,’ which is nahuatl for ‘flower-song,’” I explain. We weave back and forth on a hundred subjects but mostly we get back to the poetry and what it means and why we have to write. And then there are references to Neruda and Roque Dalton. I’m trying to tell him about the argentina Alejandra Pizarnik and her “ extracción de la piedra de la locura,” that stone of madness we both have lodged in our brains.
“She committed suicide,” I say. “Say what?” says Chapulín. “Yeah, she OD’d on seconal on purpose,” I say. Later, we sit in my car and I extract a manuscript to share some more of that madness, the kinds of craziness that keeps Chapulín awake at all hours when he has to write, when he has to let the ink dribble in spades from his fingertips, allowing it to pour forth onto a page before it hemorrhages in his veins.
These are the musings and sharp reveries that have pulled him here, to a barrio not unlike the South Central hood where he was raised, a community that drew me 12 years ago after a decade of nomadic gypsy wanderings in Mexico City, Chiapas, Barcelona, New York, Matamoros, El Paso and Houston after a childhood in Austin marked by movimiento politics, Brown Beret marches against police brutality and the tutelage under an ex-pinto poet named Raúl Salinas, or raúlrsalinas, as he himself signed his named. “Tapón” (the placazo Raúl was given during his own childhood) had authored the now renowned “Un Trip Through the Mind Jail Y Otras Excursions,” and I’m trying to tell Chapulín that lineage and an appreciation for the literary opportunities we have been handed from elders who made it a point to step outside of their traditional homes to embrace brotherhood with distant relatives from all of the tribes is important. I’m telling him that I wouldn’t be publishing this paper in the barrio I recognize as ground zero for Chicano culture worldwide if it weren’t for them.
Chapulin, like many of the young brothers who share spoken word, did not grow up surrounded by nurturing poets who arrived with an armload of books and told them, “you should read this and come back later so we can talk about it.” No, Daniel and many of his peers brought themselves up, literally. They did not have guides or XicanIndio mentors who led them through sweat lodge ceremonies. They looked for and found their poetic voices on the street and in the immigrant stories of their indigena parents.
“I’ve been spittin’ for about a minute,” says Chapulín. And I know he’s the one. He’s the one who can only sit still long enough to let the poem live through him, pound itself out of him until it sees the light of day. I see a grittier, angrier yet somehow still less tortured version of myself in him. So we chill, we make the rounds. We break bread and follow the moon, howling into the wind and pretending we don’t care. That life is only loaned to us and that we’re on borrowed time. Of course, I tell him that in an effort to let my own street-wise profe know how much his influence and love had meant to me, I coined a word. How I sat in a South Austin restaurant called Little Mexico over a plate of tacos de carne guisada (steak picado to folks here in Califaztlan) and a bottle of cold Corona with the legendary barrio bard, a traveler who had been invited to Cuba and Nicaragua and Libya and Palestine to share revolutionary poetry. How he was at the same time a die-hard radical AIM (American Indian Movement) activist and a co-founder of the national Leonard Peltier Support Committee. How I looked at him with reverence and said I would forever be proud of having been inducted into the great hall of the “literalocos y literatontos” he had adopted and raised.
I tell Chapulin how Raúl used to humbly refer to himself as the cockroach poet because he never took it so seriously that he had to act like a diva and demand green M & Ms backstage at readings where he shared the stage with truly great writers such as Ernesto Cardenal and Fernando Alegria and Mikey Piñero. When he heard me say literaloco-literatonto, or literary krazy-klown-fool, he laughed and nodded his approval. These days, veteranos like Jose Antonio Burciaga, Raúl Salinas, and Trinidad Sánchez are gone. And it seems like so many of the young poets are trying too hard to be rock stars who worry about pecking order or whether or not they’re going to be on the radio instead of just trying to be the guys that don’t mind taking out the trash and cleaning the refrigerator and loading sound equipment even though they don’t have to. Chapulín is one of those dudes. He gets down and dirty, he loads gear and slangs beers at fundraising events, but he can also slang words and spit fire with the best of them. There is something simultaneously charismatic and travieso about him. Much later, after I’ve published his gut-wrenching poem about Mexico, I watch him dance around a room holding the printed pages in his arms and waving them about with a contagious glee. And again, I know he is the one. I can ask for no one better to help me uphold the literaloco-literatonto banner. And more than any of the other youngsters on the scene right now, he really is mexicano.
“Yes, I’m Chicano and all that, but I was born in Mexico,” he says proudly. While still heir to a powerful Chicano literary tradition, he is unique among all the other serious young wordsmiths mixing it up on the Eastside right now with poetry rooted in rap and hip-hop. He holds up his mexicanidad for all to see and still skips easily back and forth between two languages like a wizard of wordplay, straddling all kinds of borders… a lad after me own heart, neta.
“Literaloco-literatonto, huh?” says Chapulín. “I like it.”