Questions as if Anne Coulter or Bill O’Reilly were asking them—assuming, of course, they’d let me get a word in edgewise.
How does a Mexican get to be a poet, let alone “poet laureate”?
Nobody becomes a poet or poet laureate just because they’re Mexican. Still Mexico has contributed world-renowned poets like Octavio Paz, Jose Emilio Pacheco, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Nezahualcoyotl… I can go on and on. In the United States, poets of Mexican descent have won National Book Awards and are now poet laureates of the United States (Juan Felipe Herrera), Arizona (Alberto Rios), San Antonio (Laurie Ann Guerrero), San Francisco (Alejandro Murguia), and yours truly in Los Angeles. Other Chicano writers of note include Sandra Cisneros, Victor Villasenor, Ruben Martinez, Ana Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Luis Alberto Urrea. Our literary peers have recognized our value to U.S. letters, even though we are still highly marginalized in publishing and academic circles. But we persist with powerful work (mostly in English, but many are also writing in Spanish).
The U.S. is known worldwide for its poetry, introducing the free verse movement with Walt Whitman. And that unique singular voice of Emily Dickinson. This country has contributed to the imagists, surrealists, confessionals, and is the birthplace of the Beat Poets, Jazz Poets, Black Arts Poets, Language Poets, Hip Hop Poets, Slam Poets, and more. I’m proud to inherit all these movements. Yet in popular culture, poetry is largely relegated to the margins of the culture.
In other words, the center of U.S. culture, with its emphasis on celebrity, fame and profit, has become largely hollow. There is little room for literary risks, artistic vision, or new voices and stories. Even big book publishing pushes cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, middle-of-the-road novels, and blockbusters (with movie options). Yet increasing interest is shifting toward literature of exile (from Africa, Asia, India, and, of course, the rest of the Western Hemisphere), LGBT communities, people of color, revolutionary or anarchist texts, and speculative fiction. The heartbeat of the culture appears to be coming from the periphery, where there is still blood, ideas and imagination—from literature that has been pushed out, erased, belittled, or stigmatized.
Xicano/a poetry—by those whose origins were in Mexico—is at the heart of this vibrant literature.
But doesn’t a poet have to know English for Christ’s sake?
Contrary to some beliefs, Mexicans in the U.S., like other Latinos, are quite fluent in English. As a people we are among the newest migrants to the country, but have also been on this land as long as anyone else—beginning with our native roots (from Mexico as well as the U.S.), to Spanish colonization, Mexican rule, and after the U.S. invasion. Our migrant patterns have had a number of cycles since then, including the 1910-1930 period during the upheavals of the Mexican Revolution and beyond.
So we’ve been here a long time, and most have mastered English diction, structure, grammar, and syntax. Over the past 50 years, after colleges and universities began to open their gates to people of color, Xicano/as have obtained high-end degrees. Many are scientists, psychologists, professors, and esteemed writers. Yes, we have a long way to go—Xicano/as are still sorely underrepresented in institutions of higher learning. But there are many Chicano Studies courses as well as classes in English, Humanities, History, and more that incorporate the Chicano/Latino story, cosmology, and complexity. And even with generations of Mexican youth punished or belittled for speaking Spanish, we still have a strong foothold in this language.
You say “Xicano/a”—what the hell does this mean? It sounds un-American.
This term is wholly “American.” Xicano/a is a major subculture in the United States. The term was first used by youth of Mexican descent—as Chicano—to describe themselves in the early to mid 20th century when they struggled in the worse neighborhoods of cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, San Francisco, Denver, Albuquerque, San Antonio, and Chicago. By the 1960s, Mexican activists reclaimed the term and created the Chicano Movement that brought about a nationwide grape boycott for farmworker rights in 1965, the largest walkout of students for better education in U.S. history (the 1968 “Blowouts”), and the largest protest in a community of color against the Vietnam War that helped turn the tide of support for the war (the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War).
Chicanos battled against segregated schools, police abuse, and job discrimination like African Americans since the early 1900s. They were the second-largest group to be lynched after Blacks. And they joined Black leaders like Martin Luther King to further Civil Rights, to end poverty, and for lasting peace. We are integral to U.S. history and culture. Even on the other end, Mexicans/Chicanos fought in all major U.S. wars, including garnering more medal of honors than any other ethnic group during World War II.
And our music influenced popular music with Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” to ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” to Carlos Santana, to Los Lobos, to Chicano Rap, and more. We contributed “cholo” style, lowriders, Spanglish, corn, and guitars to the United States.
There wouldn’t be cowboys, burritos or chewing gum without Mexicans.
Some have likened us to Cajuns, formerly French-speaking Acadians from Canada that landed in Louisiana and mixed with Native and Blacks to create a distinct culture. Only Chicanos number in the millions. In the past few decades, the rewriting of the word to Xicano/a is to touch back to the Mexica (so-called Aztec) and Mayan civilizations that along with the Inca were extraordinarily complex civilizations that rivaled any in the world. And the “o/a” added to the end of the word is to integrate masculine and feminine energies as complementary not contradictory aspects of our being and relationships.
And what does this have to do with poetry, may we ask?
This is just to point out that Mexicans and their U.S. born or raised progeny have contributed tremendously to U.S. culture, economy and politics. With undocumented migrant labor, many U.S. corporations and states would not thrive (especially with their exploiting of cheap labor, long hours and lack of benefits). Many in our food industry and other manufacturing industries and services could not continue without this labor. We now have local, state, and national political figures, including my brother-in-law Tony Cardenas, the first Chicano Congressman from the San Fernando Valley. We are here to stay.
So why not in the arts—Chicano art is world class, shown in galleries around the globe—music or letters?
As poet laureate, however, I’m not just representing Xicano/a voices or stories. L.A. is the most ethnically diverse of any U.S. city. We also have the largest Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Armenian communities in the United States. We have food from every country imaginable. And there are some 250 languages spoken here. I also feel kin to L.A.’s vibrant African American, Jewish, Asian, Italian, Irish, Russian, Native American, and Anglo communities. We are all “America.”
So far in 2015, in the first six months as L.A.’s Poet Laureate, I’ve done 70 events, spoken to around 10,000 people, at libraries, schools, museums, bookstores, and festivals. And I’ve reached millions more in English and Spanish language media. I’m also sponsoring an LA poetry anthology called Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles, to be published by my press, Tia Chucha Press, in spring 2016.
I’m not standing on “ceremony,” I’m truly active to help make poetry an everyday, every occasion thing in Los Angeles.