In Praise of Chicano Poetry

Luis J. Rodriguez, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles,
Juan Felipe Herrera

Chicano/a poets have emerged as major literary figures in the United States with the recent appointments of Juan Felipe Herrera as California Poet Laureate (although he just finished his two-year term) and Alberto Rios as first poet Laureate of Arizona. We also have Alejandro Murguia of San Francisco, Laurie Ann Guerrero of San Antonio, and yours truly of Los Angeles as poet laureates of our respective cities.

We’ve risen out of the shadows, also against erasure (including Arizona Republicans banning Chicano books, among others, and their efforts to destroy Chicano Studies). And we’re doing this with style, with new juxtapositions of words and images—with mastery. Highly marginalized within the vast field of U.S. letters, our place at the heart of U.S. literature can no longer be denied.

Our books are studied in English and Chicano/Latino studies classes across the country (when they’re not being challenged, cut or diminished). And we’re being scrutinized and anthologized in a number of institutions in Mexico, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

My own readings and talks abroad have included the Sarajevo Poetry Festival, the first Slam Poetry Tour in Europe, and festivals and venues in London, Manchester, Paris, Milan, Rome, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Taxco, Oaxaca, Toronto, Montreal, Berlin, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and the Netherlands.

Chicano poetry is an important branch of the great poetic traditions flowing from across the country—along with African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, LGBT writers, and more. Yet you wouldn’t know this when literature curriculums insist the only writers that matter are white, male, straight.

We all belong. We all matter.

Chicano poetry has existed since the U.S. government invaded Mexico in the 1840s, and grew tremendously during the Mexican Revolutionary period of 1910 to 1930 (those years included other upheavals in Mexico, like the Cristero Rebellion, resulting in more than a million people killed and a million refugees when Mexico only had 15 million people, about the size of Guatemala today).

The explosion of Chicano poetry first hit in the 1960s at the same time that better-known African American poets like Haki R. Madhubuti (then known as Don L. Lee), Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and others wrote and performed a new poetry of protest (as well as Puerto Ricans such as Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, and Miguel Piñero).

The first major exponents of Chicano verse were male: Ricardo Sanchez, Raul Salinas, Tino Villanueva, Lalo Delgado, Alurista, and the “Godfather of Chicano Poetry,” Jose Montoya. The most famous poem of the time, however, was credited to a leading Chicano movement leader, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales: “Yo Soy Joaquin/I am Joaquin.” Here’s an excerpt:

I am Joaquín,
Who bleeds in many ways.

My back of Indian slavery
Was stripped crimson
From the whips of masters
Who would lose their blood so pure
When revolution made them pay,
Standing against the walls of retribution.
Blood has flowed from me on every battlefield between
campesino, hacendado, slave and master and revolution…

Like the poem, Chicanos pushed back their heritage beyond the Spanish conquest and its consequent clash of heritages, tongues and histories throughout the Western Hemisphere. Chicanos challenged historians who tried to categorize U.S. residents of Mexican descent with the Spanish missions and explorations. Chicanos are mostly rooted in Mexika, Mayan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Purepecha, Yaqui, Mixteco, Zapoteca, Otomi, and other tribal cultures that managed to survive a loss of 95 percent or more of their people during the Spanish colonial period. The Valley of Mexico, for example, went from an estimated 25 million native population to 2.5 million within 50 years of Cortez’ landing.

In California, native peoples intermingled with the mostly natives of Sonora (the settlers also included blacks and at least one Filipino) during the Spanish settlement of Los Angeles. In fact, the city, founded in 1781, had a native from Sonora as its first mayor. But again, each group is seen separately, and too often in lower prestige than the massive Anglo influx (“Anglo” being a misnomer for any “white” regardless whether they came from England or not).

Chicana poets were finally accessible in the 1980s with the publications of works from Gloria Anzaldua, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Pat Mora, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cherrie Moraga, and others.  Here’s a section of verse from Sandra Cisneros:

Before you became a cloud, you were an ocean, roiled and
murmuring like a mouth. You were the shadow of a cloud
crossing over a field of tulips. You were the tears of a
man who cried into a plaid handkerchief. You were a sky
without a hat. Your heart puffed and flowered like sheets
drying on a line…

Of course, Chicano/a writers also ventured into novels, short stories, essays, journalism, and children’s books. These include personal friends like Denise Chavez, Victor Villaseñor, Dagoberto Gilb, Benjamin Saenz, and Helena Viramontes. I too wrote in multiple genres, mirroring what writers did around the world (the U.S. academies and major publishers tended to push writers into a single genre).

By the first decade of the 2000s, Chicano poets/writers included Francisco Alarcon, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Reyna Grande, Daniel Olivas, Alex Espinosa, Ruben Martinez, and others.

We are also seeing in the past twenty years or so, the rise of Central American poets and writers (also from war and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other countries). Most notably Claribel Alegria, William Archila, Leticia Hernandez-Linares, and Hector Tobar.

Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, and other Latinos in the U.S. continue to add their stories and voices. The Dominican American Junot Diaz and the Cuban American Oscar Hijuelos are the only Latinos to win Pulitzer prizes in literature so far (other Latinos have won in drama, poetry, and journalism). We’ve been finalists or winners of National Book Awards or National Book Critics Circle Awards, among other recognition.

Even when major U.S. publishing houses failed to publish Chicano and other Latino writers, the writers kept working, including with our own presses (such as Arte Publico, Bilingual Review, Cinco Puntos, Tia Chucha Press, and others). Finally the big houses began to court Chicanos and other U.S. Latino writers, not just Latino writers from other countries. My own works have been with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins as well as Curbstone Press, Lee & Low, Tia Chucha Press, and Seven Stories.

I’m honored then to shed some light on the grand tradition of Chicano/a writing in this country. For anyone interested, the current and past Chicano/a poet laureates and others will come together in San Francisco for the “International Flor y Canto Literary Festival,” May 14-15 at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission Street. Check the Internet for times (I’m reading Friday, May 15 after 7 pm).

This is all a testament to our growth as important U.S. writers despite the odds, hurdles and barriers. We will persist. Moreover, we will endure for generations to come. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, future Chicano/a writers will justify us.

Photo of Juan Felipe Herrera courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.