These week’s posts will try to keep in mind Francisco X. Alarcón’s commitment to the Latin@ community. As many have written since his passing, here is a poet who shows us what can be done with the languages we speak and the indigenous languages some of us have forgotten to speak. He shows us that it’s the poet’s duty to respond to injustices. It’s our duty to add a human side to the news articles, to the conflicts, to aid in the feeling of the immigrant community in this country.
A group of extreme-left students tried to chain us inside 100 Wheeler Hall. They were mostly white; we were 500 students protesting against recent tuition hikes and Arizona’s SB-1070 bill. They had not asked us for our consent. A leader of the student group MECHxA asked me, Do you have papers? I said no. She immediately rushed to the door and urged the ones holding the chains to let me out. In that moment, I didn’t know how close I’d come to getting arrested for civil disobedience.
I knew I was different from most students because I didn’t have legal documentation, but I didn’t know that a simple infraction could have taken me to jail, and if ICE happened to be there, I could have faced deportation. My parents repeatedly told me, Don’t get arrested; don’t throw everything away. I listened, but a part of me didn’t. I was a teenager. I didn’t want to believe I was different.
The weeks that followed the protest, I was so afraid of my immigration status that I would bolt home after class. I checked Facebook. Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez created the page Poets Responding to SB-1070.
This was Francisco’s first post on the Facebook page: Melanie Cervantes’ poster of a protester with the words brown and proud, todos somos Arizona. It was a simple but powerful thing, I’d chanted this at protests, we were all chanting it now.
People started to share and comment on poems, cartoons, and posters advocating for the humanity of immigrants. As I read them, I began to understand that there were others under my immigration status writing about their experiences, there were other writers that were citizens who cared about immigrants. Francisco understood this about media. He was a huge fan of Twitter and the short form. He knew how technology could help the most marginalized of us, connect and gain strength. Slowly, I started to write about my own experiences as a Salvadoran immigrant.
This wasn’t the first time Francisco has influenced my life. When I started to learn English in fourth grade, I was part of an ESL program where I read mostly bi-lingual children’s books. At the time, my mom didn’t speak much English, but she understood she didn’t agree with the school’s policies of starting us at a first-grade reading level. She went to the bookstore and bought me as many books and flashcards, so I could learn English faster.
My mom picked the best bi-lingual children’s books, From the Bellybutton of the Moon: And Other Summer Poems/Del Ombligo de la Luna: Y Otros Poemas de Verano (1998) and Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems/Jitomates Risueños: Y Otros Poemas de Primavera (1997). There were parakeets that talked, dogs in the streets, kites, iguanas, all the animals and gardens I’d recently left in El Salvador. I identified with the brown boy in the book, with his family he visited, especially his abuelita. Francisco’s books didn’t only help me learn English, but they helped me cope with my differences in this new culture.
Several years later, at the Letras Latinas’ Young Poets Gathering at Notre Dame University, I finally had the privilege to meet Francisco. He’d flown in from California to meet with five Latin@ students currently in MFA programs. I remember his presentation of The Main Three R’s of Chicano/Latino Literature According to Tomás Rivera.
Recuerdo (Remembrance): recall, reconnect, rebuild, remember
Resistencia (Resistance): resist, re-place, recover, re-value, restitute, restore
Recreación (Reinvention): re-invent, recreate, remake, reform
This was Francisco’s life. He lived by the Three R’s. He told us to interpret these words for ourselves. How did they fit into our lives? What could we do better for our community? For Chican@ literature? He was remembering one of his elders, Tomás Rivera, and later at the Andrés Montoya Prize reading, he introduced Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, which he’d chosen as a judge. But before introducing Laurie Ann, he read some of his poems. I remember him reading “Bilingüe/Bilingual,”
en casa at home
tenemos we have
un perro a bilingual
“guau guau” “guau guau”
saluda he first
primero greets you
en español in Spanish
en caso and in case
que no lo you don’t
entonces him then
“bow wow” “bow wow”
repite he repeats
en ingles in English
I felt lucky to be in that room. To listen. To have the opportunity to learn from him. After his reading, I bought two copies of From the Bellybutton for my cousins who were turning four and five. He signed them. He wrote their names, Adriana and Toñito. Of course I wanted to tell him how much he’d influenced me, but I was nervous. It didn’t come out as clearly. I said something like, Gracias por escribir estos poemas. Usted no sabe cuanto me han ayudado.
He responded with that laugh of his. Oh no, gracias a tí poeta!
No, maestro. Gracias a usted, Francisco.