The first time the Tucson Weekly talked with Chicano poet and teacher Francisco Alarcón he was on fire—a poet-warrior inspired by what took place on April 20, 2010, when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol's main doors in protest of SB 1070, the state's racial-profiling "papers please" law.
That was the beginning of Poets Responding to SB 1070, a Facebook forum that allowed hundreds of poets—well-known and emerging—to voice protest over the law and then later HB 2281, the state's anti-Mexican-American studies law that dismantled Tucson Unified School District's classes and department.
The Facebook page still exists, just like parts of the law that first inspired it, but what's also emerged is a collection of poetry published in January by the UA Press—Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice—carefully edited with love by Alarcon and his friend and fellow poet and activist Odilia Galván Rodríguez.
The first copy arrived at Alarcón's home in California the day after he died on Friday, Jan. 15, but Galván Rodríguez says he knew this special project was in the works and that the first book was making its way home. The poet, diagnosed with stomach cancer in November 2015, remained his usual smiling self throughout those two months, she says.
This weekend, during Tucson Festival of Books, Alarcón's work, life and the book will be celebrated on Saturday, March 12 in a panel moderated by Tucson poet Logan Phillips with Galván Rodríguez and Tucson poet Enrique Garcia Naranjo (and myself). A reading of the book also takes place on Sunday, March 13 on the UA campus moderated by Galvan Rodríguez with contributors Elena Diaz Bjorkquist, Andrea Hernandez Holm, yours truly and UA Mexican-American assistant professor Roberto Rodriguez (for more information, visit tucsonfestivalofbooks.org).
The book features 80 writers, and keeps with Alarcon's philosophy of recognizing and helping new and emerging writers. The names in the book go from writers like Luis Alberto Urrea to others who've never been published before yet inspired by the Poets Responding to SB 1070 Facebook page and its mission.
"The issues Francisco was concerned with had to do with humanity and we should all be so lucky to follow his footsteps," Galván Rodríguez says. "At first, I could not imagine a world without him in it but now I know he has not left us. He lives in the hearts of all who struggle for justice."
Galván Rodríguez says she had known Alarcon for more than 30 years, and when the Facebook page began to take-off he needed help and asked her to step in as a moderator. Together they asked other poets from other states to help moderate work that would then be published first on La Bloga, a blog that covers Chicano culture and literature.
"Francisco knew I was a long-time activist since a very young woman," she says. With everything going on in Arizona, both of them and others wanted to do something. "I think we were a bit surprised at the reaction and how many poems we received every day."
Diaz Bjorkquist and Hernandez Holm are two Tucson poets and writers who stepped in to moderate Arizona poet contributions the first few years. Alarcon's passing has been difficult, but both are thrilled that his work will be recognized at the festival and that the book—a labor of love—is out.
"One of the things that happens in countries where there is political strife, we know the saying is that they come for the teachers and poets first because they tell the truth," Diaz Bjorkquist says. "Francisco told the truth and he did it in such a way that encouraged us."
His legacy, she says, was his smile and how he encouraged everyone to write, but especially the work he did with children. As a teacher, his work with youth was something she particularly admired.
"We were blessed to have him as long as we did. He traveled all over the world. (Poets Responding) came at a time when I saw that the pen was mightier then the sword. I'm getting older. I couldn't physically be out there carrying signs, but I could do this. It opened a whole way to protest."
Diaz Bjorkquist, whose book Suffer Smoke was one of dozens of books pulled from Mexican-American studies classes and effectively banned from the classroom when the state came down on TUSD, is the only Arizona author to make it on that banned list. Poets Responding became personal.
"Yeah, it was a badge of honor. Suffer Smoke is about Chicanos in Morenci, a mining town. The fact that is was banned says that the state didn't care about these peoples' lives."
Hernandez Holm, who worked with Diaz Bjorkquist as a moderator, says she first met Alarcón at a floricanto she participated in. She remembers his energy and how he talked about the importance of poetry in social justice.
"He had a way of making it live and validating for me the way that words could have that role," she says.
During the public height of SB 1070 and the anti-Mexican-American studies law, different social and cultural venues tended to turn to people outside of Arizona for comment. Poets Responding was a way to make sure Arizona poets, were represented here at home and had voice in the commentary, she says.
While moderating the Facebook page, Hernandez Holm says there were more than 1,000 submissions. To see that labor of love go from an online presence into a book published by the UA Press, is beautiful. "I'm happy to see it be born. This idea originated several years ago."
Hernandez Holm says she feels lucky the work is celebrated, after all, this year an Iranian poet was sentenced to death for speaking out through their work. "Freedom to me means we use our voices in this context. We can do that freely. That others do the same and put their lives at risk, we shouldn't forget them."
Poetry of Resistance
Voices for Social Justice
Edited by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez
They Carry Butterflies in Their Hands
It is raining. The pickup slams and careens through the Mojave. There is a blast of bullets. Innocents go down. There's a chant to the corn goddess. A man kisses his father's hand, the father who worked for him all his life and never expected anything back. And there are bulldozers, abrazos, and silence. You heart must be polished to continue. Border dogs on leashes are snapping at your child's shoulder in your own home. Marigolds appear across that ancient migration route. Turtle Island holds onto you. Something rooted from your heart down to the red bones of earth sustains you—petals, cottonwoods, sagebrush. The fragrance of xocolatl—then a baton. All the names come out of you. You return, somehow, to your land. It is yours because it knows you—intimately.
To write the first paragraph, I gathered words from the verse of the eighty-eight poets in this magnificent collection. You can sense the unity of the voices and the bitter honey of their songs—across time, terrain, family, loss, brutality, and transcendence. Against all odds, each one, from various cultural places, holds hands with the other. The poems—even in their poetic form—stand tall. They are calls to ancient deities and day-to-day families. Along the way there are stops, sacred visions, and a deep acknowledgment of the severe tasks of resistance, that is, marching, witnessing, and facing death and pointed, armed, and fanged beings with compact orders to attack.
Susan Deer Cloud asks, "Will you ever know how it feels to love . . . ?" Nancy Aidé González notices "La Virgen de las Calles . . . / full of yearning." It is in this manner that each poem severs border wires and installations in whatever shapes and materials they may appear. Borders can be overcome with the revolutionary tenderness of poems en Resistencia. Listen: "I am the dew on the cool morning," says Hedy García Treviño. Jabez W. Churchill envisions a trek of "five hundred miles of taquerias." How can suffering and ill-shaped laws be overcome? Listen, listen to Jorge Tetl Argueta speak of the children—"They carry butterflies in their hands."
This anthology, Poetry of Resistance, edited by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez, is an incredible assemblage of voices and letters that proves that collective poetry is the answer to the violence-filled policies that increasingly face us in these times.
Open this book of leaves if you do not believe me.
Juan Felipe Herrera
U.S. Poet Laureate
Para Los Nueve del Capitolio/For the Capitol Nine
Para los nueve estudiantes arrestados/To the nine students arrested
en el Capitolio Estatal de Arizona por/at the Arizona State Capitol
protestar la ley SB 1070 el 20 de abril de 2010/protesting SB 1070 on April 20, 2010
—FRANCISCO X. ALARCÓN
y carnalitas/y carnalitas
y hermanas:/and sisters:
desde lejos/from afar
podemos oír/we can hear
sus corazones latir/your heartbeats
ellos son/they are
los tambores/the drums
de la Tierra/of the Earth
nuestra gente/our people
les sigue de cerca/follow closely
sus pasos/your steps
como guerreros/as warriors
de la justicia/of justice
y la paz/and peace
enfrentan/you take on
la Bestia/the Beast
del odio/of hatred
el uso/the unlawful
de la policía/of discrimination
se encadenan/you chain yourselves
a las puertas/del to the doors of
capitolio estatal/the State Capitol
para que el terror/so that terror
no se escape hacia/will not leak out
nuestras calles/to our streets
sus voces/your voices
sus acciones/your actions
su valentía/your courage
no nos las pueden/can’t be taken
ya arrebatar/away from us
ni encarcelar/and put in jail
ustedes son nueve/you are nine
jóvenes guerreros/young warriors
como nueve luceros/like nine sky stars
son la esperanza/you are the hope
los mejores sueños/the best dreams
de nuestra nación/of our nation
sus rostros/your faces
son radiantes/are radiant
como el Sol/as the Sun
y romperán/they will break
esta negra noche/this dark night
para un nuevo día/for a new day
sí, carnalitas/yes, carnalitas
y carnalitos:/and carnalitos:
todos nuestros/all our sisters
hermanas y hermanos/all our brothers
no necesitan papeles/need no papers
para probar/to prove once
de una vez/and for all
”somos humanos/ “we are humans
como ustedes son—/ just like you are—
no somos criminales”/ we are not criminals”
nuestra petición es:/our plea comes to:
”¡NO a la criminalización!/“NO to criminalization!
¡SÍ a la legalización!/YES to legalization!”
Before the World Wakes
—ELENA DÍAZ BJÖRKQUIST
In the stillness of early morning
before the pale rays of dawn
hearken the first glorious glow,
Mother Nature is in a state of flux,
her energy stable.
Free of disordered vibrations,
my mind remains in the land
of slumber, although awake.
Deep sleep washed away impurities
accumulated from yesterday.
My mental, physical, emotional potential
is heightened to meditate in this peaceful,
energetically charged in-between time.
I connect in intimate fashion
with the Divine.
Light, air, energy flow around me,
speak in hushed tones of the day to come,
set my mood for a serene, fulfilling day.
In the glorious glow of morning
I wake as the world awakes.
Embracing the joy of being,
I draw upon the unique energy of
daybreak for comfort, creativity, vigor.
I feel blessed with the gift of
another day of life.
The sun’s ascension inspires me, as it
grows golden to the birds’ serenade.
My vitality returns as I become
one with the stirring of other beings
rubbing sleep from their eyes.
I greet the sun, the new day
in the traditional ancient way,
like my grandmother before me,
and her mother before her.
I call out in the four directions.
First to the north, tauhi, tahui,
Then to the east, tauhi, tahui,
To the south, tauhi, tahui,
and to the west, tauhi, tauhi.
I return to the center,
open my arms, embrace the world.
I am centered, my destiny
not yet written,
there is nothing I cannot do.
—LUIS ALBERTO URREA
We were happy here before they came.
This was always Odin’s garden,
a pure white place.
Cradle of Saxons,
birthplace of Norsemen.
No Mexican was ever born here
until their racial hatred and envy
forced us to build a border fence.
But they kept coming.
There were never Apache villages here—
we never saw these Navajos, Papagos,
Yaquis. It’s a lie. Until their wagons
kept coming and coming. And their soldiers.
We worshipped at the great god’s tree.
We had something good here.
We had family values and clean sidewalks.
Until those savages kept coming, took our dream
and colored it.
AZ SB 1070
—LORNA DEE CERVANTES
Olmecan eyes gaze into the future,
a path of light piercing the forest,
heavy lidded with the past, ancient
sorrows carved into stone. With rain,
the present leaks into now, into the DNA
of fallen stars, the mystery of oceans,
the settled silt of settling into culture.
Olmecan eyes reborn. The infant
stone unfurling in our navels.
Another civilization reconquers
the wilderness of today. Sun devouring
Earth, we are shadows of the way
we were, beneath the shifting planets,
the comets, the desolate inconsolable moon.
Into the history of obsidian blades,
a human heart beats on the plate,
the slate of our division thinning
into someone’s blood. The blood of
The People surging still beneath
the pursed lips, the pierced tongue,
the sudden pulse. We are The People
still. Our constitution stolen
from us in the fear. We rise, not
vengeful, but full of the peace
of knowing, our present tense.
A Ceremony for Reclaiming Language
especially for Casie Cobos and Gabriela Ríos
our homelands remember us
they raise themselves up
to mend our tongues
remove fingers of conquistadors and
governors from bruised necks
as you enter
into this ceremony
like copal smoke
let syllables strengthen
your blood like nopales
around your throat
a gift of turquoise and gold
we are here to become elders
and ancestors who teach
our children to
heal the world
as you enter into this ceremony
say a prayer
remember each morning
we enter into spinning
light of a galaxy that
hidden words will sprout
in your dreams
like maíz opening
into the rich brown soil
as your enter into this ceremony
mourn for what was stolen
smuggle your tongue
across their imaginary border
let this language suture
each word whispers
through your lips
weaves a basket
Border Inquest Blues
—ODILIA GALVÁN RODRÍGUEZ
at what crossing
could my poems
or water to offer
who cross so many
miles of misery¬
perched on trains
with clipped wings
who only fly
in their dreams
but decide to search out
the promise of a better life
at any cost
which of my
careful word choices
make a difference
to scorched tongues
that can no longer
even form a whisper
let alone cry out for help
in a desolate desert
there are no
flights on 747s
for a people
with only prayers
thick with words
that legitimize them
in an illegal world
full of legalized criminals
who form tempests
to tease out fear, and who
year after year
think up new ways to hate
at the same time take
even a person’s last breath
if it benefits their profits
at what checkpoint
do my words become
more than arrows
sharp in their bite
or mere criticisms of the “Right”
still not hitting the target
or putting an end
to this war