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Flor y Canto: Celebrating Latino Poetry in San Francisco

New America Media, News feature, Melanie Reynard Posted: Aug 07, 2008

Editor's Note: Poetry is alive and well in San Francisco, home of the beat generation, and Latino poetry is thriving in its Mission District, reports Melanie Reynard.

SAN FRANCISCO On a recent sultry evening in San Francisco, 24th Street in the Mission District was overflowing with crowds who came to hear poetry in "Flor y Canto en el Barrio: A Celebration of Latino Poetry." At the corner of each caf that participated in the event, modern day poets kept the audience spellbound with raw and refined reflections.

In an age of blogging, spoken poetry may seem counterintuitive: Why spend time sitting with the personal thoughts of a stranger when you can just connect quickly through cyberspace? But since the days of Homer, spoken poetry has filled the same need that blogging does today: community cohesion.

The poets, who look like people you might run into at the bank or the Laundromat, are young and old, emerging and established. They are all witnesses of contemporary life in California.

reader Kim Shuck, a mixed Tsalagi, Sauk/Fox, and Polish educator, writer, weaver, and mother of three, stood before the audience and described her experience at the dinner table: "Humor and food are the trickiest of cultural artifacts, but overlaps do occur. My Polish and Tsalagi relatives sat down one evening and enjoyed potato pancakes together."

Barbara Jane Reyes, a Filipina woman, shared her experiences from the streets of West Oakland: "Calling all crane operators, high up in the heaven of diesel smoke, leather-faced."

And Victor Valle, a professor and retired reporter, shared his history when he recalled a ride with his father across the U.S.-Mexican border in the 1930s: "He'd say it was an honest mistake, simply forgot his papers, wandered too close to a previous life."

The poets of "Flor y Canto" transcend generational gaps: At a poetry reading at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, feminist songstress Mamacoatl thanked older poet Nina Serrano for "opening the way" for her generation. Serrano clasped her hands and replied, "Thank you for daring to say all the things that have been in my heart all these years."

There is a saying in Spanish: 'Tu eres mi otro yo (You are my other self). According to Melissa Lozano, a 29-year-old poet from Oakland, Calif., this is part of the Flor y Canto festival that resonates most with her. It means, 'I see you in me, keep going, and know that your art is a part of me as well,'" she explains.

As poets like Mamacoatl openly reconciled and asserted their own values, the audience was assured that life had meaning. In a secular culture, where we are left on our own to grapple with spirituality, the literary passion of a stranger is inspiring. As poet and host Nina Serrano said at the event reception, "It's not only all about community, but it really is the result of community organizing that started in the late '60s to fight issues of equality. The experience of art is the experience of community."

readerToday's raconteurs have the power to create a sense of community that transcends racial boundaries. Even if you did not eat potato pancakes with your relatives like Kim Shuck or sit in the car with your father as he evaded the border patrol like Victor Valle, you can still access their experiences. Poets have the power to unite us.

As legendary poet Saul Williams once said, "You wouldn't have had the hippie movement if it weren't for the Beat Poets of the '50s. You wouldn't have had the civil rights movement if it weren't for the Harlem Renaissance poets. You wouldn't have had the Black Power movement if it weren't for the Black Hearts movement, which preceded it with those poets."

The "Flor y Canto" event demonstrated that poets create a sense of community by writing about the steps they take everyday. No matter what our background, there is a universal inner life we can tap into. No one is alien to another person's experience or culture. All of our senses are called upon to relate to one another.

The voice of the poet not only connects us to each other, but also connects us to ourselves. The more we refine our writing, the more we refine our thoughts. The more we refine our thoughts, the better we know how to face our future and take action. In the words of Saul Williams, "First comes our fight to articulate it, and then we embody it. So any time poetry gets popular, I'm excited."

Photo credits: Melanie Reynard

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