Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Jack Straw Writers

It has been an amazing experience to be part of this years Jack Straw Writers Program!

Each year twelve writers/writing teams are selected by a curator out of dozens of applicants, based on artistic excellence, diversity of literary genres, and a cohesive grouping of writers. Live readings are recorded, and selected portions are produced for podcasts and radio broadcast.

The 2014 Jack Straw Writers are Laurel AlbinaClaudia Castro LunaMargot KahnLoreen Lilyn Lee,Susan MeyersJohn MullenMichelle PeñalozaGigi RosenbergRaúl SánchezAnastacia Tolbert,Jane Wong, and Kristen Millares Young.

For now this year's anthology can be obtained from Jack Straw (jps@jackstraw.org) soon it will be in some local bookstores. 

 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gente de Fuego - People of Fire





The news from El Salvador these past couple of weeks have revolved around volcano eruptions and the upcoming presidential election.  And though dissimilar in their nature, upon closer inspection, they reveal a connection -- even if the connection is a poetic one.

Chaparrastique is the volcano in San Miguel that spewed gas and ashes this past December. 1,653 individuals were evacuated from the area around the volcano as a preventive measure in case a harsher eruption followed. President Mauricio Funes asked that the event not be used as election fodder and that instead the focus be on protecting the residents that could be affected by the volcano's eruptions.

The upcoming elections was the main topic of a talk sponsored by Seattle CISPES and given by Francisca Iraheta Romero, a school principal in El Salvador, and a member of ANDES, the Salvadoran Teacher's Union. She spoke eloquently and with great warmth about the importance of US neutrality in the upcoming elections. The people of El Salvador, she argued, need to decide on their own who their next president will be.

According El Salvador's Instituto Universitario de Opinion Publica, the election is very close. Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former teacher and the FMLN candidate leads with 38.4 percentage points while the ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano, trails with 33.4 percent. The last presidential election (2009) was a watershed moment in Salvadoran history. It was the first time that a fair election was held and the voice of the people honored.

There are 23 volcanoes in El Salvador. The country's soil has many times been wetted by the scorching, angry tongue leaping from the center of the earth. The earth's red mantle has covered valleys, ravines, dipped in rivers, made the coast's silky black sand, made our genes quick to spark. It has made us a fiery people. Somos gente de fuego. Red the lava from the volcanoes and red the blood of our compatriots who fell in colonial wars, the massacre of 1932, the Civil War, and the ongoing senseless murders fueled by gang rivalries. 

This election, if held without outside interventions, will offer a chance for us to ignite a new course, to dial a new cycle in our history. Maybe then the color of Peace will spill over our small land.

Claribel Alegria in her poem, Flores del Volcan, eloquently brings together our volcanos and the turbulence of our political struggles. I copy it here in the hope that a new cycle will soon begin. 

Flores Del Volcan 
       por Claribel Alegria

Catorce volcanes se levantan
en mi pais memoria
en mi pais de mito
que dia a dia invento
catorce volcanes de follaje y piedra
donde nubes extrañas se detienen
y a veces el chillido
de un pajaro extraviado.
Quien dijo que era verde mi país?
es mas rojo
es mas gris
es mas violento:
el Izalco que ruge
exigiendo mas vidas
los eternos chacmol
que recogen la sangre
del chacmol
y los huerfanos grises
y el volcan babeando
toda esa lava incandescente
el guerrillero muerto
y los mil rostros traicionados
y los niños que miran
para contar la historia. 
No nos quedo un reino
uno a uno cayeron
a lo largo de America
el acero sonaba
en los palacios en las calles 
en los bosques
y saqueaban el templo
los centauros
y se alejaba el oro
y se sigue alejando
en barcos yanquis
el oro del cafe
mezclado con la sangre
mezclado con el latigo
y la sangre.
El sacerdote huia
dando gritos
en medio de la noche
convocaba a sus fieles
y abrian el pecho como un guerrero
para ofrecerle al Chac
su corazón humeante.
Nadie cree en Izalco
que Tlaloc este muerto
por mas televisores
heladeras
toyotas
el ciclo ya se acerca
es extrano el silencio del volcan
desde que dejo de respirar
Centroamerica tiembla
se derrumbo Managua
se hundio Guatemala
el huracan Fifi
arraso con Honduras
dicen que los yanquis lo desviaron
que iba hacia Florida
y lo desviaron
el oro del cafe
desembarca en New York
allí to tuestan
lo envasan
y le ponen un precio.
"Siete de Junio
noche fatal
bailando el tango
la capital."
Desde la terraza ensombrecida
se domina el volcan de San Salvador
le suben por los flancos
mansiones de dos pisos
protegidas por muros
de cuatro metros de alto
le suben rejas y jardines
con rosas de Inglaterra
y araucarias enanas 
y pinos de Uruguay
un poco mas arriba
ya en el crater
hundido en el crater
viven gentes del pueblo
que cultivan sus flores
y envian a sus niños a venderlas.
El ciclo ya se acerca
las flores cuscatlecas
se llevan bien con la ceniza
crecen grandes y fuertes
y lustrosas
bajan los niños del volcán
bajan como la lava
con sus ramos de flores
como raíces bajan
como rios
se va acercando el ciclo
los que viven en casas de dos pinos
protegidas del robo por los muros
se asoman al balcon
ven esa ola roja
que desciende
y ahogan en whisky su temor
solo son pobres niños
con flores del volcan
con jacintos
y pascuas
y mulatas
pero crece la ola
que se los va a tragar
porque el chacmol de turno
sigue exigiendo sangre
porque se acerca el ciclo 
porque Tlaloc no ha muerto.

          Taken from Esto Soy, Concultura, San Salvador, 2004


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Last thought: Pope Francis I




Last night, by sheer coincidence, I ended up reading two articles about Pope Francis that made me consider my own feelings toward the new Pope and my relationship with the Catholic Church during the past four years.

In the Salvadoran paper El Faro the writer Ricardo Ribera gives a moving, at times funny, personal account of his strained relationship with the Catholic Church. He muses on the fact that one of his middle names is Francisco and considers the implications of sharing his name with the Pope. Ribera writes that after years of distance from the Catholic Church the Pope's humble ways, his critique of unbridled capitalism, his solidarity with the poor, his message of inclusivity, is slowly working in him to consider the Church in a different light. It is not so bad, even if insignificant in the scope of things, Ribera concludes, to share his middle name with the new Pope.

Writing in the The New Yorker John Carroll's article is not as personal or as humorous as Ribera's, but it gives an in-depth account of Francis' papacy thus far. Carroll describes the subtle and not so subtle ways in which Pope Francis is challenging the ways of the Vatican. On the subtle: shunning the luxury of the Vatican for more practical, and every day, ways of being like wearing regular black shoes instead of the red handmade slip ons Popes have worn or driving a Ford Focus instead of a Mercedes. On the not so subtle: appointing a group of cardinals from all continents to an advisory group instead of relying on the advise of the insular Vatican Curia.

I am not a church going person and struggle with the positions of the Catholic Church with respect to women, abortion and contraceptive use.  I became a full catholic as an adult and for a while I attended mass regularly, despite my concerns with the issues mentioned.  When it became clear that the Church actively supported the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 initiative in California I stopped going altogether. That things have changed in California and gays can now marry is beside the point. The sour taste has lingered in my mouth.

Yet, since Pope Francis took office, I like Mr. Ribera, have felt the stirrings of the faith. When Pope Francis responded to Antonio Spadaro, on a question about gays with, "Who am I to judge?" I started to pay attention, maybe even to soften my stance vis a vis the Church.

I was taught 30 plus years ago, in the parochial school I attended in El Salvador, that the church is the people. A church without a congregation, no matter how beautiful, is just a building. An empty hull. It is people with their hearts and their spirits that make up the Church. That moment during mass when we open up our hands to say the Lord's Prayer, that sublime moment, when I can feel spirit dancing on my open palms; the energy of the congregation, that is the Church. And because the Church is people - of all backgrounds and sexual orientations - the obligation of the Church must be with its congregants not with itself. I believe Pope Francis is getting at this fact when he exhorts everyone to remember the poor, to honor the plight of immigrants, to remember incarcerated youth and when he says, "Who am I to judge?"

As ambivalent as I am about the Catholic Church, the fact is that it is part of my cultural identity and a vessel of personal memory. Both of my grandmothers were deeply spiritual and religious women. When I enter a Catholic church and kneel in prayer, I kneel alongside my grandmothers. With every bit of a tamal pisque I eat during Holy Week I remember my childhood, my parents, my country. When I enter the church at five in the morning on the Feast Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe with hundreds of others I am bigger than myself; I am filled with deep sympathy and love.

The way is long for the Church to be a truly inclusive body and to tend to the needs of the weakest among us. But it is refreshing to see that finally there is someone at the helm who might understand this. What Pope Francis is doing and saying is hugely important even when imperfect. For me it means that instead of focusing on all the ways in which the Church has wronged and exploited and repressed, I can contemplate the possibility of coming together with others, on seeking common ground, on being close to my departed, and in a way, on being closer to myself.





Wednesday, June 19, 2013



Hot off the Press: Riverbabble Summer Issue


Two of my poems are in this issue: Wounded City and the Tanka, San Pablo Boulevard

Monday, June 10, 2013

Pupusas, Resistance, War and Immigration

We eat war. That was the original idea for the poem I post below, "Thirteen ways of looking at a Pupusa." Everytime anyone goes into a Salvadoran restaurant and fills up on the delicious filled masa pockets known as Pupusas, they are eating war. When I arrived in the US over thirty years ago it was difficult to find tortillas de maiz, let alone a Pupusa. Even making them ourselves posed difficulties because some of the ingredients such as loroco, the fragrant flower that is mixed with the cheese, was found only in the confines of our memory. 

Over the years my longing for Salvadoran food has been amply satisfied. Pupuserias are everywhere now. So common are Pupusas  that in some places they can be found as an item in the supermarket frozen food section. Salvadoran restaurants serve Pupusas and many other dishes that ground me generously in a gastronomic sense, but also spiritually and historically. Pupusas are to Salvadorans what the baguette is to the French. It is more than food. It is identity.

I have collected newspaper restaurant reviews, usually in the cheap eats section, for years now. Once in D.C. I found the entire Sunday food section dedicated to mapping and ranking Salvadoran restaurants in the area. Another time I found an advertisement for an appartment in LA that listed a Salvadoran restaurant around the corner as an amenity. My last finding was an article in the travel section of the New York Times on how to spend a week-end in Boston on a limited budget. There were four photographs accompanying the article, the Paul Revere statue in the North End was one of them and right below it a plate with two pupusas, curtido y salsa roja. 30 years has made a huge difference indeed.

Yet for all the raving about the cheap, delicious and even "seductive" (as an article called Pupusas) Salvadoran food, few bother to think, and even fewer know, that the new addition to the list of American "ethnic" foods comes with a high price tag. Pupuserias in the US are the offspring of the millions of dollars this country spent to repress the demands that the people of El Salvador made of their own government for social and economic justice. 

It is a fact that thousands were killed, maimed and dissappeared during the Salvadoran Civil War. It is a fact that children were robbed and sold in the international adoption market and a fact that thousands emigrated trying to escape the violence and persecution in El Salvador. That experience of war is filtered through each day to the thousands of Pupusas made all over the US. 

Pupusas are delicious and they are also places of resistance. We say Presente! in school when our name is mentioned in the roll call. We say Presente! in a rally to say we represent; we are here, alive and focused. Each Pupusa is a Presente! A tribute to the resilience of being alive in a new, and all too often inhospitable place, and to the memory of those who did not make it. 

One last note: The poem takes its inspiration from Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."



 Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pupusa
  

i
Among the photographs in the Sunday paper
Of a week-end in Boston
The one right below Paul Revere’s statue
The one of a white plate with two Pupusas.

ii
I am certain
Pupusas
Breed pleasure.

iii.
I once saw a woman
Setting up a Pupusa stall
On a quite street corner.  
A car went by,
Dust from the unpaved road
Gained height, whirled.
It was December
Along a white washed adobe wall
Tall poinsettias burst
Scarlet and rich
In the late evening sun.

Iv
My aunt makes pupusas for a living.
She labors over a hot comal
Gun shrapnel  
From the Civil War years
Encrusted in the flesh of her strong legs.

V
Salvadorans are now
The second largest
Latino group in the US.
No one can speak
Of Salvadorans in the US
Without mentioning Pupusas.
Nor can anyone deny
The US funding
 Of the Salvadoran military
During the Civil War.
Few bother
To connect the dots.

vi
Pupusa = Sabor Pipil   
Chicharrón, queso, loroco,
frijoles and corn
within its culinary boundary
a resistance recipe.
  
vii
O thick headed members of Congress
Debating immigration reform
Don’t you see the various conquerings
At your feet?
Pupusas among them
Winning stomachs everywhere
Appearing as “seductive Salvadorans”
In food reviews.

viii
I know of divided allegiances
To country, to language, to history.
But I also know,
Pupusas are filled
With no such shards.

xi
Pupusas are hand made.
The maker’s life lines
Engraved on the masa 
Her story a thousand times told.

x
We eat War.
Each time
A pupusa is made
War sloughs off
Undetected and unmeasured
Residues, unstable atoms, half lives.

xi
Women birth Pupusas
Between the palms of wet hands.

xii
The Red Star Spangled Banner unfurls
And Pupusa signs sprouting everywhere.

xiii
We say “hechar pupusas.”
From hand to hot comal
Each pupusa sails the air
a stealth corn dirigible
Unlike the three galleons
That crossed the Atlantic
Searching a spice route.
Look up. There are ways,
More than thirteen ways.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Cuentos de Cipotes


Inmates in Quezaltepeque prison


I am not talking here of the famous, and in El Salvador revered, Salarue's Cuentos de Cipotes.  I am writing about cuentos or stories penned by cipotes, kids, who for innumerable circumstances have been dragged into La Vida Loca or life in the infamous Salvadoran gangs. As such these stories and poems are as valuable as Salarue's stories in capturing life, raw, as is, on the streets of El Salvador.

I discovered the work of the Cuentame Project from New America Media. The project describes their work as, "an initiative focused on improving the emotional health of incarcerated girl in the youth detention center in Ilopango, San Salvador, El Salvador." The writers come from the "Rosa Viginia" Juvenile detention center in Chalatenango for young women and El Centro Espino in Ahuachapan for young men.

"Cuentame con quien andas y te dire quien eres," goes the popular saying. In English that is something like, "Tell me who you hang out with and I'll tell you who you are." The cipotes on the pages of the Cuentame blog tell us exactly who they are and who they hang out with and why.

They write about their lives surviving the streets, trying to find love and respect in gangs. These youth might otherwise be called a "lost generation." But they are not lost, they are very much part of every day life in El Salvador. This is the first time I read about them not as a number, a statistic on some report about the debilitating gang issue in El Salvador, instead here I read their own powerful voices full of longing and truth. 

I am including a link for the article in New America Media and a link for the Proyecto Cuentame blog.

New America Media. Voices of El Salvador's incarcerated youth

Blog del Proyecto Cuentame/ The Cuentame Project

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A review of our compatriota Horacio Castellanos Moya's last book, Tirana Memoria (Tyrant Memory) from the New York Times. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/books/review/book-review-tyrant-memory-by-horacio-castellanos-moya.html?pagewanted=all