Name: Lupe Méndez
Hometown: Galveston, Tejas
Residence: Houston, Tejas
What is your earliest memory of writing?
I remember writing words on wax paper at my school when I was 5 or 6—I would write the words I knew in Spanish and then the teacher would point out the words in English—and they would post them all over the classroom. The words in Spanish were red and words in English were in black. I remember loving the sound of words as a kid. I don’t think I ever stopped writing.
How does Texas inform your writing?
It is my second home. I don’t even know the whole state, so I can’t say that the whole state informs my writing, but anything along the gulf coast informs my writing. Anything between Galveston to El Paso; The RGV (specifically, San Benito) to Austin informs who and what I write about. There is a spirit that lives along the waters, the cackle of gavilanes, the energy behind hurricanes and their parties that ties me to Texas. The beach, the waves, the salt air, the sight of a storm on the horizon of the water, a night on a jetty with a bottle of brandy, the sand between the cracks of skin, this informs my understanding of Texas. I am a foreigner to Hill Country, I don’t know its mesas, but I know its mesquites, I know its huizaches, I know Tejas. I know the side of the state that reflects the people I can speak with. I know Tejano. I don’t know all the places George Strait sang about, but I know all the corridos he didn’t.
I write in duality not just in language, but a state of mind, a geographical metaphysicality. I am hyper aware of what a bat and a lechuza are and why they are different in Texas and Jalisco. I am an odd representative of both. You tell someone outside of Texas that you are from Texas, they think Austin, or Dallas or Houston—but you say Galveston and they think “WTF?”, you surprise them. Same goes with Mejicanos in Texas, you say, “Soy Mejicano” and most will guess from San Luis Potosi or Monterrey – I say Jalisco, I say Atotonilco El Alto and they say “Qu-Que?”
I think of the poverty I grew up in and I think about the richness of my life and I know, monetarily, I might have been poor, but if I could take you with me, so you can see Los Altos de Jalisco, the way I know then and the beaches of my Galveston, the way they blessed me, then you would know, I am one of richest cabrones you’ve ever known. I write from these two points of view. If I could tell about life through shoes, I own country ass work boots for the cerros and chanclas for the sand.
Tell us about Damas y Caballeros.
Damas y Caballeros came about as the collection of poems under my MFA thesis. It has taken a new turn. I beefed it up. I added myself more to it. I was advised to take things out, to not be too repetitive with images and I did that—but I kept finding works that keep adding to the picture. It is a 4 part collection of how I view women and men. It is the raw relationships that exist. It Is a snapshot of a boy who watched the world whirl by always asking why things happened. It is me paying respects to the men and women in my life, the memory of who they were, of who they are in the world as they exist, because they still exist. One part, the grandest part is “Women”—all the poems here are reverent poems, almost prayers in respect to the image of women. “(Me)n” is about the men and the image of man, self reflective image of masculinity. It is all the elements I derive my masculinity from. “Ellas” is a 10 part poem about the relationships I have been in, up until I got married. “Ellos” are the poems about the intertwined instances of men and women.
At the root of it all, it is about people. There is magic in people, there is truth in struggle and complexity in completing something. These poems are for me humble sacrifice in order to respect what I see in the world. It is 68 pages long. It is fierce and bold and sharp. Read with caution or at least after a shot of brandy or mezcal.
What else are you working on now?
Currently I am working on a few projects. I am working on archiving the Word Around Town Poetry Tour—we just completed 10 years of work, bringing 20+ poets to 7 seven different venues in 7 days. I am working with the Houston Metropolitan Research Center to archive this work.
Next and most dear to my heart is Tintero Projects, a new (old) format for Latinx writing in Houston. It is basically the emerging writer’s arm of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. For brown writers in the Houston-Galveston area, there aren’t any Latino-centric places to write from. There is no place to call home for Latino writing—no venues that host workshops or open mic nights for emerging Latinx writers. I want to change that. Nuestra Palabra started the work and built forward—bringing in established writers to local venues like Talento Bilingue de Houston and then building forward more by establishing the biggest book festivals in Texas under the Latino Book and Family Festival and bringing writers on the air with the current NP radio show on KPFT (Tuesdays at 6p – 90.1FM – PLUG!), but the emerging writer part can always be revisited and that’s what I want to get at. I want to be able to help polish up new writers, set them up for success, get them ready for the time when they will get a bigger spotlight on the NP stage, get them ready for the next platform. Tintero Projects is then, the home of ermerging Latinx writers. With the help of Jasminne Mendez and Dee!colonize we will provide a space for writers to practice craft in safe spaces, in the languages they know best. We will provide open mic nights, workshops and radio opportunities all of the preparation for the big leagues (Nuestra Palabra showcases, radio interviews, writing features, etc.)
As an educator, you are constantly engaging with young people. How do your students inform your activism? Your writing?
They are my pulse. I know the way the world works because of the work I do in my classroom. It sounds cheesy, and real douchie of me to say it, but I always remember a non literary literary quote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I would morph it a bit—If you want to know strength and the weakness in a nation, in a system, look to the way it treats its prisoners, its students, its elderly. The activism comes from a want and a need to see my students succeed. They go through things that are familiar to me and then there are those that go through things I haven’t even begun to understand. In order to do right by a student, I have to work to prepare the world for their coming up in it. The writing is merely me being a witness to what I go through with them, because I go through this life with my students in mind. To be an educator is to share a life with a child so that they can see your errors and your successes. I write to this in as many different ways as possible.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
HA! It’s me when I can’t keep in the words anymore. It’s me between 9pm to 2am writing words or typing them in no total order, all to the sound of acid jazz or house, or bossa nova, or chill step. I edit later, later in the week, later in the month, later in the year, in 3 years, in 10. But I am always writing something.
What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?
I would say early on:
Frankinstein – M. Shelly
The Collected Works of E. Allen Poe
Tortuga – Rudolfo Anaya
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
Anything by Jose Marti
Loose Woman – Sandra Cisneros
Curandera – Carmen Tafolla
The Sadness of Days – Luis Omar Salinas
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
The Idiot – F. Dostoyevsky
Emplumada – Lorna Dee Cervantes
A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying – L Anne Guerrero
Empire – Xochlitquetzal Calendaria
The Truth is We Are Perfect – Janaka Stucky
When My Brother Was an Aztec – Natalie Diaz
Slow Lighting – E. C. Corral
Borderlands – Gloria Anzaldúa
The Bell Jar & Colossus – Sylvia Plath
The Trouble Ball – Martin Espada
The Book of Light – Lucille Clifton
Who are your writing mentors and heroes?
Pat Telschick (my English high school teacher), Tony Diaz, my wife Jasminne Mendez, Junot Diaz, Tim Hernandez, Sasha Pimentel, Carmen Tafolla, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Martin Espada, Dagoberto Gilb, Raul Salinas, to name a few.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Try, fail, keep trying, your art and your attitude will be the red carpet you will walk on one day.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Don’t freak out so much. You should go check out the big city when you get a chance. You need to go back to New Orleans at least one more time, and get ready—all the studying you did on politics will come in handy one day.
And, now James Lipton’s questions from Inside the Actor’s Studio.
What is your favorite word?
In English: advocate
In Spanish: cacahuate
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
A know-it-all who does nothing
What sound or noise do you love?
A rainstorm coming in off the ocean
What sound or noise do you hate?
Crying over a death
What is your favorite curse word?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
Fox News personality
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Glad you finally made it, we wouldn’t start the party without you…
***For more on Lupe Mendez, see: