Tag Archives: Houston

Tintero Projects: Writing/Righting Houston

Even though people from outside of Houston continue to think the city has no culture, H-Town is full of life and it’s “the literary world’s best-kept secret.” Besides being home to Arte Público Press, the University of Houston’s high-ranking MFA in Creative Writing, WITS, Inprint, Nuestra Palabra, WriteSpace, and Literal, Houston is now home to Tintero Projects. Founded by the visionary duo of Lupe and Jasminne Mendez, Tintero’s mission is to create a space to nurture the future Latin@ storytellers of the United States, with Houston as its main hub.

In March 2016, I interviewed Lupe about his activism, writing, and founding Tintero Projects:

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. (…) 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 [Nuestra Palabra] stage, get them ready for the next platform.

If you haven’t read Lupe’s “Open Letter to the Houston Poetry Scene,” then open the link in a new tab and read it when you finish this blog.

Earlier this month, Tintero formally began with readings at Casa Ramirez and the Inprint House featuring powerhouse poets Yesenia Montilla, Denice Frohman, Malcolm Friend, and Raina León, with Lupe and Jasminne warming up the standing room only crowds. To bring these West and East Coast writers to the Gulf Coast was a powerful way to launch Tintero. As in many cases, the coastal bias tends to disregard the center of the country and the Gulf Coast especially. With Lupe and Jasminne at the helm, Tintero is bridging east and west and centering Houston as the epicenter in a literary movement that will see emerging Latin@ writers becoming the future of this nation’s literary arts scene (See: “Houston and Texas, the inkwells of poetry for Latino writers” by Olivia P. Tallet). The next phases of Tintero’s strategic plan will involve workshops and open mic nights for emerging writers.

Tintero launched with Latin@ fierceness that would ignite any community. Here, you had four knockout poets, three of which are Afro-Latin@ (not to mention Lupe and Jasminne who are knockouts in their own right). While this shouldn’t feel like a statement, it was. As Jasminne Mendez and Houston-based writer Icess Fernandez-Rojas have written about extensively, Afro-Latin@s still face issues of invisibility and identity policing even within their own communities (while I have you here, check out #TeatroLatinegro and Houston playwright Jelisa Jay Robinson’s work). I asked Icess to share some thoughts about Tintero:

For the first time in recent memory, there was more than one Afro-Latino writer reading in Houston at one time. See, Houston is one of the most literary cities in America but one thing it doesn’t have is a lot of Afro Latino writers.

The latest Tintero Reading was amazing. As an Afro Latino writer, it was air. The experiences of being in between two worlds – black and Latino – and existing in spaces where we have to choose, was apparent in their writing. From music to love, existing in this skin was painted their words and it was everything. I was seen that night and all my experiences were validated. This is what art does.

To use Tintero as a space to begin a dialogue about the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad in our community demonstrates the type of work that the project will undertake. Perhaps more now than ever, we need to be having nuanced conversations about Afro-Latinidad and multicultural identities.  And why shouldn’t the arts be the vehicle to ignite this conversation, to ignite social change?

5 Highlights from Tintero’s Launch:

  • Yesenia Montilla’s ode to rapper Notorious B.I.G., “Notorious.” You can read two of her poems here.
  • Denice Frohman’s poem that troubled the idea of “home.” Houston-based performer and playwright Josh Inocéncio was particularly inspired by Frohman’s poem about genocide: “Denice’s eloquent takedown of schools that ignore teaching genocide–creating a society with cultural amnesia–has inspired me to get into the classroom, the streets, the local newspaper (anywhere I can!) to educate students from all walks of life.”
  • Malcolm Friend’s poem about white people mistaking him for other black men who look absolutely nothing like him (even Philly’s Mayor Nutter!). I am waiting impatiently for Malcolm to finish his MFA and publish his book.
  • And Raina León’s, well, pretty much everything about her was perfection to me, but, if I had to choose, then the moment that touched me the most was the poem that began with her singing “Maybe” from Cabaret. Yes to an Afro-Latina Sally Bowles. Yes to Raina León. Yes to all of it!
  • Jasminne Mendez and Lupe Méndez both performed, warming up the crowd. Even though I could likely recite many of their poems from memory, I will never grow tired of hearing them both. They are familia to me and I will unwaveringly support them for as long as I can and you should, too.

While the poets (including Lupe and Jasminne) came from distinct cultural backgrounds and brought different life experiences to Tintero, all touched on the intricacies of identity in 2016 América. More so, all spoke to the power of art, poetry, and creative writing to heal both individual and community. Art is powerful. Art heals. Art saves. Art builds community. And as art does all of these things, so will Tintero Projects in Houston, Tejas, and across the Gulf Coast. I’ve known Lupe and Jasminne for years. They are change-makers. When they have a vision, they make it a reality. Houston is in for something special. Stay tuned.

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

4 Takeaways from Creative Writing Camp

Right out of undergrad I had a gig teaching middle school, however after teaching at the college level for the last seven years it feels like a lifetime ago. Before my experience with Writers in the Schools’ (WITS) Creative Writing Camp (CWC) the thought of teaching middle schoolers made me a bit nervous. And to tell the truth, I’m not even sure why. I really loved the year I taught middle school. I only left because I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. full-time.

Looking back, it was easily one of the most positive teaching experiences I’ve ever had and here are my four takeaways:

  1. 10 year olds can do as much as 13 year olds, if not more

When I first looked at the class roster and saw the age range I thought it would be difficult to teach 10 and 13 year olds at the same time. It wasn’t. In fact, while teaching I barely thought of age differences in the classroom. I looked at them all equally as writers and taught in the normal way I always teach. I spoke to them as if they were adults. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t get (really) goofy at times, dancing, singing, etc., but as my college students will attest, that’s how I teach. It’s just who I am.

  1. They were obsessed with the rules and with labels

On the third day, I went to begin my lesson based on Lupe Méndez’s “A Poem About My Name” when one particularly inquisitive young writer asked me:

Her: Are you an author?
Me: We are all authors! All of us in this room!
Her: No, but are you a published author?
Me: Yes, I’ve published a lot of things and so have some of you in this room. And we are going to publish an anthology at the end of camp!
Her: I know, but are you an author?
Me: Yes.

All of this is to say that I spent two weeks trying to inspire these kids to recognize that they can be writers and whatever else they want to be. The possibilities are endless.

As far as the rules, blame it on testing or the age, but one of the biggest struggles of camp was to empower our young writers to not worry so much about the rules. Many of them were overly concerned with structure and style, but we continually told them that this was an opportunity to hone their individual writing style and not worry about forcing rhyme schemes or a certain number of lines or syllables. My co-teacher and I worked to privilege the individual and help each of them reach a positive space with their creativity and writing.

  1. Having a co-teacher was transformative

One of the best parts about CWC is having a co-teacher in the room. And did I have a good one! I was lucky enough to be paired with Sarah Jerasa and, within a few days, our students were asking us if we had been friends for years. Nope. We met not even two weeks prior at Rice University during CWC orientation. That Sarah and I clicked on so many levels from the first minute is really a testament to WITS’ match.com-esque “formula” for pairing co-teachers.

I’m sure the fact that Sarah and I gelled so well aided in this, but not having to stretch myself thin across 21 students was a game-changer in every way. We were able to team teach nearly all of our lessons, jumping back-and-forth between the both of us every step of the process. We could give each writer personalized attention during “office hours” and writing workshops. For the anthology and end-of-camp celebration poems, many writers benefited from having both Sarah and I offer feedback. Not to mention, I learned tons from Sarah—new lessons, new methods, new jokes (there were a lot of laughs!). Simply put, Sarah inspired me to become a better educator.

  1. I wrote every day, but not what I expected to write

In May, I hit a writing plateau while finishing my book manuscript. I hoped that being around so much creative energy would help me to push through. For the most part it did. I wrote everyday (both at camp and when I got home), but not what I expected to write. Instead of a finished book manuscript, I now have a series of poems about my name, growing up in New Orleans, gumbo, my family, and other tidbits from my life so far. During our 15-20 minute free-writes to start the day throughout the second week, I journaled—something I hadn’t done in about 8 years. All of this is to say that prioritizing writing and making time to write everyday (however you define that) is an important step in my process as a writer. While each writer should find their own process, writing everyday works for me. It makes it a habit. On days when I don’t write, everything feels off-balanced. Moreover, I find that writing everyday helps me to push through writer’s block. When I prioritize my writing, I never have trouble putting words on the page. Admittedly, this involves learning what works best for you, creating an optimal writing environment, and being in control of things you can actually control.

Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas

In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine heralded Houston as the “Next Great American City,” citing its ethnic and cultural transformation over the last few decades as well as its reputation as a city where people can achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University released a study that showed how Houston holds the nation’s most equitable distribution of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups: Asian, Latina/o, black, and white people. In Harris County, the demographics reveal that white people comprise only 33 percent of the population whereas Latina/os are 41 percent and African Americans 18.4 percent. In fact, of the population under 30-years-old, only 22 percent are white. The same year, an NPR feature celebrated this rich diversity. Still, in 2012 Pew Research Center ranks Houston as the most economically segregated city in the nation.

Houston is growing at an astronomical pace and there is no evidence that this is slowing down. Luckily, the arts are along for this ride. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the city has seen an unprecedented boom in the arts. The Alley Theatre just completed a $46.5 million makeover. The $25 million MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) opened with four theatres, an art gallery, rehearsal space, and office space. Main Street Theatre unveiled a $2 million overhaul of their space. AD Players Theater broke ground on a $49 million facility in the Galleria area that will house three theatres, a scenic shop, classrooms, and offices. Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) opened its new $6.5 million theatre. And the Museum of Fine Arts Houston broke ground on its $450 million expansion (including a theatre).

Despite what the demographics and influx of cultural arts activity reveals, Latina/o representation on stage in Houston is few and far between. In the 2015–2016 theatre season, out of all the full productions at the city’s leading professional theatres such as the Alley, Stages Repertory Theatre, and Main Street Theatre, only two were by a Latina/o author: The Danube by Maríe Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages. To repeat, in a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season. To me, these numbers are startling and reveal that Houston is wildly behind other places with similar demographic diversity across the country such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where Latina/o stories are frequently seen on a variety of stages: big, small, Latina/o, LORT, university, high school—you name it.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound

Does Carnegie Vanguard’s HOLY DAY go too far for high school theatre?

Don’t come to Carnegie Vanguard High School’s UIL One-Act Play (OAP) production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell expecting laughs. This isn’t Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Over the River and Through the Woods, or The 39 Steps. If you want to see something familiar, perhaps The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the umpteenth time, then I am sure there will be a production around the corner. There are three productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone next week at Texas’s UIL One-Act Play Competition in Austin where Carnegie Vanguard will compete for the 6A State Championship with its highly original production of Holy Day.

If you are looking for professional-grade theatre that is brave, raw, and real, then Holy Day will deliver. Holy Day received its world premiere in 2001 at the State Theatre Company in South Australia. Since then, the play has received few productions, making this a powerfully fresh choice for a Texas high school theatre competition. In 2014, Carnegie Vanguard won the 5A UIL OAP state competition with When the Rain Stops Falling, another Andrew Bovell title.

Holy Day begins with two men and a mute boy entering a traveler’s inn. The minister’s wife appears—her husband has died, the church has burned to the ground, and her baby has been stolen, supposedly by Aboriginal peoples. The remaining 40 minute cutting (per UIL OAP rules) entangles greed and survival between the four leading players: the inn-keeper Nora, the drunken nomad Goundry, the minister’s wife Elizabeth, and the Aboriginal woman Linda. All four actors deliver performances unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a high school stage. Indeed, as the performances in Holy Day demonstrate, to call Carnegie Vanguard “high school theatre,” which often comes with a connotation of “amateur,” would be to undermine it.

Holy Day explores colonialism, brutality, deceit, murder, and racism on the 19th century Australian frontier, on the borderlands of white and black, of frontier life and indigenous life. While Carnegie Vanguard’s production design is beautiful, with professional-looking projections on a jagged-edged tableau, this is indeed a story about the ugly side of life on the frontier and the realities of colonialism.

Aside from the gorgeous projections, Holy Day features a soundscape of rain, thunder, and didgeridoos. The bare set—save a tree and a table—is filled with a shadowy vastness, a metaphor for the harsh expanse of the Australian outback and the secrets that lie in the shadows of Carnegie Vanguard’s powerful Holy Day. As the projections show, life on the frontier is in a constant state of motion that involves violent collisions amidst a world of heightened naturalism. The vast darkness allows the spectator to focus on Bovell’s words and the explosive performances that give them life. Each character is nuanced and flawed in some way. No one is left unscathed.

As an Australian Gothic play, Holy Day often shows the ugly side of humanity by rendering a frighteningly real look at the effects of colonialism in Australia. The play offers a glimpse into the atrocities of colonialism against the Aboriginal population in Australia where, much like in the United States, European settlers pushed indigenous peoples off their lands and, in many cases, murdered them. As Holy Day shows, children were taken by settlers to be raised as Christians, only to become the servants to white settlers and the victims of physical abuse. As in the United States, these histories are not taught across the curriculum in Australia, making Holy Day a bold choice for Carnegie Vanguard to start a dialogue through theater.

Yet, as anyone who has been following Carnegie Vanguard’s road to the UIL OAP State Finals has observed, the dialogue has instead centered on unfounded complaints from opposing schools that the production is “offensive.” People are asking “What is too far for high school theatre?” and “How edgy should high school theatre be?” In fact, many of the people weighing in against Holy Day have admittedly not seen this production nor read the play script. I’m looking at you, Todd Starnes, who penned an opinion piece, “School play depicts rape, filthy language and public urination,” for Fox News. Simply put, if you haven’t seen or read the play then you have no right to be offended.

Would classics such as Carousel not go “too far” if they were directed with a heavy hand to foreground the domestic violence inflicted on Julie Jordan? Could this not be potentially traumatizing to an audience member who has experienced domestic violence? Is it acceptable to sing racist lyrics in West Side Story while your high school’s students of color are experiencing overt and subtle racism on a daily basis. Examples such as these are innumerable.

Let me break Holy Day down from my perspective of having seen the production three times.

Some have complained about the language in the play. Yes, Holy Day includes a few profanities—“bitch,” “shit,” and “bastard”—but this language is used to accurately capture the historical moment that Holy Day portrays. Sure, these words might be offensive to some in 2016, but have you walked down the halls of a high school in the last 20 years? Have you seen a high school play outside of the bubble you live in? Have you seen a PG-13 movie recently? Have you read a John Green young adult novel recently?

One of Todd Starnes’ chief complaints is the depiction of sex and rape in Holy Day, which I will add, never happen on-stage. Yes, we hear the screams of both characters once they are off-stage, but we never see it (many of the complaints have made it sound like these rape scenes occur on-stage). Of course, rape and sexual violence are difficult topics, but if we can’t be having these conversations in theatre then where can we have them? Is theatre not supposed to be a place to have difficult conversations and get people talking? We do a disservice to our students to ignore the topic of rape. As nearly every statistic reveals, 1-in-4 women in college are the victim of rape or sexual assault. The numbers are staggering by any standard. Sexual assault is very real and, like it or not, a lived reality of high school aged-students, both male and female.

Others are upset that a character in Holy Day urinates and that another female character washes her private parts. The fact that I saw this production 3 times and neither of these things ever stood out to me is significant. The reason is simple; Holy Day is not a play about either of these things. They are quick glimpses that add nuances to each character. Even so, since when is urinating away from the audience upstage offensive? People have been saying that the actor “drops his pants.” Yes, he drops his pants and is wearing long johns. Do I need to recount every high school play I have seen with a boy in long johns or a girl in a slip?

So, does Holy Day go too far? Is it too edgy? My answer is a resounding “no.”

The play met the community standards. The principal approved it. Houston ISD approved it and issued a statement supporting the production. The Carnegie Vanguard parents have unwaveringly supported the show. The contest managers and adjudicators of six rounds advanced the play to the next round, often in the first place slot. Not to mention that there have been copious amounts of warnings before all rounds of UIL OAP competition. There were printed warnings in the program and on the doors. And, at nearly every round, the contest manager issued a warning before the play, reminding the audience that the play was approved by the principal. In all instances, warnings reiterated that the plays competing met their community standards and may not be acceptable for all audiences.

So what is the problem? The fact that complaints have nearly entirely come from parents associated with opposing schools whose work was not to Carnegie Vanguard’s level is revealing. Rather than publically speak against the bold work of these students, why not make a vow to improve your own work? Help your students hone their craft during the summer. Find opportunities for self-growth. Make the best use of your professional development funds. Don’t have professional development funds? Fundraise and make it happen. Pick an exciting and new play that showcases your cast’s talents. Be bold with your design. Be creative. Don’t use projections for the sake of simply using projections. Make sure your play’s cutting is dramaturgically sound.

I urge anyone who can to see Carnegie Vanguard’s Holy Day—Friday, May 20 in Houston and Wednesday, May 25 in Austin. It isn’t often you can see high school professional theatre like this.


Carnegie Vanguard will be performing Holy Day at the world-renowned Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. Please go here to donate to this life-changing opportunity for these students!

Holy Day 2

 

 

“The Stories of Us” by Jelisa Jay Robinson

Stories of Us 2

Somewhere around the middle of Jelisa Jay Robinson’s The Stories of Us at Teatro Vivo in Austin, it hit me. I couldn’t recall seeing a play that so boldly tackled Blackness, Latinidad, and Afro-Latinidad. Sure, I’ve seen plays with Afro-Latin@ characters and lots of Latin@ plays, but nothing quite like The Stories of Us. Black. Brown. Neither. Both. The Stories of Us offers a rich and nuanced view of life in the contemporary United States. These are stories that need to be told all across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between. Produce this play!

The Stories of Us began as The Untold Stories while Robinson was still an undergrad Theatre and Latin American Studies major at the University of Texas at Austin. The play was later selected for Teatro Vivo’s Austin New Latino Play Festival in 2015 and received a full production this April-May under the direction of Florinda Bryant. The play is a series of vignettes that explores the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad and how this complex relationship continues to influence these (sometimes) overlapping communities today.

Besides “The Wobble” and knockout performances from Stacye Markey and Krysta Gonzales (who I finally got to meet!), what struck me the most about the play was Robinson’s writing. This girl has got it! She is doing important work to update the narrative on multicultural identity in 2016. As The Stories of Us demonstrates, we need to be having conversations about Afro-Latinidad. We need to understand the nuances of being Black in America, being “black enough,” having that “good hair,” being Latin@, speaking Spanish, having light skin, being racialized, passing, and using certain language (the play includes a poignant vignette about using the “n” word). Yet, why in 2016 are these conversations so few and far between in theatre, especially  in Latin@ theatre? Why isn’t there more Afro-Latinidad on stage?

Aside from the play itself, perhaps my favorite part of seeing The Stories of Us was witnessing a young artist find success by telling her stories, her truths. Robinson is living her dream and it’s beautiful to witness! I first met Robinson earlier this year and, through a combination of happenings, she has quickly become an important part of my writing community in Houston. My tribe—Jasminne Mendez, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Lupe Méndez, Josh Inocéncio, and, now thankfully, Jelisa Jay Robinson.

Stories of Us

Artist Profile: Lupe Méndez

Name: Lupe MéndezLupe Mendez

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

Recent Influences:
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.

Lupe Mendez 1

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?

Hispanic

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Open-mindedness

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?

hijo-desu-requete-p**a-madre

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Farmer

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:

Artist Profile: Jasminne Méndez

J Mendez

While sitting in the Alamo Room at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio last Saturday night, I witnessed something special. As part of the American Literature Association Symposium on Borders and Frontiers in American Literature, my colleague Claire M. Massey and I organized a night of Latin@ poetry featuring local Texas writers Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros, Jasminne Méndez, Lupe Méndez, and Natalia Treviño. We had originally planned to submit a panel featuring the 4 writers but the conference organizer, Steven Frye, graciously provided us with the coveted closing reception slot.

And while all four poets were superb, I was so moved by Jasminne Méndez’s performance that I immediately became inspired to write about this piece and help spread the word about this powerhouse performance poet, who, according to Tony Díaz “El Librotraficante,” performs in 6-D, or 10-D as I would argue.

Although I’m positive our paths crossed sooner, I first came into contact with Jasminne on the opening night of the 2015 NACCS Tejas Foco when she performed several of her poems. I wanted to meet her afterwards, but she was swarmed by college students buying her book, getting autographs, and taking pictures with la poeta. It would take 6 months for Jasminne and I to meet at a conference in New Orleans (it was a hug situation, not a handshake, if that tells you anything). Since then, we’ve become frequent writing buddies, collaborators, and great friends.

Méndez’s first book, Island of Dreams (Floricanto Press, 2013), uses poetry and memoir to explore themes such as family relationships, multicultural identity in the United States, food, hair, self-discovery, assimilation, and the supposed American Dream. Positioning her writing from the voice of her teenage self, Méndez’s poetry-infused memoir speaks to the difficulty of growing up Afro-Latina in the United States and, ultimately, the protagonist—and the writer—comes to understand the richness and abundance of her cultural identity and history. In the end, she finds a place to call home. Aside from being included in high school and university curriculums across the country, Island of Dreams won the award for Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book at the prestigious Latino Book Awards in 2015.

When I first read Island of Dreams, I recognized the beauty of knowing that Jasminne has become the woman that the teenage narrator of the collection wished she had in her life. This is part of why Jasminne’s work as a teaching artist in Houston-area schools is so important—to have Afro-Latina voices in our schools to inspire young people.  Jasminne is a mentor and a role-model to so many students and aspiring writers.

While her work jumps off the page, Jasminne’s work as a performer truly sets her apart and demonstrates what a singular  talent she is. I’ve witnessed few performance poets who can move me in the way that Méndez does. Need convincing?

***For more on Jasminne Méndez, please see: