Tag Archives: Latin@ Lit

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:

RIP Tato Laviera (1951-2013)

I wrote this poem a few weeks ago and my friend Sarah told me it was “very Tato Laviera” and suggested the title.

“If Tato Laviera Lived in Montrose”

To Tato

I’m reading Russian theory based on French theory in Spanish while thinking in English at a Mexican-American-run coffee shop empire with a Montmartre French feeling on a German-named avenue in a Texan neighborhood.

Book Review: This is How You Lose Her – Junot Díaz

Last September, I finally read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I had been beating around the bush for months, maybe years, and after going to a Junot Díaz reading and talk-back, I finally plunged into the book. The novel blew me away and quickly became one of my favorites. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this immediately and get yourself a copy of Oscar Wao!

Díaz’ latest book, This is How You Lose Her, while not quite up to the level of Oscar Wao, is almost as compelling a read as his masterwork. I loved reading the different short stories and I even managed to get Kayla to read a few of them. This is How You Lose Her consists of 9 stories that feature Yunior, of Drown and Oscar Wao fame, at the center. I love Yunior. Everyone I know who has read the books loves Yunior. If anything, this collection humanizes him even further. Even though he is a world-class Dominican-American macho male, these stories show us that he just wants to be loved regardless of his “stud” persona. The reader sees the ways in which Yunior is able to love and be loved while demonstrating the effects of his relationships on his unwavering masculinity.

Yunior may come off as a typical macho Dominican male, but he is more than that. While all of the men in his life are serial cheaters and the collection’s most prominent male influence, Rafa, is abusive to women, Yunior does not exactly follow down this path. Even though he frequently messes up, cheats, and loses the girl, he doesn’t particularly seem to learn anything. Nevertheless, I interpret the work itself as his recognition of his failures and the poor decisions he has made in his life. The last story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” presents Yunior years later. After being rightfully dumped by his fiancée due to his typically womanizing ways, he seems to finally learn from his mistakes. He becomes depresses and must fall into the abyss before he can finally emerge a wiser and better person, one that does not repeat the mistakes of his youth. Essentially, the stories are as much about failure as they are about growth. Yunior cannot truly grow and become a better person until he experiences failure. True, he frequently makes the same errors and typically credits them to his being a Dominican male, but the repetitive nature of his mistakes forces him to see them for what they are. They aren’t a reflection of his Dominicanness or his maleness; they are a result of who he is. Yunior is an addict, thus explaining the repetitiveness of his mistakes. I see the collection as a sort of rehab in which he must “come clean” about who he truly is in order to move on and make amends with his past.

Even though I generally want to dislike Yunior due his typical machismo behavior, I genuinely like the character. I think I owe this to Díaz’ style of writing. His writing is real to me. He effortless intertwines different languages, dialects, linguistic registers, and even sci-fi and pop culture tidbits. I’m always wanting to read more. And perhaps no other contemporary writer makes me want to write myself more than Junot Díaz. His writing makes me want to drop out of school, take some creative writing workshops, go to Agora, and make magic happen.

Luis Valdez’ Actos and El Teatro Campesino

In 1965, Luis Valdez ushered in a new movement of civil rights protest with his formation of El Teatro Campesino, or the Farmworkers’ Theatre. Valdez’ theatre movement served as the cultural ambassador to Cesar Chávez’ civil rights activism by creating actos and performing them for other farmworkers in an attempt to bolster the strength of the union.

El Teatro Campesino was a troupe of striking farmworkers who performed brief actos, or commedia dell’arte-style sketches as a form of agit-prop theatre. This was a political theatre firmly based on improvisations of socio-political issues of the time. Nothing was traditional about this movement; these were Mexican-American/Chicano farmworkers who were eager to develop theatrical statements about their condition in an effort to ignite change.

On the surface, actos are essentially skits, but they transcend the simplicity of skits due to their social justice background. Valdez states, “We could have called them ‘skits,’ but we lived and talked in San Joaquín Spanish so we needed a name that name sense to the Raza.” Valdez’ actos were for the people by the people created to both educate and entertain. Its roots are in Bertolt Brecht’s lehrstucke (learning pieces) and agit-prop theatre of revolutionary Russia. Chicanos had issues that need to be expressed and the acto was the most efficient way to make a political statement and demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in the United States.

According to Valdez, the 5 goals of the acto are:

  1. Inspire the audience to social action
  2. Illuminate specific points about social problems
  3. Satirize the opposition
  4. Show or hint at a solution
  5. Express what people are thinking

Perhaps most notable is that the actos were created primarily through improvisation based on the experiences of the participants. Therefore, there was hardly a distinction between the worker and the actor; they were one in the same. By utilizing the personal experiences and stories of the workers, El Teatro Campesino was capable of creating theatre that accurately reflected its participants and audience. Valdez affirms, “In a Mexican way, we have discovered what Brecht is all about. If you want unbourgeois theater, find unbourgeois people to do it.” This aspect helped the Teatro to be more effective.

The acto in its most basic form only needs 2 characters and a conflict – information about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing. The conflict is the essential element that is necessary; through the acto, the participants seek a solution to the conflict. The actos worked to expose the problems of Chicano/Mexican-American workers. For decades, if not centuries, they had been an important workforce in the United States, especially in California. Far too often, their struggles had gone unnoticed or ignored. The Chicano Teatro Movement sought to eradicate their absence from history by giving the group voice. El Teatro Campesino marked the birth of the contemporary Chicano Theatre Movement and inspired other similar groups to follow their lead and illustrate the problems surrounding the farm workers.

El Teatro Campesino would travel around California and perform their actos at farms, fields, college campuses, churches, theaters, and community halls in an effort to create a cathartic experience for theatergoers.

Book Review: Thirty an’ Seen a Lot – Evangelina Vigil

Evangelina Vigil was one of the first writers to offer an intimate perspective of daily life in a Chicano barrio/neighborhood. This unique viewpoint is seen in her poetic series of barrio snapshots, Thirty an’ Seen a Lot. First of all, I love the title and picture of Vigil on the cover. It says it all. She is a confident Chicana decolonizing Hispanic women formerly seen as passive wives and girlfriends. The neon sign reads “Ladies Welcome,” inviting Vigil’s audience to join her and break free of patriarchal social constraints.

Thirty an’ Seen a Lot, published in 1982 by Arte Público Press, is a collection of bilingual poetry written during the years she lived in Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston. Subsequently, it demonstrates her growth and evolution as a poet. The principle themes of the work include daily life in the barrio, criticism of machismo, and the culture of the working class.

Notably, Vigil, as a poet, occupies a place formerly dominated by her male counterparts during the height of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Through her poetry, she is able to impose herself on Chicano Culture and take over a space typically reserved for men. She inverts stereotypical gender roles by embodying an aggressive persona. She acts, demands, orders, speaks, and decides; she is active.

One of my favorite poems from the collection is por la calle Zarzamora. This poem is well representative of Vigil’s active and aggressive style of poetry; she fully occupies the domain typically closed-off to Chicana women.

                entro a una cantina

                y como ciega busco mi lugar

                eso es muy importante

                luego ordeno una cerveza

                y me acomodo

After ordering her beer, she goes on to describe her fellow bar-goers: “los batos y señores.” Her presence here is completely normal and accepted by the male majority.

                y de rato a mi presencia se acostumbran

                y siguen con su onda natural

While Vigil breaks traditional feminine stereotypes, thus forcing her audience to question traditional Chicana femininity itself, the poem includes two other women who seem to typify a more stereotypical version of Hispanic women. Nevertheless, it appears that Vigil is celebrating who these women embody. She writes:

                entran por la puerta dos mujeres

                muy arregladas –

                o como decían más antes, bien ‘jitis’

                con olores de perfume

                y de aqua net hairspray:

                pues, se ven bien

Rather than relegate these women to second-tier status behind her own confidence existence, Vigil presents these women as strong ones. In fact, when a man hits on these women and offers them a drink, they kindly decline his offer. Similarly to ¡es todo!, Vigil is able to create a snapshot through her poetic language. In 30 or so lines of poetry, she paints a complete portrait of this particular aspect of life in the barrio while breaking down gendered stereotypes about who a Chicana woman is and can become.

Evangelina Vigil represents one of the many Chicana voices that emerged during the 1980s in a movement to include women in the greater Chicano Movement. Women such as Vigil, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcón, Sandra Cisneros, Carla Trujillo, etc. revolutionized the way we looked at the Chicano Nation. No longer was this a male dominated, exclusive patriarchy. While there still remains issues of sexism and inequality to this day, these women paved the way for other Chicanas to have agency and voice. This is a history that is still being written today. Writers Gwendolyn Zepeda, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Josefina López, among others, are still working on decolonizing Chicana women and including “her” story in “his” story (history).