For poet Janice Lobo Sapigao, the word “from” has transformed in meaning over the years. The shift began while writing her first book, Microchips for Millions, a collection centering on immigrant women workers in San Jose, a group the author’s mother was once part of.
“With Microchips, I was really invested in learning what Silicon Valley is––as this dream that is built on the backs of so many marginalized communities,” Sapigao says, “including ones that I identify with and that my family is part of. I was thinking about where I’m from, and how the word ‘from’ is a layer of where I am now, and what my family history is.”
Sapigao, who was named Santa Clara County Poet Laureate in 2020-2021, continued exploring these ideas in her second book, Like a Solid to a Shadow, in which she sets out to translate recordings of her late father from his native Ilokano.
“The word ‘from’ became more a word of connection than a word of separation,’ Sapigao says, describing the effect of the books’ research and writing processes on her perspective.
Sapigao reads with fellow San Jose poet Yosimar Reyes at Nirvana Soul on April 20, an event hosted by Center for Literary Arts. Reyes, also a playwright and performance artist, authored the collection For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly… and has held fellowships from Undocupoets and Lambda Literary.
“I’ve followed Yosi’s work for years,” says Sapigao of her colleague, who acted as a judge for the first round of the Youth Poet Laureate Program that Sapigao founded during her term as poet laureate. Sapigao and Reyes also featured alongside each other on a collaborative mixtape by community organization SV Debug.
For the CLA reading, Sapigao anticipates sharing themes of “important women in our lives, women who have migrated here.”
Both writers navigate their respective ties and trials with San Jose in their work. Reyes, who emigrated from his birthplace of Guerrero, Mexico, with family at the age of three, pays tribute in his writing to his ancestral home as well as the neighborhood that raised him, Eastside San Jose. Narrating childhood experiences with his grandmother, Reyes also channels family and maternal lineage as a way to expand and complicate the concept of belonging to a homeland.
Reyes and Sapigao reflect their community dedication through youth and educational outreach as well. Reyes has been a guest speaker at universities and cultural organizations around the country, from Harvard to the San Francisco Public Library; he also recorded a Spanish-language program discussing anti-blackness for radio and Univision in 2020. In addition to founding the Youth Poet Laureate Program, Sapigao also contributed to Dear Poet, a letter-writing project by the Academy of American Poets. Students responded to “There Will Be No Funeral”—Sapigao’s poem about being unable to afford her grandmother’s funeral expenses—and its heartbreaking resonance in a post-pandemic world.
“I hope those poets continue to grow their own writing, and hopefully I get to meet them some day,” Sapigao says of the young authors who wrote to her of their own lolas.
CLA’s reading takes place at Nirvana Soul, the same venue that hosted the Youth Poet Laureate Program’s open mic. Sisters Jeronica Macey and Be’Anka Ashaolu opened the coffee shop and performance space in 2020. In a serendipitous turn, Sapigao notes that reading an article about Macey’s previous stint as a rideshare service driver made her realize she had, years ago, ridden in the entrepreneur’s car herself. “She was giving out tickets to people to come in for a free drink when they opened. And now we’re here!”
As a dedicated literary presence in San Jose for the last 30 years, Sapigao has imagined herself reading with Center for Literary Arts for over a decade. The poet recalls seeing novelist Sarah Shun-lien Bynum read her work at CLA in 2010: “It was at one of those events where I realized––I wanna read here one day! So for me, it’s a huge deal,” she laughs, “and I don’t often think things are huge deals.”