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Poetic Flowering

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Rising Voices: Grito Serpentino is among the many spoken-word performers at Floricanto.

Latino lit takes center stage at Floricanto Festival

By Ann Elliott Sherman

SAN JOSE'S inaugural Latino poetry festival, the Floricanto Festival and Conference, promises much more than another belated "first." Creating a statewide buzz before a single word has been spoken, the conference aims not only to showcase the past and present of Chicano/Latino poetry but also to re-establish San Jose and festival host MACLA/San José Center for Latino Arts as front-runners in the future development of Latino literature.

San Jose was once a player in the national Chicano literary movement, home to Lorna Dee Cervantes and her publishing company, Mango Press. But to hear MACLA executive director Maribel Alvarez tell it, as federal funding for cultural centers like downtown's Center Cultural de la Gente died out and the city core fell into decay, "there was a real flight of talent from here. Lorna Dee Cervantes, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Luis Valdez--all those folks left."

In the late 1980s, she continues, "when we got involved, the way to ignite the sort of movement included in our name, Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, was a literary movement. The first gatherings to try to revive a Latino cultural center downtown were poetry readings that Margarita Luna Robles, Juan Felipe Herrera, myself and others organized. [The readings] ignited people coming back together--people like Jorge Gonzales, who had been part of the literary movement of the Chicano emergence in San Diego back in the '60s and who had not read in years."

Some time after MACLA occupied its current SoFA address in 1992, it invited Robles, who had moved to Fresno, to serve as writer-in-residence. Robles established a women's writing workshop, Erasing the Margins, that met and performed its work for three years.

"It wasn't until this last year that we were able to bring Marc Pinate on staff to develop, still at a very preliminary level, the idea of a real literary program," Alvarez says. "We really went for the young energy that's coming out of the spoken-word environment."

MACLA and Pinate (also host of the monthly poetry lunadas at Chacho's restaurant) have sufficiently stirred the ashes to rekindle interest in San Jose's Chicano/Latino poetry scene from none other than one of the genre's godfathers, Alurista. Recently relocated from San Diego because "it's happening here," Alurista says, "I have seen a lot of what I consider to be upcoming poets."

Coming from the man who blazed the trail in blending not only Spanish and English but also indigenous tongues and street slang into a writ that works on multiple levels, that's high praise. A co-founder of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MECHA), as well as a principal author of El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán), adopted by the Denver Youth Conference in 1969, Alurista (née Alberto Baltazar Urista) has published his influential work in collections that include Floricanto en Aztlán, Spik in Glyph? and Et Tu ... Raza?

THE ORGANIZER of the very first Festival Floricanto, held in Los Angeles in 1973, Alurista is scheduled to deliver the conference's keynote speech at 2:30pm on Saturday. "There's no doubt in my mind that this festival will be a trendsetter," he says. "All over Aztlán, we have had these events take place, but they have not been as well put together as this one. ... I thank Maribel and Marc for bringing back to life a floricanto in the manner in which it should be put--by itself. We don't need to be celebrating Cinco de Mayo or Quince de Septembre. Our poetry, our flower and song, our xochitl y cuicatl, is itself enough to be celebrated."

Cause for celebration indeed, the floricanto brings back to their old stomping grounds Cervantes, Robles and Herrera to join Alurista and other headliners like Francisco X. Alarcón and Roberto Tinoco Duran. Perhaps the most widely acclaimed Chicana poet, Cervantes is the author of Emplumada, a collection of finely honed, unblinkingly tough and beautiful poems that won the 1982 American Book Award. Her 1991 book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger, was honored with both the Paterson Prize for the year's best book of poetry and the Latino Literature Award.

The author of Triptych: Dreams, Lust and Other Performances, Robles is renowned for her ability to nurture young writers. She explores the boundaries of poetic performance in intensely personal works that transcend the particulars captured in the colors, shadows and juice of life/death.

As suggested by book titles like Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of the Americas and Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream, Herrera's jazzy, experimental work travels fast and free past any fences erected between genres, forms, even media, and he has brought this restless curiosity to bear fruit in numerous poetry collectives and teatros.

Like Cervantes, Alarcón has racked up many awards and fellowships for his spare yet sensuous poetry rooted in a bicultural, binational consciousness collected in books such as Snake Poems, De Amor Oscuro/Of Dark Love, and Body in Flames/Cuerpo en Llamas. Duran is a mainstay on the local Chicano poetry scene, offering incisive, often wry yet powerful observations of injustice and absurdity. His publications include Feeling the Red on My Way to the Rose Instead and Reality Ribs.

UNIQUELY DESIGNED to bring together California's well-established Chicano/Latino poets and rising young stars of the spoken-word scene, this weekend's floricanto hopes to spark the kind of dialogue and connections necessary to build a Latino Spoken Word Movement. If pre-event discussions are any indication, that dialogue is certain to be lively.

The festival organizers have received criticism for featuring relatively few women writers. Alvarez points to Sunday's lineup as a good gender mix but acknowledges that, in general, the assessment is accurate. "Marc, being a young Chicano, brings that young guy's energy to the program," she says. "It's an audience that we don't even know how to reach--not just us but social workers [too]. So I'm happy that Marc is able to open up a little door there." The majority of conference registrants, however, are women.

Asked for her reaction, Robles says, "My initial observation was, of course, as always, Where are the women? Because I am a woman. And because it is a historical problem, issue, concern. If we're not conscious of it, it doesn't resolve itself. Also, if this is 25 or 30 years later from when we first started doing this, and we have a real strong male lineup, then how far have we traveled?"

This floricanto, Robles observes, "then becomes reflective of what is actually happening. It's a very interesting phenomenon. Here in Fresno, and throughout California, I have the opportunity to work with a lot of young poets. What I start to notice is that maybe five years will pass, and the guys'll still be there, but the women won't. Most women probably don't continue because the support isn't there."

The conference's intergenerational roundtable discussions could get picante, too. Although certainly no stranger to presenting his work with musical accompaniment, Alurista tempers his appreciation for what he terms the fourth wave of Chicano poetry, the current spoken-word trend, with forthright criticism.

"Some of the upcoming poetry groups are using music so much," he observes, "putting so much emphasis there, that if I put their poetry on a page, it clearly is not as powerful as it is in performance. And maybe it isn't powerful at all. It's rhetoric, it's clichéd. ... I want to hear the word, and then I can see if the word stands by itself. If it can't live on the page, brother/sister, it ain't poetry."

"I find a lot of young male poets wanting to do the standup comedy," Robles remarks. Though she feels we all want and need to go much deeper than such cleverness permits, Robles remains optimistic about the art form's future.

"Poetry and resurgence. I'm almost leaving it up to the young ones, the spoken-word poets, to bring poetry back alive. I really think that's what it needs. It's always about a new voice," she says.

As Alurista puts it, "I don't think that one can underestimate the catalystic power of the poetic word."

The 1999 San José Floricanto Festival and Conference takes place June 4-6 at San Jose City College; conference 10am-4:30pm Saturday-Sunday; performances 6:30pm Friday, 7pm Saturday, 6pm Sunday. $12/$10 Friday-Saturday; $10/$8 Sunday. Three-night pass $30/$25. (408/938-3571 or [email protected])

Schedule of Events

June 4
7:30pm: Robert Karimi
8pm: Margarita Luna Robles
8:30pm: Los Delicados: Poetas del Sol

June 5
11am: Round-table discussions on issues in Chicano/Latino spoken word and poetry
1:30pm: Address by Alurista
7-9:45pm: Alejandra Ibarra, Francisco Alarcon, Joe Navarro, In Lak Ech, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Jeremiah Calvillo-Zuazua and the Taco Shop Poets.

June 6
11am: Round table--new horizons for Chicano/Latino poetry
2pm: In Lak Ech and Taco Shop Poets rap session
3:15pm: Reading by Mario Virgen
4:15pm: Video of work by Roberto Duran
6pm-10pm: Roberto Tinoco Durán, Juan Felipe Herrera, Noelia Ramirez De Leon, Joe Montoya, Grito Serpentino, Alurista and open mic.

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From the June 3-9, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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