Out beyond the fields where Keyes Street fades into Story Road, between the zoo, The Jungle and the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, you will find poetry this Friday, thanks to the folks at ConXion.
As an organization, ConXion operates out of a nondescript building just across Coyote Creek from where The Jungle homeless encampment used to be. The surrounding environs include Happy Hollow and the historic Ashworth-Remillard House, where the roosters meander into the Walmart parking lot.
Once inside ConXion, however, a vast array of activities become apparent, all relating to education, workforce, behavioral health and other social services for disconnected youth and adults. Murals adorn the walls. Day laborers arrive to learn computer skills, get food, or just hang out in a safe place while they look for work. Counselors, teachers and social workers tend to the needs of disenfranchised parents or kids embroiled in the child welfare system.
From this wealth of heroic services, a poetic adventure to Oakland emerged. Ashley Gomez, a cultural broker at ConXion, joined poet Rachelle Escamilla to attend a reading by Josiah Luis Alderete, a full-blooded Pocho Indio and Spanglish-speaking poet with deep roots in San Francisco’s Mission District, pre-gentrification. Gomez, who runs ConXion’s Parent Hub program to help decrease disproportionality in child-welfare programs, was so inspired by Alderete’s performance that she organized her own poetry night for the parents and kids that regularly lean on ConXion’s services. As a result, Noche de Poesia, the first event of its kind ever at the ConXion compound, erupts this Friday at 6pm.
“I wanted to create a bridge for families who don’t have access to poetry nights, don’t have access to workshops with fancy speakers,” says Gomez, whose approach incorporates La Cultura Cura, a healing philosophy emphasizing cultural values, community and indigenous teachings. “I wanted them to have access, just to show them that there is another way, that there is creativity, and there are other communities out there that are supportive, that are healthy, and it’s not like drinking or doing drugs.”
On the poetry front, when Alderete isn’t working at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, he organizes Latinx spoken word nights and performs poetry addressing a variety of social issues, from colonization to food gentrification and more. He believes Spanglish is an authentic American language.
“When he does his poetry, he’s reminding us of the importance of our ancestral roots,” Gomez says. “And when we get stuck in poverty, we forget about how sacred these things are. And that’s why I think it’s so important to bring him to these families. It’s a reminder to remember your cultural roots, and not to let these things get lost with the daily grind.”
Also on the bill is Brooklyn-based Chris Carr, plus ASHA, a local poet and educator, as well as Rachelle Escamilla, who hosts “Out of Our Minds,” a long-running poetry radio show on KKUP. Currently based at CSU Monterey Bay, Escamilla helped book the poets due to being fed up with what she claims is the lack of representation in San Jose’s poetry scene.
“San Jose used to be Chicano, there were a lot of Chicanos here,” Escamilla says. “Where is the Chicano art scene? Where are the small spaces where all of the Chicano artists are working? Why does it always have to be inside of these institutional places? Why can’t it be handled by people in the community that are doing it from the roots of the community? I think that’s what’s important about ConXion. Ashley is from the community, she’s speaking to the community, she’s inside of the community.”
This time around, that community will hold space in the ConXion compound at 749 Story Road. Between the roosters, the sun-baked concrete, the Walmart shoppers and the Vietnamese Buddhists, revolutionary poets will inspire kids and parents alike.
“I feel very inferior compared to the poets who are going to be there,” Escamilla confesses. “But all of them are heavy hitters. Their performances are strong. Everyone you’re going to see at the show is someone who will make you feel fire.”