Poets and Community: Thoughts from the Latino Books and Family Festival

By Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo–

This past weekend was the Latino Books and Family Festival at California State University, Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel at the event entitled “From Inspiration to Publication: The Business of Poetry,” with poets Alicia Partnoy, William Archila, Rafael Alvarado, Erika Ayon and Melinda Palacio. I was honored to be sitting next to such accomplished writers.

In March, I attended a panel at UCLA featuring Alicia Partnoy, author of The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, about Argentine political prisoners’ writing and art, and I was excited to be able to finally introduce myself. It was also an honor to sit alongside William Archila whose book, The Art of Exile–a poetic account of his exit from civil war El Salvador in 1980 and his later return–won the festival’s International Latino Book Award in Poetry. I bought Archila’s book today at the festival, and am already in love with it. Beautiful images of here and there, and consequently feeling alienated from both feel dreamy and magical. But as William explained at our panel, what we here in the U.S. call “magical realism” is an everyday way of thinking in Latin American countries.

Walking through booths of Latino publishers, bookstores, writers and organizations made me feel lucky to be a Latino writer welcomed by a supportive community. Sometimes being a writer can be lonely. The act of writing is solitary, but what I love about being a poet is the opportunities it brings to share stories and experience a moment of togetherness. On the truest level, this community is hopefully felt when we read a poem about a man’s memory of being a boy in El Salvador or a political prisoner’s story of survival, but it can also happen in public spaces.

It is about community. We share our stories to understand each other and gain a sense of sameness; or as Father Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, author of Tattoos of the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, and the festival’s keynote speaker said, “it is a mutual experience.” A moment in time when we discover a kinship with one another.

In my household there is an ongoing debate about the state of the Latino community in the U.S. Of course, we all know there is still a long way to go, but in my house some think we have focused too much on art, literature, and education and not enough on business and politics. That may be true, but we need Latino writers and poets, books, publishers, bookstores, and community centers if only to have a place to be recognized and seen, because no one else is going to do it unless we make them.

As David Orr said in his essay, “The Politics of Poetry,” (I’m summarizing here and taking liberties) politics and poetry both demand a mastery of rhetoric and politicians are –just as poets– “people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving.” Orr refers to this as a “totalizing vision.” The politician and poet’s ability to imagine a wider worldview allows both to clarify for a public a new or different reality through language. So yes, it would be good for our community to have more Gloria Molinas and Sonia Sotomayers in places of power, but we also need Luis J. Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, Martin Espada, and Julia Alvarez (to name a few).

Support your Latino writers, buy a book, and let’s keep the community moving together.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a Los Angeles native and Chicana writer, by whom she and others refer to as part of the Splinter Generation.    She is currently the author of two blogs, The Immigration Project and If I Had a Blog.

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