Poetry

Leticia Hernández-Linares:
“One Million Minus One” and “Despierta”

[From the WVFC Poetry Archive. First published September 13, 2020.]

 

One Million Minus One

-Qué viva la memoria y el espíritu de Anthony Soltero

 

Me cortaron la lengua, pero tengo mis pies

Millions marching mimeograph
our caras onto international view.
no caption does justice to the sight.
if they take your tongue, well
you still have your feet.

The headline of the mass outpouring
of raised voices and fists invoke Judy Baca.
Staggered portraits along the river, palms
open, holding light. al fin, murals and gente
hiding debajo del horizonte emerge
in a blazing, deliberate chant.

Rally cries can’t muffle a mother’s llanto.
Her son walked to the front, raised
his chin. an administrator pulled him
out of line. leaned too heavy
on tentative boy backbone.
the traverse toward manhood stunted.

Mother’s arms flail around the empty space
where awkward middle school limbs played
with equilibrium, tested reach, resistance.
a rubber band that snapped.

Por qué es que han marcado una línea en la tierra
por qué es que han creado la escuela como cárcel
estudiantes criminales, los maestros policías
Me cortaron la lengua, pero tengo mis pies.

Belated obituary won’t pull chalk
out of the hands of boys drawing their outlines,
their surrender, onto the sidewalk.

The absence of news coverage
about a principal who slipped
the bolt out from a boy’s spine,
the clatter of bone as he retreated
into the comfort of district policies,
won’t erase the occurrence,
the date, the time.

Este pedacito de hombre, why
did he take a principal’s threat
like a gun to his head?
didn’t anyone tell him, regardless
of how teachers menace,
accusations stick, skin reflects,

you are precious.
You are precious.
You are precious.

 

 

Despierta

Mission street yawns wide under the canopy of breaking day,
breathless footsteps tax rickety ladder rungs,
chase streams of light unveiling the horizon,
sleepy hands burning sage on tar rooftop,
the day just barely born
into my desert dusted arms wanting
to hold a neighborhood hostage from itself

What a perfect mission these streets have become,
shoveling out plots for graves, lots for sale
a concentric circle of conquest carving itself
into a ground overcrowded with the whispering of ghosts

If I charge the children with painting poems,
will you learn to feed yourself, curl up from the crouching
towards death stance you slag around the streets in,
cease the fire that barrels holes through the heads
of young men guilty of nothing but brown skin,
being on foot––no car to speed past the candle lit
processing of their own untimely deaths

La piedra del sol down la calle Valencia reflects
light from a Chicana architect’s plans, shines
over open doors of a community learning space,
comedores bearing plates steaming with home country
recuerdos, connecting writers to the next verse,
amantes to inevitable missteps

Prayers printed on the feet of danzantes resound
through blocks where I learned how to make crying count,
counted murals counting wars cried close to corners
where someone keeps dying for nothing, nodded
while poet cantos sing truth into sense
calling each day to attention with the promise
of sunrise and sanctuary

 

 

Both poems are by Leticia Hernández-Linares, reprinted here by permission of the author, and are from Mucha Muchada, Too Much Girl (Tía Chucha Press 2015), available for purchase here.

Listen to the poet reading her poems here and here.

 

 

Leticia Hernández-Linares is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, and educator. She is the author of Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl and coeditor of The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. Widely published, her work appears in Other Musics, Latinas: Struggles & ProtestsMaestrapeace, Huizache and Pilgrimage.
Hernández-Linares teaches in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. A four-time San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist grantee, she has presented her poemsongs throughout the United States and in El Salvador, and you can listen to some of them here. Visit her at joinleticia.com.

 

Poet’s Note

Before & during these multiple pandemics, I have been writing poems about entangled narratives––displacement, motherhood, trauma, economic & state brutality. My next collection of poems bears witness to the many dimensions & violence of the relentless gentrification of my community, the Mission District. Throughout several projects, past & present, I keep returning to this call: how I can speak with & for the neighborhood where I found safety, voice, reflection; where I grew to be an artist & mother? The working title for my next book is Vecina. My poems document the sounds, heartbreak, injustice, & daily struggle of living in a place under siege. As Shelter-in-Place began, demolition of the local hospital, two blocks from my home, carried on. The sounds of the wrecking ball echoed like the automatic gunfire of a warzone. Whether you walk or drive throughout San Francisco, construction zones, blocked walkways, backed-up streets are inevitable. There is no avoiding the mess & the rubble, & the constant departure.

That Rebecca Foust has selected to feature “One Million Minus One,” a poem about the impact of institutional violence on a Brown boy, & “Despierta,” the final word in my book Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl, is no coincidence (not that I believe in coincidences). I didn’t know, when I wrote about a young leader who took his life during the historic Latinx May 1st protests, that I would write many more poems in solidarity with mothers who would lose their sons. I didn’t anticipate the fear that plagues a mother of Brown boys in a neighborhood where sons are victims of police brutality, in a country that normalizes their imprisonment & assassination. I didn’t know that Despierta would open the door to the next book. I didn’t dare think that as I wrote that next book, an eviction notice would arrive, & I would have to fight for my home.

While these poems were written a while back, they continue to not only speak to the present but also to fuel my current work. In addition to the poetry collection about gentrification, I recently completed a children’s book that addresses displacement & am working on a poetry manuscript about motherhood. Rebecca Foust found my through lines. I am grateful for the space to reflect, recite, & resist.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poems are from a book by Leticia Hernández-Linares called Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl after Juan García Esquivel’s a popular song featured in The Big Lebowski and other films. A rich interdisciplinary mix of the arts, the book includes many poems inspired by songs and others (e.g., “Painting the River Clean”) inspired by the street murals found in the Mission District in San Francisco where most of the book is set. The murals, painted by artists including Juana Alicia and by students in the urban youth arts program under the direction of artists like Fred Alvarado and Max Martilla, are found throughout the Mission District in San Francisco. For examples, see Street Art San Francisco, Mission Muralismo, ed. by Annice Jacoby (Abrams 2009), available here.

The poems in Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl paint their own murals in words glowing with passion and conviction. There is also a good dose of sass, a quality visually captured in book’s cover photo as well as the photo below that serves as the book’s frontispiece and gloss on two of its poems: “How to be Spiritual in Stilettos” and “How to be Spiritual in Tacones.”

“One million Minus One” and “Despierta” are representative of what I enjoyed most about Mucha Muchacha: the emotional honesty, strength, and verve of the voice speaking the poems, and their ability to evoke the richness and complexity of San Francisco’s historic and vibrantly cultural Mission District.

The notes to “One Million Minus One” say the poem was written in homage to 14-year-old Anthony Soltero, who took his own life on March 30, 2006, after an administrator at his middle school told him that he could go to prison for organizing protests and walkouts in response to anti-immigrant legislation. Referring to a “[b]elated obituary” and “The absence of news coverage,” the poem makes the point that Soltero’s death did not, at first, receive much notice. Indeed, what turns up in an internet search now seems sparked more by the outrage in response to that incident than by the incident itself. (See, for example, here and here.)

“One Million Minus One” seeks to rectify this oversight, bringing Anthony Soltero and what happened to him to the forefront in a protest poem that continues and extends the work of others who marched to make sure the public had an awareness of his tragic end. The poem opens with an epigraph  reading “Qué viva la memoria y el espíritu de Anthony Soltero” (“Long live the memory and spirit of Anthony Soltero”),  followed by a first line  reading “Me cortaron la lengua, pero tengo mis pies” (“They cut out my tongue but I got my feet”). The first line is from Hernández-Linares’s original song, “Me cortaron la lengua,” and the italics, Hernández-Linares tells me, indicate that it is meant to be not spoken, but sung.

The second stanza opens in the midst of a march organized in response to Soltero’s death, using “mimeographs” as a verb to convey the visual of many faces (the slant-rhyming “our caras”) showing themselves to the world in tribute and protest. The stanza closes with a reiteration, this time in English, of the poem’s first line. This linguistic intermingling is characteristic of poems in Mucha Muchacha, which tend not to differentiate Spanish from English with italics and not to interrupt the text with literal translations. Rather than treating English as the “default” standard, the author uses words from both languages and trusts context to make her poem accessible to English and Spanish speakers alike.

In “One Million Minus One,” the protests do what the original news stories coverage could not: attract national and international media attention to spark outrage over Soltero’s death. The image of all those people marching reminds the speaker of a stirring scene in a mural by Judy Baca, the Great Wall of Los Angeles, located close to where Hernández-Linares lived during her high school years. Interestingly, she did not discover the mural until later when she recognized the park it borders in a slideshow in a Chicano Studies course taken her senior year of college. [Read about the mural here, and see a photo of it here.] Learning about that Judy Baca mural makes me think of another recent Poetry Sunday column by Amanda Moore: 有 識: HAVE KNOWLEDGE” BY PAISLEY REKDAL. We all know by now that history is hegemony and that our school textbooks omit more than half of our country’s story. I’m grateful for the existence of art like the Angel Island Immigration Station wall poetry, Baca’s street murals, and this poem to help fill in the gaps.

The strength and beauty of “One Million Minus One” lie in its insistent focus and concern on the human tragedy at its center. The headlines and “[r]ally cries can’t muffle a mother’s llanto [crying],” and a “[m]other’s arms flail around the empty space” where her son used to be. The next stanza reads:

Por qué es que han marcado una línea en la tierra
por qué es que han creado la escuela como cárcel
estudiantes criminales, los maestros policías
Me cortaron la lengua, pero tengo mis pies.

[Why is it that they have drawn a line on the ground
why is it that they have created the school as a prison
criminal students, police teachers
They cut out my tongue, but I have my feet.]

The poem’s remaining lines laser-focus on Anthony Soltero and what happened to him just before he took his own life. After Soltero cut middle school classes to help organize and participate in an immigrant protest, a school administrator is reported to have crushed his spirit by making him fear criminal and other grave consequences. In the poem, “a principal . . . slipped / the bolt out from a boy’s spine,” then disregarded the consequent “clatter of bone” when he fell.

Other poems in Mucha Muchacha make clear that the author is herself a mother, and a mother’s anguish informs the next line: “Este pedacito de hombre” (“This little piece of man”). The move here and in the lines above—bringing attention to the mothers of young men who are victims of this country’s systemic racism—reminds me of Patricia Smith’s use of the same strategy in the searing poems in her last book, Incendiary Art. Here, Hernández-Linares’s phrase reminds us again of what matters most—the tragic loss of one young person’s life, along with his idealism and what that could have meant for the world—and it moves me deeply every time I read it.

“One Million Minus One” closes by turning directly to Anthony Soltero, addressing him in the second person and using the power of repetition to pay a simple and powerful mother’s tribute: “you are precious. / You are precious. / You are precious.” I can only imagine what the room feels like after Hernández-Linares reads this poem aloud, something I hope I will get to experience in person one day after the pandemic has subsided.

“Despierta” (“Awake”), an equally heartfelt if quieter poem, closes the collection in Mucha Muchada and, Hernández-Linares says, paves the way for her next poetry collection. “Despierta” conveys a sense of determination and hope embodied in a neighborhood that figures almost like another character in this and other poems in Mucha Muchacha. The Mission District is a place that (except during a pandemic) is alive with people and culture like no other area of San Francisco. It glows with street murals and is home to many art and literary organizations and events. San Francisco’s annual Litquake Festival takes place there each October (this year it’s “Litquake on Lockdown” online), and for two weeks, its streets are thronged with people attending readings in every conceivable venue—I’ve hosted Litquake readings at a consignment store, a laundromat, an art gallery, a women’s center, a café, and a barbershop. It’s also the home of 826 Valencia, Dave Egger’s acclaimed nonprofit youth educational organization (and Pirate Store), and of San Francisco’s Intersection of the Arts, mentioned in the end notes of Mucha Muchacha. I was an Intersection fellow in 2007 and will always be grateful for the support my work received from Octavio Solis and other wonderful writers there.

Today’s poems share techniques like the seamless interweaving of Spanish with English text, and they also share social justice concerns. The “fire that barrels holes through the heads / of young men guilty of nothing but brown skin” in “Despierta” reminds us that tragedies like Anthony Soltero’s are not the exception but a regular occurrence in this country, and that metaphorical murders of agency, opportunity, and hope are also happening here every day.

“Despierta” takes a stance of purpose, strength, and hope, offering the chance that art (“the children . . . painting poems”) can offer consolation and may be an agent of change, a way to teach someone “to feed yourself,” to “curl up from the crouching towards death stance,” and to quell “the fire” consuming young men of color in our country today. By the end of the poem, we see and hear the streets whose people charge this author with a sense of purpose and dedication to her art, and we experience the Mission District with her as a place of “sunrise and sanctuary.” I hope and pray this unique neighborhood will be spared the next wave of .com gentrification, and am very much looking forward to reading Leticia Hernández-Linares’ next book of poems.

 

 

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