Santa Fe, New Mexico’s September festival is called Zozobra. Zozobra, “Old Man Gloom,” is present at the festival as a giant marionette. In the preceding weeks, anyone may write the source of their woes on slips of paper and deposit them in a sealed wooden box at the office of the Santa Fe Reporter. The gloom box is then placed like a votive offering at the feet of the effigy and burned as Zozobra himself is immolated.
In the poet/essayist/novelist Alma Luz Villanueva’s poem “Zozobra,” her life, like a favored garment, is held at arm’s length and considered;
….my filed divorce papers (my 20-year
marriage), or a copy anyway, old family
photos of me in the diaper business, the
Little League business, the track team and
the Planned Parenthood business, not to
mention the college scholarship and fund
business, then the “Who’s the perfect parent
I did my best, better than you, you walked
away with my heart” business—
No, I didn’t bring the paperwork to
be burned to healing ashes.
Two husbands, various lovers,
Four grown children, healthy and whole….
Villanueva’s poetry often is both intimate and personal. At her readings and recitations she connects with her audience well and they respond with appropriate enthusiasm. Her critical reviews are strong, though she has found the occasional critic. After a well attended reading followed by a standing ovation and a highly successful book signing at UC Davis a decade ago, one faculty wag from the English Department wrote that Villanueva did have an enthusiastic audience, but that “she might have a difficult time before a more critical audience.” Well, yes, Professor, had that highly literate audience thrown rocks instead of kudos and kisses, had they then fled in horror instead of rushing the stage to touch and speak to the reader, Villanueva would have had a much more difficult time.
Villanueva was born in Santa Barbara and grew up in San Francisco’s mission district. She was raised primarily by her Yaqui grandmother, her much loved Mexican-born “Mamacita,” Jesus Villanueva, with limited input from her mother, Lydia, and with assistance from an aunt, Ruth Villanueva. It was Mamacita, though, who read Spanish poetry to her, and taught her to recite Spanish poetry from memory for church. Lines from the poem, “to Jesus Villanueva, with love,” reveal much about the flinty subsistence of those early years:
You could never understand
at clinics, welfare offices, schools,
any of it.
You lie, you push, you get.
I learned to do all this by the third clinic day….
My first acquaintance with the work of AlmaLuz Villanueva was through one of her earlier works, the collection of short stories, “Weeping Woman: La Llorona and Other Stories.” I was living a Boston suburb. I had recently retired from medical practice and was intent on moving to Southern California to write full time. I realized I had encountered a unique voice in “Weeping Woman,” and sought out and read others of her works.
Villanueva’s poetic life began when she was 12. Mamacita died, and in a very real sense that launched her grandaughter’s life as poet. Life further intervened; when Villanueva had her first child at age 15. The second was born at age 17. She was reduced to the harsh realities of existence on public assistance in San Francisca public housing, then subjected to further uncertainties of life with an abusive husband.
The expected ending for such a story doesn’t take a great deal of imagination. But somehow, it didn’t happen as one might expect. Showing grit and determination worthy of any soldier, children in tow, she finished high school, college, and completed a Master of Fine Arts.
In the 1970’s, her poetry began to publish. She won she won first place in poetry with the University of California at Irvine's Chicano Literary Prize. Her first three books of poetry were: Bloodroot, Mother May I?, Life Span and Planet (the latter won the Latin American Writers poetry prize, N.Y.). This writer found her volume of poetry, Desire to be particularly moving. It was selected for The Best American Poetry, 1996. Her Collection Vida has published more recently.
Her three novels are: The Ultraviolet Sky. (American Book Award. This work is also is listed in 500 Great Books by Women). Naked Ladies then won the PEN Oakland fiction award, and is anthologized in Caliente, The Best Erotic Latin American Writing. Villanueva also wrote Luna’s California Poppies and then another personal favorite, Weeping Woman, La Llorona and Other Stories, a collection of short stories. Her fiction and poetry has been widely anthologized in the USA and abroad, and is included in textbooks from grammar to university level.
The poet has held a number of graduate teaching positions, and for the last decade or so has been an instructor in the in the renowned Master of Fine Arts program of Antioch University Los Angeles. She also taught fiction/poetry at UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, Naropa Institute (Boulder, Colorado)...Mesa College, UC San Diego, Stanford University and Pacific University, to name a few.
While Villanueva is often characterized as a Chicana poet, or as a Feminist poet, such characterizations can conceal more than they reveal. No matter her ancestry or gender, Villanueva is a poet of humankind’s indominatable spirit, a scribe of the vagaries of the human heart.
AlmaLuz Villanueva’s latest book of poetry.
Available at Amazon.com and other fine booksellers.
Bilingual Press. Tempe Arizona
ISBN: 978 1 931010 37 5
229 Pages Soft cover,
John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He later studied medicine and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group. He practiced family medicine in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published widely. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine "The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online."
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