Foto by Jose Lozano
We're at Liliana's tamales in East Los Angeles, grubbing on cocido and gorditas de nopal. Snoop Dogg is rapping on two large LCD screens that hang at opposite ends of the restaurant, but no one seems to be watching the almost muted TVs.
Instead, people unwrap hot corn husks with their dedos and dig into steaming tamales. They chatter at their mesas, a veces en Español, a veces in English, and sometimes in both. Estamos en Spanglish land. Language is fluid. It rises into the air like music and melds with the sweet, spicy aromas of chile, masa, menudo. Dishes clank. A mesera laughs. A baby cries. The urban soundtrack of passing cars afuera enters every time someone opens the front door. Yeah, I guess you could say it's a little noisy for an interview, but Los Angeles-based poet Gloria Enedina Alvarez doesn't seem to mind. She's sitting across from me toda tranquila, looking bien cool in her long curly tresses. Parece rock star.
Actually, it's not just the hair: Gloria Alvarez is a rock star. She's been poeting for decades, crossing linguistic borders a su manera, pissing off purists in both English and Spanish-speaking worlds. When publishers have wanted English only or no translated work or Spanish only, she's kept moving through other creative mediums, collaborating with other artists, delving into visual arts, theater, radio, creating her own artist books and chapbooks. Gloria Alvarez' work and long-standing presence in the literary scene have been instrumental in carving out a space for inter-generational Latina poets/writers in Los Angeles. She's a daughter of the Civil Rights Movement. A community-based artist. A Literary translator. A Curator. Mujer de Consiencia. Mother. Maestra. Mentor to generations of Latina artists. Master of La Metáfora. Born in Guadalajara and raised all over the place in Southern California--San Bernardino, San Pedro, the Mar Vista Projects, Pico-Union, East Los Angeles, South Central--she's a real LA homegirl, home grown with sunglasses and all, but her poetry sprouts thick raíces that branch in and out of the United States, cross over time and space to constantly tap into memory and identity.
Es olor de barro rising
In the morning
Its crevices hiding
Lupita’s secret wishes
It’s watching movies with our
Heads hung upside down
Through a peephole in an ancient wooden shutter
Los vecínos rociando
Sus palabras con el agua
En la acera
Es el ropero
Red mahogany mirror
Stained letters unsent
En cajones que bailan al abrirse
It’s my Tio Jose’s dairy
Froth on my tongue
It’s the nopales y el mole
Made from our pet chicken killed on my birthday
It’s what remains but never returns
Gloria can transport us not only to her childhood in Mexico, but also to mystical places where female lenguas dance...
Tongue of fire,
The energy centered around the heart,
Moon myths halo de las regiones místicas de mujer,
Sacred depths of aguamiel, the sweet water dance,
Her tongue awaits
Her woman-centered work, full of alluring images, conjures both the past and the present...For the fractured girl child
Asoman ‘tras del castillo
The ivory castle of broken dreams
Shards of daylight
Por el cancel
De las memorias de papel
At paper memories’ gate
Then ribbons swirl and rise
Tower to iridescent heights
Glazed gaze freed as cotton candy
A female tale of the phoenix rising
Mujer lifting from the ashes
Woman ablaze ascends
Born from her own fire
The maize maiden
The color of hot summers
The color of the warrior path
El color de esa tierra
El olor de barro húmedo
Rojo sobre la tarde
Como el saber que corre por sus venas
The land is the insight that washes her veins
En el camino
Dressing the morning star with hope
The spirit continues its flight
Landing to render courage
Like the quetzal
Return the green to the mountain
Burned and stained with yesterday
Vestir la mañana with color with corn
A cry of conscience
A call to action
The length of a landbridge
Desde el Anahuac
To the separation
Towards the heart
Photo by Lluvia Higuera
And when it comes to heart, this poet has a lot of it. Here is Gloria Enedina Alvarez compartiendo a bit about herself, language, the role of poetry in our lives.
When did you first fall in love with language?
I think I knew from a very young age that I had some kind of special relationship with language, some kind of gift. I loved it so much, even before I could even read or write. And language was very visual for me. I always saw things in poetic terms. I remember when we were first going to come to the United States, I'd hear family members say, "Vamos a ir a los Estados Unidos." But I would hear "Vamos a ir a los Estados Hundidos." I imagined a land full of giant holes, craters, and I would ask, "Is it like the moon?" I remember when we crossed the border I was actually looking for craters. I kept asking, "¿Dónde estan los hoyos?"
That's a great description of the United States, Los Estados Hundidos, especially when it comes to the issue of immigration.
It's very interesting this issue of immigration. My father's family was part of the generation that was repatriated in the 1930's. Although they were US Citizens, they were forced to leave the country because of the racism and anti-Mexican climate of the time. My grandfather came to the US to work for the railroads and then ironically his family was sent back on the train to Mexico. My grandfather lost everything he had worked for here—his job, property. He ended up in Zacatecas and then eventually in Jalisco, where he met my mother. I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels between what was going on before I was born and the present in regards to immigration and in particular in Arizona. It’s incredible that we are at this point again.
What was it like for you, arriving in a new country, having to learn a new language?
When I started school here in the US, I only spoke Spanish. My mother at the time had me practice two sentences that she felt were very important--“My name is Gloria Alvarez” and “I have to go to the bathroom.” How she learned to say those things I don't know, but I remember practicing for like two weeks. I could never say Gloria Alvarez. Gloria yes, but Alvarez was absolutely abstract to me. Foreign. When I heard my mother say my name I would always hear Gloria Arboles. Arboles! I was so proud of my name. Wow, I would think. Gloria Arboles. Gloria con hojas and ramas.
Gloria Arboles. That's beautiful. I love it.
Yeah, but then when I get there--to school--they never call me by my name. They call me Glow-Re-Ah Al-Vah-Rez, so of course when they called on me I never responded. That wasn't my name. I only raised my hand to tell my teacher the second thing I had learned. "I have to go to the bathroom." She wouldn't let me go, so I ran out of the classroom and all the way home. I barely made it to the restroom.
Was there a separation between your English and Spanish-speaking worlds when you were growing up?
I’m thankful that my father was very strict in making sure we maintained our language and our traditions and that we knew something about our history as Mexicans. He was very nationalist. He didn’t let us speak English in the house. English was reserved for school and other formal activities, but otherwise eramos Mexicanos and proud of it. It gave me that sense of identity, that pride. Although I didn’t learn Spanish formally. Because when I started school you couldn’t speak Spanish. You couldn’t even take Mexican food to school. If you did you'd get in trouble. If they heard you speak Spanish on the playground, you got punished back then.
When did you start writing creatively?
I began writing creatively in high school. It’s interesting because I was really into fiction, stories and story telling. I hated poetry. But then one of my high school teachers introduced me to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and I got so turned on to poetry.
Were you able to get encouragement for your writing?
I grew up in a crazy negiborhood and the library was my sanctuary. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, so I went to the librarian one day and told her my secret. She looked at me and said, "That’s not something for you people, that’s something for the rich." In college it happened too. I mentioned to one of my professors that I had been writing and that I wanted to be a writer and mas o menos this teacher said the same thing as the librarian. "Forget about it. Because of you speaking Spanish your diction is off. You can’t be a writer." I think it gave me more resolve. My high school counselor told me once “College? That’s not for you. The most you can aspire to be is a secretary." I wanted to slap her, but instead I thought "Okay lady I’ll show you." I gratuated early, went to college, majored in Social Science and Education, and got my degree. I had a baby while I was at it too.
What were some of your early creative influences?
As a kid, before I could read or write, I remember asking my older sister to make photo-novellas. She would draw monitos and leave blank bubbles for dialogue. Then I would tell her what to write in each of the bubbles. That was fun. We also put on these variedades, these shows that I would direct. It was the bomb. I was 4 years old and I was directing skits. I remember dressing up my guy cousins in flamenco dresses. My father had planted milpa outside of our house, so we even had fresh popcorn from our own milpa.
Are either of your parents artists?
No, they had a hard time with me being an artist. But they did influence me in terms of my love of language. My father, he only had a fourth-grade education because from a young age he had to work to help the family. Yet, he was a voracious reader. He was always reading and always drilling us. I remember him sacrificing so that he could buy encyclopedias for us. He bought us this great dictionary too that I couldn’t even pick up because it was so heavy, and an atlas. He made sure we had basic reference materials to work with. He was also always really playful with language and all the albures mexicanos, which I love. And my mother was always telling stories. I'm the shy one, but my mother can talk.
How does poetry come to you?
A lot of times its visual for me. I see it. There have been times when I make little drawings. I can’t draw, that’s why I write. The goal is to try to transfer, translate the visual, the experience into words. There’s this heightened sensitivity when you're a poet. All my senses are working on this heightened level. As poets we are listening to the details and we may hear things differently. Sometimes I see more than what’s actually there.
What is poetry to you?
Poetry is a gift that has been given to me that I have to give back. When I teach and when I write, I always say that this, my poetry, is my ofrenda because I see poetry that way. As a shrine to ourselves. As a shrine to everything around us. A shrine to the future. A link to all of our relations. Our relatedness. It’s tied to the essence, to the origins to the self, and to others.
I see poetry as healing. As medicine. It's absolutely necessary for us to have poetry. Es el espejo, In Lak Ech. Tu eres mi otro yo. We are all extensions of each other, mirrors. Mirrors not as pieces of glass nor inanimate objects, but as moving bodies of water that you can put your hand into and feel the depth. Dimension. Movement. Language as this living thing that is always changing.
Poetry is the need to dialogue with our own hearts and with the hearts of others. The poet takes the feeling, el querer de la gente, everything around us, and then synthesizes it and gives it back.
If you're in Los Angeles, you can listen to Gloria Alvarez today at Chimmaya Gallery in East Los Angeles at 4:00 PM. The gallery is honoring women's history month with a special exhibit: Goddess: Nuestra Alma Espiritual. Colombian writer and bloggera tatiana de la tierra and myself with be reading with Gloria, and singer, songwriter, actress and performer Cui Cui will be performing her unique blend of traditional and contemporary music.
5283 E Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90022