Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Three Laureates, One Centro

Meet and Greet 3 Laureates & A New USC El Centro Chicano 

Michael Sedano


After the closing of the 2010 reunion floricanto at USC, Mary Ann Pacheco, Alurista, and I had dinner at LA’s iconic The Pantry. The pair had organized the original 1973 Festival de Flor y Canto and edited the anthology. Mary Ann surprised the heck out of me with a revelation from back then.

I was having the time of my life on the GI Bill and a TA job. For fun I became Chief Photog of the campus rag, "shot" big-time USC sports, and documented everything I saw. In the eyes of the 18- and 19- year olds, I was this old guy who carries a camera everywhere he goes and is always taking their photo. They thought I was a narc.

“CIA,” Mary Ann interjects, as I relate that story to the invitees to a “meet and greet” reception for the three Poets Laureate who would read that evening, not at the postage-stamp Centro, but in prominent Bovard Auditorium.

Billy Vela, Robin Coste Lewis, Dana Gioia
Things have changed at El Centro Chicano and I wonder how much is a que plus ça change situation? Space is at a premium in the new ECC as people term it now. Unwelcoming linoleum hallways lead to anonymous institutional doors shutting-in unknown spaces. A display case outside displays government citations and awards.

My wife and I took surface rail to the late afternoon event and arrived a quarter hour early to locked doors. Despite that, the hallway holds warm memories. The Daily Trojan offices are on this floor, and the El Rodeo yearbook sign hangs on the wall opposite El Centro Chicano. Today's El Centro is in the heart of campus, a corner of the top floor of the old Student Union building. In its time, ECC’s been in a deluxe building of its own, before that cramped into antique charming surroundings of the campus cathedral, and started in la raza’s own storefront Centro, prime real estate at the juncture of Hoover and Jefferson.

With murals by Willie Herrón and Roberto Arenivar, El Centro Chicano became a prominent landmark along heavily-trafficked Jefferson Boulevard. across from Shrine Auditorium. El Centro Chicano was the first building anyone saw upon walking onto USC. A fountain and a mound of English ivy today mark the main entrance to campus here where Hoover t-bones into campus.

Original storefront El Centro Chicano 1973. Mural by Willie Herrón
"Ad astra" (my name) by Roberto Arenivar. This parking lot faced Jefferson Blvd at Hoover.
I rattle the door. Someone pushes it open and Billy Vela makes eye contact over Lety’s shoulder. “We’re not ready,” the director of el centro calls as the door snaps shut. El Centro now has a digital security system and I’m thinking paranoia has infected the once legendary hospitality of El Centro Chicano de USC. A terrorist in Las Vegas reminds that every institution must enact a policy of securely locked doors, lest some armed wall-building murderer walks in and starts shooting. Damn, it's not only el Centro Chicano that's changed, and it can happen here.

Billy comes out to chat in the hallway. The director is momentarily out of kilter with the late arrival of his caterer. Greeting Mary Ann Pacheco, my wife, and me, Vela tells us the caterer is usually reliable. Since Mary Ann and I are two of the original beneficiaries of el centro, Billy puts us on the a la brava program. We joke about what we’ll say and how we’ll each need an hour. Billy says “how about a minute?”

Vela is under pressure. It’s both subtle and obvious. He’s not alone. USC compartmentalizes non-traditional presences like black, chicano, and foreign students. In El Centro Chicano’s case, diminished space trades off for heart of campus location and continued existence.

No one has enough funding. Tonight’s engagement results not from ECC’s budget but out of inspired teaming with USC's Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs. Unity works. Together, the two programs won a grant from the campus’ arts initiative, Visions & Voices. Vela will write:

We hosted a Meet & Greet co-sponsored by CBCSA featuring the Three Laureates: U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, LA Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis, & CA Poet Laureate Dana Gioia at El Centro. It truly was a very special moment, you can feel it in the air! This pic captured the moment we showed a video clip of JFH performing at El Centro Chicano's Flor y Canto Literary Conference in 1973. We were all truly blessed for this opportunity and thank you again to all the students, staff, faculty, alumni & friends who came & shared in this once in a lifetime experience. Thank you again USC Vision & Voices and USC Libraries for the opportunity!

V&V funded much of our 2010 reunion floricanto, Festival de Flor y Canto. Yesterday • Today • Tomorrow. In 2010, Doheny Library added significant funding that illustrated the University's commitment to Chicana and Chicano Literature. It’s doubtful el Centro can host a major event like a floricanto on its own. A professor from the Spanish and Portugese Depto spoke about organizing a floricanto for the 45th anniversary of the first floricanto, next year. I raise it every time I talk to USC gente. How about the 46th?

That 2010 floricanto represents a good mailing list, word of mouth, and calls for poets. With a lineup committed, librarian Barbara Robinson, the V&V grant holder, and particularly Tyson Gaskill, executive director of communications and events at Doheny, put the plan into action for three days of reunion artists and contemporary and emerging writers. Check out the USC digital library for the readings.

Rosalind Conerly directs Co-sponsor CBCSA.

Before Mary Ann goes On, Billy welcomes the director of USC’s Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, Rosalind Conerly. CBCSA Co-Sponsors tonight’s reading, Three Laureates: Poets of the New California. Conerly talks about shared interests and literary initiatives beyond one event.

While Billy introduces Mary Ann, Lewis grabs me to take a portrait of her and her compañera Rosalind Conerly. They embrace like long-time friends. We speculate a bit about doing poetry events with the Laureate, CBCSA, and poets from the eastside. A ver.

Rosalind Conerly and Robin Coste Lewis.
Conerly's organization, Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, Co-sponsored the reading.

Lewis is subject of the Sunday LA Times' Arts&Books section, an above the fold spread of photo with a dramatic introduction by Jeffrey Fleishman (link). It's a major piece, with a jump to the back page where it takes the entire print text hole. The web version displays added art, the print edition's giant spread features the third foto on the scroll. The paper  crops the group foto that the web shares in  full, Lewis with three fellow 2015 National Book Award winners

Mary Ann relates the beginnings of el centro and how she serendipitously came to sponsor the historic first major institutional floricanto, 1973's El Festival de Flor y Canto. A retired English professor, Mary Ann knows how to work a receptive audience and exceeds her minute. Y que? We're having a good time. It's the old Centro atmosphere.

Mary Ann Pacheco organized the 1973 Festival de Flor y Canto where future Laureate Hererra, on screen, read.

In 1973, Mary Ann Pacheco introduced the poet frozen on screen.
I begin my minute by snapping the shutter a couple times. Just as I relate being a narc and Mary Ann chips in “CIA,” a commotion in the hallway announces the arrival of the emeritus United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera.

He was expected. Ever since ECC let us enter, young Herrera at the floricanto in 1973 has been frozen in time on la pantalla at the far end of the long, narrow space. The wall-length mural of movimiento and centro icons sets the ambience of the event--y no nos vamos.

Juan Felipe is guest of honor in keeping with the university motto, Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat, loosely translated, this is what you’ve earned, brother. And we’re ready to get down.

Juan Felipe Herrera knits together a narrative memoir responding to
 Vela's question about floricanto and news developments.
The select audience will tell their grandchildren about the meet and greet. If they made a mental note, they’ll remember the digital library at USC holds a full collection of chicana and chicano writers reading their own stuff, from both floricantos. That’s a point Barbara Robinson is happy to reiterate to the assembly. Barbara purchased one of two extant sets of 1973 videos for UCRiverside. It’s owing to Barbara Robinson that Festival de Flor y Canto returned to USC via those DVDs (link). The first time I met Billy, he knew there had been a Flor y Canto but USC had lost its institutional memory.

I hope readers are devouring the work of the Laureates. Herrera read at both floricantos, and USC's digital library streams them. Click here, explore, set a bookmark, enjoy. The 2010 videography is courtesy Jesus Treviño's Barrio Dog Productions. Of special note, Herrera's 2010 opens with the same dedicatory poem he opens with in 1973. It's a wonderful parallel and time trip not to miss.

Gioia and Lewis weren’t at the floricantos, but they should read at the next one. Each has solid internet documentation via news accounts and recorded performances. Libraries and bookstores will supply all or some of the Laureates’ published work. My favorite Herrera title, out of an accomplished oeuvre, is still 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border. (link)

The California Laureate told me about an upcoming ballad and I'm glad he did. The Los Angeles Book Review, not affiliated with the Los Angeles Times, recently published Dana Gioia's ballad recounting his grandfather's fame and demise, "The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz." (link)

Dana Gioia's thought in word and gesture

Robin Coste Lewis emphasizes a thought

Rapt listeners include Herrera's granddaughter and daughter, Marisol Herrera.
A Laureateship exalts art and artist toward the sublime, still the poets themselves are personable, fun gente you’d want to share a canapé with. Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis wears her mom’s bowling shirt. Lewis accepted the Laureateship in April for a two year term. Undoubtedly she will have people all over L.A.  talking about and making poetry. It’s a big job, but that's why we have Laureates, que no?

California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia reminds me he’s half-Mexican. I don’t hold it against him, but I don’t tell him that. He presents himself with the aplomb and assuredness of the high-ranking corporate guy he used to be. I used to be one of those, too, and we chat easily. Nowadays, other than California Poet Laureate with a resumé, Gioia is a USC professor.



As Laureate, one of Gioia’s goals is a visit to all 58 counties of the state. The USC performance with Lewis and Herrera will count as another one for LA. Gioia visits Berdoo in upcoming weeks.

Here’s a heads-up link from the Laureate's website to the unpoeted counties (you know who you are, Mono, Tulare, but Santa Barbara County?). Hold a floricanto, invite your state’s Poet Laureate. The journey of a thousand Laureates begins with a single letter.

El Centro’s 3 Laureates event that evening and the afternoon’s meet and greet is part of what the centro is for, but more, why kids go to college. Open a person's eyes to more, and new, spend time in company of famous people, eat free.

Tardeada preparations ca. 1973
In grad school, a centro tardeada would be a highlight of the week. Lots of food and soft drinks. Billy Vela keeps up that custom with ample victuals. Crostini with a tasty salsa cruda, I’m told, for the wheat-eaters. Mary Ann, Robin Coste Lewis, and I, are happy for the vegan gluten-free choice, thank you, Billy. Lety urged a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

I’m happy to meet a grandchild who can tell his grandchildren about this day. A high school senior, he is headed for USC and its biomedical programs. Events like this, and the reading, are vital for raza youth to see and hear and only the most fortunate get to. I’m happy he’s here.

Being from el centro’s earliest history, I am alone except for Mary Ann Pacheco here. But it feels good, the old guy with memories of the first Centro, la palomilla comes to USC, of down the hall and around the corner by the elevator, the darkrooms of the DT. Taking those fotos of Zeta and all the other movimiento poets stayed with me all those years. So when I retired from the world of work, I launched the campaign to return the lost floricanto to USC. And then… And that is how an old alumn talks, que no?

I wasn’t a narc.

Foto Gallery: 





Tyson Gaskill, top left, managed and executed the floricanto plan in 2010
Woman in green hat is a long-time friend of Juan Felipe Herrera
Professor  Consuelo Siguenza-Ortiz, introduced segments of the 2010 floricanto 


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