Chicago and The Forgotten Poets of Aztlán (Part II)

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-02-01 12:21:25

Three Men[1]


Introduction: The Two C’s, CC’s and the Others

As I indicated in the previous part of this essay, the fact is, that to this day, we simply have no record of literary production from the Mexican community until the 1970s; and it is clear that any study of the first phase of Chicago literary production must center on the two Big C’s — Castillo and Cisneros. Nevertheless, it must also feature two other C’s, those “two CC’s:” Carlos Cortez and Carlos Cumpián — and then the other lesser known figures who were writing as these four C’s were developing their opus.

Whereas Castillo and Cisneros were born and raised in the city, only to leave and return from time to time, Cortez and Cumpián were transplants who, once here, remained. A Milwaukee German-Chicano, Cortez brought a combination of IWW worker populism (inflected by his mother’s socialism) with his imagined Native American indigenista perspective into the Chicago art and poetry scene in the late 1960s, becoming an iconic patriarch in the years before his death earlier in this century. Born in San Antonio, Cumpián sought to combine Cortez’s indigenismo, with an urban style strongly indebted to Chicago Rican David Hernandez, as well as other poets representing Chicano and Latino cultural identifications. But whether they were born here or came later, whether they went or stayed, these early writers and the others we will discuss here simultaneously tried to affirm, adjust or shed the trappings of their Mexican–based cultural origins in a search for their Chicano and more broadly Latino identities in the midst of Chicago’s urbanization and gentrification processes. The question at hand here, is what we can say about the other, lesser known writers who also emerged in the early 1970s and who helped to feed the general cultural ambiance of which the more famous writers were to be a part. In this part of my essay, I turn to an examination of those other, rarely studied or mentioned early Chicano writers from Chicago, without whose presence and work the Chicago Chicano, Mexicano and Latino literary movement and the more famous writers mentioned cannot be properly understood. Most specifically, I will look at the work of three male pioneers, Carlos Morton, Rubén Sánchez Tovar and Ken Serritos; then in part III next month, I will turn to the virtually unknown Chicana/Mexicana women pioneers who anticipate or parallel the work of Castillo and Cisneros.


Carlos Morton: From Chicago to the Southwest

In the same year that Hernandez self-published the city’s first small volume of Latino poetry (Despertando, 1971), another poetry collection appeared by a Chicago-based Latino writer, Carlos Morton. A Mexi-Cuban who identified as Chicano, Morton had worked as a cub reporter and free-lancer for leading Chicago newspapers in the 1960s only to leave the city for El Paso, Texas as the new decade began. In his new city, he entered the local branch of the University of Texas, and self-published White Heroin Winter, a collection of poetry including works written about and during his Chicago and new border days. Because he circulated his work in a small press publication and in a world so far removed from the Midwest, and because his Chicago poems are somewhat lost amidst some of his early work in and on his Texas experiences, Morton would make only the smallest dent on Chicago’s Latino cultural scene, mainly through his influence on Cumpián. Still, he would eventually have a significant impact on the national Latino literary scene, as a prolific and frequently produced playwright. His volume of poetry would be all but forgotten. Nevertheless, the Chicago poems in White Heroin Winter have a special value by giving us a sense of how the late 1960s registered in the mind and work of a perceptive Latino writer-participant of those years crucial to the city’s overall Latino cultural emergence.

The poems in question present a loose catalogue of urban sites and situations; they are seemingly free association/slapdash affairs, very much counter to high Modernist literary modes — the work of a young writer living out models identified with the Beat Generation along with later, post-60s Chicano inflections, including a Third World vision that we may identify as more specifically Chicago Mexicano/Chicano.[2] Above all the poems tell the story of a young Chicago-born Latino writer living a bohemian life in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago before and just after 1968 — a young Mexicano-Chicano enjoying his life, but getting increasingly disturbed by the changing city scene and his own drug-affected identity crises — to the degree that he eventually leaves the city, to forge his identity in the Southwest.

The first poems accumulate the reasons for his leaving. So in “Regressions to Chicago,” he explains, “It would happen if/your birthplace was Chicago and you ... detested working for newspapers ... hated ties and garters/thought in plots/you would also drown most of your life in the bars.” Then in the next two poems, he refers to the 1968 convention “rioters who marched and screamed with hate.” The convention is a spectacle “staffed by Humphrey, Allen Ginsberg and King ... Daley” and “his supporting cast of thousands” — the likes of which the young writer had never seen — including the policemen, whose efficiency overwhelms him.

Then in “The Ballad of North and Halsted,” Morton, taking on a Puerto Rican persona, writes of his neighborhood as a communal paradise, a “multi colored rainbow of nationalities/ black and brown and red and yellow and white.” He describes magic sword swallowing Gypsies with sashes/ Southern Drawls and blond hair they’re called/ white trash/ sultry rice eaters from an island once fair/ hippies and heads and heroin addicts,” etc. Clearly all was not perfect. His friend “was trying to be a soul brother and I a puertorican/but neither of us made it—his teeth weren’t white enough/ and I’m not particularly fond of pork chops.” But basically, “it was fine during the soft summer months/the people had learned to live together.”

and it descended upon our community like death like a white heroin winter”
(“The Ballad of North and Halsted”)

So, as the bulldozers begin their work, the exodus from the area begins in “Steinbeck rickety dust bowl trucks”; and Morton, like most of us in our wondrous city, becomes the victim of apartment breakins and car vandalisms, as he begins to live in fear of robbery, rape and mayhem.

Of course, his view is racially skewed, as if Latinos are somehow not quite implicated, so that it is “Gangs of Black children” who “roved the lean streets/ like wolves on a meat hunt.”Finally he finds his kitten hanging from a light fixture. So it is, we find him in El Paso, he the cowardly racial profiling Mexicano-Chicano-Latino poet who fled, he, like Cisneros and Castillo after him, who has made the reverse migration back to what southwest Chicanos defined as the true Aztlán and not the ersatz, overly Mexican Aztlán he knew in Chicago, even though he’s still haunted by memories of his birth city, which he places in an expanding trope recalling the more expansive one (ending with the mind of God) that the young Stephen Daedelus delineates in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

And I having like a nomad wandered into this desert
From the cold concrete Northland
by the mayor daley’s office
by the picasso baboon woman bird
by the downtown Chicago
by the polluted Michigan lake
by the sterile Midwest
by the empire América
by the hemisphere west
by the earth planet[3]

Even as he explores his new world, as he registers the rampant anti-Mexican Texas-style border racism of so many in El Paso, his experiences of the drug and “vato loco” underlife lead to the beginnings of an anti-vato Chicano affirmation process which his persisting Chicago memories help to incite. Indeed, Morton is virtually “caught up” in assertions drawn from one of the core Chicano texts, “I am Joaquín:” “Here I am in El Paso,” he writes “a true American. I lived the cruel cold of Chicago./ ... [And now] All this land is mine.”

What has been the impact of Chicago on Morton’s evolving sense of identity? Chicago’s intense world of race and class has given him a critical perspective onthe Southwest, which, however emphasized in one work of his or another, is never posed as the complete basis of Chicano identity, and is generally set forth in ways that lead to placing and understanding Chicano questions in some more general U.S. or hemispheric context. In fact, for all his effort to portray the injustices perpetrated against Chicanos, Morton maintains a particular emphasis on class that usually cuts through historical idealizations and evocations of national and racial unity. To the degree that he is critically American, critically a mix of Midwest and Southwest, his prose poem, “Written While Still Young” perhaps gives us an early summation of his overall stance:

I have been among the pale wondering mountains
I have indeed seen the green growing trees
And heard the wind whistling among the waters
And heard the sounds of sweat and sunshine.
But I was forced to return
To the concrete and clay
The smoke and the fog
The grind and the bone.
We are looking for that folk literature
It is in both of the above
And it is together
All in one and one in all
Think of both thoughts
And they say
America! America![4]


Rubén Sánchez and Ken Serritos

Were there no other Mexicano or Chicano poets in Chicago in the 1970s? To be sure there were not so many with any considerable output. Keeping our focus on the male poets, we turn to twoadditional figures who represent divergent extremes of Chicago Chicano poetry and experience. First, Rubén Sánchez, a young writer at the time, wrote some poems and then went the way of Morton, leaving the area for California and falling out of sight[5]; then Ken Serritos, a mainly English-only working class Chicano, took off in spirit and then fell victim to an early Chicago working class Mexican death.

Appearing in Nosotros, a primarily Puerto Rican collection edited anonymously by Hernandez and published as a Chicago Latino issue of Revista Chicano-Riqueña in 1977 (but with some of the poems also reappearing in Carlos Cumpián’s selection for the Movimiento Artístico Chicano’s 1979 Abrazo issue),Sánchez distances himself from many of the usual Chicano ethnic themes and deals rather deftly with traditional subjects: death, loneliness and existential voids, in which “El hombre/es un pelota/ en una mesa de/ ping ... /pong” (“Man/is a ball/on a ping pong/table”), and “La vida es una/mariposa nocturna/encerrada/en un cuarto/con una lámpara/encendida” (Life is a/nocturnal butterfly/closed/in a room/with a lit/lamp”). But is this sense a purely existential murmur, an intimation of the absurd — or is it, as it seems, in the work of his Chicago Latino contemporaries, the result of the Chicago Latino life? We never find out how Sánchez sees the matter, because he soon leaves and begins to write more topical, acculturated poems (with some English in them as well, and at least one concrete reference to a traumatic first U.S. experience: his arrival as a Mexican in Joliet, Illinois), which he published in the Stanford University Latino journal Vórtice, after he had installed himself in California.

If Morton tried to capture the streets, if he tried to be a Puerto Rican, but finally came back to his old Chicano self, if his writing and being try to synthesize urban and rural, Midwest and Southwest U.S. dimensions, then Ken Serritos can be seen as the Chicano poet who most tried to leave his roots behind, to take off into a Black urban world of marijuana and jazz, as well as into dope-induced trips to Africa, the moon, or Saturn.

A close friend of David Hernández and the saxophonist for the original Street Sounds, Serritos came from a southside workingclass steel mill family, who had made their way to the city years before. The acculturation process had left Serritos with minimal Spanish and a growing identification with Black countercultural models. Early along the way, he came upon jazz, and while some Latin inflections could be found in his playing, the New York-Afro fusion predominated. Performing in different clubs, he eventually developed a jazz-poetry which involved the recitation of poems or sections thereof, weaved with his sax improvisations. Whatever he might have done into the 1980s in only conjecture, because he fell sick of skin cancer in the late 1970s and died of the disease early into the decade.

What we have of Serritos’ writing are the poems published in the posthumous MARCH chapbook dedicated to his work, Saturn Calling (1982). But before examining this text it would seem significant to note that in Hernandez’s poem about his friend, the emphasis falls completely on Serritos the horn man. In spite of two short essays, in which Hernandez does try to focus on the poet, the poem may well be a tipoff to the truth of Serritos’ work at least as his friend sees it.

Hernandez (1981: 2) says that Serritos’ words are rooted in his experience, and “implode … in a given direction aimed at the very core of life, complimented by the Basics of Aztlán.” In another context, Hernandez addresses Serritos, saying: “How well you use words and images to drive a point through the neon-hard core of indifferences, stale morals, stagnant but dangerous ethics, ego-trippers and all human stillness created in our strive for perfectionism.” While he performed at the first Canto al Pueblo held in Milwaukee in May of 1977; and while his poetry is influenced by Hernandez’s work which he knew very well, there seems to be virtually nothing obsessively Aztlán or Latino in any of his published writing. Rather, what we have affirms Serritos’ individualist standpoint, drawing on work by such counter-cultural figures as Charles Bukowski, Lennie Bruce and WiIliam Burroughs, and seemingly more influenced by jazz life and jazz form than by any writer at all. With Serritos we find a Latino jazz musician who decides to use words in English as an extension of his playing. And even here, we are talking about the extreme experimental jazz of the seventies — post Coltrane/even post Ornette Coleman jazz, where there is no longer a fundamental chord pattern and where the blues roots are in the process of being left behind, sacrificed to what Hernandez calls the “process of Progression” (lbid).

Freed from Hernandez’s own Puerto Rican/Afro/Jazz syncretism, and apparently distanced from the rhythms and melodic patterns of his Mexican roots, Serritos seeks a poetry that is free, that takes off. Hernandez himself suggests this when he urges Serritos to take us “on a free one-way ride to the sky.” In fact, while his poems are filled with street sounds and sights, they often take off on flights that are so far out that most readers may feel genuinely confused and lost in space. The end result of the poems may be such a surrealistic disassociation that they point toward a structural incoherence. But we should be careful in making such an assessment. The failure may be in our understanding — we may be too earthbound; we may need a new Latino theory of everything.

It is perhaps easier to piece together Serritos’ overall world through a collage of lines and images from his poems rather than attempting to unravel the form/content crux of any one text in particular — perhaps we should appreciate the poems most for their most disassociative and ludic turns. An initial poem presents the norm against which the poet rebels, as “one of the last of the 1960’s flower children to bite the dust” goes downtown to work in her stylish new coat, ready to play a traditional, submissive feminine role. Contrasted to that world of conformist convention is the Sunday night Halsted Street universe, the night of drugs and sex as lived by those who will not go to work the next morning, those who have nothing much in common except that they take drugs and tend to have dreams and visions.

In a key poem, we are bounced back and forth between a Chicago apartment and a car ride involving sexual fantasies and a trip to Hell interconnected with a play of mirrors. “In the rear view mirror objects pass and fade …[But] in order to drive safely there is the necessity to constantly look ahead.” The trip and the mirror games lead to sweat and dread, a return to reality, but then another ride in the seemingly endless pattern of repetition/variation common to compulsive urban drug flights. In other poems, people jump off El platforms like lemmings; children who’ve never lived before run in a park while their parents “are being consulted in an alcoholic treatment center:”

Lincoln sits amid the snow
an emancipating bhuda looks down
on the dopesmokers
new derelicts man the corners of the mall.

And then too,

poison is planted—not seeds
and America glows
with sensory deception.

In still another hymn to marijuana flights, Serritos provides his own best epitaph and tribute — one rooted in a myth of uprooting, of attempted transcendence and crash return, properly entitled, “Modem Icarus.” If Carlos Morton could give a Chicago Mexicano/Chicano spin to Stephan Daedalus’s expansive trope, then in a Chicago world where it takes “wings of grass to soar man toward the sun,” it was quite fitting for Serritos, in his final days, to evoke the son of the original Greek Daedulus to reflect on his own human situation:

One day Icarus, that mythical nonconformist
who had made his wings of wax
… flew too close to the sun
            and before he hit the water yelled
“It was fun while it lasted.”

Here Serritos is anticipating his own condition as a working class poet-musician whose efforts to rise in the polluted industrial area of South Chicago had led to his vulnerability to an insidious disease, which indeed rooted in his blood and which in conjunction with chemo and radiation treatments, ended by pocking and pitting his face and body before taking his young life early in the 1980s. So it went for countless other Chicago mexicanos and their children, many of whom might have lived longer and even might have written poetry taking them far out to Saturn and beyond, were they not undermined and struck down by the very environment that was supposed to give them the fuel and wings for their flights.


[1] As in the case of Part I of this essay (), Part II is a rewrite of the corresponding part of my essay of 1990 (see references below). I wish to express my debt to the many leads provided to me by Carlos Cumpián in providing names, texts and sometimes much more. It was through this Carlos that I was able to locate Ken Serritos, visit him in his Southside home and present him at UIC’s Rafael Cintrón Ortiz Student Cultural Center in what may have been his last poetry/jazz performance before he died from the cancer which had fully advanced, leaving him terribly pocked, weak, and breathless even as he tried to engage young students with his words and music.

[2] On the Mexicano-Chicano designation in Chicago, see Leonard Ramirez, “Introduction” to Ramirez, ed. 2014.

[3] Many readers will recognize the same trope as it is transformed in the play known to almost all highschoolers of Morton’s time, Our Town, by Joyce’s constant plagiarist, Thorton Wilder.

[4] For a later work by Morton with Illinois referents, see his oneâ��act play, “The Meeting” (1988), which presents an imagined meeting between Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez as a means of projecting the views of these two major figures for the future of Mexico, the U.S. and Chicanos.

[5] Google fails to locate Sánchez, but perhaps my search for him has not been thorough enough. Our interest, however, inevitably has to be on his early Chicago work.


Works Cited

Hernandez, David. 1971. Despertando. Chicago. Self–published.

____. 1981. “Introduction” to Serritos 1981: 2.

____. 1983. “Ken Serritos, Reflections on a Good Buddy,” in Ecos: A Journal of People’s Culture and Literature, II, 2 (Summer): 44.

____, ed.1977. Nosotros: A Collection of Latino Poetry and Graphics from Chicago, a special issue o Revista Chicano–Riqueha, Año V, No. 1 (Invierno, 1977).Morton, Carlos. 1971. White Heroin Winter. El Paso. One Eye Press.

____. 1983. The Death of Danny Rosales and Other Plays. Houston: Arte Público Press.

____. 1988. “The Meeting.” Broadsides: Literature of United States Hispanos. Tempe. Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüé.

Serritos, Ken. 1981. Saturn Calling. Chicago. Movimiento Artístico Chicano (MARCH).

Ramirez, Leonard. 2011. “Introduction” to Ramirez, ed. Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago. Urbana. University of Illinois Press: 1–28.

Zimmerman, Marc. 1990. “Chicago and the Poets of Aztlán: The Most Forgotten of the Forgotten.” Crítica: A Journal of Critical Essays, II, 2. University of California, San Diego (Fall): 230–248.


Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S. cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.


Chicago and The Forgotten Poets of Aztlán (Part I)




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