Emergency Poems/Poemas de urgencia: Latino Poetry in Chicago, 1970s and 1980s

Emergency Poems/Poemas de urgencia: Latino Poetry in Chicago, 1970s and 1980s

“The seven poets who banded together in 1984 to provide a forum for Spanish-speaking writers, and whose work has now been anthologized in Emergency Tacos, have not forgotten those days of scratching for provender,” writes Mary Shen Barnidge in her review published in the New City’s Spring Literary Supplement of 1990 of the tiny anthology Emergency Tacos. She is referring to the comment made by Carlos Cumpian about the lack of support for Hispanic poetry at that time in Chicago. The poets included in this 1989 mini-anthology are Carlos Cumpian, Carlos Cortez, Sandra Cisneros, Margarita Flores, Raul Niño, Cynthia Gallaher, and yours truly. Barnidge concludes her review with these words: “these seven poets have gone on to prosper in the time since the literary famine which inspired their ‘causa cultural’—awards, grants, fellowships, honors and book contracts have come their respective ways. Emergency Tacos may be regarded, nonetheless, as a table of tapas—a sampling of poets whose groundbreaking efforts laid the foundation for other Hispanic writers to be included as literary representatives of this always-diverse city.”

In the introduction to the mini-anthology, editor Carlos Cumpian explains: “who are we? We’re the poets and participants from some of Chicago’s diverse communities who blended time and energy to make homegrown cultural parrandas, under the banner of Galeria Quique.” Galeria Quique or Kiki was a monthly gathering of writers, painters, musicians and the general public in Enrique Cisneros’s loft in Printers Row in 1983-84, just as that area was becoming trendy. The first gathering took place on December 3rd with a reading by Cisneros, Cortez, Cumpian, Niño, and me as well as music with guitarist Carlos Cisneros.

I met these writers, and many others, several years earlier, during the winter of 1981, when I joined a writing workshop funded by a grant from the Chicago Council on Fine Arts and led by Sandra Cisneros and Reggie Young. The workshop was called “City Songs” and met every Saturday at Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Milwaukee Avenue and Damen sometime between noon and 4 in the afternoon. Every week a different guest writer would visit us and talk about writing, poetry, publishing, and leave us a writing assignment to be workshopped the following week. Some of the guest writers were David Hernandez, Carlos Cumpian, Salima Rivera, William Bradford, and Sterling Plumpp. The small grant Cisneros and Young received was used to pay a small honorarium to the guest writers and to purchase copies of an anthology of poetry for the students. The workshop ended with two final readings on April 24, one in the afternoon at Ruiz Belvis and another in the evening at Cross Currents. Some of the readers that evening were Sandra Cisneros, Reggie Young, Salima Rivera, Joe Roarty, Margarita Lopez Flores, Gregorio Huerta, Yolanda Santiago, and Lalo Cervantes.

After the workshop ended some of us kept meeting to work on our writing and to socialize. Also, we were invited to read around the city for diverse groups and causes that needed to raise funds. In this manner, we formed a core group that eventually became the group that organized the Galeria Quique readings and later published Emergency Tacos. One of the venues where we read often was a bar in Wicker Park called Get Me High Lounge. These readings were the seed that eventually blossomed as the Poetry Slam of Green Mill fame in Uptown hosted by Marc Smith.

Sulima Rivera told me that her brother Jaime was one of the co-founders of ALBA, Association of Latino Brotherhood of Artists, in the early 1970s, along with David Hernandez and herself. The organization included not only poets but visual artists as well. Hernandez began his writing career in the 70s forming a group that combined poetry with jazz and Latin fusion called Sonidos de la Calle.

Between 1971 and 1975 The Rican: A Journal of Contemporary Puerto Rican Thought was published by The Midwest Institute of Puerto Rican Studies and Culture and edited by Abdin Noboa and Dr. Samuel Betances. This journal was housed at Northeastern Illinois University where copies can still be found. Dr. Betances was a professor of sociology at Northeastern Illinois University while Noboa was completing his doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley. Sometime in late 1974—early 1975 Abdin Noboa left the journal and was replaced by Ricardo Fernandez, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time.

The copies I researched at Northeastern’s library include poetry by Sandra Maria Esteves, Julio Noboa, David Hernandez, and Chico Rivera, among others. The journal’s primary mission however was the publication of essays and articles on political, educational, and sociological issues relevant to the Puerto Rican experience in the United States as well as in the island. A small sampling of photography and other visual arts was also included in every issue. “Rubaiyat For A Revolution” opens the October 1974 issue of The Rican. Written by Julio Noboa, Jr., the poem calls for setting free the mind of the colonized and concludes with the following quartet: “Our people, though enslaved, oppressed and despised/Behold the guiding torch of Truth uncompromised/We rejoice in our hearts and maintain within sight/Our prophets reflect the rainbows of Eternal Light.” Noboa’s formal, rhyming poem contrasts with the opening poem in the next issue written by Sandra Maria Esteves, “Maria Christina.” In Esteves’s usual style, her work is written in free verse, without upper case letters—with the exception of Maria Christina—and reflects the colloquial speech of the barrio. Here are its opening verses: “my name is Maria Christina/i am a puerto rican woman born in el barrio/our men…they call me negra/because they love me/and in turn i teach them to be strong.” These same lines are repeated at the conclusion of the poem. Clearly a manifesto of Puerto Rican women’s experiences, the poem speaks of proud ancestors and the strength found within the family while teaching children not to use drugs but to respect their bodies and develop their minds. Esteves’s poem is characteristic of the poetry written by women in the 1960s and 70s, born out of the Civil Rights Movement and liberation struggles for minorities and women in the United States.

The following issue of The Rican (1975) includes two poems by David Hernandez: “To My ‘Hood” and “While They Talk.” Characteristically Hernandez, “To My ‘Hood” speaks of the changing neighborhood: “i am leaving you./you with wine bars,/step-sitting junkies,/polk brothers night-fenced/cops driving faceless in/blue and unsure cars./you have been always/of things past.” After listing the various ethnicities, nationalities, and professions of its inhabitants, Hernandez repeats his farewell: “so long woolworth/belmont L,/emo 70-odd-yeared paper boy/who built wiebolts/now scratching his head asking/what the hell?” Yet, despite the unwelcome transformations, he ends the poem in an affectionate note: “i love you so much today.” Like Esteves, Hernandez employs the colloquial syntax and grammar of everyday speech, abandoning upper case letters from beginning to end.

“While They Talk” displays the typical anger of the 60s and 70s poetry at the status quo, against the rich and powerful, in defense of the young men and women who live with “roaches on the ceiling” and whose “belli[es] growl in the city morning.” The poem concludes with a punch to the gut of society: “when they come to study you/or buy your vote on the street/you/calmly blow them off their feet.” The power of the poem is amplified by the incongruous relationship between the word “calmly” and the rest of that line, akin to the proverbial “silent scream.”

In June of 1979 the first issue of La Voz was published at the Centro Cultural Latino Americano Rafael Cintron Ortiz at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The editorial on the first page explained: “it is…amazing that the latino (sic) population of this university, having obtained recognition after long struggles and created cultural and study centers, does not possess publications that could allow them to reach other ethnic and latino (sic) sectors, to express their points of view, problems, plans and objectives.” Jorge Gilbert, a Chilean professor, was the center’s first coordinator and publisher of La Voz, a typed and mimeographed newsletter, that included articles on the Mexican oil, the crisis in Nicaragua, the struggle in Vieques, the undocumented workers in the U.S., the Middle East crisis, and many other issues. It also contained poetry by Ernesto Cardenal, Socorro Loza, Nicolas Guillen, and myself. From 1979 to 1980 I worked at the Latin American Studies Program as a secretary while attending school at the university. In this way I met Gilbert who advocated the creation of a publication. Together and with the assistance of students and other faculty members we published, first La Voz, and the following year Ecos, a printed Latin American Literary Journal. (The title of the publication was my idea after the name of a similar publication in my high school in Buenos Aires.) The first issue of Ecos appeared in February of 1980 and included poetry by Leda Schiavo, Luis Maturana, and others as well as fiction by Graciela Reyes, Marcela Licea and Laura Licea. This slim volume of 23 photocopied, stapled pages, was the beginning of several years of publication of this journal that eventually was taken over by Carlos Cumpian and MARCH/Abrazo Press.

In this first issue of Ecos, Spanish and English intermingle comfortably. “Oda a las narices” by Luis Maturana opens the journal. Reminiscent of Neruda’s Odas Elementales, Maturana’s poem is a tribute to the human nose. A simple, straightforward poem, this ode gives way to the next poem, “invierno.” Written by Pluma (a pseudonym), the poem undulates on the page while proclaiming that “winter is a state of mind.” Clearly referring to the city of Chicago “where ice is blue,” this poem contrasts sharply with the next one by Leda Schiavo. “Bric-a-brac infantil” recounts the childhood memories of the speaker in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, who remembers merry-go-rounds, chocolate, and scooters as well as maiden aunts, melancholic mothers, and the grandmother’s house on Sundays. Other titles are “Renovation and the Law of Self Preservation,” “Una excusa,” “By the Light of the Moon,” “Why is Connie Angry?” and a few others.

In the late 1970s MARCH – Movimiento Artistico Chicano—was founded by visual artist Jose Gonzalez. In later years, it developed into MARCH/Abrazo Press under the direction of Carlos Cumpian, a publishing house that initially published Ken Serritos’s chapbook Saturn Calling, Lonnie Poco’s Beside the Wichita, and my chapbook Akewa is a Woman. These publications appeared in 1982 and 1983. MARCH/Abrazo Press continues to thrive to this day, having won in 2002 the Chicago Women in Publishing Excellence Award for its publication Between the Heart and the Land: Latina Poets in the Midwest. During the early 1980s Jose Gonzalez published Mirarte, a Chicago’s Latino Art Publication that included short articles about events, art exhibits, theatre productions, performances as well as interviews with writers and artists and reviews.

The late 70s/early 80s also saw the birth of the Third Woman collective and the publication of Third Woman, a journal of Latina women writers edited by Norma Alarcon who taught at Indiana University in Bloomington at the time. The journal included poetry, fiction, scholarly essays, reviews, and photography. The first issues published some of the earliest works by such Chicago writers as Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Achy Obejas, and Margarita Lopez Flores as well as the work of more established writers like Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Pat Mora, and others. Eventually, Alarcon moved to the University of California and took the journal with her. Third Woman now also publishes books.

Guild Books—a bookstore on Armitage Avenue and later on Lincoln Avenue—represented one of the most important places for writers during the 70s and 80s. Richard Bray, its first owner, created a supportive environment where we held readings and book signings and sold our journals and chapbooks. In 1982, when Guild Books had to move and needed funds, Sandra Cisneros and Carlos Cumpian, among others, organized a marathon poetry reading benefit called “Writers to the Rescue.” Over fifty poets read their works from 8 p.m. to midnight at Crosscurrents, a cabaret and performance space that supported and encouraged writers during the early 1980s offering us a place to hold readings and benefit parties for worthy causes. One of the most important occasions for such events was the first Harold Washington Mayoral Campaign. “Artists for Washington” represented one of the most public and vocal groups working for Harold Washington during the 1982-83 campaign. Guild Books eventually closed its door but not before spawning the Guild Complex, the premier literary organization in the city.

Numerous other organizations, publications, bookstores, and writers contributed to the development of the vibrant literary scene in Chicago today: Letter Ex, Women and Children First Bookstore, Jane Addams Bookstore, Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, Outlines, and the Dial-a-Poem Program of the City of Chicago’s Council on Fine Arts, to name just a few. The decade of the eighties also witnessed the struggles of several Latin American countries for freedom and liberation from tyrannical dictatorships. Various organizations supporting these struggles sprung up in Chicago as they had in many other cities in the United States and around the world. Artists were called to offer their creative output during benefits to raise funds and awareness to the plight of Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Chileans, Argentineans, and others. The poems and other works presented during these events crystallized the urgency we felt at the time. Thousands of people were abducted, tortured, massacred in our home countries. We had to do something to stop it, or, at least, to make the world take notice. Thus, the “causa cultural” Barnidge mentions in her review of Emergency Tacos was not only here, in Chicago, but south too, all the way south to the southern tip of South America. In this way, our work embraced everyone, at home and abroad because this was an emergency. And ours were emergency poems.

Dr. Beatriz Badikian-Gartler. Born Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has lived in the Chicago area for over forty years. Badikian-Gartler holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and teaches at various institutions of higher learning in Chicago. Her second full length collection, Mapmaker Revisited: New and Selected Poems, was published in 1999 from Gladsome Books in Chicago. Her first novel Old Gloves – A 20th Century Saga was published in 2005 by Fractal Edge Press in Chicago.

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