It’s always a loss when an elder poet leaves us. A few years back, Pedro Pietri became gravely ill and the NYC community responded with a series of benefit readings to help raise money for his treatment. These readings were an opportunity for a whole new generation of writers to experience the breadth of Pietri‘s work as friends, poets, and activists were more than happy to read from his oeuvre. Not only sharing his work but also stories of the man who was a poet 24/7, who was able to inspire in all kinds of way, who was a living monument to poetry. Sadly, Pietri would be overcome by cancer soon after the first group of readings, but there would be more readings following his passing that didn’t mourn the man but celebrated his legacy, and the fact that the legacy would continue to (re)inspire writers to get their work out into the world any way possible, to let the work go on long after the poet who wrote it.
This same sense of celebration, renewal and inspiration was present at the Homenaje al Xicanindio: Un Poetic Viaje con las Palabras de raúlrsalinas at the Mission district’s Galería de la Raza. Even though a thunderstorm and high winds was making travel din San Francisco ifficult, a nice crowd braved through the rain for the reading.
MC and fellow Pocho Ché poet Alejandro Murguía put the weather into perspective: “In the African traditions, when a great person dies it rains. At Raúl’s funeral in Texas, it rainded, and now it rains again. But I can feel him in the thunder, it is the dead banging the drum. It is Raúl.“
Murguía would go on to continue sharing memories as he asked invited readers to share their own recollections of Raúl, the fabled “Cockroach Poet.”
We heard from Darren de Leon of Los Delicados spoke on Salinas’s effect on his generation as he read from “Aloud and Proud;” SF Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman, reading Raúl’s “Rifts 2” and a new tribute poem “raulrsalinas presente;” Oakland poet Nina Serrano, sharing Raúl’s love of plants and exemplifying his ability to change minds as she read “El Tecato: Side 2,” a poem she initially hated for the way it humanized the criminal mind, a poem she has grown to appreciate and understand; Aztlán poet laureate Lorna Dee Cervantes spoke on how Raúl would fill the libraries of San José with books from his own press and prison literature, Cervantes then read/performed/evoked Salinas with a reading from his masterwork “Un Trip through the Mind Jail;” Leticia Hernández-Linares offered song and light as she read from “On Your Leaving;” Naomi Quiñones read “Music for the Masses” and praised Salinas the historian for the ways he documented his work and those of others to create awareness and raise consciousness, how he transformed societal poison and made community medicine; the Galería’s own Marc Pinate spoke of how Raúl was a living bridge between the Bebop and Hiphop generations and how he learned the value of oral tradition from Salinas while reading from Raúl’s book East of the Freeway: Reflections de mi Pueblo.
More testimony came from Daniel who read his own ode to Machu Picchu. An SF muralist (whose name I didn’t catch) reminding us of Raúl’s love for all art, she mentioned a life size mural of Salinas on the corner of Masonic and Hayes, art she knows Raúl would have loved. Teacher, photographer and poet Francisco J. Dominguez spoke more on Raúl’s prison activism, how he came to read for the prisoners of Folsom, Salinas’s conviction to the political palabra. Most touching was a woman named Erica who thanked Raúl for being there when she was “searching for a voice,” for offering encouragement and guidance, for being a true mentor.
Another highlight was seeing Tomás Riley bring out the sage he had collected at his son’s birth and light it in praise of Raúl. Tomás spoke of travelling to Tejas with his compañeros = the Taco Shop Poets – and performing for food at a San Antonio diner. How they were planning to march on the Alamo with plans for a poetic takeover, but Salinas overheard their plans and offered some words of wisdom (“You do know the Texas Rangers guard the Alamo, right?”) which likely saved the Taco Shop Poets. “He was protecting us,” recalled Riley who then leapt into one of Raul’s poem with his own signature reading style. The mix of Raúl’s words with the author’s own speaking style was another constant of the evening, the way the two shared room on the mic never crowding each other out, working together to bring the intent of the poem to the listener.
The final poem of the night came from Alejandro Murguía, as he read “Liner Notes for Los Pinkys” from East of the Freeway. Throughout the celebration, Murguía kept bringing the focus back to Salinas and the range of his work. How Raúl’s work travelled from cramped prison into music ballrooms, the respect for nature and man, Salinas’s ability to bring a face to the outcasts of American society, his tireless efforts to preserve history in word. How Salinas’s prison literature gives the hardened criminal make peace with himself, his family, his upbringing, his culture, as happens in “Un Trip through the Mind Jail” with the line- mi barrio, i bear you no grudge.
The last words for the night go to Murguía and his despedida to raulrsalinas, “Long live the Cockroach poet!”