Emergency Poems / Poemas de urgencia
Neither here nor there I stand, one foot
on this side of the border, one on the other. Were
I to have three more feet, I'd easily place them on
three more lands. Neither here nor there, where
am I? And the people say: you are everywhere, multiple,
you are fortunate. But I respond: 'many' carries
the danger of becoming 'none.' Invisible I stand.
I am Latina and an immigrant: born in Argentina and reared there by immigrant parents: Greek mother, Armenian father. From the moment I arrived in the United States at the age of nineteen, I have had to deal with the same questions day in and day out: "What do you feel more, Greek or Argentine?" "You're not really Latina, are you?" "What kind of name is Badikian? It doesn't sound Hispanic." "Argentines are not really Hispanic; they're very European, aren't they?" I have been forced to choose between nationalities, forced to explain the apparent contradictions of my background, and, when I have answered naturally that I'm Argentine, I have had to defend this self-definition. My explanation: my identity was formed in a Latin American country with all its cultural components: language, customs, foods, music, traditions, the small things that are crucial in the development of the larger constructs. My intellectual and cultural formation can be credited to such figures as Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Alfonsina Storni, and Julio Cortázar as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, and Louisa May Alcott, among many others. I danced to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, listened to Mercedes Sosa and Astor Piazzolla, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff. The late sixties was the heyday of civil rights and peace movements, revolutions and flower power, and Argentina was no exception to those worldwide events.
I remember October 1968, the one-year anniversary of the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, my last year in high school. That afternoon my classmates and I staged a pegada: surreptitiously affixing small stickers on desks, walls, and toilet stalls, celebrating his life and mourning his death: a courageous act given the military dictatorship had just been installed a year earlier. After about an hour, when the administrators found the stickers, they immediately stopped all classes and gathered the entire school in the yard. The principal demanded that those responsible step forward. We stood for a long time in silence. No one moved. Finally, they gave up and sent us all home for the day. Everyone knew who had done the audacious deed but no one said anything. We were a bold and radical group of girls. I learned from them how to stand up to injustice, how to take a risk for the benefit of society, how to defy authority when that authority is oppressive .
I am also a poet. I have always been a poet and always will be. Over the years I have heard the same question: why write? Why poetry? Mining my memory for the answers I return to the beginning: to those high school years and beyond.
1968: For the last five years I have been keeping a journal. Since I cannot afford to buy all the books I would like to own, I borrow them from friends and libraries and copy down my favorite poems in the notebook. Then I illustrate its margins with drawings of peace signs and flowers, and photographs from newspapers and magazines depicting hippies, anti-war demonstrations, race riots, and rock concerts. When I am lonely or bored I read these poems out loud in my room in front of the mirror. Such a simple pleasure! And when I eventually write my own poems, these other verses flood my mind and spill themselves in bits and pieces on the paper.
I am going to Academias Pitman to learn how to type. It is December, summer in Buenos Aires and I have just graduated from high school. At this point, my mother believes it will be useful to know typing. "You can always be a secretary if you can't get into college," she says, enrolling me in a three-month class to learn "the blind method."
Academias Pitman is a secretarial school where young women learn shorthand, bookkeeping, typing, and other useful skills. On the first day of class we are given a handbook with instructions and told to take our seats at a long wooden table where manual typewriters are placed every few feet. Eventually I come to enjoy being in this big room where, surrounded by other young women, I learn how to type on big, bulky machines, black and silver, with keys that stand high. I type each letter for several pages before going on to the next one. The "a"s and "z"s and "q"s make the little finger on my left hand hurt. But I persevere.
After a few weeks father brings home a used typewriter for me to practice on. When 1969 rolls around I write my first poem on the typewriter: "Poema No. 1."
I am sitting at the kitchen table, next to a long wall of windows, typing. It is very hot in that room because the sun shines in all day and air conditioners are a foreign luxury. I am so focused on what I'm doing however, that I barely feel the heat. In this way I spend my summer afternoons practicing typing and writing poems. After "Poema No. 1" comes "Poema No. 2," then "Poema No. 3," and so on. I keep the poems in a manila folder, certain that no one will ever read them. They are one page in length, as long as the sheets of paper I have: my self-imposed limit. They describe the world around me, my house, my neighbors, but mostly, how I feel and what I want out of life. At eighteen everything should be possible yet my poems speak of loneliness, alienation, an existential sadness difficult to explain. They also speak about flowers and trees, the stars and the moon, music, and love, and about other poems.
In the warm kitchen my fingers press down hard on the typewriter keys while Mother sits outside, on the stoop, with the neighbors, trying to catch a cool breeze. Father is not at home. Most days he comes late in the evening and leaves early in the morning. On the rare occasions when he is home, he sits in the bedroom watching television, the oscillating fan murmuring noisily. He doesn't like to mingle with our neighbors and their chatty gossip. My poems include everybody: Father's moods, Mother's complaints, the neighbors' funny ways. I fancy myself a chronicler of this place and this time: the end of 1968, the beginning of 1969, Buenos Aires, the world.
It is March, 1969. Typing class has ended. It is time to find a job. "College can wait," mother says. In the mornings I fill out applications, take typing tests, and go to interviews. In the afternoons I come home, to the kitchen no longer unbearably warm, and write poems until suppertime. Less than a year later we leave Buenos Aires. Against my own wishes I have to follow my parents to the United States, put on hold my plans to attend college and study philosophy and literature. "We'll work hard for a few years, save our money, and then return," father promises.
1970: Shortly after arriving in Chicago I go to work at Western Electric as a wiring technician. Fresh out of high school in Buenos Aires, working in a factory on the southwest side of Chicago was the last thing I ever expected to be doing at nineteen years of age. I'm supposed to be attending the University of Buenos Aires and studying literature and philosophy. Instead I spend eight hours a day, five days a week, inside a gigantic warehouse where the only natural light barely squeezes through small, square windows near the ceiling. Holding a wiring gun all day and firing tiny coils into the insides of telephones in that vast, dark place is not the life I have imagined for myself, the life of the poet, the life of the student and scholar. That life seems so far away at this moment. And it seems impossible to attain. Ever.
It takes me almost ten years to gather the courage to say to myself and to my parents that I don't want to work full time anymore, that I want to go to college. I enter the University of Illinois at Chicago in the winter quarter of 1977. Life is beginning to change.
1979: In June the first issue of La Voz is published at the Centro Cultural Latino Americano Rafael Cintron Ortiz at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The editorial on the first page explains: "it is . . . amazing that the Latino 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, is the center's first coordinator and publisher of La Voz, a typed and mimeographed newsletter that includes articles on Mexican oil, the crisis in Nicaragua, the struggle in Vieques, undocumented workers in the U.S., the Middle East crisis, and many other issues. It also contains poetry by Ernesto Cardenal, Socorro Loza, Nicolas Guillen, and me.
From 1979 to 1980 I work at the Latin American Studies Program as a secretary while attending classes at the university. In this way I meet Gilbert, who advocates the creation of a publication. Together and with the assistance of students and other faculty members we publish, first La Voz, and the following year Ecos, a printed Latin American literary journal. The title of the publication is my idea, after the name of a similar publication in my high school in Buenos Aires. This slim volume of twenty-three photocopied, stapled pages is the beginning of several years of publication of this journal that eventually is taken over by Carlos Cumpián and MARCH/Abrazo Press.
1981: In the fall I make the momentous decision to "become a poet." I decide that writing will be my mission in life, my job, my contribution to the world. I credit the artist Judy Chicago with the impetus for this resolution.
Chicago's monumental art work "The Dinner Party" is being exhibited in Chicago. Volunteers are needed to guide people through the maze of artifacts, to talk about the diverse sections of the exhibit, to offer information and to clean up at the end of each day. I join the collective of women (and some men) who work at the exhibit and, in the process, I learn about women's history. I learn so many things I never knew before, things I was never taught in school. Amazed at the beautiful artwork that Judy Chicago and her staff have produced, I decide that I want to do something too. I want to contribute in some way to society, to leave a legacy for the future. But how? I don't know how to throw a pot or to weave. I can't paint very well nor embroider. But I can write. As a matter of fact, I have been writing for over ten years. That's it! I decide to be a writer, a poet, and to take myself seriously.
1982: I join a writing workshop led by Sandra Cisneros and Reggie Young. The workshop, called "City Songs," meets every Saturday at Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Milwaukee Avenue and Damen sometime between noon and four in the afternoon. Every week a different guest writer visits us and talks about writing, poetry, publishing, and leaves us a writing assignment to be workshopped the following week. Some of the guest writers are David Hernández, Carlos Cumpián, Salima Rivera, William Bradford, and Sterling Plumpp. The small grant Cisneros and Young received is used to pay a small honorarium to the guest writers and to purchase copies of an anthology of poetry for the students. The workshop ends 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 are Sandra Cisneros, Reggie Young, Salima Rivera, Joe Roarty, Margarita Lopez Flores, Gregorio Huerta, Yolanda Santiago, and Lalo Cervantes.
After the workshop ends some of us keep meeting to work on our writing and to socialize. Also, we're invited to read around the city for diverse groups and causes that need to raise funds: Central American human rights, Latino student groups. In this manner, we form a core group that eventually becomes the group that organizes the Galeria Quique readings and later publishes Emergency Tacos. We often read at a bar in Wicker Park called Get Me High Lounge. These readings are the seed that eventually blossom into the Poetry Slam in Uptown hosted by Marc Smith.
Galeria Quique or Kiki is a monthly gathering of writers, painters, musicians and the general public in Enrique Cisneros's loft in Printers Row in 1983-84, just as the area is becoming trendy. The first gathering takes place on December 3 with a reading by Cisneros, Cortez, Cumpián, Niño, and me as well as music with guitarist Carlos Cisneros.
That summer I resign from my full time job as housing counselor and go to work typing, filing, bookkeeping for José González, a visual artist instrumental in the creation and development of the Latino art scene in Chicago, having founded MARCH, the Movimiento Artistico Chicano. In later years, the organization develops into MARCH/Abrazo Press under the direction of Carlos Cumpián, a publishing house that publishes my first chapbook Akewa is a Woman in 1983.
1987-1994: After seven years I return to the University of Illinois at Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in writing. I read, write, publish. I also teach composition and writing in English. My presence and ability in a language that clearly isn't my native tongue reinforces the principle to the students that you can do it too, no matter how foreign and difficult this language feels right now. Non-native speakers, especially Latino/a students, identify with me, finding a sense of comfort and safety that encourages learning. Native speakers also learn to abandon preconceived notions of foreigners, immigrants, those of us who speak with an accent. When I teach African-American literature, the black students who often make up the majority of the class, if not the entirety, see me as an ally who can speak about these writings with knowledge and affection, who is (in their own words) one of us. As Henry Louis Gates said, it is more important to identify with the other than to single out the other's identity.
As my doctoral dissertation I produce a book-length collection of poems: Mapmaker. The collection includes poems in Spanish, old poems, new poems. It is the culmination of twenty years of writing. It includes a prologue poem by Sandra Cisneros. A few years later I reissue this collection with a few new poems: Mapmaker Revisited: New and Selected Poems. This book takes me places. It becomes my signature, my presentation, my identification card. I have achieved a milestone in my writing career. I can legitimately call myself a poet. And I am also a professor now, a doctor in literature. Yet life in Chicago as a Latina does not change that drastically, that quickly.
1997: I walk into a fancy boutique in my neighborhood to browse. As I see a wallet that interests me, I ask the young female clerk if it comes in other colors. I speak in grammatically-correct English, albeit with an accent that signals me as a non-native. Her response is "sí" (yes). At first I am confused. I expect her to answer me in English and the word see doesn't fit the question. Soon I realize she is speaking to me in Spanish, not to mention loudly. I am immediately uncomfortable, having been singled out in this manner. All eyes in the shop turn to me. When I question her, she claims that she sensed I spoke Spanish. When I wonder if she does that to every customer, she answers, "Sure." I ask to hear it in other tongues but she confesses, "You got me, I lied." As I am paying for my purchase the clerk proclaims that her favorite music is salsa and names half a dozen musical groups I never heard of. I try to change the conversation to the sweet smelling candles on the counter and the beautiful silver clocks in the window but she relentlessly returns to the topic confiding that she has just bought a Julio Iglesias tape. I can't wait to leave, to stop being targeted. On my way out, she notices my feet and says, "They're small: what size are they? Five?" When I respond, "Seven," she can't believe it. As I am walking home I realize that I felt obligated to buy something not to be thought of as cheap or poor. I realize I have internalized her stereotypes, her prejudices. I haven't been able to step into that shop since that incident.
1998: I stand in front of the post office window to ask a question. The clerk insists in answering "sí" to all my questions although I ask them in English. Then he wants to know where I am from. When I answer Argentina, his response is "Oh! The land of Crocodile Dundee." I correct him, explaining that Crocodile Dundee is from Australia, not Argentina. As I leave the post office I think: "he is not only prejudiced but also ignorant. What a deadly combination!" This experience drives home the concept that prejudice is a form of ignorance. It is not the lack of knowledge that concerns me here, but the unwillingness to learn and to accept others as they are without emphasizing our differences.
2000: During a day-long workshop at a recent academic convention I sit among twenty colleagues, teachers of writing and literature in English. Once more I am the only one with an accent, the only one who did not grow up nor go to school in the U.S. I am perceived as different and told so in subtle ways. My accent draws attention as does my personal writing during the workshop exercises. For a short time I am celebrated and exoticised; then, for the rest of the day, my comments and suggestions are politely ignored. I am invisible once again.
Forty years later I am still writing poems. Some are longer than one page, some shorter, most of them in English now, poems that speak of this new world I live in: Chicago, the United States, the end of the century. And, although they sound and look different, a certain melancholia still envelops them, a sadness understandable to those familiar with the nostalgia for a home left behind. I realize that writing poems is like having a friend who never leaves you, a friend who is always there when you need her. That is how I started to write and why.