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Voices: Remembering Friend, Mentor and Poet Francisco X. Alarcón

NEWARK, NJ -- In 1992, while I was a graduate student at the University of California—Davis, I crossed paths with a recent faculty hire in the Spanish department. I was enrolled in the MA program in English, but both departments were housed in the same building. And eventually I concluded that this was the perfect metaphor for the work of Francisco X. Alarcón—the dynamic poet who introduced himself to the campus community with a standing room only presentation of his bilingual verse. I would come to appreciate and even look forward to the way he opened his readings, with the burning of sage and a ceremonial greeting of the spirits from the four cardinal directions. Tahuiiiiiiii! The audience chanted along with him.

Francisco’s charisma and energy were unstoppable. Besides engaging his students in the classroom, he organized weekend field trips to the Bay Area museums, set up poetry readings at an art gallery in nearby Sacramento and even convinced a handful of us to read our clunky poems at the local radio station. We showed up dressed in our Sunday best and Francisco giggled as he said: “You realize you’re on radio, not television.”

As a graduate student, I had connected with another important role model and mentor. Francisco was the first openly-gay Chicano writer I had ever met. His stage performances were already legendary and his reputation as a poet in print was rising quickly: at the time he was being championed by Chronicle Books, which released Body in Flames/ Cuerpo en llamas (1990) and Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation (1992). The second title, a book written in English, Spanish and Nahuatl (Francisco’s grandmother’s tongue) garnered an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Literary Award.

But it was the release of De amor oscuro/ Of Dark Love (Moving Parts Press, 1991), a series of homoerotic sonnets inspired by the great Federico García Lorca, that finally gave me permission to reconcile my ethnicity with my sexuality on the page. And when Francisco agreed to sit on my thesis committee, I began to consider seriously the term Chicano—something I had resisted because I had always called myself Mexican. I didn’t know I could inhabit all of these identities at once until I met Francisco, who embodied many of them. Like him, I had been born in the U.S. and spent my childhood in Mexico. Like him, I was bilingual, bicultural, and gay. And now we were both proudly Chicano.

Our communication was infrequent for the next two decades, but we kept in touch through our books. I sent him copies of my poetry collections and he would report back with enthusiasm, letting me know about his projects. He was thrilled, for example, about his series of bilingual children’s picture books. He launched the “magical cycle of the seasons” with From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems/ Del ombligo de la luna y otros poemas de verano with Children’s Book Pressin 2001. Three more books completed the series, all illustrated by Maya Christina González, earning him two Pura Belpré Honor recognitions.

“Thank you for everything, Francisco,” I said as we parted ways. And I like to believe that he understood what I meant by everything: for his exceptional example as a teacher, a writer, an activist, and a mentor.

I recall thinking what a perfect match Francisco was for children’s verse. He had mastered the art of the compressed line and the use of accessible language, which was deceptively simple. But in fact his poetry flourished with imagery and music. His craftsmanship was deservedly acknowledged in 2002, when he received the Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. That same year the University of Arizona Press released From the Other Side of Night/ Del otro lado de la noche: New and Selected Poems. I chose that title to inaugurate my book review column with The El Paso Times of Texas.

In recent years, Francisco became invigorated by the calls to action in light of the troubling developments in Arizona. He expressed his support of the young people protesting the removal of ethnic literature from the high school curriculum and he rallied the poets to respond to the contentious anti-immigrant law, SB-1070. This last effort, which began as a social media movement on Facebook, resulted in a print anthology co-edited with Odilia Galván Rodríguez. Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice will be released later this year by the University of Arizona Press. It includes a foreword by the current poet laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera.

The last time I spent quality time with Francisco was in May of 2014. I was a keynote speaker at a conference at UC-Davis, and Francisco, who always looked for opportunities for his students, got me to agree to a classroom visit and a reading in nearby Sacramento. In between these events we had lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. He handed me a copy of a manuscript, Borderless Butterflies: Earth Haikus and Other Poems/ Mariposas sin fronteras: Haikus terrenales y otros poemas, which was scheduled for publication by Poetric Matrix Press later that year. A second manuscript, Canto hondo/ Deep Song, was scheduled for publication by the University of Arizona Press in 2015.

“You’re on fire, Francisco,” I quipped. “You’re a body in flames!” And he unleashed that unmistakeable laugh of his that I hope never fades from my memory.

That lunch generated a range of emotions. We were excited by the writing being produced by the next generation of Chicano/ Latino writers and we were angered by the anti-Mexican sentiment taking root in American politics. We grieved the deaths of our fathers, we toasted the progress of LGBT legislation. And we couldn’t believe that 22 years after meeting for the first time we had come full circle in that small central California town.

“Thank you for everything, Francisco,” I said as we parted ways. And I like to believe that he understood what I meant by everything: for his exceptional example as a teacher, a writer, an activist, and a mentor. As I move forward on my journey, I know I’m a better person because I learned from people like him how to respect my communities and how to love myself.

Safe passage, maestro. May you rest in power.

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