Rafael Jesús González grew up in the bicultural/bilingual world of El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and later taught at various universities before settling at Laney College in Oakland, where he founded the Mexican and Latin American Studies Department in 1969. Four times nominated for the prestigious literary Pushcart Prize, González received a César E. Chávez Lifetime Award in 2013 and a similar Lifetime Achievement Award two years later from the City of Berkeley. That city has also honored him as its first poet laureate.
How did you fall in love with language and discover the power of words?
Poetry has always been an integral part of Latin@ cultures, and my mother read poetry to me from the time I could first listen. My ears learned first how magical words could be.
I didn’t know any English when I started school in the United States, and I was punished for using Spanish. Some immigrant parents capitulate to the idea that their kids must un-learn Spanish to fit in and get ahead. But not my parents. They insisted that I never lose their language. They saw insisting on “English only” as insisting on ignorance. To forbid a language, as happened in my school, recognizes the powerful role language plays in shaping a people’s identity. To vanquish a people, you must suppress their language.
I taught English when I became a teacher, but I told my students that what they would learn from me would be “standard English,” a tool for getting certain kinds of jobs. But “standard” ranks as only one of many kinds of English. What you speak in the ’hood will always be just as valid. The language you use will be just as good in the context you use it.
You were born in the borderlands, an economic/cultural/spiritual space both Mexican and estadounidense — we have no English adjective for “of the US”! How does your poetry reflect this duality? How does poetry give words to the wordless, to the sacred?
On this permeable border, I had family on both sides, and we had a constant interchange. I have two languages, two worlds in dialogue with each other. I am heir to two muses. I write my poems almost always in two tongues. Sometimes the English muse speaks first and sometimes the Spanish, but neither dominates. The two versions you read side by side come together as a single work.
The “sacredness” I talk about has nothing to do with religion. Yes, of course, I was raised a traditional Catholic, but I found it too moralistic and became a born-again pagan in college. Creative power rooted in the sacred can either be beautiful and peaceful or violent and destructive. In any case, this creative power fills our hearts and veins. As poets, we give words to what is wordless. A good poem makes you gasp, takes your breath away.
If you examine any culture, including those cultures without a written language, poetry will be the first literature you find. In oral traditions, rhymes and rhythms trigger memory, making a poem easier to memorize than prose. Writing historically develops much later.
Given the importance of sound, reading or reciting poetry becomes a performance, like playing a piece of music. I’ve sometimes heard poets read their poems as if they were classified ads. Poets must taste the words, savor each one!
Your poetry expresses love and concern for ordinary people and points to the injustices so many of us face.
A mastery of language brings a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. I might prefer to write love poetry, but I must write protest poetry because we have an obligation to confront the institutions of injustice. We live in a society focused on greed and a lust for power deeply rooted in patriarchy. I don’t believe we have any such thing as “ordinary” people. The people my poems speak for suffer from our society’s lack of compassion.
I taught at first at several universities with huge, impersonal classes. In 1968, I started teaching at Laney College in Oakland, and I much preferred that. At the time, California had the finest community college system in the United States. The Laney community took joy in education, joy in the teach-ins against the Vietnam War, joy on the picket lines, joy in seeking justice.
Education, subversive by definition, should always question authority. But education’s purpose has become about just producing a labor force. Children thrive as natural poets, but our school systems have eliminated music and dance. We need to teach the arts, to celebrate our joy together. Joy! That should be the measure of a nation’s greatness.
How does poetry help us move to a borderless world, or better yet, a “borderlands” world where many worlds exist simultaneously?
Yes, a world of harmony and diversity. In recognizing our commonalities, we can also not just respect our differences, we can inhabit those differences. One way to do that: by speaking each other’s languages.
Keep your ears open for the music of language and learn the power of words. But also don’t fall victim to language used falsely. We must be ever more alert to what is true.
Be loving, be joyful, and kick up your heels!
A sampling of the poetry of Rafael Jesús González. For more, check online at his blog.
Los mapas mienten
Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen,
And when the borders bleed we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red
Mienten los mapas —
son colchas de parches sin sentido
de colores pasteles
(lila, celeste, lima,
limón, naranja, rosa)
con nombres, costuras arbitrarias
con que imaginamos a la Tierra
y le llamamos ‘mundo.’
La Tierra no tiene costuras
ni fronteras —
ríos y barrancas, sierras, pantanos,
desfiladeros, junglas y desiertos,
cascadas y saltos, mares sí,
pero nunca fronteras.
Los mapas mienten.
Maps lie —
they are crazy quilts
of pastel colors
(lilac, sky, lime,
lemon, orange, pink)
with arbitrary names & seams
with which we imagine the Earth
pretending to possess it
& call it ‘world.’
The Earth does not have seams
nor borders —
rivers & ravines, sierras, swamps,
canyons, jungles & deserts,
cascades & falls, seas yes,
but never borders.