When I first came to live in Chicago in the early 1980s, I wanted to be a writer and fancied myself a poet. But I looked more to Walt Whitman (not knowing that he was a starting point for Jorge Luis Borges and a host of other Latin Americans), Gertrude Stein, and sapphic Olga Broumas (because I was an arty young lesbian discovering the pain and thrills of sex) than to Latino poets.
I knew, of course, about Borges as well as José Martí, Pablo Neruda, and Cesar Vallejo—all Spanish-language writers from south of the border—but the only U.S. Latino poet I read was Alurista (aka Alberto Baltazar Urista Heredia). And while I admired his bilingual wordplay, I found his imagery alien. Cuban, Caribbean me didn't identify with Aztec glory, Mexican Medea figure La Llorona, or even heroic United Farm Workers founder César Chávez.
Then one day a young Puerto Rican named Angel Figueroa—Figgy to one and all— tried to pick me up by inviting me to hear a band he was playing with: David Hernández & Street Sounds. I loved to dance and, assuming I'd be hearing some local Puerto Rican salsa, I accepted.
I didn't get to dance, but I couldn't have been happier. Hernández recited his poetry backed by a band that played jazz, folk, rumba, bomba, plena, and a little bit of jibaro. Figgy—who went on to become a hugely successful conga player, touring the world with the likes of Sting—was handling percussion.
Street Sounds was founded on two important principles: to advance social justice and to celebrate the lives of ordinary people. The music is essential but Hernández never lets the poems become songs. He borrows from Puerto Rican jibaro tradition, but there's very little improvisation involved. Each piece is a carefully crafted love note to everyday people—initially in Humboldt Park and then, later, Chicago. Harold Washington called on Hernández for an inaugural poem because by then he'd become the city's unofficial poet laureate.
For me, there's something not just familiar but familial in Hernández's cadence, the gentle beats he chooses, the unassuming stance he takes to talk about life's great pleasures and also—covered in caramel—its defining disillusionments. What I find singular about his verse is its utter lack of irony: Hernández is willing to embrace emotion even to the point of sentimentality. Whenever he veers toward fury, he pulls it back with a joke or a surprisingly generous serving of, well, love.
Not long after that first encounter, I became something of a Hernández groupie and got to know Chicago by tagging along with him everywhere he performed. At some point, I revealed that I, too, wrote poems, and he asked to look at them. We're very different kinds of writers with very different approaches, styles, and interests. He was nice enough not to say that my poems were overly controlled, sometimes predictable, often unearned. Instead, he gave me props for language, image, and metaphor. And he gave me the best advice I've ever heard about writing. "To be any kind of writer, you have to be a poet first," he said. "And to be a poet, you have to be in love with every word you write."
Chi Town Brown
"I am Chi Town Brown.
I am parent dreams of maletas/cardboard suitcases
the tropical faces United Airlines brings
to hope-dealer Chi Town, to factory-life Chi Town
and winterized and unrealized pain.
I wear survival on my shoulders like a mad dog.
I am Chi Town Brown."
I am Black, I am White, I am Red, the rainbow underground
found in Utopia speeches the political leeches talk about
while momi y popi beg to survive
while this anger and hate has no limit and knows no bound
I am Chi Town Brown!
Stay alive cono!
Don't let him pluck at your nerves!
Be hard! Be bad! Have no pity for a man-city
where children's games is to name their addictions
when their veins become a golf course for the needle's conviction
that it is a God! Listen to me! Listen to me!
Can't you see so long ago, I could laugh with rice and beans
as my words en espanol! as my being era Boricua!
As my being was unmachined! and my feelings eran healthy!
and my thoughts eran wealthy! dedicated to the love
the small town that gave me birth!
I am Chi Town Brown!
I am the phenomenon!
The question mark on the welfare application
when you realize with slow hesitation that I live!
That I am proud! That you will see me!
That I am of this: first a human! First Boricua!
A Tropic Rican! The Primary Mohican pioneering new love!
I am Chi Town Brown! Chi Town Brown!
—David Hernández, 1971