The Hardcore Legend
Mod note: Other people have reposted this speech in full elswhere and author is fine with it. Thanks!
Quick info on Rigoberto Gonzalez: He is the author of 8 books, including two books of poetry. He's contributing editor for Poets and Writers Magazine, on the Executive Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle and on the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta, a collective of Chicano/ Latino activist writers. His website: http://www.rigobertogonzalez.com
8th Annual National Latino Writers Conference (Albuquerque, NM) Keynote Speech
Rigoberto González ©
May 20, 2010
Before I begin I would like to thank the organizers of the National Latino Writers Conference for inviting me to participate this morning as the keynote speaker at this exemplary gathering. This is the 8th year of building community, of fostering creativity and critique, and of guiding early-career writers toward mentorships and professional relationships with established writers whose generosity and insights are shaping the next generation of artists. To be honest, there is nothing unusual about these expectations at any writers conference, and there are dozens that take place across the country--most of them perfectly competent and useful. But what makes this conference so unique is that it is ours--a forum that has facilitated the face-to-face communication between Chicano/Latino writers, readers, and thinkers. And for that, I congratulate all of you who have sacrificed time and resources to contribute to that experience.
The year is 2010. And though we are currently standing beneath the shadow of the anti-immigrant and anti-raza legislation of our neighbors in Arizona (and let us hope that the disease of xenophobia is not contagious), I am going to keep my message positive this morning because, despite these acts of hostility against our people, there is much for us to celebrate. And if we do not recognize our successes, if we do not toast our triumphs, then we surrender to the afflictions of inferiority, invisibility and silence--the three disgraces of American politics and culture.
The year is 2010. To our left we have the U.S. Census, which will confirm for the country what we have always known when we wake up in the mornings to see the Aztec sun casting its rays over Aztlán: that we are plentiful, that we are here, that we are never leaving, that we will not be thrown out. To our right, we have the smoky memory of revolution, the cycle come back to the days of reckoning--1810, 1910, 2010--not only have we populated this land, we have also shaped its language, built its cities, spun its tales and written its songs. This is, indeed, nuestra tierra and we will keep the roots of our family and history embedded deeply into its indigenous and mestizo core.
But now come the important questions: How will each of us accept that responsibility? How will we contribute to this movimiento during this critical period of adversity? How will we know that we are marching on the correct path?
Since I am speaking in front of a group of poets and writers, I will speak to the answers through a cultural lens, acknowledging one of the greatest strengths of our community: its artistic muscle. Art and poetry, danza y teatro, cuento y canto, have always been essential components of the Latino cultural identity. From the pachanga navideña to the quinceañera, from the floricanto to the academic encuentros, we express ourselves through the arts because it is who we are: people who value creativity and imagination. Just look around you: the colorful palette of our folklore, the ingenious architecture of our altars, the linguistic textures of our slang, our names, our adivinanzas, the panoramic flavors in our foods, the range of decibels in our music, our cyber-chisme, our rascuachismo--it is all us all up in here, Senator Jan Brewer.
The impulse to dance and sing and, yes, the impulse to write it all down, to record and remember, is as natural and familiar to us as the impulse to breathe. And it is with great urgency that we need more of that breath.
There has been much to-do about how Chicano/ Latino writers are now getting their due, getting their props for their hard work, getting published more and winning more awards. And yes, all of those points of progress are true and they are real. And they are ours. And yet, if we allow those statements to settle without further exploration, it would appear that only until recently have we discovered our talents. Or rather, that only until recently have we been discovered, which is to say, only until the white industries and institutions saw us did we see ourselves.
Let us not drop into the pitfall of charting our history and our territory using the maps and timelines of those who came to our neighborhoods long after the ink had had dried on our pages. If we accept those observations as facts, we neglect the labor of previous generations of writers who produced and didn’t get published, who shared and didn’t garner those accolades, who educated and were not memorialized. I find it hopeful that we have many more opportunities to spread the word, but I will find it shameful if we move forward as if we had invented that word. So let us speak frankly about where we are now, by first paying tribute to those who paved the way toward the privilege of authorship and of organizing literary gatherings like this one, the 8th National Latino Writers Conference.
If we learn anything from this recent bout of American societal anxiety, it is that numbers don’t signify safety or acceptance or victory. In NYC, in the place I now call home, Mexicans will outnumber Dominicans and Puerto Ricans by the year 2025. By the year 2050, Latinos will outnumber all other minority groups in the country. You would think that this relatively quick population explosion--indeed the browning of the USA--would also translate into population explosions in other areas, like education and the arts. It will only seem that way because of the social networking media and technology that allows us to connect with other artists with a speed and efficiency that has never been experienced before. The truth is there will not be more of us, we will only be more aware of who and where we are. Only by choice will an artist remain detached or isolated, only by choice will a poet or writer remain disconnected from a literary forum. I say this as both an advantage to the young talent aiming to see itself as part of a bigger picture, but also as a disadvantage of skewed perception: there are not more of us and our numbers as artists, compared to our ethnic population, is and will remain devastatingly small.
This might sound as a contradiction to what I announced earlier, that the arts were the vibrant fabric of Latino cultural identity--but it is not a contradiction, it is complexity, and I’m referring to the specific representation in letters. Instead let us look at this as a challenge: and that challenge is in sustaining and empowering the writer. If we do not build, now that we have the tools, a system of nurturing and professionalizing the young writer, we will lose that writer, will we lose a warrior in the battle of the word against inferiority, invisibility and silence.
So let me now pose the following points as a framework of responsibility to all of us inhabiting the Chicano/ Latino literary landscape. This framework is a strategy for survival if we are to move ahead into the new millennium as champions of our own cause. It’s actually a simple formula, but a hard one to achieve without the collaborative energy to fuel it. This two-point prong is mentorship and community.
For the young members of our audience: learn who your literary antepasados are, know their names and read their words. This will keep your humility in check and your esteem on fire. Recognize that your influences are from a variety of bookshelves, not just writings from Chicano/ Latino writers, but also the writings from our Latin American cousins, plus the works in translation from Africa, Europe and Asia. Embrace your town or village or city but locate it within a larger map--world literature.
Never be ashamed or embarrassed to call yourself a Latino writer. In fact, be more specific, call yourself a Chicano writer, a Dominican writer, a Puerto Rican writer, a Cuban writer, or any configuration or combination of these and other identities. Situate yourself within a nation and an immigrant history, it is what preserves the integrity of the sacrifices of your people and the loss of your people’s homeland. I’m frequently dismayed by Latino writers who subscribe to the notion of wanting to “just be a writer, not a Latino writer,” as if that designation “Latino writer” wasn’t true. Unless you don’t carry any signifier of ethnicity in your name, unless your work doesn’t illustrate your cultural identity, unless you can pass for white, you will never be “just a writer.” By moving forward with this delusional goal you are betraying your own inferiority complex, you are buying into the stigma imposed by the mainstream publishing industry that you are lesser than, regional, foreign, and derivative. This is why you need to read your literary antepasados--so that you can navigate the troubled waters of doubt, writers block or other creative frustrations with the strength and pride of those who came before you.
For those of you who have started publishing or who are in the early stages of a career, those of you who have one or two books under your belt, don’t rest on your laurels and expect the readers to come to you. Take some initiative and become your own best advocate: learn to speak in public, to articulate matters of craft and all things literature. You learn these skills by attending readings and listening to the seasoned voices, by attending conferences like AWP or this one, the 8th National Latino Writers Conference, and absorbing the wisdom, advice and knowledge of your instructors. And recognize that even at this level you already have something to teach others--share your mistakes and your moments of success. And don’t forget, as you further your career, that you are more than “just a writer.” You are also a role model: take responsibility for your public appearances, choose your words carefully and fight with intelligence--you are now a public figure, generate praise for those who are your colleagues not your competition, and don’t become that writer who chooses to remain detached or isolated, who chooses to remain disconnected from any literary forum. That sidestepping of accountability to your artistic community is nothing short of selfishness. Such weakness is the weight around the necks of the rest of us who must pull forward a little harder because you won’t.
You are a Latino writer, so you are also an empowered voice: speak out through your poems, through your stories, but also through editorials and informed opinions. Write those essays or blog entries, those words of critique and protest. Become politicized because writing is political, Latino identity is a political stance. Have you not heard that “breathing while brown” is the latest oppression? Or are you “just a person” as you are “just a writer”? Being afraid is no longer an excuse, it’s a surrender. What use is our growth in numbers if we start censoring our language, tempering our tones and apologizing for our passions, our outrage and our cries for justice. We cannot hide behind the politeness of our advanced degrees or beneath the decorum of art spaces. Avoid the trapping of early success, called complacency, and tell yourself that if you don’t rock the boat you will be fine. Cowardice is never rewarded. Writing is not a static activity it is activism. Learn it and then teach it to others.
For the more seasoned writers in the room, I know you have journeyed far and labored tirelessly all these years, well, I am now asking you to work harder by keeping the doors you kicked open cleared for the rest of us. Too many times I have heard the doors slam shut as soon as one of us makes it in. Fortunately, there are many members of this elite group who mentor, who write reviews and endorsements on book jackets, who write letters of recommendation and academic evaluations, who introduce younger writers to editors, agents, and publishers. To those people I say thank you, and may you continue to do what you do and what we appreciate.
The tragic side of that coin is that there are writers who do not contribute to the efforts of mentorship, who guard their writing time so jealously they see the rest of us as termites who will chew through the walls of their writing rooms if they even acknowledge us. They shall remain nameless, and may the Latino community repay them with the same level of affection and warmth that they have bestowed upon us. Como decía mi abuelita María: ¡Cuernos!
And finally, this call goes out to anyone who will respond to it: we need more critics. As an executive board member of the National Book Critics Circle, an organization that has been granting career-making awards for the last 36 years, I am one of only a handful of Latino critics. In fact, most of us (and that number is four--one, two, three, four) have served on the twenty-four member executive board within the last five years.
Literary criticism is a sophisticated community conversation between the writer, the reader and the critic. It is the evaluation that places the art within various social and cultural contexts, and that engages the power and relevance of a book. We can still have readers and writers without the critic, that’s true, but the critic is also an important translator for those who insist on believing that Latino writing is lesser than, regional, foreign, and derivative. The only training you need to become a critic is to be a good reader and to develop a critical position: Do you like the book? Why or why not? We need the critics writing for blogs, for journals, for newsletters and literary Websites. We can’t only write the books, we need to talk about them. More specifically, we need to read and talk about each others’ books. It never ceases to surprise me when I find out that Latino writers have not read the books by other Latino writers. It’s like those people who don’t read poetry but write it, and then expect the rest of us to be the readers they are not. What kind of message are we sending to our fellow writers: “You’re not worth reading but I am”? What kind of narcissism is that? I know, it’s those writers who shall remain nameless again, isn’t it?
But not always. The truth is that criticism is one level of literary activism that remains neglected by most of us. It’s so easy when we pretend we’re “just writers” and not critics. It’s so easy when we convince ourselves that it’s a whole other genre, better left to the intellectuals and academics who “do that kind of thing.” I’ll say this: if you are thinking about what you are reading, then you can be a critic. Read more, read better, and you will be a kick-ass critic. We need those voices to speak up in the face of those who will continue to dismiss our literature as lesser than, regional, foreign, and derivative.
Only if this multi-layered effort is made can we thrive as a community of artists and can we begin to celebrate that our bookshelves are expanding and that the number of nationally-recognized names is growing. Only then can we hold the ladder for those who are reaching the top and for those who are about to step onto the first important rungs. Only then will numbers have meaning and agency and endurance.
I’d like to close by addressing the participants of this, the 8th National Latino Writers Conference (I like repeating that name because nowhere else does something like this exist, so I want to keep it alive on my tongue and savor the wondrous beauty of it).
Esteemed new members of the Latino writing community, esteemed participants of the 8th National Latino Writers Conference, write and write well. You are artists in a time of crisis, and these conflicts will burden you as much as they will inspire you to move that pen over paper or to press down on those keys on the board. Our veteran writers are dying, our seasoned writers are weary, and the world we live in is not the peaceful, tolerant eden our immigrant pioneers envisioned for us, their descendants. But it is still a world worth fighting for and one of those unflappable weapons we have inherited is language. Each of us here knows the power of literacy: did not that first book you held in your hands initiate a voyage that has brought you to this port? Did not that first childish scribble with pencil or Crayon set aflame that dream of authoring an entire book?
Now you must dream bigger dreams and envision possibilities beyond being “just a writer.” This country already has plenty of writers, it’s activist writers who are is short supply and in loud demand as we continue to gain momentum as Latino artists and lose ground as Latino citizens. These two roles (artist and citizen) are not mutually exclusive, they are perpetually linked, and if one breaks down, the other will collapsed right on top of it.
The year is 2010. The plagues of the past have been resurrected, but so too the fury of the antidote. Let us fight our battles with poetry, with theater, with story, and let us lace those words with culture and history. Let us stand our ground over nuestra tierra. Esta es nuesta tierra, this is our land. So allow us, those who came before, those who wrote it down in the first decade of the new millennium, to be remembered by those who will write it down in the next decade of the new millennium. That’s how it works--one link locking around another, one branch holding up the next--so that together we remain unbreakable, unshakable.
So keep that in mind as you engage in the power of the word these next few days. This is a life-changing writers conference, but you should expect nothing less from it because it is a Latino writers conference. Much is at stake in the teaching and the learning, because much is at stake in the writing. We have made incredible strides as a visible artist community, but not without sacrifice and certainly not without struggle. Now there will be more sacrifice and more struggle, but take comfort in the company you will keep.
Muchísimas gracias and have a life-changing time at the 8th National Latino Writers Conference.
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