Sunday, May 23, 2010

William Archila at Cardozo High School

Last Friday, poet and editor Dan Vera met us at Cardozo High School for William Archila's visit there. Below are some of the pictures he took, which he put up at FACEBOOK where Letras Latinas recently inaugurated a "group." I've decided to post some of the pics here, and preface them with this comment. 

Frazier O'Leary, who teaches AP English at Cardozo, and who has been teaching there for over thirty years, has hosted writers with regularity. Most who visit are fiction writers in town as guests of PEN Faulkener, on whose board O'Leary serves. 

But Friday's visit was special: a majority of the students in the class were either born in El Salvador, or were the son or daughter of Salvadoran immigrants. There were also students from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. As William was born in El Salvador, and didn't come to the U.S. until he was twelve, there was an immediate palpable connection between him and these students. William's wife, the Armenian American poet Lory Badikian mentioned that of all of William's presentations she's witnessed, this was one of the most moving. I know for myself it was among the most meaningful events Letras Latinas has been involved with. 

Many of the students in this class were budding writers themselves and Letras Latinas had pre-arranged to get The Art of Exile to them beforehand. It was particularly poignant watching them read along, rapt, as William read to them. But before he even got to his poem, he simply told them his story---how he came to the U.S. as an adolescent in the early 80s; how he returned to El Salvador in the early 90s only to discover he didn't quite feel at home there; how, back in California, he began his long journey of becoming a writer. 

I couldn't help but imagine how it would have felt to have been in those students' shoes listening to William's story which, in many respects, mirrored their own. One student, born in El Salvador himself, asked:  How did it feel writing about our country? To which William gave an eloquent response I won't attempt to paraphrase here. 

The experience made me think of two analogous ones for me, the only two that come close: one was attending a reading by Ernesto Cardenal on the UC Berkeley campus in 1983; the other was seeing and listening to Francisco X. Alarcón read at a special event at the Women's Building in the Mission District in the early 80s in San Francisco. I was in high school. These moments remain vividly with me; I've written about one ("Ernesto Cardenal in Berkeley"). 

I can't help but wonder if, last Friday, there was a young writer who, twenty years from now, will remember William Archila's visit in a similar way. 


This event, and others like it, 
are possible thanks to the generosity 
of the Weissberg Foundation, 
which supports Letras Latinas' efforts 
in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area

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