The Gift of Light
by Fred Arroyo
Sometimes, then, if we are awake, if the artist is really gifted, the work will induce a moment of grace, a communion, a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives.
—Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property
When I learned about the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative I immediately felt that I could find a way to collaborate. To be sure, purchasing “Untitled (2010)” wouldn’t be easy; my wife and I had financial concerns because of housing and work, and yet we wanted to offer our support. As we considered where our monies must go and where they did not have to go, it wasn’t that difficult to conclude, in the end, that we could indeed commit the $440 for the print. In short, there were no compelling or valid reason to say no. What is more, it was a matter of memory, imagination, and life to have the print in our lives. And we knew that one day we would gift it to our son, Charles Francis Arroyo.
When Malaquias Montoya’s “Untitled (2010)” arrived, I imagined it framed by a color akin to blood, dirt—the earth. I felt it should exist close to life and death, framed and held up by these colors—the rhythm and color of blood and dirt that is worked, travelled, and lived on with joy and sorrow, dream and reality. And no matter how much “escape” is desired or achieved (the poetry lines in the print are from Andrés Montoya’s “the escape”), one is weighted by memory rooted deep in the earth.
I love that we found this wood frame of “distressed” and “weathered” maroon/cimmarrón. I love that the print now seems to float or hover, stilled and in motion like a hummingbird, and that the frayed edges of the print return me to the notion of hands working with paper. We are honored to own Malaquias Montoya’s work, our first acquisition of fine art.
Work, blood, earth, paper—I’m sure I’m not the only one who returns to these living forces, especially, if like me, you work with paper and books, in a place that returns you to a past that’s palpably present like the damp chill of yesterday’s rain.
I’m sure, as well, that I’m not the only one—as a first-generation college graduate—who is beginning to come to terms with “Latino” or Latino literature. Perhaps for some of us there wasn’t a strong sense of Latinidad inside or outside academic halls (and this was especially so in the Midwest). Part of the problem, of course, is that education makes one conscious of terms like Latino or Latinidad, and yet memory and imagination return one back to the living realities outside academic or marketplace distinctions.
To begin approaching Latin@ communities, particularly for me, has meant a kind of lonely work in learning one tradition while simultaneously learning other traditions outside the academy. I wish this wasn’t so. Even with important progress made for Latin@ writers, there are still forms of inequality alongside the recognition of why Latin@s are, without question, essential to what America has been and is becoming, and how Latin@ writers—a diverse, energetic, and fluid community of artists—offer imaginative possibilities beyond a given term, expectation, or tradition. To contemplate Latin@ creativity in the literary arts is to encounter a new democracy that transcends and transforms US borders.
Letras Latinas, in my view, helps us recognize the power of this creativity through its efforts. This is certainly evident in the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. It seems to me that it would be useless to try and put a quantitative value on what Letras Latinas offers to our community of writers, artists, and scholars. The value is the possibility of one reader, one audience member, one moment of illuminated recognition encountered in a poem on the page or at a reading. That an Emma Trelles (Tropicalia) or a Paul Martínez Pompa (My Kill Adore Him) or a Gabriel Gomez (The Outer Bands) or a Sheryl Luna (Pity the Drowned Horses) have received the prize, have a book to share, and opportunities to read their poetry and talk with audiences is valuable in and of itself.
This is, in great part, why I support this initiative.
This coming fall Malaquias Montoya’s “Untitled (2010)” will hang prominently in my new office. For the next two years I am fortunate enough to hold a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Chicano/a literature and creative writing, with an emphasis in fiction, at Whittier College in southern California. As a writer, teacher, and citizen this is a wonderful opportunity filled with possibility and responsibility. A little over 30% of the students who attend Whittier are of Hispanic origin, and becoming a member of a community where one of out three people you interact with is Latin@ is something I haven’t experienced since childhood. To help represent and share the rich complexity of Chicano@ and Latina@ literature is a daunting challenge I welcome; there’s a fire, which is greater than me, I hope to share and see alive inside and outside the classroom. I hope that when students see Malaquias Montoya’s print they will wonder about the woman and the man, the lines of poetry, and in the signage and the colors they might see their lives in California. They’ll ask questions. They’ll remember. Imagine. Begin to envision new things. Hopefully we’ll talk about what exists within and outside the print’s frame, and certainly allow our imaginations to escape to the places and communities we aspire to dream and make a reality. So the languages and literatures we study and create not only arise from the land but are also offered back and written into the land.
This is what I find so important about this initiative: one can choose to support it not only because it recognizes and supports the work of others, but also because it is a part of the work many of us aspire to do.
Fred and Charlie Arroyo
with "Untitled" (2010)
There is a photo of my son Charlie and I holding “Untitled (2010).” One of the best things Charlie ever said of me (it has become part of a story I will always remember) was that his “Papa works with books.” It changed so much about what “work” and life could mean. At the same time, I understand that Charlie will remember and create his own story through these words, and this will be his unique story over time. Work in my life was always something important; it ruled our lives, it had to be done, but it wasn’t something we shared with any excitement, let alone really talked about. Somewhere along the way I must’ve started to dream of an escape. In many ways Charlie has already been gifted this print, since he’s living the memory and story of what it can become for his life.
Ultimately, I support the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative because I’m part of a community that continues to create and become a part of the story, its story, a story that enriches and sustains itself not just through memory, blood, and dirt. There is also fire, sacrifice, and renewal, each of us offering to the other “this small and mysterious exchange of gifts,” what Pablo Neruda once saw as “remain[ing] inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.” We are here, perhaps, in literary endeavors and life because we can gift each other this light.
If you are reading this, particularly if you are a fellow Chican@/Latin@ writer, I hope you will consider (or re-consider) joining me in my support of this initiative.
Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative