Thanks to Gary Soto, Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk (Chicano Chapbook Series, 27) was published in 1999 while I was pursuing an MA at UC Davis. Shortly thereafter, I landed a reading at the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies’ (NACCS) annual conference. This would have been the spring of 2000. I don’t remember much about that reading. But I remember this:
On the last day of the conference I saw a sign displayed in the lobby of the Hilton in Portland, OR announcing a gathering to take place that evening in the penthouse bar. It was for LGBT folk. I don’t remember the precise wording. I’m not even sure if the NACCS Joto Caucus existed yet. But that night I took the elevator up to the bar for a drink...and met Gilberto Cárdenas.
No, Gil wasn’t expressly there for the queer mixer! He was at the conference to spread the word: he’d recently begun his stint as the founding director of something I’d never heard of: Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. I remember thinking to myself: Latino Studies at the home of the Fighting Irish? Cool.
Gil learned a bit about me that night (I was waiting to hear on a Fulbright application to Ireland, and weighing other post-MA options), and I learned a bit about him and the Institute. His parting words as he handed me his card? “Keep Notre Dame in mind if you want to pursue further work in creative writing…”
I traveled back down to California, did my homework (looking up Orlando Menes and John Matthias, both MFA faculty at ND) and, upon completing my MA, promptly flew back to Spain where, prior to my stint in Davis, I'd lived for ten years. That fall, in Madrid, I laid the groundwork for Momotombo Press, met for the first time Rigoberto González (who was passing through Madrid on his way to Andalusia), and took Gil’s advice: I applied to Notre Dame’s MFA program. I was fortunate enough to land a fellowship and moved to South Bend, IN the following summer, shortly after the publication of Mark My Words (Momotombo Press, 2001).
Fast forward to late spring of 2003. It’s my last semester as a Notre Dame graduate student. I’m sitting in the campus barbershop getting a haircut, fairly cluelesss about what to do after graduation. As I’m paying the barber and getting ready to leave, Gil walks through the door…“Francisco, would you mind waiting for me, I want to talk to you.” And that’s how it happened. Gil, in essence, became my boss after we’d each gotten a haircut.
I won’t attempt to gloss what Letras Latinas has attempted to foster and create these last several years. But I’ll share what’s printed on the acknowledgements page of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007):
“This project was the natural outgrowth of my work as director of Letras Latinas, the literary program at the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at Notre Dame. The Institute has provided a home since 2003, and I am very proud to be a part of it. I would like to thank Gil Cárdenas for bringing me on board and providing a relevant context from which to work.”
Why am I sharing this today? Because this afternoon, from 4 – 6 PM, at the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) in McKenna Hall here on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, we're having a reception for Gilberto Cárdenas, who steps down as director of the ILS at the end of the month.
Letras Latinas--its programs and initiatives--would not exist were it not for that fortuitous meeting in Portland thirteen years ago. Gracias, Gil.