Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Our Warrior: A Celebration of Rigoberto González

Rigoberto González @ Poet's House
December 6, 2016

Among the NYC poetry orgs Letras Latinas has had the pleasure of collaborating with, Poet’s House holds a place of honor: in the Fall of 2009, they hosted the fourth final stop of, “The Wind Shifts Tour,” which consisted of a reading featuring four contributors of The Wind Shifts anthology, as well as a pre-reading panel discussion on Latino/a poetics, featuring NYC-based Latino/a poets. So when Poet’s House, this time around, approached Letras Latinas about co-presenting an event to celebrate Rigoberto González’s contributions to our field, it was easy to say Yes. What follows is an account of that special evening. Special thanks to Nathan Xavier Osorio for contributing this piece. FA

Our Warrior: A Celebration of Rigoberto González

On Tuesday, December 6th, Natalie Diaz and Ada Limón co-hosted a celebration of Rigoberto González in Downtown Manhattan’s Poet’s House. Despite the early winter rain, the venue felt true to its name – homelike.  It vibrated with old friends reuniting and shuffling along the packed room in search of a place to sit or stand. La raza cósmica had shown up to honor a poet who, throughout his career –which includes four books of poetry, ten books of prose, and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement– had never forgotten about us. In their opening speech, Limón and Diaz called him, “Our Warrior … a man who had written for us, of us.” Limón praised the beauty of his language saying, “his poems are lessons on bowing down to sound and confronting the abyss.” Rigoberto González sat in the first row, wearing a suit and a dark blue sarape that hung down his right shoulder like the fashionable champion he had come to be known as. Diaz described how the after-cocktail ritual of remembering friends and heroes would often end with González’s name and his message that poetry is service and the light by which we navigate the borderlands of our identity.  
Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, Rigoberto González

The evenings readers shared their own stories of González and selections of his work. They came from local barrios like Brooklyn’s Bushwick, and further out west from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Bell Gardens, California, demonstrating the vitality of the community González has influenced.  Saeed Jones, the author of Prelude to a Bruise, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award and former student of González at Rutgers University – Newark, read first. Jones reflected on how Rigoberto was his first non-straight, non-white literature teacher and how he guided him to understand that in our writing, “sentimentality is not humanizing, clarity is.” Jones’ reading of González’s persona poem “Gila,” with its line, “I make a throne of the body/ until it begins to decay.” reminds us of how devotion to clarity can animate the spirit embedded in language.

 Saeed Jones
 Elisabet Velásquez

Elisabet Velásquez, a spoken-word poet who has performed at the Brooklyn Museum, Lincoln Center Out of Doors and the Nuyorican Poets Café, shared a story of how González had always looked out for young and emerging writers. She cited a Harriet post from April 9th, 2011 written by González after attending Latino Literary Imagination Conference at Rutgers that year. He writes, “Baca and I were the only non-stage poets, which made for an interesting pause among the parade of young, energetic spoken-word poets that took to the mic. Special shout out to Elisabet Velásquez, who impressed the fuck out of me …” González’s sense of humor and hope for a poetry community that isn't stifled by cruel self-preservation has become his living legacy. 

Erika L. Sánchez
Hannah Ensor
Erika L. Sánchez, whose debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, is forthcoming from Graywolf, called González the “padrino of latinx poetry,” and praised his complex portrayals of women in his writing. Hannah Ensor, poet and president of the board of directors of Casa Libre en la Solana, highlighted the importance of how González connects with the echoes of what immigrants have abandoned.  From his poem, “Gone the Body, Its Accessories,” she read, “The moon,/ she bows to you-she’s seen fugitives/ evade recapture when the mouth doesn’t seal like stone, suspend/ the letters of a name like fireflies in amber.”
 Eduardo C. Corral

Eduardo C. Corral, the first Latino recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, called González, “threshold and exit,” a means to entering and gathering within community but also a way out to practice talent and growth. Corral, who has extended his support and guidance to many young latinx poets, including myself, lovingly called González his mentor and brother. 
Vickie Vértiz

Vickie Vértiz, author of the poetry collection Swallows, read an excerpt of González’s memoir Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa: “I look back at her defiantly, but then my aunt turns away and keeps collecting clothes as if she hasn’t seen two young men scrubbing heat out of their flesh ... “I think we should go in, you,” he says, placing his arm over his face for protection. He has broken the illusion. He has expressed weakness. I roll over on my back, shut my eyes, and spread my arms out. The rain continues to pin me to the roof.”  Vértiz explains that this “looking back defiantly” captures Rigoberto’s temperament. His commitment to queer communities and narratives is bold and unapologetic.
Juan Felipe Herrera

The evenings final reader was United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. He read González’s poem the “The Solider of Mictlán,” and wooed the audience into a call and response song he accompanied with his harmonica.  Its refrain, “more books, more books” came from when Herrera asked González what he had in store for the future. Despite the distress of the recent election, Herrera urged us to continue to seek out magic, in González’s poetry and in his message of fortifying friendships and making love possible. “We all have things to do,” Herrera admitted, “but we chose this path.”

Rigoberto González takes the stage
When Rigoberto González stepped up to the lectern he was welcomed by a standing ovation.  If González had been overwhelmed by the affection, he showed no sign of it as he spoke with the clarity he had been celebrated for all evening. He talked of how although writing was a solitary act it did not have be lonely, how all our communities, including those supported by organizations like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Cave Canem, Kundiman and Canto Mundo, are and have always been intimately interconnected. Any gains or setbacks were all of ours to share. He explained how protesting with the United Farm Workers taught him at a young age that there was no waiting for anyone else to lift the weight of progress. González addressed the literary community at large, reminding us that it still held many of its doors shut to writers who didn’t fit the white heterosexual male description and how there was still much work to be done. Yet he expressed, in his defiant optimism, that change was coming, “this isn’t a threat, this is a certainty.” 


Nathan Xavier Osorio is the son of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants. He is from Sylmar, California and teaches translation studies at Barnard College. His chapbook The Last Town Before the Mojave was a finalist for the 2016 Atlas Review Chapbook Contest. His poetry and translations have been featured in Mexico City Lit, diSONARE and The Offing.  

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