Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl: An Interview with Leticia Hernández-Linares

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl

an interview with Leticia Hernández Linares
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl is a lyrical celebration of inspirational El Salvadoran womanhood. Hernández-Linares' poetry explores the centrality of place and community when home is unreachable and unrecognizable. These women of San Francisco's Mission District are the flowers in Leticia's poemsongs, the "flores" in Leticia's "canciones." She channels a long tradition of Central American poetry championing resiliency and heroic individuality.  

In the wake of TPS deportees and gentrification displacement, "poetry keeps the Mission's heart alive."  A self-identified "mucha muchacha," Leticia challenges gender norms and machismo. As a second generation Peruvian immigrant, I gained a greater appreciation of intergenerational Latinx wisdom by reading Mucha Muchacha. Hernández-Linares captures a District cheerfully overflowing with cumbia and "too muchness," a human rhythm that cannot be contained.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: I love the alliteration of the phrase “Mucha Mu-cha-cha.” One of your poems, "Too Much Girl," deals with institutions not intended for people of your background. What does being “too much girl” mean to you? How did your understanding of your identity in relation to society change when you entered graduate school?

[Leticia Hernández-Linares]: “Es mucho hombre esta mujer.” The male literary colleagues of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda infamously described this nineteenth century Cuban-Spanish writer as too much man. The recent article “Es mucha mujer esa mujer,” chronicles how even José Martí claimed there were minimal female qualities about this literary pioneer, suggesting her “rough” and “energetic” poetry’s quality benefited from her man-ish ways. 

The descriptor, accusation of “too much” has followed me throughout my life. My laugh: too loud; my words: too blunt; my anger: too extreme; my dreams: too audacious. So when I heard the silly, patronizing song by Esquivel, I had an epiphany. Resilient mucha muchachas in my family and history shaped me, so why not embrace this? My poems often inspire me to write songs and I also weave song lyrics throughout my poems. Equivel’s verses prompted a conversation that developed across the two poems and throughout the book. I wanted to respond to the premise that there is a particular way to be girl, a woman.

Ay, Graduate school. I just wasn’t ready for what it meant to be a first generation college graduate and doctoral student at UPENN in 1993, and the outcomes for my fellow POC classmates reveal a pattern bigger than my own personal experience. I have learned the hard way that I can’t make myself do something my spirit hasn’t signed off on. My desire to develop further as a poet and community advocate became clear then. I obtained a Master’s degree and achieved candidacy and then I left Philadelphia. This experience reminded me that no matter the milestones you reach––first generation, awards, prestigious schools––the dominant culture of white supremacy will always surface and try to contain you and damage you.   

[TK]: What do you believe is “La Lotería de la Mujer”? Do you consider your poetry to have a feminist message? Who or what inspires your female characters such as Zoraida or  the stereotyped women in the aforementioned poem such as “La Trabajadora” or “La Enamorada?”   

[LHL]: I am a proud graduate of Scripps, The Women’s College, and founder of Amate: Women Painting Stories, a ten year interdisciplinary women’s art production that I curated and produced. I am absolutely a feminist, a womanist, in everything I do. Does my poetry have a feminist message? Sure, but inherently, not by design. I write about a range of topics. I write about being the mother of two brown boys in a city where police kill our youth of color, regularly (where is the city where that doesn’t happen?). I write about gentrification. My poetic message follows Roque Dalton’s example, that ‘poetry like bread is for everyone,’ and that I exist and create in community. 

¡Lotería! I collect Lotería sets. Traditional lotería images can reinforce stereotypes, and the game does after all highlight boxes. Some of the dichos that accompany particular cards, and some of the images themselves, are cringe worthy. So exciting to see that Latinx artists have produced several new versions that explode the boxes. 

Humor and interaction play integral roles in the performance of my poetry. The familiarity, the fun of the game attracts me to lotería. I have used the game for youth art projects and to engage the audience. In terms of this poem, Nuvia Crisol Ruland, a San Diego based artist, created “Lotería de la Mujer.” Her artwork and collaborative spirit inspired me. Her version depicts the stages of a woman’s life, and I appreciate the inclusion of unexpected images like an androgynous Trabajadora and unapologetic Vaga

On a more philosophical level, the lotería for la mujer, involves a set of boxes that try to control and dominate us; the poem focuses on a game with new rules that I have reworked alongside the incredible women I know. Women in my family, in the Mission, in my life inspire me. My students and mentees teach me. My poems are a hodge podge of people and moments. I obscure them to protect the innocent and the guilty.

[TK]: You write about your El Salvadoran heritage in “Tragedilandia.” Growing up, I used to hear the phrase “Gringolandia,” land of the gringos. Does Tragedilandia reside in the El Salvadoran experience of the Mission District, El Salvador, or both? ” 

[LHL]: Tragedilandia certainly resides in both. I never lived in El Salvador, but I was baptized there. I grew up in the U.S while most of my family still remained “back home” so I always understood my point of reference as originating somewhere else. This is why the anthology I just edited with Rubén Martínez and Héctor Tobar, The Wandering Song, is so historic. With so many Salvadoran poets publishing books and the release of this anthology, we are beginning to establish a chorus of stories about Central American realities in the U.S.

As a child, the only place other than El Salvador that I traveled was the Mission District. We would take annual road trips to visit my uncle who lived here, eat pupusas, and explore the city. In fact, we had several family members living in the Bay Area, and when I came to live here in my early 20’s, I did so intentionally to develop as a writer in a Central American community. I understood the Mission as a satellite to El Salvador. It was like coming home.

[TK]: Two poems that seem to dovetail are “How to be Spiritual in Stilettos” and “How to be Spiritual in Tacones.” As a little girl buying new shoes, you seem to be desirous of the beautiful and forbidden. Yet in “Tacones”, as an older woman, you are sure of yourself in high heels. How can one be spiritual in stilettos? What do you see as the connection between the two poems? Do these poems illustrate a personal religious journey?

[LHL]: I once heard a Latinx poet critique the way church ladies dress up, asking “how can you be spiritual in stilettos?” The judgment of women and the oversimplification of clothes and dressing up in communities of color bothered me. From the little girl wonder of sparkly and assigned feminine things, to the joy and pain and complicated relationship with tacones, I wanted to unpack the intertwined issues involved in this presumptuous question. A person can be spiritual in so many different ways and despite and sometimes because of costume, and ritual. 

I informed him I would write a poem that explains how you can be spiritual in stilettos. The early versions of this poem, more performative, were not as subtle as the final set that ended up in the book. I was thinking about the performance of prayer, and beauty, and gender in a confessional way. I don’t, however, apologize for the reality that a lot of little girls desire the beautiful and forbidden. I am, however, all for expanding what beautiful encompasses.

[TK]: Some of your poems have a strong relationship to music and rhythm such as “Cumbia de Salvacion.” What is your process for creating poetry inspired by music? How do you capture the beat of cumbia in the written word? What is your understanding of a “poemsong?”

[LHL]: I have consistently approached poetry in an interdisciplinary way. My published work, therefore, operates as a kind of hybrid. Calling them poemsongs honors their multidimensionality as someone who sings and interacts and draws heavily on context and location. I listen to many different types of music which fuels my associative way of writing. Sometimes it is a song and sometimes it is the topic that begins a poem. Not every poem is based in song or generates one. When it comes to sharing them out loud, however, I have to find the rhythm or the texture. 

My musician father taught me many things through song. Music was a central part of our family experience. What I didn’t know at first and now actively study, is the poetic way Nahuatl speaking ancestors made meaning and recorded their narratives. This precedent validates my approach to poetry. While I didn’t invent the invocation of flor y canto and flowery songs, or use of song in poetry, I have adapted it into my aesthetic in a particular way. Moreover, in my writing workshops, I teach what I call “word math” based on the disfrasismo that exists in the Nahuatl language (in xochitl + in cuicatl = songs and flowers = poetry). I am working on turning this into a poetic form for my next book.

[TK]: Your poetry integrates Spanish and English, memories of El Salvador and U.S. living; two conflicting cultures. What do you believe is your most powerful message as an El Salvadoran-American poet in the United States and what do you believe is the future of El Salvadoran poetry, given these turbulent political times?

[LHL]: The mission to learn my history and understand myself in this country has driven my focus, for sure. I am the only child of Salvadoran hippie artist immigrants who were headed to San Francisco but ended up raising me in 1970-80’s Los Angeles. My interdisciplinary work emerges from my family and community and that genuine inspiration speaks for itself. 

When I worked at Pacific News Service (New American Media) in 2000, I connected with the Izote Vos project, a publication of U.S. born and based Salvadorans. This project involved youth, artists, and activists from San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I served as a sort of bridge. Shortly after, I traveled to El Salvador with Izote artists as part of a delegation with Carecen, Los Angeles. After that trip, delegation participant, Raquel Gutiérrez, founded a collaborative of Central American writers in Los Angeles. I occasionally convened writers in San Francisco, and Gutiérrez curated events in the L.A. and this ended up connecting us to each other. Many of these writers have work that appears in The Wandering Song

I recently returned to the organizing side of this work under the title of Tejido, producing events in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and D.C. Perhaps my most powerful message filters through the celebration of our literary and artistic contributions, and I will continue with this work until we no longer reside in the margins of Latinx literature and academic departments. Our books are more urgent now than ever given the times, but we will not produce in response to the violent rhetoric, we will create in spite and instead of it.

[TK]:Women play many roles in society as mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, etc. Why did you call your three sections “Comadre,” “Hija,” and “Mi Gente (Ustedes)?” You dedicated your book to your mother and “las Mucha Muchachas.” Who are they? What advice do you have for other female artists of color?

[LHL]: The book is dedicated to my grandmother. She recently turned 97. We call her Mama because she would not accept any iteration of “abuela,” She is Zoraida. She is La Cuchillera, and she schooled me about the dichos from her town about ‘cuchilleros’ which inspired the poemsong. Mama also broke down how little time she had for menopause (Holy Mother). I have survived this far by leaning on an incredible círculo of mujeres—first my birth and then chosen family. They are the mucha muchachas. 

I worry about historical memory and urge younger writers to ensure they explore it. Excavating, learning from, and building community with elders has been an important part of my journey. I have felt fortunate that the Bay Area facilitates easy access to an incredible intergenerational intersection of artists. Women, however, often remain buried in the historical timeline (and in the headlines) so my hope is that female artists of color continue to dig as they create.

[TK]:  Though the Mission District in San Francisco is becoming gentrified, you speak of a mission that its streets have become or taken on in “Despierta.” What do you believe is the new mission of the Mission District, and what impact have you seen poetry have on the community?

[LHL]: There is no new Mission. While the latest wave continues to deal a significant blow to the spirit and landscape, gentrification in the Mission is not a new phenomenon. There is the thorny scarred but vibrant heart that holds on. You feel the heartbeat through new murals in tribute to the neighborhood; new and reoccurring events that celebrate our Latinidad; and, activism that preserves history, art, residents. Then, there are the conquered areas—a surreal caricature of young, mostly white wealth that surrounds the heart like a bad futuristic movie. 

I have lived on the same block since 1995. Our sons walk to school in two directions and have attended multiple schools and enrichment programs within a small radius from our small but beloved home. In 2015, shortly after I published my book, our greedy, very wealthy landlords let us know they would be evicting us to move in a family member and enthusiastically encouraged us to jump on the first thing we could find (which would have forfeited our payout). They wanted to evict the only family, one of two long-term tenants, the only Latinos in the building. We were a much better choice than the friendly white wealthy doctor living next door who had just moved in and could easily find and afford another apt. We lived in extreme fear and anxiety until the notice finally came. And then we had to face the reality and figure out what to do. 

Thanks to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and a supportive community, we remain in our home. We managed to beat it, for now. We are not unique or special in this predicament. So many families displaced. Buildings have mysteriously burnt down in an alarming number. Property owners ruthlessly dole out eviction notices. Small businesses have closed down or moved out of the city. One could argue that there are two missions, the classic car, running on fumes, and the driverless car with no face. 

Poetry keeps the Mission’s heart alive. A long history of literary events and cultural centers persists thanks to artivists in the late 1960’s, and many others who have maintained that legacy since. Alejandro Murguia, San Francisco’s first Latino Poet Laureate, is one of the cultural ambassadors who has taken up this charge. Artists and activists and residents continue to resist. I often sing and recite poetry in the Mission streets for art events, and now more than ever, it feels important to do so. 

This topic is flammable for me. My next book of poetry focuses on the epidemic of displacement in the Mission. I hope by the time I release it, the housing market bubble has popped.

 …En el distrito de La Misión, las flores crecen del concreto…


Leticia Hernández-Linares is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, and educator. She is the author of Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl, and co-editor of The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. Widely published, her work appears in collections and journals such as U.S. Latino Literature Today, Street Art San Francisco, Teatro bajo del Sol, Huizache, and Pilgrimage. She has performed her poemsongs throughout the country and in El Salvador. A three-time San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist grantee, she teaches in Latina, Latino Studies at San Francisco State University. Visit her:

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