see all the white folk in the audience? lol. this is a photo that pidge took of me as i read my piece on pilsen this past tuesday at an event hosted by chi lit. earlier this year they had opened up a call for writing (poetry + short stories) submissions about pilsen, as well as other chicago neighborhoods like bronzeville, roscoe village, beverly, and rogers park. as a kick off event, the folks at chi lit decided to throw a reading/fundraising party where those whose submissions were accepted would be invited to read. so wouldn’t ya know it, they accepted my poem on pilsen and they invited me to read. now, i didn’t write the poem i submitted specifically for this project. it was a poem i had written about caminos de michoacan, one of my favorite bars in pilsen, sometime last yr. lo and behold, i looked at the list of readers and who was reading about what hood, and there was another person reading on pilsen. “hmmmm,” i thought, “this guy…sounds….white.” and he was. and i immediately started to conjure images of a thin male with 5 o clock shadow stubble, a plump beer gut, and american spirits sitting on the stoop of one of the 2flats in pilsen. i could totally imagine him writing about like, the smell of tortillas in the morning or watching old women walk to work. idk. that’s just what i feel like white people notice when they come to neighborhoods of color that are gentrifying, always romanticizing things that they can pick and choose.
ok, so i think, fuck, nothing in my poem explicitly speaks to the changing pilsen that i know, and have known since birth. as a native of little village, i spent a lot of time in pilsen, i went to grade school here for some time, and i live here now. and pilsen and little village share many, many ties. i expected this reading to be mainly white folks and i felt like it was necessary to storytell my feelings about the changes, particularly the callow hip white 20-somethings who are moving in by the droves. so i added a piece to it. i didn’t want to preach AT people because i wanted them to hear me, so i tried to do it through narrative poetry.
the original poem is here:
and then the poem that i read at the event/the piece i added is here:
i was nervous before they called my name and read my introduction but as soon as i got up there i felt so much power and integrity in what i was about to do. i was proud that i didn’t just sit and read my original poem, as personal and important it was, i knew i needed to add something for it to be complete. i knew it was going to make a LOT of people uncomfortable. out of like 150 people who were there, only about 10 were people of color and that’s including me + 3 friends!
when i began to read, i steadied my voice and i felt myself sooooo fucking much on that stage. i made eye contact with these doe eyed white folk who laughed at odd parts of my poem - because i realized white people don’t know how to react to poetry about race. about change. about presence. as i neared the end of my poem, and the line, “I still have not forgotten: Halloween, 2009, Pilsen/ A white boy crosses 18th and Ashland in a sombrero”, i felt myself reading the words in such a flow and rhythm that i didn;t even have to think about the next word, or tripping up, or whatever. when i got to the part,
when i hear the mexican elders
sigh & say,
i guess gentrification makes the neighborhood safer”
if safer means displacement
if safer means sour reviews if the waiter does not speak english
if safer means demolishing community spaces where gang members make truces
and learn to work with one another, crafting clay pots and moving in the spirit of danza
if it means starbucks
or a bag of $10 oragnic tomatoes
if it means restaurants with $15 burgers, when a third of the children in pilsen live below the poverty line
or teachers from naperville who come to our schools with a savior complex
as if our brown boys are savage
the whole room was silent. i finishd it off with that, and i looked at the faces of the people in the crowd and they were dumbfounded, to be frank. silent. (a lot of people clapped- i mean there was noise- but there were people frozen in their seats). as i moved through the room, people of color thanked me for reading. then white people did. a white girl told me she had never thought about her presence in the way i described- that she realized as an outsider she needs to be more mindful of it. some drunk irish guy tried to make me feel bad for dogging on teachers from naperville (a rich white suburb) lol and i shut his ass down with some logic + rationale. but most of all, it felt so good to me to be able to disrupt white space. to disrupt their comfortability. this was a space in which some of the white readers made jokes about puerto ricans and mexicans not getting along (and consequently some white dude turned to me and mayadette, possibly THE ONLY puerto ricans and mexicans in the room, to laugh and explain the joke to us?). this was a space in which some writers even used gang violence as some cute creative inspiration / a point of reference. so for me to be up in that space basically calling out some bullshit ass shit like gentrification + also just the complete disregard for mindfully considering your position and presence in spaces that are not your own - well that was real as fuck. it also felt like a very explicit example of art as activism as well. anyways. just my thoughts.
OH YEAH, and thank you to all the people who commented/left me supportive vibes when i wrote a post about being nervous!
DISRUPT. WHITE. SPACE.