ALF – CU Boulder

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Americas Latino Festival, a prelude to a four-day festival with dozens of writers and artists that is scheduled for 2013. Irene Vilar, the director of the festival, spoke of art being intrinsic to culture and of Latino culture being intrinsic to the Americas. Vilar writes about trauma as a personal, familial, and cultural occurrence. Her book, Impossible Motherhood, is difficult and necessary because it describes her painful experience with abortion in a broad context and does so without political agenda.

Luis J. Rodriguez also spoke about the necessity of art, especially for marginalized communities plagued by violence and poverty. Rodriguez grew up with gangs in East LA, and it was art that saved him. He painted, but it was books, ultimately, that helped him survive and make his life. He and his wife founded the Tia Chucha Bookstore in LA, and he works internationally to end violence and empower young people through art and creativity. During his talk, Rodriguez drew attention to the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the US.

I believe the (in)justice system is the most important issue this country faces, and in a hundred years people will look back on this time in US history with incredulity that it went so long ignored. I’ve written two short pieces focused on this topic: Prison Cell and Walk Like a Man, and I continue to find ways to keep awareness of those imprisoned in my work. After his talk, I asked Rodriguez what he saw in the future for the prison industrial complex.

He agreed about the urgency of the prison issue and lamented that no one, neither Democrat nor Republican, is willing to talk about it. He alluded to Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Rodriquez went on to suggest specifics, such as reducing sentences and offering rehabilitation to those convicted of crimes. Two or three years is all most prisoners would need to serve (with rehabilitation), and the mentally ill should not be housed in prisons. Art—creating beauty—is the antidote. We could put an end to prisons altogether, ? he said. No prisons and no crime either. ? As strange and impossible as that may sound, it’s realistic considering that no other country in the world has an incarceration rate near that of the United States. The goal isn’t to become utopian; the goal is to become civilized.

Tim Z. Hernandez offered some closing remarks, sharing a personal anecdote about teaching poetry at a local high school. Hernandez is the director of the Writers-in-the-Schools program I wrote about last month and the author of several books, including Skin Tax. The impetus for the poems in Skin Tax was Hernandez’s desire to give voice to the young men in his community. He continues to write and teach out of the same desire.

I’ve focused on the writers from last night, because that’s my thing, but there was also music and food and families galore. Innisfree had a table with books, and another table sold bilingual picture books for children. As a prelude to the Americas Latinos Festival 2013, the event last night manifested what each of the writers spoke to: the salutary quality of uniting art and community.

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