Poetry as Activism
Raul Salinas' Passion for Literature and Life
At the time of this reading, Salinas has just returned from Chiapas, Mexico, doing field work for one of his most cherished political causes. A few nights hence, Salinas will host a reading and discussion by Cuban-American lesbian writer Achy Obejas at his Resistancia Bookstore in South Austin, which functions as a tour destination for writers and poets of color, the home of one of the city's best collections of poetry and post-colonial writings, and a de facto headquarters for Austinites who champion a broad spectrum of leftist political concerns. The bookstore is not much larger than this tiny section of the Barnes & Noble where Salinas is to perform.
The Barnes & Noble reading, which had the potential to be an awkward collision of two different worlds, instead became another example of how Salinas brings camps together through an honest warmth, boundless energy, and a willingness to reach out to others. Throughout his life, the 62-year-old Chicano/Native American (he prefers the term "Xicanindio") has found ways to integrate his myriad social and political passions with the written and spoken word.
"When I first met Raul, he intimidated me," said Louis Mendoza, an assistant professor at University of Texas-San Antonio and the editor of Salinas' latest poetry book, East of the Freeway. "He seemed like he had a lot of anger and despair in him. I think this assessment was accurate, but incomplete. After spending a few hours with him, what I saw as he let his guard down a bit was his passion for literature and life -- and as they intersected in his politics I began to understand his suffering, his moods as they related to his desires for a better world."
According to Salinas' assistant Jennifer Parzer, his main involvements are with the campaigns to free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, prisoners who many observers believe to be in jail for political reasons; the International Indian Treaty Council, which is committed to Native American rights; the Comité en Solidaridad en Chiapas en Mexico, a local effort committed to the Zapatistas' struggles with the Mexican government; and Coordinadora '96, a national civil rights coalition which formed in response to anti-Latino measures like California's Proposition 187. The latter group organized the October march on the Capitol Mall, which, according to local human rights activist Paul Hernandez, involved over 100,000 participants unified behind demands for institutional changes ranging from workers' health concerns to INS reform to a livable minimum wage.
But there's another important component to Salinas' activism that's more solitary and introspective. Educators like UT-Austin assistant instructors David Alvarez and Sheila Contreras see Salinas' poetry as not only crucial in Chicano and Native American literature, but as crucial to his activism.
"Chicano and Chicana literature in Austin, and in Texas, is very much a living literature," Contreras said. "His work is real, it always has been, and his poetry works as a kind of activism. From his writings in prison to his more recent work, he's always been concerned with the individual's relationship to the community and the stark realities he's experienced as a member of the community: environmental racism, segregation, and even the city's civil engineering policies."
"When I've brought him to my classes, it's always struck me how he's always ended on a note of hope and resilience," Alvarez said. "He can be critical of the university, of U.S. society, of the widening gap between the Mexican-American middle and working classes, but he always ends on a resilient note. He has an incredible rapport with students."
Although Salinas has managed a continued local presence in recent years, he's been cementing his national reputation over much of the past year through a heavy touring schedule. Much of his current tour, which he returned from in early December, was to support Freeway, yet recent travels also included a month-long writing retreat in Montana, the result of receiving a Windcall Award (a residency granted to writers devoted to social justice work), and participation in the Coordinadora march.
Some longtime friends of Salinas, such as Hernandez, maintain that Salinas is not as respected in Austin as he is in other cities. "He's struggled and given up just about everything so he could educate people," he said. "He shares. He's not afraid to share, even though it's often left him empty, without monetary resources, basically in poverty. The bookstore could potentially be a source of income for him, but he's got to worry about that, too. He should be getting a lot more support than he's getting."
The publication last March of Freeway was the culmination of literal years of work and stress, a process which Salinas says took a toll on his personal health and well-being, who also turned 63. "There was a need for another publication," Salinas said. "It's been ten years since I arrived back in Austin." The book was a grass-roots, do-it-yourself project every step of the way, published by Salinas' in-house Red Salmon Press -- which gave him much control but created constant fundraising concerns.
"The book was held hostage for a couple of months at the end," Salinas said. "The guy who was printing it got into a rut, and although those things happen with small operations, it was really scary to wait for it. But it's out now, and it feels good." He smiled, and added, "It's walking the streets again."
The image is a very apt metaphor for Freeway, for the poems in the book are connected by the themes of returning home, walking freely, and observing the features that make a hometown a home. Although Freeway contains a number of celebratory nods to his hometown and heritage, it's not a complete departure from the incisive and reformist drive of his previous work. "A lot of the book deals with the devastation of that landscape and humanscape," Salinas said. "Now, having returned to Austin in this book, there's still all these experiences and politics that reflect my life. I'm still making allusions to a lot of national and international struggles within these poems."
Still, the book neatly reflects the transition Salinas made from prisoner to freed man. His 1980 collection A Trip Through The Mind Jail, which is currently being negotiated for re-release through the University of Houston-based Arte Publico Press, solidified his reputation as a politically important poet. Much of the work in that volume comes out of the futility and frustration of being both literally and existentially imprisoned by the American system, and even the most Beat-inspired, free-flowing pieces in the book feel tense and caged-in.
When Salinas began writing the backbone poems of Trip in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he was an inmate in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary serving a sentence for drug charges. He reflected, "That's when the writer in me really developed. I began to look at my writing more seriously -- it was an incredible political and poetic incubator. I was living and interacting with political and literate minds, and the prisoners there, as well as the social unrest of those times, helped shape my politics. I think that's how one maintains one's sanity in a situation like that." In Leavenworth, Salinas quickly made the transition from observer to leader, as one of the guiding forces behind Leavenworth's Aztlan prison newspaper, and was eventually transferred to the Marion Federal Penitentiary in the early Seventies -- which Salinas notes was "the Alcatraz of its day" -- for organizing prisoners in protests and strikes.
"Whereas I don't subscribe or recommend prison, had I not gone there I wouldn't have been the man I am today," he added. "Or maybe, had I not gone to those particular prisons at those particular times, for now it's reverted back to prisoner vs. prisoner now. At the time I went, it was definitely prisoner vs. system -- they were the declared enemy."
One of Freeway's notable departures from Salinas' earlier works is that it places him in a variety of experiences, and a number of different emotional reactions, ranging from joy to indignant anger. It also works more to develop what Salinas calls "poetic gymnastics": splicing words, creating compound words, even using concrete poetic techniques (where the words form a physical shape on the page to underscore their meaning) -- essentially taking Beat inspiration and the Spanish-English code-switching of Texan Chicanos to a higher, perhaps more poetic degree. When Salinas returned from his trip several months ago, his doctors counseled him to stay in Austin for a while. Instead of resting, however, Salinas met his fears of acting and the theater head on by accepting Rodney Garza's invitation to perform in Ruperto Reyes, Jr.'s Petra's Pecado at East Austin's Santa Cruz Center for Culture. The comedy, about a woman who stages a play about the Virgin of Guadalupe, featured Salinas as a cantankerous old man haunted by his son's death in Vietnam.
Although Salinas sees the foray into acting as "another notch on the artistic gunbelt," he feels that the experience will translate to his other work even if he never acts again. "It was a different connection to the audience, one that definitely made me more conscious of them. It showed me how to make a statement collectively, and it taught me a lot about body language, facial communication -- things other than the verbal. In poetry, even in my political work, it's all about communicating with people. I saw how it worked in acting; now I can see how it can apply in other areas."
Although the wider range of observation seems to mark a new era for Salinas, Louis Mendoza sees threads connecting the poet's past and present work to an even greater and more resilient foundation. "I think while anyone could pick up his work and find it provocative or interesting or pleasurable or complex, that unless they have some sense of how Raul sees himself in the world and his personal history, one could easily overlook the historical depth of his work and its effort to engage history."
"Raul tries so very hard to make many things happen at once in his work," he added. "He wants to be serious and he wants his work to be taken seriously because of the subject matter -- because he wants it to matter, to be meaningful that he writes. But he loves to play as well, and after all is said and done, Raul is just one man doing as best he can. There is pride bordering on arrogance in his work, as well as virility and fear of impotence. He constantly struggles to learn even as he acts as teacher. He's trying to figure out how best to love and be happy when he's witnessed so much anger and hatred."