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Francisco Alarcon, Whose Poetry Explored Chicano Life In The U.S., Dies


We're going to remember a poet now - a man who melded activism and art - Francisco Alarcon was a Mexican-American writer who used simple language to explore the complexities of Chicano life in the U.S. He died last week at the age of 61. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team has this appreciation.


FRANCISCO ALARCON: (Speaking Spanish).

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Early this month, a crowd packed into the Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco's Mission District to hear Francisco Alarcon read. Alarcon was a portly man with a long, black ponytail and a wide-open smile, even in sickness. The audience spilled onto the sidewalk with people craning their necks to hear him.

ALARCON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Alarcon was more than a poet. He was an activist. In April of 2010, nine demonstrators protested outside the Arizona State Capitol over the passage of S.B. 1070, the state's controversial law targeting immigrants.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a nonviolent civil disobedience, but today...

FLORIDO: When Francisco Alarcon heard about this, he wrote a poem for the demonstrators.


ALARCON: (Reading) You chained yourselves to the doors of the state capital so the terror would not leak out to our streets.

JUAN FELIPE HERRERA: Francisco was the - kind of the energizer of the literary Chicano-Chicano community.

FLORIDO: This is U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. He and Alarcon met at Stanford in the '70s and, through the decades, worked on many literary projects together.

HERRERA: He was always working. He was always ready to go, to travel, to get in a bus, a plane or visit a school or create a project on the spot.

FLORIDO: Herrera says this passion for interacting with people and their struggles through his poetry is what made Alarcon such a beloved figure among Chicano writers and activists. It also helped that his poetry was accessible. It was written in deceptively simple two-line stanzas with just a few words to a line. In this poem, read by Herrera, Alarcon conveys the tragedy of a migrant border crossing.


HERRERA: (Reading) Your home's nowhere. Mountains will speak for you. Rain will flesh your bones. Green again, among ashes after a long fire started in a fantasy island some time ago, turning natives into aliens.

FLORIDO: Speaking to PBS a few years ago, Alarcon explained his style this way.


ALARCON: A poem, by nature, is incomplete, and it has - it has to be completed by the reader and the listener. And so the poet is only providing the - like a - like a - like a Japanese landscape - few strokes, and the reader has to complete landscape.

FLORIDO: Francisco Aragon directs the Letras Latinas literary project at Notre Dame. He was also a friend and translated several of Alarcon's books. He says that Alarcon's body of work was remarkable for a couple of reasons.

FRANCISCO ARAGON: Among Chicano poets, he's among a handful who, in addition to being excellent practitioners of their art, also managed, through their art, to give a rich portrait of the contemporary Chicano movement.

FLORIDO: Alarcon was born in Los Angeles in 1954, but moved to Mexico as a child before returning to the U.S. when he was 18. His poetry reflected this binational and bicultural upbringing. He wrote in English, Spanish and sometimes in the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. He said he was grateful for the doors that were opened by his fluency.


ALARCON: Imagine, you know, if I did not have access to the memories of my grandma or to my grandfather. If I could not talk to my uncles in Spanish, I would be very poor as a person.

FLORIDO: Instead, he used his facility in languages to expand the scope of Chicano poetry. In the '80s, he cofounded the nation's first gay Chicano poets collective. He published a collection of poems influenced by Aztec incantations, and he wrote bilingual children's books and read to elementary students. Francisco Alarcon was diagnosed with cancer in December. After he died on Friday, scores of Latino writers posted tributes online, and many of them were calling him el poeta del pueblo - the people's poet. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.