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Latino Poets in Milwaukee Share Life Stories and Passions

To mark May Day, the start of May when advocates for immigrant rights rally across the country, we explore the lives and work of several local Latino poets. The breadth of their work has been growing, right along with the population.

Latinos now make up the largest minority group in Wisconsin – at 350,000 strong, but Oscar Mireles knows, it wasn’t always this way.

“I did a lot of traveling when I was in my 20s, and first question when people found out I was Chicano and I was from Wisconsin they go “I didn’t know there were Chicanos or Latinos in Wisconsin,” Mireles says.

The response gave Mireles the idea for a book: an anthology. He titled it: I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin. Mireles published the first edition in 1989; today, a fourth is in the works. While Mexican-Americans and Chicanos make up the majority of the Latino population here, the poets’ families come from all over Latin America.

"The anthology has 40 different writers and the main point is we don’t all agree and we don’t all look at things the same way, but there’s enough perspective where you can get a good sense that things like culture and family and parents and a sense of belonging, a sense of longing for where they came from, a sense of history," Mireles says.

Mireles traces his passion for people’s stories back to growing up, in Racine.

"I think Racine back in the 1960s and 70s was a very special place. It had diversity-so I grew up with African American, Latino and white friends. I think there was a lot of hope and potential-it was the 60s. And I just thought that this was the time to be alive. There was the civil rights struggle there was the war in Vietnam. This was a period of change," Mireles says.

Mireles has helped cultivate the Latino arts community in Milwaukee, including the Latino Arts Center on South 9th street. But, at heart, he is a poet. What is his favorite line?

"I have a poem called “Elvis Presley was a Chicano,” and I think my favorite line is: “If Elvis really was a Chicano, he wouldn’t have settled to die alone, in an empty mansion, with no family around, no familia around, who cared enough to cry,” Mireles says.

As far back as she could remember, Brenda Cardenas was constantly writing. Her brothers would often tease her for it. So, she would hide.

"I remember sitting in the closet on my mother’s shoes with a flashlight writing furiously on this notebook," Cardenas says.

Cardenas was born and raised in Milwaukee, and is now an English professor at UWM and coordinator of its Creative Writing Program. She recognizes that living here has influenced her poetry.

Poet Brenda Cardenas

"I lived in Chicago for nine years, and one thing I noticed when I came back to Wisconsin is that my poems became less urban. Even though Milwaukee is definitely an urban city, there’s more breathing room in Milwaukee. All of a sudden I found my poems having a lot more nature images in them," Cardenas says.

Although she has written poems in both English and Spanish,  Cardenas says her poetry is characterized by what she calls code-switching - switching back and forth between the two languages.

"As a reader, in order to understand the nuances of the poem, you have to be bilingual. You can read them, I think, without being bilingual, and I think you can still get a lot of the poem, but you’re not going to get all the layers," Cardenas says.

Cardenas read poetry from her book, Boomerang, at a writers’ series in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Her poem “Cornflowers” uses imagery from indigenous American mythologies. Corn, or maiz, symbolizes identity and holds spiritual significance.

"Pressing nose to pillowcase, I search for masa, reach back before molcajete and plow to a dusky meadow, its bed of soil flecked with teosinte, ancestor grasses. Up through the dark follicles of my skull covered in sun-cracked husks, push the black-brown silk strands, cocooning thirsty kernels. Maíz sprouts into fields of thought bearing hybrid rows of words that fall like teeth from the mouths of the dead," Cardenas read.

While Cardenas may use particular themes and style, she says they are not the norm for every Latino writer.

"I could never speak for every Latino poet; there are so many Latino poets doing so many different things. Because we don’t want to box what it means to be Latino. Why shouldn’t a Latino poet be able to write a poem about the lake; the lake they saw, the water shimmering on the lake just like anybody else? That poem about the lake is being filtered through the Latino consciousness, and mind, and body, so it might become a very different poem than the poem written by the European American guy. But whether or not that poem will be marked by what we tend to think as Latino-ness, which often can become stereotype, that’s another question," Cardenas says.

The poetry of Daisy Cubias has been evolving ever since she was born and raised in El Salvador. She says it’s a part of the world that bubbles with poetry.

“We say in Latin America, we don’t use psychologists or psychiatrists. We believe in poetry, so we write. Our feelings, our pain, our happiness or whatever it is, we write it down,” Cubias says.

Cubias says she started writing when she was a young girl – about things that troubled her.

"I started in my country because I saw the big difference between the rich people and the poor people; how the poor people were treat(ed). My question was why this rich man come with his tractors and flatten the little huts of the people who live on his land without even telling them. My grandfather used to tell me “be quiet, don’t ask too many questions. It’s very dangerous, and that’s where I learned, instead of asking questions I write," Cubias says.

Cubias ended up working for the Salvadoran government. In the 1970s, she won the chance to visit New York, to learn English. But her life changed, when a fellow student asked her about a massacre that occurred in El Salvador, decades earlier. She had to learn part of her country’s history from a stranger.

"I say 'what are you talking about?' The massacre in El Salvador! They kill 35,000 Indian. He took me by the hand and took me to the library, and I started reading, and I became shocked and crying and sad and frustrated. Even remembering now makes me cry. I say 'this is the government I work for? These are the people ruining the country?' From that day, I decided I'm never going back."

Even if she wanted to go back, Cubias was placed on a death list, making it impossible for her to go safely.

In 1979, Civil War broke out in El Salvador, a war that would last more than 12 years. It was during this time, that most of Cubias’ family was killed. They had wanted to join her in the US and spoke publicly against treatment of the poor. The loss permeated her poetry. Cubias says writing was a way of taking action.

"My poetry from the 80s was all about the war. All about the horrible things they did to people. How my family was killed, my brother, my sister, my stepfather, my brother-in law kidnapped, murdered and tortured by the government," Cubias says.

Cubias says she made El Salvador’s story known wherever she could. She believed she could not sit idly by while people were dying.

"Because I’m not a person who cry-oh! pobre cita-no. I write. And I speak and I do and go and I went," Cubias says.

She managed to bring surviving relatives to the U.S., including her nephews.

These days, Cubias writes a lot about her experiences as an immigrant to the United States. She believes people often misunderstand other’s reasons for coming here.

"We choose to be here to better ourselves and our families. That’s all we want. We didn’t come here to steal jobs, or to rob, or to anything: just to be better human beings. And that’s what I write about," Cubias says.

Cubias hopes her poetry helps dissolve fear and prejudice.

She has also been injecting her bright spirit and sense of humor. In fact, one of her most well-known works is “Why Women Wear High Heels.” You’ll find the poem on a wall at the Wisconsin Convention Center in downtown Milwaukee. Cubias theorizes who invented high heeled shoes for women.

"It was a man who hated his wife, his mother, and his sister because they were mean to him when he was growing up," Cubias says.

She usually ends the reading, by kicking off her shoes.

Despite tragedy and hardship, she says she never worries.

"Life is too short," Cubias says.