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Poetry & Keynote Address by Rafael Jesús González

Poetry & Essay by Rafael Jesús González

Cinco de Mayo, Keynote Address, College of Alameda, Alameda, CA., 2010

by Rafael Jesús González

Buenos días, damas y caballeros. Mi preferencia sería dirigirles la palabra en español, pero les hablaré en inglés ya es que esa es la lengua franca de donde vivimos.


A Una Anciana

Venga, madre —

su rebozo arrastra telaraña negra

y sus enaguas le enredan los tobillos;

apoya el peso de sus años

en trémulo bastón y sus manos temblorosas

empujan sobre el mostrador centavos sudados.

¿Aún todavía ve, viejecita,

la jara de su aguja arrastrando colores?

Las flores que borda

con hilazas de a tres-por-diez

no se marchitan tan pronto como las hojas del tiempo.

¿Qué cosas recuerda?

Su boca parece constantemente saborear

los restos de años rellenos de miel.

¿Dónde están los hijos que parió?

¿Hablan ahora solamente inglés

y dicen que son hispanos?

Sé que un día no vendrá

a pedirme que le que escoja

los matices que ya no puede ver.

Sé que esperaré en vano

su bendición desdentada.

Miraré hacia la calle polvorienta

refrescada por alas de paloma

hasta que un chiquillo mugroso me jale de la manga

y me pregunte:

— Señor, how much is this? —

© Rafael Jesús González 2010



To an Old Woman

Come, mother —

your rebozo trails a black web

and your hem catches on your heels,

you lean the burden of your years

on shaky cane, and palsied hand pushes

sweat-grimed pennies on the counter.

Can you still see, old woman,

the darting color-trailed needle of your trade?

The flowers you embroider

with three-for-a-dime threads

cannot fade as quickly as the leaves of time.

What things do you remember?

Your mouth seems to be forever tasting

the residue of nectar hearted years.

Where are the sons you bore?

Do they speak only English now

and say they’re Spanish?

One day I know you will not come

and ask for me to pick

the colors you can no longer see.

I know I’ll wait in vain

for your toothless benediction.

I’ll look into the dusty street

made cool by pigeons’ wings

until a dirty child will nudge me and say:

“Señor, how mach ees thees?”

© Rafael Jesús González 2010


(first published in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXXI no. 4, 1962; author’s copyrights.)

(reprinted in, among other anthologies, When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple; Sandra Martz, Ed.; Papier-Mache Press, Watsonville, Ca.; 1996; author’s copyrights.)

The historical origins of Cinco de mayo was the decisive battle of Puebla in 1862 when the Mexican army defeated the French army of Maximilian of Austria brought to rule Mexico as Emperor by the conservatives. But in the United States, the holiday has acquired a greater significance as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. On this day one often hears references to “La raza” (meaning “the race”) referring to “La raza de bronce” (“the race of bronze) a phrase coined by the Mexican poet Amado Nervo in the 19th century to denote a new race combining the bloodlines of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Europeans, the race of the mestizo, though in reality, the people of Mexico have three major roots: the indigenous of the original peoples, the European of the conquistadores and colonists, and the African of the slaves brought to the Americas by force. And in time also the Asian who came to Mexico as workers and merchants so that mestizaje has acquired a wider definition. La raza is a race of many roots and what unifies us is the Spanish language. (In fact, a “Día de la raza”, Day of the Race, is celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world on October 12.)

But our Mexican heritage and pride is not only racial, but cultural. History has made Spanish our common language and what we bear is a bundle of traditions in the form of our poetry, our music, our dance, our cuisine, our art which trace back to long before the coming of the Europeans and then incorporating the European and African and Asian threads to form a fabric, like our famous sarapes, full of color and life.

Anthropologists maintain that Meso-America, the greater part of what we now call Mexico was populated more than 20,000 years ago by people who had, they tell us, much, much before then come to these continents of the Americas from Asia crossing the land-bridge of what are now the Bering Straits near the North Pole. It was in the area of the Maya in southern Mexico-Northern Guatemala that about 9,000 years ago, corn was domesticated, developed, cultivated giving rise to civilizations astounding in their intellectual and artistic splendor. First among these was the Olmec, about 1500 years BC, mother culture of the rest, of which wonderfully delicate jade carvings and immense heads of stone have survived bearing African characteristics giving rise to suspicions that perhaps the native peoples also came originally from Africa. After them, Teotihuacan, the greatest city of all, reached its height in about 500 BC and was home to about as many as 250,000 people. So astounding were its accomplishments that the word Toltec (the name of its people) became synonymous with artist. To the south, the Mayan cities dated from 1800 BC and reached their greatest splendor about 250–900 AD. The Maya’s knowledge of the heavens and the accuracy in their reckoning of time is legendary; they invented the concept of zero nine centuries before Vedic India and their count of time goes back to August 11, 3114 BC and December 21, 2012 is the first day of their 14th b’ak’tun or “age” “yuga” of about 395 years. (A concept that many in the modern age see with dread as a modern dooms day.) Their writing is still being deciphered and their cities and art dazzle the imagination. Of the many other civilizations, I have not the time to touch upon. When the Mexica, from whom our name comes, arrived in the Valley of Anahuac from the north in our 13th century, Teotihuacan was already in ruins and a legend. The sign of their arrival was an eagle devouring a serpent, symbol that to this day adorns the Mexican flag. Of the accomplishments of the Aztec empire in literature and art I need not speak for they are world known. It is true that war marred these civilizations as it does ours and that they practiced human sacrifice (though modern anthropology finds no evidence that it was as extensive as the Spanish conquerors claimed.)

It was this mighty Mexica (Aztec) empire that the Spaniards conquered in 1521. From this conquest we inherit Spanish, our national language which they imposed upon what became Mexico along with their Christian belief in a single god born upon the Earth of a virgin Mother. With them, they brought the knowledge they had inherited from the Arabic kingdoms of Andalucía which they had conquered twenty-nine years earlier, the same year they stumbled upon what was to be known as America, to them a new world. The Spaniards brought with them the knowledge of the Renaissance which the Arabic Moors had brought to a Medieval Europe. What they brought in the form of religious belief and art combined with indigenous traditions into a new hybrid culture and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tonántzin, inspires us still. The Europeans were no less committed to war and their bloody persecution of Muslims, Jews, and heretics in Europe and their massacres of indigenous people equaled if not surpassed the wars and human sacrifice of the native peoples.

Yes, war and violence is part of our history as it is of these United States and all peoples. We humans have not yet evolved beyond violence.

The African presence in Mexico dates from the arrival of the Europeans who brought slaves with them in 1519 when they first stepped on its soil. And in 1609, runaway African slaves under the elder leader Gaspar Yanga founded the first free African township in the Americas after fighting off the Spaniards for many years. In 1810, two hundred years ago, when Mexico declared independence from Spain, slavery was abolished and the caste system outlawed. One of the founding fathers of the United States of Mexico (Mexico’s official name), José María Morelos y Pavón, was of Spanish and African or Spanish-Indigenous-African blood as was don Pío de Jesús Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. The African influence on Mexican art and music, though often unrecognized, is great.

From this amalgam of races, cultures, histories came the richness of our cuisine: the tortilla, the taco, the enchilada, the tamal, the salsa that enlivens the palate; the plethora of our songs: corridos, huapangos, zapateados, rancheras, el jarabe tapatio to name but a few. No culture is more permeated by art; we are a culture of artists and almost every region and village has its art-form peculiar to itself: the tiles of Puebla; the lacquers of Olinalá; the ceramics of Tonalá and Metepec, the black ceramics of Coyotepec; the sarapes of Saltillo; the blankets of Tlaxcala; the embroideries of Chiapas, Huetepec, Yucatán; the wood carvings of Oaxaca; the jewelry of Yalalag and of Taxco. The names of our painters are known throughout the world: Miguel Cabrera, Dr. Atatl, José Guadalupe Posada, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, David Álfaro Siqueiros among them. In music Juventino Rosas, Agustín Lara, Silvestre Revueltas. In literature, Nezhualcóyotl, Tecayehuatzin, Nezahualpilli, Juana Inés de la Cruz, Amado Nervo, Juan de Dios Peza, Rosario Castellanos. Mariano Azuela, Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and the list goes on and on and if not more indigenous names appear it is because Spanish names were imposed on us. This heritage is what makes us what we are and the great gifts we bring to wherever we may find ourselves. These we must never lose for losing these traditions we not only impoverish ourselves, but make the world much less rich. Learning English, we must never lose our Spanish; for every English course you take, take an equivalent course in Spanish. And if these are not offered in our schools, then demand that they be.

Within these United States our names, though often unrecognized, appear in every facet of society. In the fields of Normandy among the grave markers of those killed in World War II those bearing our names are countless. And on the dark granite wall of the Viet-Nam War Memorial, our names per capita far outnumber our population. Butin peace, too, our names fill the ranks of the work force, of commerce, of academia, of the arts, of all professions, of politics, and of those who struggled and struggle for justice and peace, César E. Chávez and Dolores Huerta among them.

And these will be filled out, added to, increase by what us still working and active in all fields and you of Mexican heritage who join us, who will follow us, adding and leaving your shining marks.

On this Cinco de mayo of the two-hundredth year of Mexico’s independence from Spain, the hundredth year of the Mexican Revolution, I wish I could spend the time allotted me in celebration of and to trace for you and explore the many gifts and joys that being Mexican we bear and of which we must be justly proud. But I need hardly remind us that we now find ourselves in an increasingly hostile environment in these United States which, though created by immigrants and never respectful of others’ borders, grow jealous of its borders and hateful toward immigrants.

I, then must talk of borders, and not without authority, for I was born on the Texas/Chihuahua border and now live straddling the border between Oakland and Berkeley. In passing, I remark that we now stand in land that was once Mexico (as were Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, California) before it was conquered, taken, stolen by the United States. But I will speak of what borders mean in this age of “Globalization.”

A catchy term “Globalization” defined by a popular source as describing “a process by which regional economies, societies, and cultures have become integrated through a globe-spanning network of communication and trade.” The beginnings of Globalization as such, I hold, has a very, very ancient past from when way before there was a memory which we call history our remote ancestors immigrated through necessity or force from their place of origin in mother Africa to populate the Earth. We are all, in a word, descendents of immigrants from Africa. But “globalization” as it is most often used in its modern context refers to the imposition of unbridled capitalism by transnational corporations upon the economies of the entire world. In the modern world of globalization, borders are made permeable to commerce where goods are allowed to cross freely, as are the factories which make those goods — but not so the people. The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been disastrous for Mexico. Supporters of the globalization of capitalism are fond of citing figures to prove the benefits of “Free Trade” agreements to the countries under such treaties. What they neglect to mention is that the increase wealth is more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer and the vast majority of the people grow more poor. This is so in the U. S. as well as in the rest of the world. These “Free Trade” treaties are made by the rich to benefit the rich, and no more so than in the American continents where colonization has never come to an end. According to a survey of the Economic Policy Institute, since NAFTA was implemented what we see are “a continent-wide pattern of stagnant worker incomes, lost job opportunities, increased insecurity, and rising inequality.”

U.S. factories move to Mexico to exploit cheap labor (leaving their own U.S. workers without work) where they support anti-union policies and are more free to pollute the environment. The Monsanto corporation is free to take its genetically-modified corn into Mexico where corn was born, and then sue the poor farmers when its Frankenstein Corn pollinates and pollutes their milpas (corn-fields.) Pollen knows no border. Nor does wealth; Mexico, one of the poorest countries in the world, is home to the wealthiest persons in the world. I need not tell you how wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few in the U.S.

I have seen the effects of NAFTA in my birthplace on the border. The foreign maquiladoras (assembly plants) came to exploit cheap labor, weak unions, and weak environmental protection laws. The promise of work brought great numbers of people from the interior of Mexico, many poor farmers who could not compete with Monsanto corn, into Cd. Juárez which did not have the infrastructure to deal with the sudden influx of people for whom there was no work. The problem of poverty increased. And on the heels of poverty comes crime.

Now Cd. Juárez is the deadliest city in the Americas if not in the world, held hostage in a war between the government (of fascist tendencies as that of the second Bush government and as questionably elected) and the drug cartels. The outcome of another failed policy of the U.S., its so-called “war on drugs” used as a tool of the CIA and a pretext to intervene in others’ countries such as Colombia and, of course, Mexico. The Mérida Accord of the last Bush administration with the Calderón government is nothing short than an agreement to place Mexico in the hands of the U.S. The solution? Let us start by legalizing marihuana (much less harmful than alcohol or tobacco); it can be grown much more easily and sold much more cheaply by our own U.S. growers to be controlled and taxed to support our schools, our health care, our libraries, fire departments, police departments. What keeps the traffic in drugs so profitable for the criminals is that it is illegal. You would think that we would have learned from the failed policy of the prohibition of alcohol in the last century. Outlaw wine (or cannabis) and you put it in the hands of the criminals, not of the law.

So what are the poor to do? As they have always done, go to where the wealth is, the U.S., to the lands that were once Mexico and now hold Mexico in thrall, to which we come bearing our gifts of culture and our labor. And we are met by hate, by lies, by violence. On radio and television such as Fox and others, racist hate mongers calling themselves Christian spew their lies and venom on the airways with impunity. And they are followed by folk with striking resemblance to the Nazis of the Germany of the 20’s who act against their own self-interest and good, hold so-called “Tea Parties” where they display their racism, their ignorance, their hate, their bigotry with arrogance and not a whit of shame. Hate crimes against us, beatings, murders, are increasing and the perpetrators of those crimes are let off easy as if it were no great thing. Egregious laws such as that recently passed by the state of Arizona based on raw prejudice, and ignorance, and fear are concocted not so much to protect the border but to persecute our people.

In truth, I do not believe in borders — I believe in free trade only when it is truly free and serves justice and peace and the health of the Earth. Unless we all work for and ensure justice and peace and the health of the Earth and everyone and everything upon it, borders are pernicious fictions that serve only the rich. I do not believe in predatory institutions such as corporations (nor the compromised courts of law that guarantee their powers.) I am not sure that I believe in nations — I am a U.S. citizen by birth, a Mexican by culture, and my ultimate allegiance is to humanity as a whole — my brothers and sisters, all our relations of the one holy Earth. The world has grown too small for anything less.

Because in the age of globalization borders are untenable and our interests intertwined, I have come to believe that contention is not so much between nations and peoples, but between modes of consciousness: between those concerned for justice and peace, informed by compassion, delighted by diversity and those who have little sense of justice and for whom peace is important only in the narrow confines of their ignorance, who are informed not by compassion but by fear and hatred, threatened by differences.

I tell you this as a Mexican, a Mexican-American if you will (a redundancy if there ever was one, for American is everyone and everything in this hemisphere from Alaska to Patagonia). What Mexican is are the many bloodlines that flow in my veins; my indigenous history which began eons before the coming of my European forebears, or African, or Asian but now includes them all. I am the poems, the songs my mother and my father sang to me; the food that has its origins in Mexico without which the food of the world would be less rich: corn, chocolate, tomato, avocado, vanilla to name but a few. I am its art, its images drawn from myths rooted in the most ancient indigenous past, the European, African, Asian, audacious in its color and forms. I am its language, Spanish, enriched by Arabic, Náhuatl, Maya Quiché, P’urhépecha, Tarahumara, Yaqui, Yoruba and innumerable other tongues.

Ustedes mexicanos, ustedes chicanos, you who share my Mexican roots, take pride and preserve your culture, your Spanish tongue, your past. Protect fiercely your heritage even and especially in the face of prejudice and the pressures to assimilate. Keep and protect your Spanish language and your Spanish names. (And if you are fortunate enough to have indigenous names and speak an indigenous tongue, never forget them.) Great are the gifts we bear. Let us hold our heads high, demand justice, work toward peace, enter fully into the political process that makes a democracy and with joy and compassion care for one another, and for everyone, create a better world and heal the abused Earth.

You who do not share in these Mexican roots, you of good will, we are your friends and comrades in making a better, kinder world. This that we are is what we bring to share with you, a rainbow thread made of many colored strands to include whole and unbroken in an ever evolving United States which must learn to respect a diverse world, to joyously weave its many threads into the fabric of a world culture in the making in an Earth to be revered above all else.


La Distancia

La distancia entre nos

es suelo sagrado

para atravesarse

con los pies desnudos

alzadas las manos

en danza jubilosa

para que una vez


las huellas de nuestro peregrinaje

brillen en la oscuridad

y alumbren nuestro encuentro

con luz brillante y fija.


The Distance

The distance between us

is holy ground

to be traversed

feet bare

hands raised

in joyous dance

so that once it is


the tracks of our pilgrimage

shine in the darkness

& light our coming together

in a bright & steady light.

© Rafael Jesús González, 2010

(RUNES — A Review of Poetry: Connection; CB Follett & Susan Terris, Eds.;Arctos Press, Sausalito, California, Winter 2007; author’s copyrights)

Que Tonántzin nos lleve en su bondad y nos conceda fuerza y felicidad en nuestra lucha por la justicia y la paz en celebración de la vida.

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