Last November, in an editorial for the Santa Cruz Sentinel titled “Why All Californians Are Mexican,” Stephen Kessler discusses the impracticality of closing off the Mexican-American boarder, and describes in brief the history of California: it’s annexation from Mexico in 1848, the spread of Catholic missions a century before, and the present-day multicultural state where half the population speaks Spanish. An accomplished poet, translator, and journalist, Kessler cites the famous Chicano slogan of the 1970s, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” and notes that this refrain “precisely describes how, virtually overnight, Mexico was cut in half and California’s politics and demographics shifted from Latino toward Anglo-American.”
Despite this seismic shift, the influence of Mexican culture has continued to influence everything in California from architecture to music, cuisine, and literature. This cultural matrix is what Kessler emphasizes when he writes, “California remains as Mexican as it is American. […] every Californian, wherever they originated and however recently they arrived, is at least part Mexican by virtue of the history we continue to live on this profoundly Hispanic land.”
Kessler’s position is not shared by everyone in California, but it speaks to my own experience of growing up in Santa Cruz, a relatively small beach town that was the site of one of the early California Missions before it became a surf town, then a college town in 1965 with the expansion of the UC school system, and has long been an agricultural center for produce such as Brussels sprouts, artichokes, strawberries, and grapes. Though I studied Spanish in high school, most of what I’ve retained of the language came from Latino kids on my soccer team who would joke and shout insults at each other during practices, and in the kitchen of the bakery and restaurant where I worked when I was in high school.
Today, my Spanish is pretty rusty, but I still occasionally order my food in Spanish at taquerias, and chat with a gringo accent with the Hispanic cellar and field hands at the winery where I now work. There are certainly some people today who agree with Kessler and me that to some extent “All Californians Are Mexican,” a position that has its roots in the political movements of the 60s and 70s. Those times saw the formation of the United Farm Workers of America by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta; President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law; the Berkeley riots of the 1960s influenced the national counterculture movement of the time; and in Fresno, California, amidst an environment fraught with racial and cultural antipathies, and the air of revolution, poets Philip Levine and Peter Everwine were helping to create a climate ripe for poetry. They gathered around them young writers who saw poetry as a life force, and who would establish the foundation of what would become recognized as the Fresno School of Poetry.
Among the many students whose talent the late Levine helped to cultivate was the young Luis Omar Salinas. A politically charged youth, Salinas would soon become a voice for the Chicano movement with the publication of his first book Crazy Gypsy in 1970. In his most anthologized poem from the collection, “Aztec Angel,” the reader encounters a socio-cultural critique of a compassionless society. The poem is in five sections, and in the third section Salinas writes:
I am the Aztec angel
of an orthodox
where pachuco children
through poetry rooms
and end up in a cop car
their bones itching
and their hearts
busted from malnutrition
The speaker in the poem criticizes society through observation and astute awareness rather than overt condemnation. Salinas interweaves personal narrative with inventive imagery to achieve a sense of alienation and frustration with a culture that he is at once a part of and yet is also separate from. Despite the success of his first book, it would be ten years before the publication of his next book, Afternoon of the Unreal. Between these publications Salinas struggled with depression while continually improving his craft.
As a Chicano, Salinas straddled two words, and this duality found its way into his poetry, drawing inspiration as much from Hispanic and Spanish writers such as Vallejo, Neruda, Hernández and Jiménez, as he did from the English Romantics such as Byron, Shelly and Keats. Though inspired by two vastly different poetic traditions, Salinas never lost his own voice in imitation; rather, he internalized both—the mystical, metaphysical, and surreal imagery of the poets writing in his native tongue, and the pensive, philosophical, and lyrical nature of the Romantics—and as his style matured, he became something of a combination, a self-proclaimed Latino English Romantic.
In the newly published Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems and Reader, edited by the author’s friends, one-time housemates, and fellow poets Christopher Buckley and John Veinberg, we get a rare glimpse into the evolution of Salinas’s work over thirty-five years. The poems are thoughtfully selected, and represent Salinas not only at his very best, but at his most honest and profound as well. Included in the edition are interviews with Salinas in addition to essays about Salinas by other writers—friends and colleagues—that add an extra dimension to Salinas’s work, and a depth to the reader’s understanding about Salinas the man as well as Salinas the poet.
To date, of Salinas’s eight books of poetry only his last, Elegy for Desire, still remains in print. The scarcity of his work makes this new reader all the more important, not just to those interested in Chicano literary and cultural scholarship, but to the entire contemporary poetry community. This collection of Salinas’s work not only serves to preserve his poetry, but also extends it to a new readership, who will undoubtedly benefit from his visionary verse that is at once profound, humble, and courageous.
Dripping with creative energy as a young man, Salinas literally had poems falling out of his pockets. Jotted down on bits of paper at a café or park during his days at Fresno State, he was known early on for his imaginative use of metaphor, and the ease with which he could free associate. After his more political first book, Salinas turned ever more inward, writing about his own life and dreams but at the same time touching on universal themes ranging from solitude and loneliness in the world, to the joy and beauty that appears if one is only willing to look for it. His poems urge the reader to stay positive and maintain hope despite the loneliness and disappointments in life that often seem to be unbearable burdens.
Frequently at emotional odds with the world, Salinas finds a way to learn through his poetry, and to use it as a tool for survival. Poetry sustains him, and allows him to move through despair, and beyond it, entering a realm of praise, gratitude, and acceptance. In the title poem of his 1987 collection The Sadness of Days: Selected and New Poems, Salinas begins:
I’ve been sad for days.
Not with the sadness of being born,
or the sadness of a torn romance.
But with the sadness of a poor man smiling.
Honestly, I would like to feel compassion
for those without luck.
I would like to touch their suffering
and say that I understand.
These days in November are obscure,
almost silver, and given to the heavens.
Honestly I want to find myself,
to sit under a tree with its dusty fruit
of salvation. I will take my place,
listen up, and have faith in all things.
The speaker hopes to find relief from a melancholia that has almost destroyed his sense of self. There is a tense shift in the final lines, and it’s with the declaration “I will” that we witness the speaker overcoming his sadness, for as the poem ends, the reader realizes that the speaker of the poem has indeed ‘taken his place’, has ‘listened up’, and that the poem itself is a declaration of ‘faith in all things’.
A man haunted by the early death of his mother, infatuated with the sea, tormented by bouts of manic depression, and in love with language and with ladies, Salinas proclaims in his final book Elegy for Desire, “I […] love life with an awkward loneliness.” (p. 129). Though perhaps his loneliness appears awkward to himself, it is a loneliness we all share, the crippling solitude of an individual existence. Filled with a sobering honesty about the duality of a contemplative life, of the pleasure and the solitude he struggled to reconcile, Salinas allows us to glimpse the world through his eyes. In his poem “Dreaming under the Clouds” from his last book, Salinas writes, “life comes like the swift rain, / and is gone…amid the storm, life’s bliss / and brooding buoyancy begin.” (p. 125).
His body of work speaks to the struggle of Chicanos, of the working class, but even more to the struggles of any life, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status. As Donald Wolff notes in his review of Sometimes Mysteriously, “Salinas occupies a liminal world, between Anglo and Mexican culture, but also somewhere between our daily awareness and something deeper that disturbs the surface of the mundane.” He is at once a Chicano poet, but also an American poet, a voice for all those who have felt lost in their own lives. This, I think, is why his work is still so important to so many readers: though his shared experiences are not universal, his reactions to them are, and he helps readers to discover a love of life regardless of the tumult it inevitably plunges us into. Salinas is a poet who writes for all of us buffeted by life’s tormenting storm.