On 3-20-15, Berkeley High School (BHS) and Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) partnered to celebrate the life of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American labor leader who used non-violent methods to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers. Dolores Huerta, a political activist for the rights of migrants, women and youth, worked with Mr. Chavez to establish the National Farm Workers Association. Chavez had a very difficult early life, working as a migrant farm hand to support his family. He attended at least 30 different schools and never attended school beyond the 8th grade (1). Many of the 40 youth that attended the BHS/YSA event could directly relate to the struggles of trying to balance obligations of family versus academics. Professional slam poets, Natasha Huey and Gabriel Cortez, brought these stories out through a spoken word workshop exploring family, self-image, and the pursuits to do justice among family, community, and self.
In the BHS cafeteria, the group sat noisily chatting. Gabriel Cortez burst into poetry. “If you can hear me, clap once.” Some of the group clapped once. “If you can hear me, clap twice.” All of the group clapped twice. The room still, Gabriel’s voice echoed alone,
In the last eight years,
I learned to clap it I hear it,
Snap if I feel it.
When I was half my age, I learned to rap
Now I’m going back to recapture the spirit
“If you can hear me, clap once.” The group clapped. “If you can hear me, clap twice.” The claps in between lines took on a rhythm. His lines went on to express how poetry is a way to speak difficult truths:
Whether workshop, corner, classroom, or community garden, I believe
We plant seeds of resistance to sew our own sanctuary
“If you can hear me, clap once,” the room stood still; as if Gabriel’s voice had cast a spell over the crowd. The room clapped, each person became a part of Gabriel’s story, supporting it, voluntarily buying into it. He went on to talk about how people can only seeing a fraction of who he is: a descendent of many races, cultures, and mothers and fathers, names both known and unknown.
I am descendent of Diamond,
Descendant of Kane, (…)
I am mother’s broad lips-the better to speak
I am father’s wide thumbs-the better to hold onto my dreams
“If you can hear me, clap once. If you can hear me, clap three times,” responding to a different number of claps, symbolically, the clapping changed in meaning to define implicitly who was listening and understood what Gabriel was saying. This poem set the tone for poetry as a powerful form of self-expression and showed how spoken word can convey meaning and bring a group together.
Natasha and Gabriel tapped into the energy the poem created to get youth involved in a discussion of who Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were and why their work mattered. Few knew that Cesar Chavez used peaceful community organizing tactics to improve the life of farm workers such as not eating until violence against strikers ended or legislators voted to improve working conditions of migrant workers. Even less knew about the union work of Delores Huerta and her protests to challenge Anglo growers’ operations. She was vocal about including women in positions of leadership and battled ethnic stereotypes while trying to advocate for migrant workers’ rights (1).
Instead of focusing on the Advocates’ accomplishments, Natasha and Gabriel pushed the youth to ask how Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta became such strong people. For example, Dolores Huerta was arrested 22 times and beaten by police to the point where emergency surgery was necessary (1). Chavez called her fearless. Why do we become the people we are and how?
Jumping on a question to which they could all relate, the youth did a brainstorm about the people, environment, and contexts that had shaped what they value, their interests, and strengths or weaknesses. Gabriel gave an example by reading a poem that he had written:
My grandpa flashes a gold tooth when he smiles
Like, I dare you take something from between my lips
His tooth shines from the light of the TV screen
When my family watches Telemundo during dinner time (…)
Grandpa keeps at least two twelve-packs of soda in the fridge at all times
Sunny Delight, Tampico, Hi-C, a jug of Kool-Aid in the back
Dr. Pepper lines our refrigerator door like a vest of dynamite,
An arsenal of ways for us to self-destruct
It is how you learn to drink growing up
In a country where soda is cheaper than clean water
Where hunger is a canal carved deep into your belly
Where the only options for work are the docks and the ARMY
Because your country is as occupied by Coca-Cola as it is by the military (…)
The threat of diabetes is as common in our family
As hard work, obedience, and discipline
It is as common as Coca-Cola in our refrigerator
And we drink until the glass is empty
Cuz we ain’t never learned how to pull maize from the soil
But we did learn to pull the tab of a Coke can
Don’t it sound like the linchpin of a grenade?
Both explode under pressure
Ain’t we just time bombs then?
We march until they cut the legs out from under us
Ain’t we perfect soldiers.
The room erupted with applause at the story of how family, economics, and contexts had influenced Gabriel to start drinking soda as well as become passionate about spreading awareness of its link to diabetes. His narrative touched on a key issue of poverty and race. Marketing pushes soda into homes through its low cost. Families in poverty, and often of color, are directly affected, health-wise, by these grocery choices. Yet the lesson taken from Gabriel’s poem is: you have the ability to be like Chavez and Huerta. You have the experiential knowledge to change yourself and society for the better if you reflect on what matters, how it came to matter, and why.
The students jived with Gabriel’s beat, and many eagerly put their pen to paper. For those looking at their concept web, and making blank connections, the poets gave the youth a starting line, “this is a poem for.” They urged the youth to think about what they are grateful for, something about themselves. The youth wrote about families, schoolteachers, and people who had affected their outlook on life:
This is a poem for my mother as she taught me how to be independent and think for myself.
This is a poem for my siblings who were there for me my whole life and always made me life.
This is a poem for my friend. No matter how I’ve changed, and the stuff we went through, they are always there for me. I can’t be myself without them.
This is a poem for myself and all the things that I have taught myself. I have seen myself grow both physically and mentally. I appreciate all the things I am capable of and am proud of everything I’ve achieved.
Natasha and Gabriel created another concept web, asking the youth about personal qualities. Jumping on the idea of what made the youth proud of themselves was a little easier after thinking about what they admired in other people. For instance, what does it look, smell, taste, hear, or feel like to be determined? The poets gave an example to illustrate literary techniques for making words reflect the senses. Natasha performed:
They think they’ve got me-
Tied tight into butcher’s twine
Wrapped like a Christmas roast
I can hear their jaws clicking
I must look like easy prey
Face swollen from crying
Vomiting from stress
Knees frozen like rigor mortis (…)
But they mistake my tremors (…)
I was built for this
To survive while mistaken for weaken
Only to strike
When I look most struck down
From this poem, the youth got an idea of how real a poem could feel. The youth identified one word they felt was descriptive of themselves. They made a list of how this quality looked, smelled, tasted, was heard, and felt like in life. Afterward, they wrote their word on a piece of paper and put it in the center of the table. Sitting by a partner, the youth shared their “this is a poem for” work. The partner identified two qualities he heard the writer valuing in their poem, and also chose two written words from the table. From this information, the writer wrote a second poem about the values identified. Now Natasha and Gabriel guided the youth on how to recognize others input as well as being open to giving themselves credit. For instance, one youth had written a poem for his art teacher. The listener said the writer valued teaching. The writer wrote a second poem:
Teaching looks like a teacher showing art
Does texture, shows us how to mix paints
Colors first, then put the picture on
Use green by mixing blue &yellow
Yellow& red make orange
Blue& red make purple
Teach everybody skills
I teach Danielle
To mange her money,
And not buy tea
I teach in communities
Help do murals
Get homeless youth off the streets
I teach how to live for yourself
I teach myself how to paint
I do my art, listen to music do it
I make money
Sell my artwork
I feel good
I teach someone how to warm up
Then just do it.
Love, brother, love
Giving each other hope
The majority of youth wanted to read and share their work. The pieces ranged from highly descriptive to what could only be described as bare. It appeared many were proud of their work. Everyone clapped, snapped, made encouraging comments. The room was electric with positive support. Overall, the workshop held the spirit of Chavez and Huerta. Similar to the advocates, Natasha and Gabriel helped the youth to see their inner power to create change in themselves and among others for the better. Through poetry, each person self-reflected to discover common values, shared visions of strength, and the makings of every social movement: community building.
(1) Chavez Memorial Solar Calendar Project. (2009). “Berkeley Celebrates ‘Si Se Puede!'” ED. Multicultural Student Development, UC Berkeley &Berkeley Unified School District.