The Common Good
June 2011

You Are My Mirror

by Sarah Browning | June 2011

Poets resist anti-immigration laws with defiance, beauty, and social media.

This is a story about one of the newest forms of communication -- social media -- and one of the oldest -- poetry, and how the two joined forces for social change.

On April 20, 2010, nine students chained themselves to the Arizona state Capitol building to protest Arizona's new anti-immigrant legislation, SB 1070. Their slogan: "We are chained to the Capitol just like our community is chained by this legislation." While others chanted and gave speeches, the nine students sat silently and with dignity as police officers cut the chains and arrested them. Of course their protest was posted on YouTube, and when a friend sent the link to a prize-winning poet and professor at the University of California-Davis, Francisco X. Alarcón, Alarcón responded as poets have for millennia when witnessing acts of courage in the face of oppression: He wrote a poem.

Alarcón posted "For the Capitol Nine" to his Facebook page, addressing the young people directly: "you ... / chain yourselves / to the doors / of the State Capitol / so that terror / will not leak out / to our streets ... / your courage / can’t be taken / away from us / and put in jail / you are nine / young warriors / like nine sky stars." So many "friends" and "friends of friends" responded to the poem that Alarcón decided to create a Facebook group and invite other poets to post poems on the subject.

The word went out over Facebook and Twitter and poet to poet, so that now "Poets Responding to SB 1070" includes more than 1,200 poems by prominent and emerging poets from all over the country and around the world. Eight volunteer moderators now manage the site, keeping up with submissions and choosing poems for a weekly feature on La Bloga, the Latino literary blog. They also are preparing a hard-copy anthology. The site has received 600,000 hits -- an average of 4,000 per week -- and dozens of readers comment on individual poems. "For me," says Alarcón, "our poetic project is almost a digital return to the directness of the oral tradition. How many books or poetry anthologies could claim 600,000 visits?"

Poems on the site are angry, tender, mournful, and celebratory, in English, in Spanish, and often in both. Some take on SB 1070 directly, along with other discriminatory legislation -- such as HB 2281, targeting the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona public schools -- while others range widely across the immigrant experience, the Chicano story of border crossing, the necessity of resistance, and the vision of a united people.

Poets have always played this role, naming injustices and imagining alternatives, acting as visionaries for a society. In the United States, this tradition begins with our great democrat Walt Whitman and continues unbroken through the 20th century, through the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, but also through the Beats, feminist poets, and the Chicano Art Movement. Poetry and other art forms can combat despair, provide inspiration to those working in the trenches of movements for social change, humanize those we are taught to fear (whoever they may be), and build bridges across our differences, telling our human stories. A poem can be a history lesson -- sometimes the only one we have.

"[W]hen poetry lays its hand on our shoulder," writes Adrienne Rich, "we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum, 'There is no alternative.'"

Poets active in Poets Responding to SB 1070 have taken part in conferences, teach-ins, and demonstrations calling for a just, comprehensive immigration policy throughout Arizona and California, and in Washington, D.C. In February, they came to D.C. and staged a "symbolic Floricanto" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, reading poems under a cold winter drizzle. The event featured moderators of the site, along with Luis J. Rodriguez of Tia Chucha Press, Pam Uschuk, winner of the American Book Award, and William Pitt Root, the first poet laureate of Tucson. It was covered in the Spanish-language press in the U.S. and in 25 Mexican newspapers.

"Floricanto" -- flower-song -- is a Spanish translation of an Aztec word for poetry. The Chicano arts and poetry movements of the 1960s lifted up the term.

"Poets came together for celebration, for political ends, for self-affirmation," says Rich Villar, director of the Acentos Poetry Foundation and a participant in February's events. "In the Floricanto, the poetic and political are not only compatible, but complementary, inevitable."

So too, in this tradition, is the spiritual complementary, an integral part of the organizing for social change.

"I am a Mestizo Chicano poet with a grandmother who spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs," says Alarcón. "So, I usually start readings and public events doing an invocation to the four directions following the Mesoamerican spiritual tradition, asking all present to join me in calling forth the invocation 'Tahui!'" Alarcón concludes by asking all present to face the person next to them and repeat "Tahui!" four times. This ritual, he says, "recalls the Maya mantra 'in lak'ech,' which means, 'you are my other I / tú eres mi otro yo,' a way of saying, You are my mirror and I am yours, we are responsible for each other."

As Americans struggle to devise a just immigration policy, one that treats all with dignity and doesn't scapegoat anyone -- citizen of the U.S. or not -- what better words to keep in our minds as we consider our neighbors than these: You are my mirror and I am yours.

Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, is the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden.

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