Chris Aldana, founder of Luya Poetry, at First Sip Cafe. Credit: Michael Lee

Chris Aldana, 27, inspires Chicagoans—especially many who are LGBTQ and people of color—to listen to each other’s words.

This happens in part during monthly gatherings at Luya Poetry, the open mike she hosts in east Pilsen at ISA Studios (the studio is named after the Filipino word for “one”). Audience members pack in elbow-to-elbow, watching performers who stand before a vintage silver trailer festooned in fairy lights.

At a recent mike, Frankiem Mitchell, a teaching artist-in-residence at the Chicago Poetry Center, recited this line: “I woke up this morning suffocating / like I had forgotten to be born or something / like my skin and mind live alternative realities / This doesn’t make sense in more than one dimension / there’s a holy war being waged against my melanin / Don’t you feel it?”

When Aldana moved to Chicago in 2016, she felt the city’s spoken-word poetry scene lacked a certain atmosphere that existed in Bangkok, where she had lived the previous two years and participated in open mikes hosted by a group called Bangkok Lyrical Lunacy at a local bar. She said it was a relaxed mood where people always interacted with newcomers and returners. It also was more diverse, she said, compared to when she came to Chicago and found herself at mostly white open mikes.

So, she decided to do something about it and, in July 2018, created Luya.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you come up with the name “Luya?”
I knew that I wanted to use a word that was from my language and my culture. I was at AFIRE, a community organization here that does immigrant rights and domestic worker rights, and they had posters on the wall from a previous workshop about food. There was a brainstorm on one wall that was talking about healing and different ingredients. It said, “luya,” and then underneath it said, “ginger,” and I was like, “I didn’t know that [luya] was the word for ginger in Tagalog (a language spoken in the Philippines). That sounds really beautiful.” Most of our cultures, if not all, use ginger in their cuisine, and then also believe ginger to have healing properties. That’s what I feel like poetry can be for people. It’s like an avenue for healing, for spiritual nourishment.

Would you call Luya your baby?
I don’t want to get into the habit of calling it my baby because I feel like Luya is something else entirely. To call it my baby would imply that I really have to mother and look after it, like it can’t do things for itself. Honestly, I could put up the flyer for the event like one week in advance of it, and it will still be packed. Luya means something to other people, and it’s beyond what I want it to be now. And I love it, obviously, but I also know that it’s not mine in that sense.

As you’re approaching your second year doing Luya, how do you hope it evolves?
I don’t know what it’s going to look like a year from now, right? At the outset in my head, Luya for me was intended to be more than just an open mike. I think the open mike will stay as a flagship thing. But, my overall goal with Luya is to create spaces and opportunities for poets of the Asian diaspora, and other communities [of color] they stand in solidarity with, to feel comfortable bringing their whole stories and whole selves to the mike. And so that can look like showcases, it can look like artist talkbacks, it can look like workshops. I can’t be married to the idea that it has to remain an open mike. Otherwise, I don’t think it will survive. Because for example, if ISA closed tomorrow, I don’t have space for my open mike anymore. We would have to take a break.

From your eyes, why do you see Luya and spaces like it as important for the Chicago community?
I can’t speak for the entire Chicago artist community, and as a host, I often don’t get to experience what Luya actually feels like. Luya provides a space where you don’t feel like you have to justify the art that you are about to do. It’s a place where you can go, and you can do a poem or a song that’s not even in English, and the audience will receive it. It’s a place where you can talk deeply about diaspora and the consequences of war and imperialism and colonization freely without fear of being judged. That’s the thing that makes Luya beautiful. v