Carlos Cumpian on Poetry, Chicano Culture, and the Emergency Taco
By Benjamin Ortiz
We’re refugees, vato,” Carlos Cumpian says in his trademark Spanglish. Editor of Chicago’s MARCH/Abrazo Press and author of three books, the poet continues to wear his Tejano heritage on his sleeve despite having moved to Chicago in his teens. “We’re economic refugees,” he says, explaining his family history. “We left south Texas to follow the feria [money] waiting for us en el norte, like all our gente [people] who wind up here in Chicano, Illinois.”
Cumpian’s early life followed a picaresque trail from Texas, where speaking Spanish was punished in elementary school, to a south-side high school where an Anglo Spanish-language teacher once reprimanded him for not speaking good Castilian. Spanish-speaking immigrants in Chicago’s barrios mocked his Chicano slang. On his visits to Mexico, locals called him a pocho, a Mexican-American who doesn’t speak proper Spanish.
Cumpian was born in San Antonio, the cradle of Mexican south Texas culture, where he claims his roots reach back to 1790. With so much history tied up a thousand miles away, Cumpian’s migration to Chicago is a puzzle. “We came up here for the climate,” he jokes. In 1968 his father, who worked in retail, ventured to Chicago before the rest of the family and found a job at Goodwill. “A month later the job was no longer there because Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and the following night dad’s place of employment was torched.” The family eventually settled in the Roseland/Pullman area.
For Cumpian, Chicago offered a radically different pace. “It’s clearly a town of immigrants.” The dynamics of Anglo-Mexican conflict that Cumpian grew up with in Texas were mirrored in an African-American community pushing for equal opportunity. “It made me hunger to know more about my own culture as I discovered more and more about African-Americans. After high school I went back down to Texas, lived there along the frontera, and started learning about raza all the way back to the Azteca and Maya.” In Texas, Cumpian now found a burgeoning home-grown civil rights movement charged by the energy of the United Farm Workers, with the Raza Unida party taking over the government of Crystal City (his dad’s hometown) and running Ramsey Muniz, a Mexican-American candidate, for governor.
Cumpian came back to Chicago in the mid-70s and entered Truman College while continuing to search after his cultural heritage. “It really wasn’t until I went into Truman and got a trip down to Mexico with a crew of students that I really saw with my own eyes the complexity of Mexican society, as opposed to seeing Mexico through a few border towns where Mexican culture merges with the U.S. southwest.” In Chicago Cumpian recognized an embryonic Latino arts scene of writers and painters inspired by the Chicano movement. He began experimenting with watercolors and putting his thoughts down on paper, teaming up with other artists and writers such as muralist Jose G. Gonzalez and poet and printmaker Carlos Cortez. Their group gained force and numbers and established itself as the Movimiento Artistico Chicano, or MARCH. “We’re barely coming into our own as a people now, but back then nobody knew about us–we were invisible in the arts scene,” Cumpian remembers. “MARCH managed to get some art shows going and the press started writing about us, even if it was mainly negative or ignorant at first.”
In 1975 the group gained notoriety when members organized Mexposicion, a major exhibit from Mexico City’s Mexican Fine Arts Museum that included works by Siqueiros and Orozco. MARCH followed up with an exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago of Agustin V. Casasola’s photographs chronicling the Mexican Revolution. “We made it possible for Latinos to talk openly about working with major and minor institutions and grassroots efforts to generate public art.”
MARCH mural dedications and art exhibits followed, providing an opportunity and audience for poetry to be performed. “When movement poet Rodolfo Gonzales read his epic poem ‘Yo Soy Joaquin / I Am Joaquin,’ it inspired young Chicanos to take poems and perform them onstage in front of the community as a way to teach ourselves and those around us who wanted to hear about the culture, about our heroes and heroines.” The journal Abrazo, founded in 1976 and edited by Jose Gonzalez, published the visual and literary works of MARCH members. Cumpian recalls that Gonzalez, a graphic designer, helped polish the “ruffian ghetto edge” of the Chicano aesthetic of rasquache. The oversaturated and cluttered mix of traditional and popular cultures that defines rasquache expresses itself through both political rhetoric and literary flourish on the pages of Abrazo, with Aztec icons and images of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata adorning poems, photos, and sketches. “None of us were professional journalists,” Cumpian acknowledges. “We were all just community people doing our own writing, trying to say what we needed to say. We learned a lot in the process, finding out that people wanted to write poetry, share the poems, and there was an audience for that.”
A chapbook series started up, and Cumpian organized citywide poetry readings at libraries. His MARCH/ Abrazo Press emerged from the literary excursions. “We figured if people have a couple of bucks for a chapbook, maybe they have a few more dollars for a solid work of poetry. We’ve done about 14 books now,” Cumpian explains, mentioning local MARCH/Abrazo-published poets Frank Varela, Mark Turcotte, and Raul Nino. “You can’t tell from going to bookstores that we’re even here sometimes, but I figure that now we are on the charts. It takes the work of people who are very single-minded and dedicated, like Chicagoans Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, and Achy Obejas, to establish the fact that we are here and we have a story to share.” MARCH/Abrazo continues to publish midwestern poets, with a book by Milwaukee-based author Brenda Cardenas due out later this year.
While the political fervor of the 60s and 70s eventually gave way to a more subdued arts atmosphere, alternative spaces of artistic expression continued to open up from the galeria to the taqueria. “In 1981 folks started hanging out with Sandra and her brother Enrique ‘Quique’ Cisneros at his loft down on South Dearborn in the Printer’s Row area, before it got gentrified. Once a month he opened his space as a do-it-yourself gallery called Galeria Quique, with professionally hung art pieces and spoken-word performance on opening nights. The advertising was just flyers, but after a while we got a lot of the Latino arts community into it. We’d charge one or two bucks admission and let the first 150 people in.”
The opening program would usually include poetry, classical Spanish guitar, traditional Mexican music, and the folk strumming of Chicano bard Jesus “Chuy” Negrete. “But the real action started when we’d put some records on and get a dance party going until two or three in the morning. Then it was time for the emergency taco! Everybody–Sandra, Carlos Cortez, Raul Nino, my wife Cindy Gallaher–we’d pile into a car and quest for an all-night taqueria.” There’s an obvious parallel with the west coast’s “taco shop poets,” a Chicano-Mexican writing collective that regularly transforms taco stands into poetry slams. “At least a decade before those guys,” Cumpian confirms, “we were stumbling into taquerias at all hours and declaring manifesto-style, ‘You must prepare for a world where the taco becomes an emergency!'”
The party broke up in the mid-80s when Sandra moved to San Antonio and the rent got too high for Quique. But the works of seven taco-marauding poets were collected in 1989 as the chapbook Emergency Tacos. “We paid 75 bucks each to get that one printed, and you can’t find it anywhere now ’cause it sold out in a year, but that was the testimony to all the work we did and fun we had back then.”
Toward the end of the 80s, Cumpian’s own work was slowly reaching critical mass. “It took me years to learn, really, how to work a poem, and it wasn’t until I started getting published in little magazines here and there that I began to see myself as possibly becoming a published poet. It wouldn’t be until 1990 that I would actually have my own book, Coyote Sun.” Following his first book (published by MARCH/ Abrazo), Cumpian wrote Latino Rainbow (Children’s Press, 1994), a book of art and poems for children that told the stories of such famous Latinos as Cesar Chavez, Joan Baez, and Tito Puente. Cumpian is currently celebrating the publication of his newest title, Armadillo Charm, by Luis Rodriguez’s Tia Chucha Press.
Cumpian’s influences range from the in-your-face rants of David Hernandez’s “Chi-Town Brown” to the meditational working-class haikus of his main mentor Carlos Cortez. His poetry melds street smarts and native spirituality in a free-form, humorous, and densely metaphorical narrative style, and his new book gives that style its most powerful voice to date. Using recurrent images and issues, Cumpian taps into the mythos of spirit guides, part native and part syncretic symbols of the Americas. The armadillo calls up both Tejano culture and Mother earth, each in danger of being “knickknacked” to death (as it’s put in the title poem).
“Some people hear the word ‘armadillo’ and say ‘How disgusting!’ or hear the word ‘coyote’ and say ‘Not in my backyard.’ Or maybe some people think ‘It’s just so damn cute I can’t wait to stuff one and stick it on my front lawn.’ My real feeling is that these are animals of the margin, they’re animals of the borderlands–they’re symbols of survival, of endurance, sometimes possessed of myth and magic, who have managed to survive all this time, no thanks to us.”
The spirit guides also take the form of colorful characters. They range from the phantasmic Mexico City-based masked urban activist Superbarrio to the icons Che and Subcomandante Marcos to the working-class humorists Loco Chuy and Tony Atole. Through these personalities, Cumpian touches on issues of social justice, environment, anti-immigration hysteria, and the enduring spirit of Chicano culture, always with passion and urgency: “I dread tomorrow knowing / que mis hijos y otros inditos y chicanitos [that my children and other little young Indians and Chicanos] / will be robbed by a world that designs / its resorts and golf greens by gambling / with rare water under uranium friction” (“The Eighth Commandment & Uranium 235”).
The passion of Cumpian’s words comes forcefully alive in performance, which for Cumpian is an experience of religious significance that recalls the Aztec rites of xochitl y cuicatl (or flor y canto, or flower and song). “It’s in our culture–you can just look at our ballads, our corridos.” Cumpian refers to the 19th-century ballad form that developed along the Texas-Mexico border. The corrido brought together the then-rural Mexican community around a guitarist-balladeer who sang about important dates, personalities, and events of the day. “The corrido has served us well as a way of documenting our lives, like poetry did in the Chicano movement and still does.”
Cumpian’s cadenced delivery transforms words into weapons of satire when he talks about “Atrocity in the Assassin/nation” and how “We Don’t Wanna Peso Much.” Reciting a syncopated, alliterative catalog of the sacred and profane, Cumpian forges a world caught between native respect for the earth and self-annihilation; he snakes his way through laughter and lament as easily as he moves between Spanish and English. “We are very dependent on live performance to get people to see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, to experience the dynamics of code-switching, brincando [jumping] between Ingles and Espanol. That’s the way we grew up speaking, and oftentimes that’s the way we end up performing our work.” Cumpian looks forward to a series of readings at Chicago libraries and cultural centers in the coming months.
Aside from running a poetry workshop at Columbia College, Cumpian now teaches English at Farragut High School, where most of his students come from a Mexican background. “It’s great–I get to teach all the Latino classics there, but when I show the students my own books they accuse me of making it up. ‘If you have these books of poetry, why aren’t you rich?’ they ask. I tell them no one gets rich writing poetry, but you get the satisfaction of doing your own work and sharing it.” He shows off his personal library of Chicano and Latino literature, a pantheon of both famous writers and writers unknown to the mainstream. “Look at how many of us are out there writing–I’ve got bookshelves of our stuff. And still we’re barely recognized.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.