Taco Shop Poets: Read Tacos, Eat Poetry

November 16, 2011, admin

Did you know that “Hispanic” is actually a derogatory term? Do you really know what a Chicano is? How about the difference between Latino and Mexican-American? I never thought of these terms until I met the Taco Shop Poets, a group of writers and musicians devoted to community empowerment through the arts, namely spoken word and music (bass, drums, and flute). The Taco Shop Poets celebrate the triumphs and hardships of the Chicano essence.

The members of the Taco Shop Poets live in southern San Diego County, within minutes from the international border. Because illegal entry into San Diego is a daily occurrence on the news, most residents of the pristine beach areas rarely pay any attention to what goes on around the border areas. As a comfortable suburbanite living well north of the Mexican-American cultural epicenter of San Diego, I never imagined what it would be like to live in an area where helicopters are constantly buzzing overhead, conducting border sweeps.

As I sit down inside Poet member Mikey Figgens’ modest and comfortable house in Imperial Beach, a mere five minutes from the border, I ask fellow Poet Adolfo Guzman Lopez what are some of the images he remembers as a child in Tijuana (he moved to San Diego at age seven).

“I remember the search lights, the wind form the helicopter blades separating the corn stalks,” recalls Guzman, an assistant producer for San Diego’s KPBS. He also visualizes people scurrying about, running to the then-vacant hills, and the “heavy-duty speakers calling out ‘Don’t move, stop!’ ”

Just as Guzman describes the nightly helicopter sweeps, Miguel Angel Soria tells me, “You can hear a sweep going on right now, listen.” I ask Miguel, “How do you know it’s not a medical ‘copter?” Immediately, the collective group all let out a hard laugh and Miguel tells the naïve interviewer, “That’s no medical ‘copter; there are two kinds of ‘copters here: ‘ghetto birds’ that put out calls to the police cars and the border patrol helicopters.”

Living under the maddening swirl of helicopter blades is one small challenge, for residents living the Chicano experience in southern San Diego. Guzman, Figgens (bass), Soria, and the other Taco Shop Poets, Adrian Arancibia, and Kevin Green (drums) portray these experiences on Chorizo Tonguefire, the name of the group’s most recent CD. Guzman explains “chorizo is the hamburger of our culture and tonguefire is the impact and strength of our words.”

While Figgen’s bass and Green’s drums provide a scuttling, city life theme, Guzman emotionally recites “Sal,” one of the tracks from Chorizo Tonguefire.

Sal is short for Salvador

Salvador Valtierra preaches on the corner of Fifth and Broadway/ The bus depot and crossroad for pedestrian masses/ This is the corner where the stock market crashed/ Where Reagonomics and its cranes revived a financial district/ Booming with peep-show parlors, residence hotels and adult bookstores/ Now it’s the corner of ninety-nine cent stores/ And ninety-nine cent lives/ Lives lived out with stubby fingers/ Clorox cracked skin and tennis elbow/ From pushing vacuum cleaners …

You can find the Taco Shop Poets performing their mix of spoken word and music at art galleries, student unions, The Alamo (where they were escorted away by Texas rangers), cultural centers, coffee shops, and as their name implies, taco shops.

“The taco shop is equivalent to the corner markets, it’s where people meet, talk, eat good food and find out what’s going on in the neighborhood,” says Guzman. “It’s a metaphor for our growing up in San Diego. It’s a safe place for our lives, where we’re not bound by this parallel Enlglish language, work world.”

When asked what his favorite taco shop item is and how it relates to his poetry, Guzman answers, “Quesadilla with guacamole.” He pauses to think of the entrée’s relationship to his poetry. Before he gets a chance to answer, Riley jumps in, “It’s cheesy!”

The first Taco Shop Poets performance at a taco shop was at La Posta #6 in Hillcrest. Since then, the collective has spontaneously played at well over 50 taco shops. Why play at taco shops?

The members say that taco shops are a cross-cultural and economic stomping ground for people in search of the perfect carne asada. The Taco Shop Poets are not uncomfortable with English, but it doesn’t provide them with a sense of community and comfort like taco shops do. The taco shops symbolize the Chicano experience.

Chicano, as defined by Merrian-Webster: a noun, etymology: Mexican Spanish, alteration of Spanish mexicano.

While the term Chicano can be traced to 1947, it was redefined in the ‘60s to better classify the community and political activism of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Soria’s four-part poem, “Mujer (women),” is a Chicano snapshot of life in industrial Tijuana. With a somber flute pattern and down-tempo slow jazz-blues, Soria recites:

Mujer, this is a psalm to wreck maquilanafta/ Where you whisper weak cacophonies/ And your fingers linger in mine/ This is the rainbow in the acid rain/ A maquiladora jesus/ Rises to kiss two-headed babies/ That have one heart to share with all of us…

Maquiladoras are the industrial factories in always-striving-to-catch-up-to-modern-capitalism, Tijuana. Tijuana is not third world according to Riley; he says third world is Bangladesh. Instead, he describes “TJ” as “third world high modernism with first world post modernism, clashing on a daily basis.” The industrial beast of TJ is packed with women working with cancer-cluster-causing chemicals. “There needs to be a hero among the regular, everyday working man and woman,” says Riley.

The Taco Shop Poets are cognizant of their heritage and it would be a mistake if they were all called Hispanic. The word is an adjective derived from the Latin hispanicus, from Hispania; the Iberian Peninsula. Its origins can be traced back to 1889, Hispanic is defined by Merriam-Webster as “being a person of Latin American descent living in the U.S.; especially one of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin.”

Taco Shop Poet Adrian Arancibia claims that during Richard Nixon’s administration, Hispanic took on a whole new meaning, as it became adopted by census takers to generalize a race of brown-skinned people. Don’t call Arancibia a Hispanic. While he may appear Mexican to the untrained eye, he is of Chilean descent. His family, under the harsh regime of the dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was blackballed in Chile. There, his uncles were taken into concentration camps (they were released years later).

While Hispanic may not seem as vile as the “N” word, it is insulting to The Taco Shop Poets and other Latino-Americans. While “white” people may not be pressing the issue to be called German, Dutch, or Polish-Americans, Latinos can be sensitive about prejudicially assuming that one with brown skin is of Mexican origin.

The Taco Shop Poets recently were on an HBO special entitled, Americanos: Latino Life in the U.S., which is co-produced by Edward James Olmos, and features an eight-minute segment on the group.

Soon the Poets will release the second printing of Anthology, a collection of their poems. The group recently returned from a successful mini tour of the East Coast, including a stop at the famous New Rican Poets Café (a spoken word Mecca in New York’s lower east side).

I am enlightened by the experiences that the Taco Shop Poets shared, as well as their sharp spoken words and soulful musical accompaniment. But all this talk of tacos, quesadillas, and carne asadas makes me ravenously hungry. Mikey informs me that there are 11 ½ taco shops within a one-mile radius of his Palm Avenue house.

“11 ½?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Mikey says, “one of them is just a drive through.”

After a healthy dose of “Chorizo Tonguefire,” I am ready for some caloric satisfaction. I thanked the Taco Shop Poets for the engaging interview, hopped in my car, popped in their CD, and drove to the closest Taco Shop I could find. As I ate my chorizo burrito, the setting sun appeared as a giant orange disc crashing into South Bay, San Diego. I was grateful that for the first time in my life, I experienced a taste of the Chicano experience.