Afro-Latinx Poetry Now: Testimonios
This article is from the Letras Latinas archive, published on the original Letras Latinas Blog on December 8th, 2022.
There are many definitions of testimonio as it pertains to Latin American literature. I can’t pretend to have a comprehensive definition myself, and I especially don’t have a definition better than the many scholars who have written about this topic, but I can share my interpretation. One might, for example, identify an oppressive situation and write a testimonio to establish a clear narrative in opposition. Alternatively, one might witness a gathering where underrepresented voices are celebrated and write a testimonio in support of the narrative; in other words, to bear witness and join the conversation/revolution, to document the rupture and the celebration. The following testimonios are written by those who not only witnessed but participated in one such gathering: Afro-Latinx Poetry Now. The two-day gathering aimed to center Blackness within the literary community. The testimonios are written by the six poets and five scholars who participated, along with one publisher/scholar who plans to extend the conversation through publication. The final testimonio is from the perspective of a virtual attendee, which we hope will inspire readers of this blog to also engage with the recorded sessions. Brent Ameneyro 2022-2023 Letras Latinas Poetry Coalition Fellow
Left to right: Yesenia Montilla, Alberto Varón, Jasminne Mendez, Francisco Aragón, Raina J. León, Roberto Carlos Garcia, Brent Ameneyro, Darrel Alejandro Holnes
In almost 20 years as an academic, I have only experienced the intellectual excitement and generosity I experienced at the “Afro-Latinx Poetry Now” symposium a handful of times. Two aspects of the symposium stand out to me: first, the give-and-take between critics and poets reaffirmed my impression that poets are among our most trenchant thinkers, and that literary criticism is better when artists and critics work together. My own thinking about John Murillo’s poetry was challenged and enriched by the questions and comments on my presentation. Second, where sometimes academic spaces can be unforgiving—spaces of competition and posturing—everyone at “Afro-Latinx Poetry Now” engaged with each other in a spirit of generosity and community. Although I knew some of the scholars beforehand, I had never met any of the poets in person before, and I was nervous about what tone the symposium would take. I came away feeling genuinely lifted up and thrilled at everything I had learned, as well as feeling that I belonged to a new community of colleagues and friends. This was a special occasion, and I’m grateful to have been a part of it.
John Alba Cutler
The conference was well-organized, exciting, and necessary. I enjoyed all the talks, the readings, and the opportunity to fellowship with other poets and scholars. Perhaps most enjoyable, however, was a brief exchange with an undergraduate student who approached the poets after one of the readings. She meant only to thank us for our songs, for reflecting, even if only for a moment, a bit of her own world, and, as an aspiring writer herself, perhaps a glimpse into what her own future may hold. “Windows and mirrors,” says Lucille Clifton. “Children need windows and mirrors.” Conferences like these give poets opportunity to poet, scholars to scholar, and insofar as our work merits any conversation, it centers us for a day or two. But the true value, at least to my mind, lies with the young folks. Our work is not to be seen but to help them to see: See themselves, see the world, and see themselves in the world. For two beautiful days in South Bend, we did our job.
John Murillo performing at the “Session 3” evening poetry reading
As a Black Latina, I have spent years trying to fight and claw my way into Latinx spaces. And when I have been able to enter, it is not often that I have felt truly welcomed or safe. The Afro-Latinx Poetry Now summit hosted by Letras Latinas, broke this cycle for me and for one of the first times in my life as a writer and performer, I did not feel like "the token Afro-Latina." Instead I felt like a respected member and professional of a vibrant and burgeoning community of writers that have been working long and hard to feel seen and heard. I bonded with my fellow Afro-Latinx poets in ways I hadn’t been able yet due to distance and demanding life schedules. The two days I spent in Notre Dame with fellow Afro-Latinx writers, Latine scholars, Notre Dame students and professors reinvigorated my love and passion for poetry and it showed me that my work is worthy of being studied, critiqued, analyzed and talked about in academic spaces. It proved to me what I have long felt to be true, we are in a literary renaissance and revolution right now and Afro-Latinx poetry and writing is at the forefront of that. During the Q & A after my poetry reading, a young Notre Dame student asked: “Can you talk about how poetry changed your life,” and thanks to Letras Latina and this summit I had the pleasure of saying “Poetry changed my life because it’s taken me to places I once only dreamed of being in. As a teen I didn't even bother applying to schools like Notre Dame. No way would I ever have gotten in much less been able to afford it. And now, look, my work is being studied in its classrooms by you. Poetry did that. Poetry brought me here.”
Jasminne Mendez subverting expectations by performing away from the podium
Thank you, again, for what I heard was a beautiful convergence, one that was much-needed! Even though I was not able to attend in person, I could feel the kinship from the audience as I presented my paper on Jasminne Mendez’s brilliant work. I would love to see this kind of convergence that highlights the creative labor of Afro-Latine artist again and hope to be included!
Judith Rodriguez participating virtually in a hybrid discussion format
The “Afro-Latinx Poetry Now" Gathering was a beautifully curated event that featured the work of Black Latinx poets and scholars. The gathering was transformative in the way it placed the work of poets, critics, and cultural studies in relation. Furthermore, it is rare to see poets given the space to not only read their own work but also laud the work of their peers and listen to scholars critically examine their work. The vision and organizing for this event reflected an ethics of care and relationality. I was also impressed with how the campus community came together to witness poets championing other poets as well as giving their gifts to the public throughout the evening readings and open mics. Beautifully woven into the events were scholars engaging with the writers in a dialogue around the context, content, and impact of their work. The curation and organization of the event was superb with each detail thoughtfully planned (even down to the poets’ books being available for sale each evening). This event should be seen as an example for other institutes, programs, and departments to follow. It was also a breath of fresh air in the wake of a global pandemic—a reassurance that another world is possible, that we can and should care about poetry, especially from Afro-Latinx scholars, some of the most peripheralized voices in the literary world.
Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez presenting on Raina J. León’s poetry
There was a moment when Dr. Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez entangled her heart with mine, Afro-Latina mother-scholars, as she read two of my most tender poems about my fears as mother and in the reading, we both were in tears. For me, it was in hearing my pain and fear reflected in another mother’s body and spirit, while at the same time being given the gift of a scholar seeing all the work of craft I used to create that bridge of experiential and spiritual connection. I had never been witness to a scholar, particularly of her renown, analyzing my work, and there I was in the front row. Weeping could be the only reaction. Recently, one of my great uncles said that my great-grandfather, Félix, after whom so many generations in my family are named, was a poet. How many Afro-Latinx voices have been lost to time, their notebooks discarded? And there we were, we six poets, expounding on six additional poets, and then, for me, to see, another Afro-Latina mother-scholar?! The Afro-Latinx Poetry Now conference was long overdue … and it was and is a healing of the past, a reaching back to our ancestors, a dancing in the light of their hopes and dreams, a blessing on the future. Francisco Robles, another scholar, mentioned pyrophilous mushrooms and mycelium networks in his talk in passing, particularly of their emergence from ashes to heal, and that story has such resonance for me as I think on the conference. From the ashes, the people, Black and Latinx, vibrant in our distinct identities and cultures and experiences, rise. I am grateful, so very grateful to be in that community. Wherever I have walked, I mention the communion of that conference, with reverence, with joy. Letras Latinas continues to practice from the liberatory space of dreaming into possibility and present. Now.
Raina J. León
Raina J. León visiting Francisco Aragón’s “Latinx Poetry Now” class
The Afro-Latinx Poetry Now event co-presented by Letras Latinas was an incredibly affirming experience that is a rarity in today's literary and academic landscape. Even in moments when there push for more diversity and inclusion, rarely does it include the most marginalized sub-communities or communities across various intersections. Letras Latinas really put in the work and continues to meet their commitment to Latinx/e poets through programming that is of the highest professional caliber in the field.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes
The time spent at Notre Dame for the “Afro-Latinx Poetry Now” gathering was one of the most fruitful times in my career thus far. Yes, there was poetry, yes there was scholarship, but most importantly there was community. It felt like divination to be able to have meals with poets who I deeply admire and whose work is directly in conversation with my own poetry; add to this the scholars who took time and care with our work and it was a perfect brew of all the things that poetics could be. Call it kismet or something else, something deeply rooted in our desire, all of us present, for transformative change, for the dismantling of white supremacy within Latinidad, for the need to discuss the hard things and still rise from those conversations with new eyes and an open heart. Letras Latina’s vision: revolutionary and restorative has set a precedence for future gatherings and their possibilities. I feel deep gratitude for all involved, who worked tirelessly to create this space so full of wonder.
Left to right: Marisel Moreno, Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez, Jasminne Mendez, Roberto Carlos Garcia, Yesenia Montilla, Francisco Aragón, Raina J. León, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Francisco Robles, John Murillo, John Alba Cutler
I found the AfroLatinx Poetry Now conference to be one of the most enriching intellectual experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t only that the topic is quite urgent in the field of Latinx Studies, but that it gave all participants –poets and scholars– a chance to create community. As a scholar, I highly value the opportunity to connect with other scholars in the field of Afrolatinx studies. As someone who deeply admires and often teaches the poets who participated, I very much enjoyed their presentations on other poets (“Poets on Poets”) and also their readings. The intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual exchanges that took place will stay with me for many years to come. I’m thankful for this amazing opportunity to grow and to create space for voices that have traditionally been excluded from the Latinx canon. My hope is that we can recreate this model every other year to continue to raise awareness about Afrolatinx poetry and art.
To be celebrated, and to have one's work celebrated is an honor. I am grateful to Francisco Aragon, Latino Studies Institute, Initiative on Race and Resilience, and University of Notre Dame, for organizing this necessary event. The structure of this conference, where we celebrate both the poets present, the ones who inspire us, and the scholars at the forefront of Afro Latinx / Latinx studies is a unique and trailblazing initiative. I'm hopeful that this conference is the first of many more in celebration of Afro Latinx literature. The conference was indeed a safe space for us to engage in a scholarly discourse about the experience of Black or Afro Latinx poets. As many of us are painfully aware, academia is not always a safe space for academics of color. Therefore, it is imperative that the scholarship, both written and performed, produced by this conference live on scholarly journals, online library databases, and anywhere else that existing and up and coming scholars can access them. Francisco Aragon has begun something extraordinary, and I for one will support him in the continuation of this initiative in any way possible.
Roberto Carlos Garcia
Raina J. León, Roberto Carlos Garcia, and Jasminne Mendez signing books for enthusiastic attendees
This conference was a truly inspiring gathering that did what the best scholarly gatherings do: shifted the way we think about a topic while we were thinking about that topic. The papers spoke to each other wonderfully, and it was clear that the conversation was taking place in a way that built something together. What mattered most, to me, was that the thing we built together was in honor of the poets. By centering their work, we produced a vibrant body of scholarship that hewed closely to what the poets wrote. Ultimately, I hope that this conference will shape all of our work—creative and critical—for a long time to come.
Francisco Robles presenting on Yesenia Montilla’s poetry
Letras Latinas Afro-Latinx Poetry Now event was a milestone event for the growing academic field of Latinx studies, one that will live on in the collaborations it inspired. The innovative format—poets responding to poets responding to scholars—finally found a way to open up an exchange we’ve been seeking and could only partially articulate. Hearing the poets shift from creative to critical modes, and having scholars poetically attend to the world-making power of language, created a space for us to be and think differently. To call the event empowering undersells it, but the event fostered exchanges among writers and thinkers of all levels and locations that will reverberate across our far-flung homes, laying down new tendrils of connectivity, opening up the field of Latinx studies (and our own understanding of it) to new voices, new communities in which we might thrive. Despite its exceptionality, the event perfectly aligned with Letras Latinas mission of supporting Latinx writers and thinkers.
Left to right: Roberto Carlos Garcia, Yesenia Montilla, Jasminne Mendez, Raina J. León, John Murillo, Darrel Alejandro Holnes
I attended Letras Latinas' “Afro-Latinx Poetry Now” virtually from the borderlands of South Texas and I felt privileged to be in attendance. The two-day event was well curated and exceptional in who spoke either with their poetry or with their scholarship. This event could have only been live and it still would have had a tremendous impact for those in attendance but here I was – far away, first generation mixed Latinx who inherited exile on both sides – and I fell into the voices and hearts of those presenting and knew I was finally hearing current leaders and writers whose voices spoke in unison with voices who had long been silenced or denied or otherwise been made invisible. I’m deeply thankful that this work remains accessible for those who might have missed it when it was live. These few hours opened so much within me and reminded me of the impact of diaspora and inheritance and joy in our daily lives. I know others will be just as impacted.
MFA student and poet
All six sessions are available to view at the following link: https://latinostudies.nd.edu/news-events/events/afro-latinx-poetry-now/ To view additional photos from the gathering, please visit http://letraslatinasblog.blogspot.com/2022/12/afro-latinx-poetry-now-photo-essay-in.html