Afro-Latinx Poetry Now: Gathering, Celebration, Change

By Brent Ameneyro

Headshots of from left to right, top to bottom: Yesenia Montilla, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Jasminne Mendez, John Murillo, Roberto Carlos Garcia, and Raina J. León
Headshots of, from left to right, top to bottom: Yesenia Montilla, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Jasminne Mendez, John Murillo, Roberto Carlos Garcia, and Raina J. León

Poets John Murillo, Raina J. León, Roberto Carlos Garcia, Yesenia Montilla, Jasminne Mendez, and Darrel Alejandro Holnes have been invited by Letras Latinas to participate in Afro-Latinx Poetry Now, a gathering slated to take place on the campus of the University of Notre Dame on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 27th and 28th. The six sessions that make up the two-day convening will be live-streamed and recorded. The invited poets will be joined by six scholars who will each give talks about one of the poet’s work, respectively. The poets themselves will also each speak on an Afro-Latinx poet of their choosing. Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, is under the direction of Francisco Aragón, author of After Rubén and a Red Hen Press collaborator.

A headshot of Francisco Aragón smiling
A headshot of Francisco Aragón

In November of 2009 Aragón flew to the Guadalajara Book Fair, where he’d been invited to serve as a bilingual consultant in the Los Angeles Pavilion. The city of Los Angeles was the “guest of honor” that year and a number of local presses, including Red Hen Press, were invited to showcase their books. When asked about this first encounter with Red Hen, Aragón reflected, recently: “I remember experiencing some disappointment at the dearth of Latinx titles in Red Hen’s display. But by week’s end Kate [Gale] reached out to me about addressing this situation.” A few months later, over a working dinner in New York, Letras Latinas and Red Hen Press forged a publishing collaborative whose first gesture was the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, which supported the publication of a second or third book by a Latinx poet. Its current iteration is a curated series, whose next installment will be Trace by Brenda Cárdenas, slated for publication next spring. Aragón went on to say that “since that fortuitous meeting in Mexico thirteen years ago, Red Hen has made significant strides as a publisher of Latinx writers.”

In an effort to highlight previously disenfranchised voices, the poetry community, as evident in the Letras Latinas/Red Hen collaboration, has been trying to address this imbalance. In doing so, one of the results has been robust and sometimes contentious conversation about poetry, Latinx poetics, and representation. Afro-Latinx Poetry Now participant Jasminne Mendez, in response to some questions I posed, asserts, “[I] think the poetry world is very behind in acknowledging and recognizing the importance and value Afro-Latinx poets bring to the craft and to the literary world. I think even the poetry world still doesn’t know or understand how to fully respond to or critique our work because we don’t always fit the ‘mold’ or idea of what the poetry world deems as ‘Black or African-American’ poetics.”

The overlap between the personal and the political — as with other social revolutions such as the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s — incites a philosophically nuanced landscape for the upcoming gathering. I believe all people are participants in the rewriting of the Western canon and of socio-political narratives, so we all have a responsibility to listen to the voices that have long been suppressed. Afro-Latinx Poetry Now participant Yesenia Montilla says, “for me, the label Afro-Latinx was less about making a political statement and more about dialogue, connection, restoration. I do believe that in order to create a better world, a just one, we need to eventually move past these labels, but for now they exist and they are tools for dismantling the systems that have kept us silenced.”

The events that unfolded throughout the summer of 2020 — a “summer of racial reckoning,” according to some — caused many cultural organizations to undergo a long overdue period of self-examination and self-interrogation, and Aragón admits that Letras Latinas was no exception. “It was a time of listening and learning,” Aragón said. One first gesture, in response, included inviting John Murillo to be final judge, and Yesenia Montilla and Roberto Carlos Garcia to be preliminary judges, of the ninth edition of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, one of Letras Latinas’ flagship initiatives. The result was the publication of Stepmotherland by Darrel Alejandro Holnes in early 2022. Conceptualizing, raising the funds for, and organizing this gathering of talks, conversation, and performance, is part of this on-going process.

For more information about Afro-Latinx Poetry Now, please click here.

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Nonprofit independent literary publisher aiming to amplify unheard and underrepresented voices and improve literacy in schools. www.redhen.org