Meet the Aztec Love God

Novelist Tony Diaz stirs up a Latino writers movement in Houston and, in some respects, becomes his own main character

"I felt like I had been lost for 32 years and I finally found home, an environment of other Latina writers who knew where I was coming from," Palacios says of the first time she read at Nuestra Palabra.

Indeed, the crowd is warm, welcoming -- and hip. Feminism, even homosexuality, are taken as they come. Alejandro Morœa, a sharply dressed assistant product manager at Chase Manhattan Bank, feels particularly gratified when his rant about being called a "chicana falsa," a pejorative term he's encountered as a gay Mexican-American, drew howls of laughter and fervent applause. As a member of QUAC, the Queer Artists Collective, Morœa is accustomed to performing for a mostly gay audience that doesn't necessarily appreciate the Latino element in his Spanish-sprinkled writing. Here, he found an audience that could. "I was amazed," he says. "I really didn't know how it was going to go.

"[Groups in] this city [aren't] necessarily as proactive as minority groups in other cities when it comes to culture and the arts," Morœa adds. "Generally, you find more of an assimilationist attitude. There's not a lot of space, so you just have to create your own. Tony did that."

My struggle sometimes
juts from my wrist,
a vine, that wraps
itself around my hand.
Each leaf is split
between what I'd like to do
and what I actually do.

--Carolina Monsivais, at Nuestra Palabra

"We're going to kidnap Miguel Algarin and bring him back to Nuestra Palabra," Diaz informs the four other passengers in the Mazda Protege as it speeds toward Austin. Actually, he has just that morning learned that Algarin, a founder of the Nuyorican poetry movement in New York City, is in Austin for the national poetry slam. Algarin is going to throw down, and we are going to see him do it. That's all. But Diaz prefers to inflame our imaginations. He wants us to consider this simple three-hour drive a brave and dangerous mission. Kidnapping the hero, for the good of the movement.

Similarly, even as Diaz convenes a prominent board of directors, applies for nonprofit status and milks his media connections for all they're worth, he insists on thinking of Nuestra Palabra as a covert operation. "I like the feeling that we could be here doing this positive thing ... or sabotaging Wall Street," he says. "It's voodoo. Magic. It is the great Sixth Sun of the Aztec!"

Somehow, Tony's flair for the dramatic doesn't translate into idealistic stargazing. Instead, it fuels an expansive, audacious vision. "Sheer, raw imagination," he says, "is a dangerous thing." As the emcee of Nuestra Palabra, he regales the audience with plans for a Latino film night, a Latino comedy night, a free writing workshop for Nuestra Palabra participants, readings scheduled for several branches of the Houston Public Library, and a Nuestra Palabra anthology.

And those are just the immediate goals. Tony's "secret" long-range plan, outlined on four pages of typing paper and involving plenty of as-yet-unobtained grant money, is basically a full-fledged siege on the publishing industry, an industry that pays little attention to Latinos either as writers or literary consumers. To rectify the situation, Tony plans to groom 20 writers -- writers like Monsivais and Rios -- to apply for creative writing graduate schools, particularly UH's, by 1999.

While some critics see this plan as an elitist attitude -- that writers have to be academically trained to excel -- Diaz points out that most of the Latino writers who have achieved success (here, he includes himself) have been through MFA programs. He also believes that in the long run, the presence of Latino students will affect the literary establishment just as much as the establishment affects them. If nothing else, the pool of potential Latino faculty members will swell. Currently, fewer than 3 percent of college professors are Hispanic, and the UH writing program faculty is virtually all white. As a result, students don't recognize themselves in the education system, Diaz says.

While Diaz is busy encouraging new writers, he's not forgetting the flip side: creating an audience for their work. One idea he has is to train Nuestra Palabra writers to educate high school teachers about contemporary Latino literature in "one-day, one-week and multi-week presentation formats."

"They've been teaching The House on Mango Street [by Sandra Cisneros] for the past six years," he says. Nuestra Palabra has wasted no time trying to change that. When Rios's story "The King's Coke" was published in the local Tejano Times, Diaz sent it to a teacher who was conducting a remedial summer school class for bilingual students, and she taught it to her kids. "If we're going to wait for Little, Brown and Company to publish it," Diaz says, "these kids'll be out of college. But it's like, instantaneous."

Tony also envisions Nuestra Palabra bookstores in Hispanic neighborhoods, a series of chapbooks to be distributed through the Houston Independent School District, and writing classes for everyone from kids to comadres (the female equivalent of compadres) at a host of Latino organizations. One page of the master plan, which Tony calls the "delusion page," describes a Latino Writers Institute, complete with a part-time employee who takes care of the chore of submitting work to journals for publication.

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