Read about enough "ethnic" writers, and you notice they are often confronted by the same problem: If they write books enjoyed by a mainstream audience, they're accused of selling out, assimilating; but if they write something that naturally appeals to people of a similar background, then their books get sectioned off on a shelf in the African-American or Latin American section. The unwritten message is, if you don't fit the label, this book's not for you; it's an example of something Tony Diaz calls Sombrero Hysteria: Those moments when "something that a particular group or culture could use or develop as a source of pride blows up in its collective face."
So when Diaz created a little reading series two years ago called Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, there was an obvious danger of marginalization. "This is the way America works, though to categorize, compartmentalize," Diaz says. "That's why the creative writing department's right here, and the English department's right here.That's just the way we're trained to think. We as artists have to resist that at all levels, or try to."
Nuestra Palabra, Diaz insists, has always been about inclusiveness. "[W]hen people say to me, 'Hey, I hear about your forum, but can I go? I'm not Mexican.'I always say, 'Let me put it this way: When you and your friends get together, do you say, "Should we go to Chuy's or not?" 'It's the American imagination. There are other demographics where people don't ask that.This is just so new to approach art this way."
If there is a genius to Diaz's work, it is in recognizing a thirst that wasn't being satisfied by the narrow-mindedness of the literary world. Perhaps no one was better suited to this task than Diaz. Consider his background: The son of a migrant cotton picker who never attended school, Diaz didn't run across a book by a Latino writer until the age of 20. He eventually became one of only a few Hispanics to graduate from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program.
Houston would seem to have been the perfect place for an aspiring Latino writer. The city boasts a large Hispanic population, and a strong literary community, and it's home to Arte Publico, the largest publisher of Latino works in the country. But, alas.
"I'd get calls from people in New York asking, 'What's the scene [for Latino writers] like in Houston?' and I just got tired of saying, 'There isn't one.' " Diaz eventually held an open poetry reading at Chapultepec Mexican Restaurant. "That was the last open mike we ever had, because after that it was full." Crowds eventually became so large that Diaz had to move the series to Talento Bilingue de Houston. Now ending its second year, Nuestra Palabra has launched community outreach projects, classes, a Web site and a cable-access TV show -- all without a single grant.
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"It's not a reading series, it's a movement," Diaz says. "We're probably at the stage where a group should be after four or five years."
Spend a Wednesday night at Nuestra Palabra, and you might hear musicians, listen to novelists, or watch comedy sketches or a play. The group offers a glimpse into Latino thought and culture that contrasts sharply with Cheech and Chong caricatures. There have been works by feminists and gays. Some recount the gritty urban experience, while others describe the life of the upper-middle class. There has even been a writer of Polish decent who was "baptized Latino," and another of mixed African-Latino heritage who raps in Spanish and English. According to Diaz, that's the whole point: to melt down those borders and create a forum that, well, simply lets Latino writers have their say.
"That's the coolest thing about art to convey a different vision, a different idea of time, language so different from our daily experience in the U.S.," Diaz explains. "It's the art first, but we all write what we do best. That's our experience that we lend to it."
Featured guests of Nuestra Palabra's second anniversary include Esmeralda Santiago and Joie Davidow, editors of Las Mamis: Favorite Latino Authors Remember Their Mothers, and PEN's Ernest Hemingway Foundation award-winner Dagoberto Gilb. Activities include the Best of the Best Nuestra discoveries and the Nuestra Palabra awards. Wednesday, April 26, 7 p.m. Talento Bilingue de Houston, 333 South Jensen. $5 donation; $3 with student ID. For more information, call (713)867-8943.