Danny Romero and his Poetic Cinema Verité
by Don Riggs
Chicano novelist Danny Romero has just published his new volume of poems, Land of a Thousand Barrios (Johnstown, Ohio: Pudding House Publications Chapbook Series, 2002). Reading the collection brings my imagination squarely in contact with the cityscape of Romero's youth and the visions of transcendence that rise above it like the Virgén de Guadalupe. Plain English may be a virtue of usage preached by anglos from William Safire to Robert Creeley, but Romero uses a reductive, spare style — albeit with the occasional Spanish phrase — to give a force, immediacy, and clarity to his snapshots of barrio life.
In his poem "Por Vida" — also the title of a 1997 chapbook, abbreviated P / V, as is common in hispanic graffiti — he states "I live in a barrio / in my head never very /far from a taco truck" and goes on to recreate through a vivid process of guided visualization the Los Angeles of his experience. He creates this world through the use of sharp, clear images that evoke a lifestyle combining the traditional Mexican/Chicano with the gritty, contemporary underside of America. The taco truck cited above is a very specific inexpensive food cart on a particular corner — Florence and Holmes Avenues — that figures elsewhere in his poems and in his fiction as well.
The first poem of Land of a Thousand Barrios is entitled "In the Beginning" but seems to be, at first sight, about the future:
One day I will walk
across this land
searching for my home.
His process of searching, the poet states, will take him all over the land "until I find an eagle eating / snake atop a cactus" — an image familiar to anyone who has examined a Mexican coin or the Mexican flag. What this image refers to is the story of the founding of Mexico City by the Aztecs, about 700 years ago. In this story, their chieftan, Tenoch, led the Aztecs away from their home, Aztlan, himself led by a vision in which he saw that an eagle, perched on a cactus and eating a snake, would be a sign for them to found their city at that spot.
Tenochtitlán, the City of Tenoch, the core of the modern Mexico City, became the seat of the Aztec empire. In Danny Romero's poem, the story of Tenochtitlán's origin becomes the story of a vision for the future of Mexicans in that diaspora in which they are called Chicanos, Hispano-Americans, Hispanics, and other, less objective names. The difference between this "diaspora" and the diaspora of the Jews or of African Americans, however, is that his people have not been expelled from their land, because the Southwest of the United States was inhabited, first by indios, then by the Spanish conquistadores, and finally by that mixture of the two, the mestizos, before los gringos came and claimed the land for the United States.
Danny's poem "In the Beginning," then, recalls both the story of the founding of the Aztec empire, about 1325, and a new beginning, a new discovery of home for his people. All of this is implied in the simple, minimalist presentation of that one image of the eagle on a cactus eating a snake. This is the way that his poetry works: simple, but containing a great deal of inner significance.
Let me step back for a moment and admit that I have special opportunities for insights into Romero's work. I read his novel Calle 10 when I was studying for my written comprehensives on my poetry exam; it was such a complete departure from John Keats and Alexander Pope that I would retreat for an hour into gritty sordid East L.A. Chicano (and black) marginal communities; I was fascinated with the sandpapery textures of the narrative, with the Spanish/English back-and-forth of the dialogue, and with a world that I had only previously glimpsed in transit from the safe distance of an elevated train. I also visited Romero regularly for a year or more; he was in the process of writing his novella Acts of the Apostles, set in the same community, but with a protagonist inspired by a martyr whose story is told in the New Testament.
It was during this year and more that I was dropping by that Danny let me see his process of composition. I will not burden you with specific examples — his novella is currently making the rounds of publishers, and I am not allowed to quote from it until it has seen print — but he would let me read a segment that he had written of, say, ten pages. Then he would show me his "second draft" — usually a typescript with certain words and phrases underlined, perhaps with question marks, sometimes with alternate possibilities scrawled in pen. Then would come the "third draft" — still the same basic typescript, the same underlinings, the same or different alternate wordings scribbled in. Finally, the fourth draft, where perhaps the words and phrases had been changed, perhaps not. His process is, thus, to work slowly, to sift the words in his mind over and over again, and then to let the final, best words shift into place: weighed, hefted, polished.
My ex-wife, in addition, was related to the late Mariana Yampolsky, called the "Grande Dame of Mexican photography," who photographed many indio pueblos and fiestas, and whom we had visited several times in Tlalpan, on the south of Mexico city. I add this because this contact brought me to Mexico City several times for extended visits, brought me through Tenochtitlàn and the Museo Arqueológico, acquainted me with the traditional narratives of the Aztecs and of Aztlán, and our travels with Mariana on her extended photographic expeditions through el campo (the countryside, in the field) gave me visions of the life of campesinos and of pueblos, or of country folk and villages. Back stateside, my then-wife worked with Mexican migrant farmworkers, and once, when my car broke down in the countryside near Gettysburg, PA, I was received graciously by one of her clients, named Ignacio, and I found his apartment above Sandoval's Grocery outside of Bendersville to have much in common with people we stayed with in the shadow of the Mexican volcano of Popocatépetl.
In Romero's poems, the autobiographical becomes emblematic for a more widespread social situation: in his poem "PCP Dipped Cigarettes" Danny presents a vignette from his youth in which he and his friends would smoke "Sherms" — or cigarettes dipped in PCP, otherwise known as "angel dust" — "on the floor of a fenced-in / walkway four stories above / railroad tracks."
This was to escape, as he states, first, by saying "it took us / out of our heads, out of / our skin, out of our ghetto." This is, or seems to be, the positive aspect of smoking them; he continues to describe them expressionistically:
We left stone-zombies drooling
and screaming, writhing like
our brains in flames into an
oblivion free from drive-bys,
free from handcuffs, free from
life in a poisoned junkyard
and factoryland desolation
When he was fifteen, Danny Romero decided that he would write. He would write himself out of his ghetto — both the physical place and the mental space that he inhabited when there. Also, his decision to write was a decision to let the dominant culture of the United States see what life was like in the barrio. In a sense, he felt — and feels — a mission to bring to public awareness the experience of los de abajo, or "those from beneath." This last phrase is the title of a famous novel about the Mexican revolution, Los de abajo, by Mariano Azuela, translated as Underdogs — it is also, incidentally, the name of a "tropipunk" band in Mexico City. I think the phrase also is well suited to describe Danny's poetic and novelistic project, which I perceive as bringing images from the American collective unconscious up into literary awareness. Hopefully, once we — especially those of us in power — become conscious of this layer of our national being, we will act to change it. In other words, these poems are observations that set the stage for social change.
Romero doesn't specifically call for change, however. His eye is the passionately observing eye, that takes in and at times judges but never dictates what to do. In fact, his eye observes do-gooders with ineffectual Christmas presents in "near the railroad tracks" — the "Sisters of Mercy" visit "in their 1970 Caprice" to give the "poorest people in the parish" some "two-bit gifts and grub." However, again without judgment, he states that "the father wasn't there ... they thought he might have been at work / but no one really knows for sure." As with many of his poems, this is a vignette that simply presents an event, of minor importance, that in turn suggests a family situation, but which is finally left undefined. One can read in all sorts of explanations for the father's absence, but the last line denies us any final conclusion.
Finally, there is joy. The chapbook's title comes from a poem, "Slow Dance," in which a tender and sensual moment — which may in fact have occurred in dream, the poem has that feel to it, but nowhere is it stated that it was in anything but waking reality — is recalled, and set
in this land of a thousand
barrios where the hours
pass like shadows fall
on pyramid steps of Chichén Itzá.
— Don Riggs
this article first appeared in the Drexel University online journal in October 2002.
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