Listen Up! 

Tucson Youth Poetry Slam creates an important home for the voices of Southern Arizona youth poets

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Enrique García Naranjo sits at the edge of the table—with his Zia Records black T-shirt, voluminous dark black hair and all. After he fills in his peers on the outcome of this year's Unity Festival at Tucson High, where he and other Tucson Youth Poetry Slam members slammed, he steps outside to chat.

"With poetry, encuentras pedacitos (you find pieces) of who you want to be," he says.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Mexican parents, molding his identity was a work in progress. "In Salt Lake, there's not a lot of raza," he jokes. But the self-described pocho definitely knows where he stands now.

As he sits in a small patio area outside the Casa Libre library, he flashbacks to the beginning, when he was a 15-year-old at Pueblo High School and saw an old school TYPS flyer pinned on one of his teachers' bulletin boards. (He refers this educator as an OG—original gangster—in the scrutinized-and-later-banned Mexican-American studies program.)

He ended up attending the TYPS assembly with other classmates. He sat in the audience and out came Tucson poet and DJ, Logan Phillips.

"It blew me out of the water. This is what I want to do," he remembers thinking.

From then on the routine became: school, homework, TYPS afterschool program. The hopeful rapper had been putting together rhymes since the age of 13. Discovering TYPS came at the right time—right when the road splits and you have to choose which way to go.

"We would research something in our community, Pueblo being on the South Side, I saw a lot of injustices, I noticed a lot of things in the community, the constant Border Patrol presence, the cops coming in and out of the school," he says. Sarah Gonzales brought the social justice education and Phillips the poetry expertise. "It was weird because I had been so used to it, but when Sarah put it into terms ... a lot of that gave into my writing style."

On this Tuesday late afternoon, García Naranjo is joined by his other TYPS brothers and sisters—not by blood but definitely by corazón. Together they discuss projects, goals and business over some empanadas and pan dulce at Casa Libre. (The Fourth Avenue literary haven has been a long-time supporter of TYPS. That same day, they announced money issues forced them out of their beloved casita.)

The group gives staff member Zoe Martens some love on her last meeting. She volunteered for a few months as part of her stay in the Border Studies Program and it's time to move on.

Then all ears focus on Zack Taylor— who's been with TYPS since 2012 ("but it feels like way longer")—and a grant he recently wrote to get some funding for the Gay-Straight Alliance branch that recently became part of Spoken Futures Inc. (which TYPS is a program of). One of Taylor's primary roles this year is to reach out to more LGBTQ youth, and spread the word on the poetry slam.

Lydia Havens came all the way down from Florence, as she religiously does for every meeting.

Last year, with the help of Spoken Futures Press—also under the umbrella of Gonzales' and Phillips' Spoken Futures Inc.—García Naranjo published his first collection of poems, a total of 19, written between 2011 and 2013, under the title "Tortoise Boy Says."

"A lot of people at 18 don't necessarily have stuff to their name," he says. "It made me realize 'this is the real thing.' We are out in the community and this is what we can do at such a young age. It made me más orgulloso (more proud)."

Piece after piece is an ode to his "pochismo"—which is often used as a derogatory term for people of Mexican descent born in the U.S. but that he has chosen to embrace—his cultural influence, his immigrant parents.

From García Naranjo's poem Para Ti:

Estas cosas son para ti:

War drums circulating the churches,

cries of battle from the Mariachi,

explosions in the sky and cumbia sprouting

from beneath the ground.

Flowers falling like spirits we evoke though song;

part-time indians dancing over-time,

and Gods exploding into confetti--

slowly kissing the surface we stand on,

todo para ti.

For the days we smiled together.

For the nights we named after the deceased.

For the walks home.

For the festivals in honor of our ancestors.

For love that will never know its limits.

García Naranjo spent a lot of his childhood moving with his family to places like Idaho and his parents' birth-town, Estipac, Jalisco—about an hour southwest of Guadalajara. In his writing, he constantly wrestles—in a good way—with the phrase, "ni de aquí, ni de allá," not from here but not from there, another familiar proverb to describe Latinos born on this side of the border.

"A lot of what I do is write the stories that my parents have given me, in tune with la cultura chicana, Mexicana, the identity of being a pocho, being able to talk in both languages...a lot of that entices me," he says.

After four years in TYPS, moving from member to alumni (when the teens graduate high school they're encouraged to get involved with other aspects of Spoken Futures, and so a new generation of TYPS slam poets emerges), he's found a path that buffs up his soul, with inspiration from Gonzales, Phillips and every single slammer in the TYPS family. (Phillips aka DJ Dirtyverbs aka the cumbiero has also helped him get a gig or two at Hotel Congress, spinning some Chicano oldies and funk.)

These days, García Naranjo works at the Boys and Girls Club—passing down that positive guidance and empowerment onto the little ones, using music, poetry, knowledge to keep them engaged, keep them on track the same way TYPS embraced him.

"Growing up around Pueblo, you see a lot of kids drop out of school, become parents early on, get in the gangs, a lot of people lose their lives," he says. "This has created a space where we can all coexist. It is about solidarity. Once we get further, we create more spaces for Latino, Chicano youth, youth who are queer, all youth really, with youth all you can do is evolve."

The Origin, the Core

"Through dedication, irreverence and love, we use poetry as a tool to dream tomorrow, honor yesterday and live today." —TYPS

Spoken Futures, Inc. has three core programs: Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, Liberation Lyrics and Poetry and Healing.

TYPS was born in 2010 for youth 12 to 19—Chicanos, Chicanas, undocumented, documented, LGBTQ, a little bit of every soul has been represented at some point.

Gonzales and Phillips knew each other from the art circles, and that year, Phillips—who had recently moved back to Arizona from his residency in Querétaro, Mexico and journey through other regions of Latin America—came on board to help out Gonzales with the poetry/social justice afterschool programs.

"It is not necessarily, 'We are coming to teach poetry!' It's, 'We are coming to talk about the things you are already talking about...and we are using poetry to talk about it,'" says Gonzales, who also runs a social justice firm called Truth Sarita Consulting. "Providing guidance. A slam about how difficult their parents are, if you add another layer of analysis, 'this is the addiction going on in my family, this is what it is like to be queer and come out in a family that is not accepting,' they start to put that analysis into it."

Self-expression, self-love, empowerment, thinking critically—all at the foundation of TYPS for the past five years. Then there are layers upon layers of finance, marketing, and how-to-put-together business skills the volunteer youth staff catches up to over time. "These are transferable skills of how to be a leader, how to manage a budget, how to make decisions, how to speak in front of a group of 800 people," Gonzales says.

It's also about being able to get out there and make a living with your art (in García Naranjo's case, he's made about $1,000 from his poem book sales). Phillips knows a thing or two about that.

He's the co-director of the performance group Verbo•bala; has a poetry book, "Sonoran Strange," published this year; then there are his weekly and upon-request DJing gigs at Congress and other venues; and El Tambó, also the a-few-times-a-year cumbia party at Congress (where Phillips brings acts from around the country and some from across the border) that's been going strong for two years now.

"Sonoran Strange" is filled with tales of colonialism, geopolitical borders, the destruction of the Arizona environment, and the attacks to our education. Phillips' bicultural and bilingual essence—which very clearly influenced García Naranjo's work (he refers to Phillips as a mentor, an older brother)—thickly runs through the book's veins, and everything else Phillips puts his heart into.

Both his and Gonzalez's social commentary—the change you can create by questioning, expressing your thoughts on the issues that surround you—is a mantle of awareness over the youth they've worked with and continue to reach out to.

"I really don't consider my work ever to be giving a voice to the voiceless, that concept is dangerously colonial. I think it is more about creating spaces. All social groups are speaking, the question is who is listening?" Phillips says.

For both, poetry increases the capacity to empathize with others. "It is the power of poetry," he says. "The world that we create together is made through small actions. I make an effort to speak and to bring context to any conversation that I am having, and above all, listen. Because there is one thing that is missing in our society, and that is our capacity, our attention, our ability to listen deeply to one another."

Gonzales looks back at when García Naranjo organized a school board meeting when some school buses were removed from Pueblo. "It was packed with the nanas and the tatas, it was run bilingually and he started it with a very powerful slam poem," she says. "Some of the people running for school board showed up ... and they got their school buses back."

Like many others, TYPS has not been immune to financial shortages.

Their afterschool programs have been in hiatus for two years. In the past, they received monetary help from the Tucson Pima Arts Council, which has seen its budget shrink by a whole lot over the years.

But little by little, witnesses of TYPS' work have stepped up to help out. For instance, Bentley's House Coffee & Tea donates its space, so TYPS can host their slams of 100-people-plus every third Saturday of the month. At the yearly poetry slam championships, donations from parents and others in the audience make an appearance. And, most recently, they got the biggest investment the group has ever seen.

Lydia Havens' aunt designated TYPS as the recipient of all the revenue that comes from a trust of her husband, author David Foster Wallace's works.

With that money, they hope to bring back the afterschool programs. Over time, with a slow growth in mind, maybe the staff can start getting a salary, too.

"The youth and their stories are powerful and important, and there is a whole family around them that is also impacted," Gonzales says. "We have adults who come to watch, family members who can attest, 'here is the impact this has on my child's life, it is something that we should be supporting."

Sprouting Roots en el Sur de Arizona

Havens stumbled onto TYPS via the magical powers of Google in 2013.

She had an emerging passion, but Florence doesn't have much that relates to the poetry world. She travels to the Old Pueblo for every meeting and slam—her family devotedly by her side.

She remembers the first time her grandparents and mom sat through a TYPS championship two years ago, and she freaked out at the assumption they may be taken aback. "We (TYPS) talk about things that people don't really talk about at the dinner table...at a family reunion," she says. But they loved it. "My grandpa said 'that is the most fun I have had in decades.'"

Pre-TYPS, she didn't pay much attention to the social criticism side of things and tried to stay away from things like politics. These are influences in her present writing that grew overtime.

From Havens' poem Halves:

Our tongues trip over what we are

as if our hearts are still learning how

to properly tie their shoes. When we

explain ourselves, the words are only

half-way out of our mouths. We are

always in halves. Half truth, half lies

wrapped in the names we can't pry

from our fear's fingers:

Sakia Gunn

Lawrence King

Angie Zapata

Fred Martinez

Islan Nettles

Matthew Shepard

Half courage, half terror wrapped

in the names we involuntarily picture

at every closet door:

Tyler Clementi

Leelah Alcorn

Blake Brockington

Leslie Cheung

Zander Mahaffey

Jamey Rodmeyer

But there is a whole realization that those names could be ours. There is a whole yearning for

our lives to stop being taboo. We have our ears to the ground, to the seashells, to the walls to know when it is safe to come out. So give us the keys. Let us breathe the same air as you.

Let us rain down like an unholy storm.

And don't open your umbrellas.

Slammers from Douglas are also very much present.

Gonzales and Phillips pay visits there, Bisbee and other Southern Arizona towns.

TYPS' Eva Sierra has been working to establish a group in Douglas, where they'd also like to get youth from across the border—Agua Prieta, Sonora—involved. Sierra helps put together workshops and meetings, similar to her Tucson counterparts.

"Eva, Evita ... we share a friendship where we go around our cities, she, Douglas, I, Tucson, and tell each other the stories," García Naranjo says. "It is really neat to see how people take history and rewrite it for themselves. Rewriting the narrative is good for us."

Havens is getting ready to move back to Tucson in the next few weeks to attend Pima Community College. Turns out TYPS lit something up inside that made her realize she really wants to become a teacher.

"I have learned so much about myself, through poetry," she says. "I have opened so many doors in myself that I never knew existed."


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