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Finding the perfect carne asada burrito.
That was the pursuit that drew people to taco shops, drove them to abandon their social and class barriers, Adrián Arancibia and a few friends believed in the mid-1990s.
So they began reading poems they’d written at taco shops, incorporating music, drawing crowds. Born in Chile, Aranciba’s life from age 5 in San Diego put him in contact with friends of many different backgrounds. The group, Taco Shop Poets, formed officially in 1994. They traveled the country, were featured in a few documentaries about Latino life in the United States and put out books and recordings.
It’s been eight years since the group has performed, but they’re coalescing around a performance next weekend, alongside the Los Angeles-based Los Illegals, a seminal 1980s Latino punk band.
Aranciba’s vantage point has shifted again: He turned 40 this week. He sat down with us at El Comal in North Park, which has been a key setting for the group over the years, to share more.
Take us into a night during the heyday of Taco Shop Poets. Who’s there? What is one of the poems saying?
Perhaps Tomás Riley is reading a piece about Emerald Hills, about the beauty and tensions of his neighborhood. A working class neighborhood comprised of Chicanos/Mexicanos and African Americans, the piece is filled with signifiers that recall the language of the neighborhood — who is there, how they speak — all the while the bass and drums are working with Tomás to make the piece live.
In the audience, you would have members of local bands like No Knife, Rocket From the Crypt and B-Side Players. You’d see high-school-aged youth, college students, teachers and professors. There’d be hip-hop heads, rock heads and punks. You’d see activists that helped establish places like Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural de la Raza.
In the time since the group last performed, you had kids.
My daughter knows I’m a poet. It’s weird for them to see you in performance situations. That for us has been one of the most interesting processes. How do we share this with our children? I’m probably not going to bring my youngest daughter next weekend — she’s 10 months old. But my older one, she’s 3. She’ll probably get it.
She heard me reading once and someone was talking and she said, “Shh! My dad’s singing, you guys. Stop.” She understands the notion of performance.
One of the things that is compelling to me about poets is how you see. You’re walking down the street and you see something differently. I’m curious, after having children, what do you notice now?
You’re hyper-sensitive. After my first kid, I spent like a month hyper-sensitive to everything. From a mom yelling at her kid, to a puppy. I remember seeing a little baby possum, going to get run over by a car, and like — “Aaah!” The first month, you realize the helplessness. The need. How they rely on you for everything.
Kids also force you to find beauty in the strangest things.
As you come to your 40th birthday celebration and performance next weekend, is this a snapshot of your life before the current?
Most everybody’s going to do a new piece. It’s not like we’re stuck in this time period. I think it’s about engaging the issues that are in front of us. That can range from being a parent to what’s going on in Wisconsin to what’s going on in neighborhoods that changed. But in my case, it involves a much more mature perspective as a writer.
Now, these are transitions. I’m the youngest one in the group. I’m the last one to turn 40. So I think everybody’s kind of realizing that this is an important step for all of us. Because we’re moving from that phase when you’re 25, 26 years old and you’re producing and you’re doing a lot of work to understanding how to be a little more reflective and pensive about the work that you do, if that makes sense.
Do you see spoken word as a tool of resistance?
I think the genres are at a crisis, both spoken word and hip-hop. They’ve become such commoditized practices that it becomes formulaic. Hip hop is formulaic with regards to what you should say or what kind of beats to use. And then you see really great artists like Talib Kweli. You see great poets like Amiri Baraka that continue to do new things. They’re the ones who remind us to create new things.
Culture in general in the United States gets too commodity-driven. It’s more slogan-writing than really critically investigating how things happen.
So, is it resisting?
Oh yes, I think so, but I’m trying to get away from the word resistance. It offers a different reading of the contemporary, of the here, of the now. We desire something different. We force people to interrogate where they’re at, and what they want for a better future.
How do you think the passion for spoken word in San Diego might be revived?
I think that the passion is there. I think we have to find ways of constructing a community to listen to poetry. I think in this sense the Taco Shop Poets are important, in that when we read, a cross section of folks that would not normally hang out together would be there to share the poetry, like bread. (That line is Roque Dalton’s, not mine!)
What’s it like to study literary movements in grad school, having been part of one yourself?
I’m going to be finishing up my Ph.D. finally, and I’m probably going to end up doing some kind of critical study on the work that we’ve done. I think it’s important. I don’t want it to go by the wayside. Because of what we were doing here, in Los Angeles, a women’s group sprouted off, which is still in existence. In San Francisco, another group.
I think people saw the need to be a part of a community, yet express the needs, the desires, the dream, the issues facing communities all over the country. In their own way, in their own particular space.
Would you have, at the time, called what you were doing a literary movement?
We knew something was different. We were of a different moment. It wasn’t necessarily for just Chicanos who’d been here for generations. It was an immigrant like me, who is Chilean, but identifies as Chicano. Or a Filipino-Mexicano. Or a Tijuanense or a Mexico City person who is Chicano. So you have all of these different voices from around the city kind of coalescing into one group. We kind of saw that. We could read the importance of that.
Did race issues ever negatively impact the spoken word or greater art scene in San Diego?
I can say that spoken word has had difficulty breaking out of being seen and understood as that “thing young men of color do.” This is especially true with regard to presses and academics who often view spoken word artists as less than writers. And then, in a response to their marginalization, you see spoken word poets refuse to read off a page because they are not “page poets.” In the end, this is a zero sum game. These attitudes and tensions affect writers from communities of color. They are marginalized by academia and presses, yet they perform and produce great work for the community. Unfortunately, too often these works are never printed and recollected. In a world that values the permanence of the written work, it is hard to establish a permanence or sustenance as a creative writer without the support of presses.
Is it rare for groups like yours that aren’t performing anymore to want to get together again?
It’s how you view success. We could’ve continued doing a lot of work, at the breakneck pace we were at, but at what cost? At the cost of commoditizing what we were doing, at the cost of doing more commercial stuff? Two years ago, they had spoken word artists doing the NFL draft. And I was thinking, “Wow, this is a little troubling.”
Resistance has now become something different.