Francisco Alarcón dies at 61; Chicano poet and children's author

Francisco Alarcón saw life as a poem — a single, continuous verse.

“He said he would never use a period until he died,” said his sister Esthela Alarcón. Each day added a line or stanza; only death would end it, her brother said.

The L.A.-born Chicano poet and factory laborer who worked his way from adult school, East L.A. College and Cal State Long Beach to Stanford University died Friday of stomach cancer in his Davis home, still eschewing that final punctuation. He was 61.

His death ended a prolific career as a bilingual poet, children's author and professor at UC Davis. Alarcón, once a finalist for California poet laureate, was known for his poetry about immigrants, love and the indigenous languages and traditions of Mexico, and also for bilingual books of children's verse, which he called “the best thing I've done in my life.”

Children “can relate to poems because they are short and concrete,” he once told a reporter.

Short, concrete, and what his sister called “to the point” poems were his specialty — “streets were no longer streets,” he wrote of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, “how easy hands became weapons.”

Much of his work had a leftist political flavor. He wrote of pro-immigrant activism and explored themes of outsider identity that included his own as a gay Latino man raised in a pious Catholic family. He remained closeted into late adulthood and “never came out to the family,” his sister said. “But we all knew.”

There was never any break in the family's close relations, she said.

As he neared death, family members solemnly informed his deeply religious mother that Francisco had accepted Communion — probably mostly to please her.

The 92-year-old matron surprised them by laughing. “Did he know what he was eating?” she exclaimed.

Alarcón was a tireless promoter of poetry and art — “very gregarious,” said friend and fellow Bay Area poet Lucha Corpi.

Friends said he lived in constant motion — with only the briefest commas between traveling, performing, teaching and visiting schools for readings. He consciously refuted the image of the poet as recluse. He lyricized daily life as it happened, and “could write anywhere,” Corpi said.

Alarcón's more than 20 published books include sonnets, works of free verse and textbooks. Poetry “was his way of life,” said longtime friend and fellow writer Jorge Argueta.

His first collection of published poetry, “Tattoos,” came out in 1985 and got its title from his characterization of a poem as a tattoo that “comes from the flesh” and is inherently in a state of conflict. Later came “Body in Flames” and “Of Dark Love.”

“Snake Poems,” published in 1992, draws on incantations of indigenous Mexicans. “Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems” marked his entree into children's works in 1997.

Alarcón was thoroughly bilingual — a lyricist in both English and Spanish who translated his own verse, even haiku lines where precise syllable counts made translation difficult. He also spoke French and Portuguese, and Nahuatl, the indigenous Mexican language of some of his ancestors.

In later years, “he decided he no longer wanted to deal with the first person,” said Corpi. Wanting to disappear from his poems, he delved into haiku.

Alarcón was nationally known among Chicano poets in part because he published in both Spanish and English and “made major contributions in both languages,” said María Cecilia Colombi, chair of the Spanish and Portuguese department at UC Davis and Alarcón's colleague. Most other prominent Chicano poets write in English and are translated, she said.

He is also considered a pioneer of bilingual children's literature, she said.

Francisco Xavier Alarcón was born Feb. 21, 1954, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington to a cross-national family. His father, Jesús Pastor Alarcón, was a Mexican from the Guadalajara area who went to trade school after high school to become a banker. His mother, Consuelo Vargas de Alarcón, was an American born in L.A. who worked for a time in a cannery.

Francisco was the third of their seven children. In his early childhood, the family moved to Mexico, where his mother stayed home and his father resumed banking, his sister said. But by the time young Alarcón finished as a top student in a Jesuit high school, a combination of national financial troubles and poor management left the Alarcóns too broke to continue his schooling, Esthela Alarcón said.

Francisco, long seen as the brightest of the children, “never had to study,” his sister said. “He just looked at the book, and knew the material.” He had known he wanted to be a poet since he was 13.

He came back to California at 17. He worked as a migrant laborer and in a metal-parts manufacturing firm while attending school. At Stanford, he became a pillar of the Chicano poetry and music scene centered at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco's Mission District. (Days before his death, he would attend a tribute there held in his honor).

During his graduate days at Stanford, Alarcón was questioned and briefly detained in connection with the killing of 15-year-old Theodore Gomez, a runaway stabbed to death in Golden Gate Park in September 1984. Supporters rallied to his defense.

Another man soon confessed to the killing and Alarcón was released and cleared of any involvement in the crime. He later described the experience to the bilingual Bay Area newspaper El Tecolote as absurd and Kafkaesque, and faulted police for jumping to conclusions despite the lack of any evidence — he said they had little more than his ethnicity and his car, which matched witnesses' accounts. The following year, he sued the city for having falsely linked him to the crime. The episode also informed his poetry.

Alarcón taught at UC Santa Cruz and in the Spanish department at Davis. He met his longtime partner Javier Pinzón more than two decades ago; the two married during the legal window for gay marriage in California in 2008.

Alarcón urged his siblings to follow his lead and go to college. He also made sure they accepted social welfare when they needed it, his sister said, including MediCal and other public benefits — not to mention a leg up from the California public higher-education system. “We were part of the system when we needed it. We left it when we didn't,” she said.

All the siblings eventually became successful professionals. They include a doctor, a dentist, an architect and an engineer, she said.

One brother is a priest to whom Alarcón — whose humor had a playful, sarcastic edge — would declare “thank God I'm an atheist!” his sister said.

The brother helped care for Alarcón to the last, and toward the end offered him the sacrament of anointing of the sick.

Alarcón consented — but made his brother promise to keep it short.

The family plans to put a period on his tombstone, his sister said.

Besides Pinzón and his sister and mother, who live in Long Beach, Alarcón is survived by brothers Juan Antonio, José Arturo, Jesús Carlos and Josue Samuel Alarcón; and sister Berta Olivia Alarcón, all of Southern California; and nine nieces and nephews.


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