In the past, teachers taking the California state exam for bilingual educators have had to answer the question: “Who is the author of “Floricanto en Aztlan?” The answer is the poet Alurista.
Since the 1960s, Alurista, who appears Thursday at Cal Lutheran University, has been known as the father of Chicano bilingual poetry--works written in both English and Spanish. Or as Alurista, without a trace of modesty, put it: “Anybody who claims to be knowledgeable about Chicano poetry is knowledgeable of my work.”
Of course, even historical figures have critics. Some complain that his poetry is too tame, that his relevance to Chicano poetry is past. Others feel his themes are too rough, too political--they wish he’d write about more pleasant things.
But one thing both sets of critics (and Alurista himself) agree on: Alurista’s place in history is firm. Armed with numerous academic awards and media acclaim, he has read his poetry throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe. He was also a producer and subject of the video, “Torn in Two,” which featured four Chicano poets. It aired in 1984 on PBS and won an Emmy.
Alurista made his first serious attempts at poetry in the 1960s, a time when the Chicano movement was “in its heyday.”
“I was going to be a shrink,” Alurista said by telephone from his home in Pismo Beach, “but then I thought, who would be my patients? I knew the answer--rich white people. I decided I wanted to be a mass healer instead.”
Being a Chicano poet at the time meant much more than sitting alone in a room pondering couplets. He became politically active. “My inspirations were Cesar Chavez and Luis Valdez,” Alurista said. “When I first saw Chavez, I thought, this guy’s either a genius, a fool or a saint. I quickly found out he was neither a fool nor a saint. And Luis, he inspired me to get out there and perform my poetry.”
Alurista’s published poetic voice is one that easily slips in and out of various dialects of English and Spanish, as well as Mayan and Nahuatl (known as Aztec). Said Alurista, “I don’t just write about Chicano matters, I write about world matters, social matters. . . . I don’t just write about myself, I write about the world we live in: hunger, war, military aggression. The poet takes responsibility for speaking for those who have no voice.”
The Chicano poetry movement has evolved since his first collection, “Floricanto en Aztlan,” was published in 1971. “I’m no longer reading at great demonstrations,” Alurista said. Instead, he’s a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, reading in college auditoriums to well-behaved students who hadn’t been born when Alurista first made his mark. “My hair isn’t long anymore. I no longer wear bell bottoms and sandals. I wear a tie .”
Alurista believes his work has improved with time. “I consider myself a developing writer,” he said. “I still have the same spirit, but I’m open to more personal matters now than I was years ago. My anger has been subdued into humor that allows people to take my message. People would get scared if I read only my old poetry because the times don’t reflect the revolutionary spirit that we had then.”
When Alurista talks about his critics, however, he grows more militant. “Some people don’t like what I’m talking about,” he said. “They want to hear poems about quaint, folkloric people. But I’m not about to write about the beautiful flowers on my grandmother’s window who lives in the barrio. I’m not going to sell out.”
Alurista will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Preus-Brandt Forum at Cal Lutheran University , 60 W. Olsen Rd., Thousand Oaks , as part of the day-long Festival Encuentros. Appearing at 8:30 p.m. are Conjunto Hueyapan, a family of five musicians who dance to and perform Jarocho folk music with traditional Mexican instruments. There also will be traditional food, music and art displays. Admission is free. For information, call (805) 493-3220.