Manazar Gamboa, a convict-turned-poet who devoted his life after prison to writing and sharing the liberating power of literature with others from troubled backgrounds, has died.
Gamboa died Dec. 13 at a Long Beach hospice from complications of liver and heart failure. He was 66.
An important Los Angeles poet who began writing about the urban Chicano experience before it was fashionable, Gamboa led Beyond Baroque, the Venice literary center, in the late 1970s and was published in such respected magazines as the Chicago Review.
“He was a very important figure in opening up the poetry world in Los Angeles . . . to new voices, to overlooked ethnic and racial groups and styles,” said Frederick Dewey, Beyond Baroque’s director. “He was a very underappreciated and under-recognized poet . . . who was dedicated to strengthening his community.”
Since 1989, Gamboa had been artistic director at the Homeland Neighborhood Cultural Center in Long Beach, where he directed theater and literary reading projects and led writing workshops for adults and children.
He also directed more than 2,500 writing workshops for youths in the Los Angeles County juvenile justice system and for inmates at state prisons in Chino and Frontera during 13 years with L.A. Theatre Works, a nonprofit in Venice.
“He pioneered and revolutionized the field of arts programming for incarcerated and probationary youth,” said Gale Cohen, director of the arts and children project at L.A. Theatre Works. “His true love was working with kids and the community.”
At Homeland, Gamboa worked with those hardened by street life to craft stories about their experiences.
He always broke the ice by telling his own story.
“A lot of my writing has to do with my barrio, the people who live there, the effect of the loss on myself and trying to keep it alive,” he said in a documentary on his life, “Poetic License.”
Gamboa, whose ancestry was Apache, was the youngest of 12 children. He traveled the San Fernando and Central valleys as a youth, picking crops with his family.
The family lived in Chavez Ravine, a poor, hilly area north of downtown Los Angeles. As one of the first Latino students at Nightingale Junior High in Cypress Park, he rebelled against the prejudice he encountered by speaking only in Spanish and consequently spent much time in the principal’s office. He also began to sell marijuana and steal cars.
In 1954, when he was 20, he faced his first prison term. He would spend 17 of the next 23 years in prison.
When his neighborhood was destroyed in the late 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium, it left Gamboa with an anger about being uprooted that never faded.
He became a heroin addict. In the early 1970s the woman he loved died of an overdose in his arms. After her death, he went on an armed robbery spree and wound up in prison again.
While at Soledad State Prison, he quit heroin, and he started to read anything he could get his hands on, from biographies to ancient history.
Intrigued by Classics
What most fascinated him was poetry. He read Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Blake because that was what was available in the prison library.
At first other inmates teased him. Then, realizing his seriousness, they started sneaking poetry books through a crack in his cell.
“I’m not saying I went to a higher level and I’m a good guy,” he once said. “There was just a change.”
One day someone gave him the complete works of Shakespeare. He was stymied by the bard’s Elizabethan English until luck brought him a copy of the Oxford Universal Dictionary. It was the key he needed to unlock the plays, and he guarded it like gold.
“I would have fought King Kong for that book,” he told the Times in 1998. “It was like a miracle that it came to me.”
He began to write and send his poems out for publication. On the 38th try, his work was accepted by a journal run by a University of Colorado professor.
In 1977, he was released from prison and entered the Los Angeles poetry scene. From 1977 to 1981 he worked for Beyond Baroque, where he started the first multicultural reading series and edited its magazine, Obras. From 1981 to 1983 he was a director of the L.A. Latino Writers Assn. and editor of its ChismeArte magazine.
He began to hold writers workshops for recovering substance abusers and founded a performance group called AMA.
In the early 1980s he began to teach writing and literacy in prisons and court schools, always telling his students to write from the heart. “You need to tell your own story because if somebody else tells it, they’ll tell it wrong,” he said.
He would drive as much as 120 miles a day to teach creative writing to children in juvenile halls across the county. In 1988 he won a $2,500 Brody Arts Fund grant and replaced his aged 1963 Dodge.
When he lay dying, former students came to his aid. One, who worked in a hospital emergency room, volunteered to tend him at night. Another, who worked for the mortuary, took care of his body.
Among Gamboa’s most notable works was “Memories Around a Bulldozed Barrio,” an epic poem he turned into performance art.
“He wrote some of the most important poems of Chicano writers in California,” said Victor Valle, a former colleague of Gamboa in the L.A. Latino Writers Assn. who now teaches ethnic studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Valle remembered Gamboa as a taskmaster of language who rejected the notion that barrio art lacked craft. That is one reason Valle considers Gamboa’s “Chicano Tank in the Old County Jail” an important poem.
It takes place in the segregated cells at the old Los Angeles jail in 1953. He described a makeshift jam session among prisoners with names like Chuta and Meno. He produced a poem about transformation and faith.
“Sing it, Chuta, sing it!” someone yells out.
did you ever have a woman,
catch her running-a-round?”
and on, and on we sing and jam
into “Kansas City,”
“All That Wine Is Gone,”
and more, and more, until:
ALL PRISONERS TO THEIR CELLS
Iron doors clang shut.
We settle into our bedding
with heavy, heavy sighs.
After a while--
inside the silence--
a toilet is being flushed,
a truck is rumbling down temple street
someone is softly singing,
“Did you ever have a woman...”
Last year, in a project sponsored by Beyond Baroque, a fragment from a Gamboa poem was engraved in the Venice boardwalk.
Gamboa is survived by two sons, Manuel and Frank, of Los Angeles; and a daughter, Olmeca Sol, of Santa Cruz.