Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Bridge of Time: Puente and Chabot College
When my good friend, the late poet Andrés Montoya and I graduated from the University of Oregon, we were lucky enough to have jobs, maybe not as sweet of a deal as our classmate Chang Rae Lee got, a three year visiting professorship under Garret Hongo, but neither did we, like Chang Rae, get a big book deal from Riverhead. Native Speaker was bought up before he even graduated with his MFA.
Nor was I, quite frankly, I must admit (gulp)as good of a writer as he was.
Or I should say, we were different writers.
He wrote beautiful language-based fiction, quiet like a prayer, and I wrote shout-out-loud, in-your-face short stories about messed-up Chicanos who mess up themselves and others, who, when they try to love, end up punching everybody, stories with more passion than craft.
I got a job at Modesto Junior College (More about that place later) and Andrés got a job at Chabot College in Hayward.
We both taught composition, lots of classes of composition, which means we had piles and piles of papers to comment on and grade, hundreds of students each semester.
One of the reasons writers who graduate from MFA programs do not go on to publish even one book is all the papers they have to grade. I know so many great writers, people brilliant with words and images, writers as talented as any of the greats, but they never publish a book because they spend so much time teaching so many classes. They never write.
Writing, I tell my student, is not about talent. It’s about persistence. If you are driven enough to learn your craft, if you are willing to cheat your employer and when you’re supposed to be doing work at your desk you’re really reading or writing, you’ll publish a book.
Anyway, Andrés got a job teaching composition, including the Puente classes, at Chabot College.
So in 2009, on my book tour, when I had the opportunity to visit Chabot, I was very excited.
The last time I had been on that campus was when Andrés invited me to his Puente class to read one of my stories, which was called “Chicano Chicanery” and was about some Chicano university students who write “Fuck Shakespeare” all over the campus walls and hallways, as a means of protesting white cultural dominance.
I’m not sure if it was a good story, but Howard Junker liked it, and he ended up putting it in Zyzzyva, under a different title. When my first book came out, Chicano Chicanery, the New York editor hired by Arte Público didn’t like the story much. I guess she didn't think writing anti-Shakespeare messages was very funny, and she asked me to take it out of the book.
Anyway, years ago I read that story for Andrés’ Puente class, and they seemed to love it. Puente is a program at some California community colleges designed to assist under-represented Latino students to transfer to four year universities. In their English classes, they teach Chicano literature.
Maybe they liked my story so much because for the first time they were taking a literature class where they read stories and poems written not by dead white men, but by Chicanas and Chicanos like themselves.
After my reading in Andrés class--at a time I only dreamed of having a book published--some of the Puente students came up to the desk where I sat and asked me to sign their copies of the Fuck Shakespeare story, which Andrés had photo copied from a dot matrix print out.
Signing my name, I felt like a real writer, and I loved Puente so much that I would help start one at my own school, and I would become a Puente teacher .
Well, fast forward the camera of my life to now, and I’m on my book tour for Unending Rooms. I got an opportunity to go back to Chabot College for a big reading and book signing.
It was going to be a great event, open to the entire school, organized by Ramón Garcia, the Puente Counselor at Chabot, who has been fighting for justice since before Andrés and I were fighting for a place in line at the jungle gym.
It was going to be a great event: A former Puente teacher returns with four published books.
But I blew it.
I scheduled two events on different sides of the state, on the same day, at the same time.
I wrote to Ramón apologizing, and although he was disappointed, (he had made such beautiful fliers!) he was kind about it. He had to cancel the event, but he offered to let me come another day, the only day I had free, a Monday afternoon.
He said it was too late to get the awesome theater he had reserved for the event and to invite the entire college, but I could visit the Puente class.
I jumped at the opportunity, not only because it was what I had done years earlier in Andrés’ class, but also because I love the Puente Students.
They love literature. They love writing.
Early Monday morning, at about 6 am, Sasha , Kafka and I drove from Fresno, where we were staying with our good friend Lee Herrick, to Hayward.
We were met by Ramon himself, and after showing us around, we went to his office, where we reminisced about when Andrés was the Puente teacher, how one time he helped students organize a protest. It got pretty wild, and the cops showed up and tried to break it up. One of them pushed Andres out of the way, and Andrés, not a pushover, might have pushed back.
He was handcuffed and arrested in front of all his Latino Students, charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.
I remember he called me that night and told me about it, and I shook my head and said, “Ay, Andrés!”
Years later, Ramón showed us around campus, the places Andrés used to teach, his office, and then he bought us a cup of coffee.
We went to the class, and it was great.
Sasha, who held Kafka (you know he’s our puppy, right?), said it was the best reading I had ever done.
The students loved the stories. From Unending Rooms, I read “The Tree That Wouldn’t Leave Sara Alone” a children’s tale (maybe) about a big oak tree that falls in love with a little girl and follows her everywhere. She has to get an injunction.
I had only brought a few books to sell, thinking the students wouldn’t have enough money to buy them, but they lined up afterward and bought them all within ten minutes. I had to run back to the car for more.
I know it went so well because of them, the Puente students, and not because I’m so fantastic.
I don’t mean that in false humility.
The Puente students were great that day, and because of that fact, they saw greatness in me.
Who is a genius?
Those who find genius in everyone, everywhere, at anytime.
The Puente class was full of geniuses.
After they had all gone on to their next classes, Ramón took us to a small café downtown, that had outdoor seating, which we needed because we had Kafka with us.
We ate the best fish tacos I had ever had in my life, shark tacos, mahi mahi tacos, salmon tacos.
Kafka sat on the sidewalk, watching the people pass. Then he laid down and slept for a while.