By Brian Dunlap
Friday September 28th at 826LA Mar Vista was electric. The room was packed, filled mostly with people of color and queer people of color. The metal chairs were set in rows facing the front where the writers were about to read. On the right side of the room was a small display of artwork from invited Eastside artist Freddy Negrete, who shared the table with pastries from Portos. Attendees continued to trickle in, conversations adding a welcomed excitement to the room. But when host Mixel Salinas stepped to the mic a focused quiet fell over the audience. 100 Thousand Poets for Change’s Love, Migration, and Revolution reading began.
The eight featured readers read powerful personal narratives about themselves (identity, gender, etc.), a close loved one (a mother) or the more overtly political or social commentary through the lens of their black or brown or Asian/Filipino and/or queer identity. These were writers speaking their truths and their experiences, not only to insure they were included in the narrative of Los Ángeles or the United States, but, whether directly or not, intentional or otherwise, to speak on history (historical trauma, institutional or trauma, US history, etc.).
T. Simana read first, from their memoir they’ve been working on for 10-15 years. The section was about their mother exhausting herself in the working class jobs she took in Mexico to support her family. Spanish was interspersed throughout. Sarmina wrote the piece through the context of the Mexican Diaspora which is often the context in which they write.
From the rapt silence, it was apparent the audience needed these narratives. To have their realities reflected back to them. To be validated. They clapped between pieces and finger snapped at the most important and powerful sections of each writer’s words.
The other features were: Kausar Mohammed, Vanessa Diaz, Brian Lin, B.A. Williams, Shuyu Cao, Leesa Fenderson and Mark Maza.
The night was also a chance to build community and especially break down borders. The break in the middle of the reading and the brief exercise Brian Lin asked the audience to do, where he instructed everyone to talk to a person near them they didn’t know, about something amazing that happened to them in the past week, were two opportunities to make connections and make new friends and sustain the literary community.
Mark Maza was born in the Philippines, but spent most of his childhood living in Garden Grove, being heavily influenced by the city’s large Vietnamese community and his Vietnamese friends. Two of the three poems he read are about Southern California, one about an incident that occurred at a liquor store he used to work at in Long Beach, involving local gang members. Maza’s Southern California perspective is one I’ve hardly heard, if at all, and immediately knew how important it is to the literature and narrative of the region as I could feel his words expanding my Southern California world.
Brian Lin read a piece set in Kenneth Hanh State Recreation Area that explored the intersection of social convention and identity, specifically his gay identity and race, during a hike he took there with friends. He told of how good looking his friend was, how maybe he wasn’t as good looking, his insecurities about how others see him because of this physical flaw or that assumption because he’s Asian. Lin’s piece read like a running dialogue in his head, that people often have of spinning “what ifs” when they are worried or nervous about how something they find important will turn out.
After the features read, there was an open mic section, where the readers stayed on the reading’s theme of love, migration and revolution. They all read powerful work, but the reader who stood out most was poet Bridgette Bianca, a professor at Santa Monica College. She read a long poem deconstructing American history to hit at the racist trauma it’s caused people of color, integrating the African call and response by repeating lines. The stark manner in which Bianca expressed these hard truths, told through her prism as a black woman, spoken in a strong, powerful voice, about slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc. electrified the crowd, some nodding their heads in affirmation, others snapping fingers and even a few responding with, “Mmm hmm.” Their historical trauma and others like their’s, spoken in such a warm and inviting venue, for a reading focused on their stories, confirming in a way who they are, was a reading, as Mixel Salinas said they “didn’t know we needed.”
As L.A. poet, picture book writer, Culver City resident and event organizer Michael Reyes said, he chose the Westside as the part of town to locate the reading, because there are not enough POC readings on the Westside, especially for all the people of color who live there.
When 100 Thousand Poets for Change’s Love, Migration and Revolution reading ended, 826LA Mar Vista’s audience had remained. No one had left. Afterword, they kept asking Michael Reyes to host more readings like this one.