Carlos Cumpián: An Aztlán Poet in Mexican Chicago

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-09-18 05:40:33

Carlos Cumpián. Photo: Courtesy


Carlos Cumpián has had a busy summer. He spent a month at a writer’s retreat; he’s hosted a night honoring his “spiritual father,” Carlos Cortez; he’s been busy working with the Chicago Mexican Artists’ Group on a CD about Cortez; he’s preparing to start his teaching year and to appear at El BeiSMan’s conference on Latino Writers to be held October 30 – 31 at St. Augustine College. And in the midst of all this, he’s just received word that a Spanish language article on him, including three translations of his poems, has just appeared on the web.[1] What better time than now to look at his career and his achievement?

A revised version of the pages on Cumpián in Zimmerman 1989, this essay draws on recent interviews and articles as noted — plus my discussions with him since we met in the fall of 1980, as well as his notes to later, condensed drafts of this essay which appeared in 1999 and 2008. The bibliographical items referred to here will appear at the end of Part II of this essay, to appear in a subsequent issue of El BeiSMan.



Introduction and Coyote Sun


Today I thought I’d call home
so I got on the telephone
and said, “Operator, please give me
Aztlán person to person.”
She replied: “Sorry sir, still checking”
after 2 minutes-
           she asked me to spell it-
So I did—A-Z-T-L-A-N She though I said ICELAND at first
but after the spelling she said
What?!! AZTLÁN!
She said is this some
kind of a joke.
I said, “No, you know where it is”
She said—”Sir—I cannot take
           this call, but
           if you wish I’ll let
           you talk to my supervisor—”
I said, “Fine, put ‘em on
I got time”-
Well her supervisor got on the line-
And I told her what
I had said before
all she could say was that was the first
she ever heard about it—I said,
“You’ll hear more
about it soon!’—and hung up-[2]


A Poet’s Life


Carlos Cumpián followed poets Carlos Cortez, Ana Castillo and Carlos Morton, as pioneer Chicago Mexican and Mexican American writers to identify themselves as Chicano and to begin reading and publishing in Chicago during the 1970s.

Cumpián was born in San Antonio, Texas to Texas-born Mexican parents. His mother was the daughter of a likewise Texas-born railroad worker, though one of her grandmothers was from Zacatecas; his father was a college-educated Korean War veteran who nevertheless worked as a migrant worker in Texas, the Midwest and Chicago. The family left Texas when Cumpián was two and spent some years in Sacramento and San José, California, before they returned to South Texas. But the job market forced his family to leave the Southwest Texas behind, and seek a new future in Chicago’s burgeoning labor market.

During his family’s early years, Cumpián attended school, first in California and later in Texas. His mother “liked reading stories and enjoyed telling me dichos (Spanish language sayings). The recently published anthology, With a Book in Their Hands: Chicano/a Readers and Readerships Across the Centuries Edited by Manuel M. Martin-Rodriguez University of New Mexico Press, has Cumpián’s essay “I Learned to Read at my Mommas’s Knee” which provides an in-depth look at his first attempts at literacy. Essentially, Cumpián’s tells how, “she (mother) found some old Grimm brothers books in a barn and read them to me as I was growing up.”

Perhaps that is what saved him from the typically segregated and mediocre education he received in South Texas and the harsh, race-conflicted urban educational experience he would have in Chicago. He reached the Midwest hub city only some months before the famous National Democratic Convention of 1968. A Texas-bred Chicano, he was to bring a Chicano perspective to the city’s post-1968 political/cultural world.

Cumpián frequently tells about being shocked by the city’s Black/White racial polarization, being confused about where he, Mexicans and Latinos fit in, being moved by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in the midst of a Mexican community that was relatively distant from the militancy stirring within Southwest Chicano movement circles, identifying progressively with Black and counter cultural modes of life and art.

He attended public school from the seventh grade on, but he “withdrew” after the tenth grade at age 16 “to explore the streets,” experimenting with drugs, damaging his health, and burying a few friends who died along the way — victims of “their excesses and traffic accidents.” By age 17, he was a troubled kid who had “faced the specter of mortality” and was now asking fundamental questions about life and death. It was at this point that he stopped watching TV for some five years and dedicated his waking hours to exploring Chicago rhythm and blues (he even worked in a blues club to hear the likes of Chicago’s Big Mama Thornton) and, increasingly, to reading beat and other avant garde poets — including a few Chicano writers.

Describing Cumpián during this period, Cathleen Schandelmeier, a reporter for the Chicago poetry newsletter, Letter Ex notes how

[Cumpián] quickly became bored with what he was learning. A bright and impatient young man, he didn’t feel that they were teaching him the “relevant material.” This was during the days of the Vietnam War. He wanted to better understand what was going on with the war from both sides. He didn’t feel that the “sound bites” the media was feeding the public was the whole story, so he sought truth within the pages of books and the practice of Buddhism. [1994, 8]

Commenting on his coming to awareness of writing, Cumpián notes

I didn’t decide to become a poet. My parents told me stories, I was bilingual, and I felt the need to struggle with words in English and Spanish. [Cumpián 1992]

But, he subsequently adds,

It wasn’t until I started reading a number of books by different writers of poetry, and people who wrote poems to read before an audience, that it dawned on me how interesting poetry was. [Johnson 1994: 10]

Among the key figures he identified with were beat and “marginal poets” like DiPrima, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Ginsberg, Cordesceu (especially the Romanian writer’s pseudo-Puerto Rican collection, License to Carry a Gun), and so on; but also with the rabble-rousing proto-rap groups like “The Last Poets” of New York. He remembers being especially drawn to “writers such as Ferlinghetti because they were funny, they were full of absurdities and they had a humorous element that I liked. They addressed issues like what it means to be an American.” Their frank openness on topics that were traditionally taboo pushed middle class norms to their limits (Johnson: 10).

In his early school years, he “remembers being told . . . that Spanish was a foreign language.” But even as he read non-Latino writers, he found himself interested in bilingual and bicultural approaches. After all, he thought, “They were speaking Spanish here first, in what was to become America” (ibid. 1994: 10). The fact is that by the early 1970s, Cumpián “was already getting some Chicano awareness,” and he “even wanted to become a social worker or counselor.” He worked as a volunteer for one organization, Centro de la Causa, and then BASTA, the Brotherhood Against Slavery to Addiction. Nevertheless, his interests continued to veer toward Mexican and Chicano culture and art. In 1972, he traveled to Mexico to learn about pre-Columbian cultures as well as contemporary issues in Mexico’s youth movement. During the same period, he joined with singer/guitarist Chuy Negrete and artist Aurelio Díaz, as well as Negrete’s singer sisters and Juana Guzmán (close friend of Ana Castillo and a major Chicana arts facilitator for the past three decades), in developing El Teatro del Barrio in South Chicago, working up skits to present at local venues (theaters, schools and churches as well as the streets), “touring Midwest barrios and colonias, and participating in endless discussions and study groups about Chicano/Mexicano cultural life and history.” He also tried working in the budding Chicago Latino arts movement, involving Carlos Cortez, Aurelio Díaz, Ray Patlán and Jose Gamaliel González. But his wide reading and, above all, the impression made on him by Negrete’s dramatic presentation of Rodolfo “Corky” González’s “Yo soy Joaquín,” led him to turn increasingly toward “poetry with a Chicano theme.” It was during his theater days that he began “to perform Chicano actos and read other people’s poems between the actos—until, as he puts it, “I finally decided I had my own story to tell” (Cumpián 1992).

The young Cumpián fell under the sway of Chicago Puerto Rican poet David Hernández, whom he admired and later did some joint readings with in the early 1970s. “I’m a graduate of the David Hernández School of poetry,” Cumpián has said more than once, referring mainly to Hernández’s skill at oral-in-person delivery. But surely by this time, the Black pre-rap voicing were also becoming evident in Cumpián’s work, along with English-language Native American inflections and solemnities drawn mainly from writers like Simon Ortiz, Lonnie Poco, Bill Oandasan and Ray Young Bear.

In 1972, working in an IWW unionized west side warehouse, Cumpián met Wobbly graphic artist and poet Carlos Cortez, who brought him into his organization, but came to serve above all his perhaps his most important poetic and life mentor. Another local influence was the young Ana Castillo whose early chapbook, Otro Canto, he helped to promote on a trip to a Texas Chicano cultural festival in 1978. Still another was Nicolás Kanellos, then a young professor at the University of Indiana in Gary, and already editor of Revista Chicano-Riqueña (it was later to move with Kanellos to the University of Houston, and be re-named Américas Review, which along with its parent, Arte Público Press, would become the major publisher and promoter of U.S. Latino literature during subsequent decades), who called upon Cumpián for help with his proliferating projects. All of these influences converge on a poetic persona that also includes such national Chicano figures as Ernesto Galarza, Roberto Vargas (the Nicaraguan “raza” poet) and, his earliest powerful Chicano influences, Ricardo Sánchez and Lalo Delgado.

In the late 1970s, Kanellos enlisted Cumpián to head up the poetry section of Abrazo, a tiny cultural journal Kanellos helped established as an outlet for the Movimiento Artístico Chicano (MARCH), founded by José Gamaliel González with Cortez and others. Cumpián joined MARCH in the late 1970s, and he soon emerged as the leading literary force in this group, co-editing Abrazo’s poetry section (he published Rina García Rocha, and other young Chicano writers; he also published a poem of his own on a page with Castillo and Cortez) and performing at the first annual Canto Al Pueblo festival of Chicano/Latino arts and literature held in Milwaukee. From that point on, he participated increasingly in many Chicano cultural events in the Midwest and southwest, serving over the years as MARCH secretary, promoter, editor-in-chief and president. In these capacities, he arranged poetry readings and edited the series of works which helped place Chicago on the national Chicano/Latino literary map, especially as Carlos Morton and then Kanellos, Sandra Cisneros and then Castillo, left the city to make their names in the southwest.

It is unfortunate that we have no coherent record of Chicago’s initial Latino emergence, the period of Cumpián’s formation in the midst of the local visual artists, theater performers, promoters and writers mentioned above. David Hernández and Ana Castillo offer several slices about that world in their early poems; and the closest we have to a full portrait is Castillo’s novel Sapagonia, which takes us into the 1980s. However, even in its only somewhat revised form as published by Norton and Sons, the novel’s historicity is perhaps too dispersed, refracted and putative in its writing mode to fully capture the period.[3] One might indeed hope that Cumpián will one day write about the period, preferably in a prose idiom, because he lived it so intensely as a young writer and has a grasp of the period’s key themes that should make a rich narrative possible. He was probably too young and immature to depict the period as he was living it. But he worked closely with the local figures mentioned above, as well as several others, in his efforts to promote a wide range of Latino cultural activities and relate them to a broader local and national poetry scene.

Married and divorced by the early 1980s, he made his living working in bookstores, restaurants and health food stores. Also in the early 1980s, after taking classes at several community colleges, he entered the University of Illinois at Chicago English program “on the eight year plan” (Schandelmeier 8), becoming the editor of the University’s Latino cultural center journal, Ecos: A People’s Journal of Latino Culture and Literature, in which capacity he prepared a special national Chicano edition entitled Cosecha Aztlán. Graduating from UIC and eventually taking on a position at the Chicago Public Library, he continued his work with MARCH, coordinating the publication of Emergency Tacos, a mini-anthology including his own work, along with Chicanos Carlos Cortez, Raúl Niño and Sandra Cisneros, as well as Chicanariqueña Margarita López, Greek-Argentine Beatriz Badikian and Cynthia Gallaher (see Badikian 2015). From the early 1980s on into the 1990s, he led workshops and gave individual and group readings, while promoting readings and workshop presentations by local and national Latino and Latina writers, both through his City of Chicago library job and his role as MARCH cultural worker. When his library job came to an end, he stepped up his teaching work, giving classes on Latino literature and poetry at Chicago’s Columbia College and taking on a regular position at a Chicago public high school.

In this recent period, some of Cumpián’s friends worried about his development because he had given so much to promoting Latino arts and the work of other writers and because they knew his struggle to make a living while pursuing an art that rarely pays. He had to lay off some promoting. His high school job was and is as demanding as Jaime Escalante’s East L.A. assignment. What would happen to Carlos the poet? The fact is, this has been the period when he has most emerged as a nationally recognized Chicano poet—when his work has been most discussed, accepted and anthologized. It is also the period when he’s tried writing plays and essays, even as he has struggled to map out new directions for MARCH in Chicago’s changed cultural world. But it also a period in which, recently, the press has been relatively silent and his own publication of new work has included only a slender chap-book.

What follows in this essay will be a treatment of Cumpián’s work as a poet, as well as a consideration of some of his interventions in Chicago’s evolving cultural scene.


The poet. Photo: Courtesy


Cumpián’s Early Poetry and Coyote Sun


Cumpián’s poetry began appearing in local and national journals and anthologies beginning in the late 1970s and continuing on to the present (see list below). In 1990 he finally selected and published some of the key social and personal poems from his early opus in the volume Coyote Sun. In fall 1994, he published a commissioned, high school level illustrated book, Latino Rainbow, with twenty poems on Latino historical events and figures (the list of poetic biographies includes César Chávez, Henry Cisneros, Reies López Tijerina, Ellen Ochoa [the NASA astronaut], Tito Puente, Roberto Clemente, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt and his mentor Carlos Cortez). In 1996, he published a third volume, a collection of his erotic, surrealistic and political poems written from the late 1980s on, Armadillo Charm.

Most of Cumpián’s early poetry (including almost all the work in Coyote Sun) evokes barrio street sound and fury, and almost all his work to date is profoundly and directly urban in its irony, cynicism and sarcasm. But what modifies all of this is his strong ideological commitment to the indigenous strains and the more rurally and folk-rooted anti-modern dimensions emanating from the earliest phases of Chicano movement culture and writing. There is a strong “Green peace” and “New Age” current to Cumpián’s work and thought (a concern with health food, ecology, etc.) that grew out of his early jobs and friendships and that inevitably led him as a young Chicano to champion indigenous pre-capitalist culture and to work closely with artists Ray Vázquez, José González, Marcos Raya and Carlos Cortez in the development of these tendencies within the framework of MARCH. It is this unusual syncretism of New Age and Chicano indigenist ideology which generates contradiction and tension within the urban patter and verbal twists and turns that dominate his poetic style. It is also this element which, along with his pre-Midwestern formation, enables him to tie his overt Chicago mainstream orientation to Chicano perspectives rooted in the deep Southwest.

Of all the Latino poets living in Chicago (at least until the arrival of Luis J. Rodríguez in the early 1980s followed by Ray González and Luis Alberto Urrea in the 1990s), he is probably the one who has met and interacted with more nationally-recognized Chicano and Latino authors — the one who has read the most U. S. Latino literature, the one who has done the most to bring evolving national Latino themes and motifs into Chicago Latino writing. The youngest of the first-wave Chicago Latino writers, he was also the Chicano writer who, again until the arrival of Luis Rodríguez, most interacted with mainstream and radical Chicago writing circles. This role of linkage and the breadth of Cumpián’s concerns lends a certain eclecticism to his opus. Themes of ecological destruction, native genocide, empire-building, presidential bungling, the arms race, immigration raids, economic and racial discrimination, pre-capitalist or pre-colonial Indian mysticism, popular fads and fashions, Chicago street crimes, Latin American wars of liberation, and, perhaps above all, cultural resistance, alternate as subjects of his poems. And Cumpián enjoys weaving his themes together. Like David Hernández and another Hernández disciple, the late Chicano jazz musician/poet Ken Serritos, he is a poet most of whose early work has been oriented toward performance. Like them, he has written several poems which seem to be created through a series of improvised associations off a given motif, an extension from a prime frame of reference to the poet’s most pressing preoccupations that are so linked, of course, that two, three, or any number of them often bubble forth in a single work. This approach may put a strain on poetic structure in a traditional sense, and may seem to belie the impression he has made and maintained (one reiterated again and again by his performance audience) of being notably direct and accessible.

A good instance of the standard perspective on Cumpián emerges in a news story by Josh Spaarbeck about one of the poet’s presentations in the mid 1980s. Arguing for the “honest and directness” of Cumpián’s poetry, as well as its openness to highly rhythmic and theatrical presentation, Spaarbeck notes:

Much of Cumpián’s poetry deals with social and political issues of the day. The problems in El Salvador and Nicaragua crop up often in his work, as does the plight of the American Indian. In addition, popular culture and advertising are often lampooned. But his work is generally as humorous as it is biting, and he is adept at drawing in his audience rather than putting them off. [1986, 2].

In a city where poets generally perform, in a broad circuit of reading spaces, including little theaters, bookstores, cultural centers, bars and coffee houses, Cumpián is clearly a veteran performance poet presenting his work to many who have never read it — for whom multi-layered complexity can often lead to waning interest and even rejection. But is Cumpián as accessible as he appears?

Signaling the depths of Cumpián’s vision, Cathleen Schandelmeier writes:

His motivation for pursuing poetry was that he felt poets would give him “honest answers or insights” as to what was going on in the world. . . . This pursuit of truth also explains his intrigue with Buddhism. Raised as a Catholic, he . . . experienced a gradual disillusionment [especially since he believed] that the Catholic Church played along with the system by not criticizing the military complex/war machine. . . . Other influences were the Beats, who were similarly into Buddhism. He wondered if it were possible that other cultures could be superior to ours and he sought to find this out through the exploration and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. [8-9]

Noting too that Cumpián’s “allegiance to Buddhism waned” after he came to the conclusion that it didn’t answer his deepest questions about social relatedness, human purposes and death, Schandelmeier tells how he returned to Christianity, combining it with a view of human evolution not very different from that found in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal. Indeed, Schandelmeier notes, “Cumpián feels evolution reinforces the belief that God has multiple expressions and is an active, living presence. The socialization of human values also is one of Christianity’s ‘good points.’ ‘I lean towards the theology of liberation,’” she cites him as saying.

The social dimension asserts itself as Schandelmeier focuses on Cumpián’s role as an ethnic poet “especially concerned with the identity of his people, the Chicanos: He is concerned about Chicanos as being the most mishandled, misunderstood minority in America. He feels that Chicanos are forgetting their roots and sense of history. Cumpián attempts through the vitality of his anthropological/historical poetry to amend this drift from the roots. One of his unique qualities is “code switching” or writing in Spanish and English. “I write just as people speak in life. Its something not found in academic English and Spanish. I feel poetry is often a tool for self-discovery” [ibid.]

Cumpián’s readings project an atmosphere of shared assumptions and complicity. Listeners sometimes suspend disbelief, disagreement and even incomprehension for the sake of participating in the fun Cumpián generates. The result is that they often end up agreeing without understanding fully what they’ve heard or even knowing that’s the case. And of course, since Cumpián believes part of his responsibility is to teach (and sometimes preach), he often is able to help his listeners actually “hear” things that they would not understand if they were to simply read the poem. Explanations and quips accompanying the poem are part of the performative process. But the major dimensions are tone and delivery. When he’s on, many follow him and at least seek to believe what he asserts.

Yet all this does not necessarily render his poetry as “simple” or fully accessible after all. The demand, however, falls on his readers — those who have not been privy to his performance and especially those who lack the “histrionic sensibility” that would enable them to imagine what the poems may be like in their performative state. There are many readers who are unable to project through the written signs to the deeper structural pattern which Cumpián has imbedded, and which can be grasped or intuited best through a hearing (along with tone shifts, quips and more extended explanations) but which may only emerge through the most careful attention beyond the surface transparency of a given text.

These matters only became clear when Cumpián finally published his early work in Coyote Sun, when his poems could be grasped beyond the experienced or imagined performance and apprehended in terms of their internal patternings, cross-references and intertextualities.

The “Aztlán” reference in his poem “Cuento” (27[4]) may well be a case in point. No text of Cumpián’s could better and more simply sum up his goals as a writer and yet display the problem which his directness generates. For the fact is that the many years of Chicano ideological production are still not enough to enable one not versed in Chicano lore to grasp all the implications Cumpián ascribes to that lore’s key mythic locus. Indeed, the poem addresses the core theme of what his life and work have signified: how Chicano poetry in Chicago developed in relation to the effort to bring the movement of Aztlán which had been developing in the Southwest into this key Midwestern city. What is clear is how the poem takes the Southwestern Chicano theme so essential to the early Chicano movement (that of sacred Indian lands) and deals with it in function of modern technology. This is at least one dimension of the syncretization of all things Mexicano and Chicago. Another dimension is the problem of communicating “Aztlán” — clearly a problem with respect to the “Anglos” — but also, in Chicago, with respect to many who considered themselves “Latinos,” “Mexicanos,” Chicano-Mexicanos,” or “Mexican Americans.”

In this light and happy poem, the poet negotiates his way through our modern bureaucratic/technocratic system in order to tell a representative of one of the system’s main sub-divisions that the Chicano world is here, in Illinois as it is all over, that it is not strictly a geographic space, or a geo-political point of resistance to U. S. hi-tech domination. But what does Aztlán mean here to one who doesn’t know? Here, precisely in a poem about Cumpián’s core subject, Cumpián chooses not to elaborate his meaning. Instead, he truncates it, ends the poem where, one might say, meaning and true development should begin. Then, what is achieved by this procedure? It would seem to be nothing less than a calculated Brechtian effect by which the poet opens the door to several levels of interpretation, or misunderstanding.

The key to all this is that we are dealing with a poet whose oral/performance orientation always leaps metonymically along an associative chain which extends beyond what is structured into the text. In this light, the simplest explanation of “Cuento” is to say, “I’m not telling you what Aztlán is because in your hierarchical system and discourse world I would not be able to communicate it. It would take more than one poem, more than one poet. It might take another world. And what if you knew of Aztlán? We’ve lived among you for decades, but you’ve never understood us. You should have known all about us along any way. And as for our sacred space, it’s older than your America. It’s been around for years, and you never noticed. But don’t worry. Given our growing presence, it’ll ring loud and clear soon enough. In fact, we’ll master your technologies to send our message — and we’ll do it without losing our identity. In fact, your technologies will help us survive and thrive. But, by the way, don’t expect us to tell you all our secrets, who we are or what’s Aztlán. That you’ll have to find out as you go along.”

On this basis, the poem is a not the superficial performance piece or the failure of under-elaboration it may seem, but rather a fine preface to Cumpián’s overall opus thus far (it should have been the first poem of Coyote Sun). But to make this point more fully, critical inquiry would require more complex exegesis, which would prove Cumpián’s point (you’d be hearing about Aztlán) but would simultaneously obviate the poem’s appearance of simplicity in relation to complex, external (Anglo or Eurocentric) systems. Indeed, the resultant discourse would probably end up being one of Cumpián’s more typically elongated verbal structures in which, in the process of exploring the implications of Aztlán, still more complications would emerge.

Perhaps the best way to approach this text and Cumpián’s work is through the application of deconstructive methodologies developed in exploring the secrets of Rigoberta Menchú, or the overall world of contemporary Latin American/Latino subaltern studies. But instead of over-complicating the approach to Cumpián, I might best enter into his work by describing that underlying structural grid which distinguishes his efforts from those of the other metonymic city rappers with whom he’s generally associated (David Hernández, the Nuyorican poets, etc.).

First, we are dealing with a poet who, like his spiritual father, Carlos Cortez, sees the world as a harmonious cycle disrupted by European conquest, gringo Texas invasion and all that which we call history. History is in many respects the rapist, the enemy, but there is no uneating the apple; once in the stream, one must swim or die. Cumpián devours history, every aspect of what is to him a fallen world, marking the stages, the dates and modes of disintegration, promoting consciousness of further forces of destruction and creation, filling in the missing pages, calling attention to false and illusory modes of salvation, and above all, searching in Chicano and Native American lore for all ways of recovering spiritual wholeness, all ways of moving toward human regeneration. Some of the dates on his world calendar are most obvious: 1492, 1521, 1848, 1898 (for Puerto Rico) and of course 1945 (the Bomb). Many other dates can move to the foreground: the date of Custer’s Last Stand, the battle of Puebla in 1862, the U. S. attack on Veracruz in 1914, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Chicano moratorium of 1970, etc. Countless other dates, events, issues, could be mentioned, because Cumpián’s new poems usually mean filling in another series of blanks in the macro-history of human destructiveness and resistance.

Through it all, through the mind spins of his many improvisations, the basic scenario remains his mythified history of the rape of Indian land and being. The scenario enters in a city mural project, as

destinos ... mix
mambo y salsa realities,
we can dance today
under our island and mainland
star before the weather
does a broken treaty number
on us all ... (“Mural Incantation,” 14).

It is there as “el koca-kola symbol” dominates the sky in a tiny Mexican town, and joins hands “with the/ ghost of Huitzilopochtlin/ carrying away/ our teeth and rust.” It is there in his references to the coyote-shaman figure; in his references to “raza humiliation” as a TV Colombian coffee picker is deported along with the entire kitchen crew of a popular eatery; in his reference to “the curse of Cain” (see below). Scene after destructive scene appears in poem after poem by Cumpián, but of course it’s all there with his sense of sarcasm and humor, as he looks for signs of rebirth, hope.

And in some of his poems that find or don’t find their way into Coyote Sun or his other books, the signs appear. For some of the comic rapping litanies of woe on woe take on greater historical richness than ever (e. g., his unpublished poem on Stalin, “Man of Steel”), and perhaps more striking, we have an emergent turn to shorter forms dealing with more intimate emotions and scenes, probably corresponding to his growing maturity and in the growing influence of more varied poetic forms and life modes. So, in “After Calling,” a simple poem which implicitly parallels “Cuento” and recalls us to the painful distances generated by the Mexican diaspora, he writes of a telephone conversation with his grandmother living alone in San Antonio:

In Chicago I hear
her complaints
and promise the pain will go away
before we need to
hang up
alone. [12]

Next, he portrays the uncertainties of the human future in a poem about his oldest son whose life troubles would seem somewhat anticipated herein:

I turn off my radio
as the house settles
into winter darkness
thinking of the night’s
talk of nuclear tensions
after billion dollar build ups
that would tear down
global guardians under countless
acres of cold-spinning cinders...
My other eyes are asleep
in the bedroom
after his third ice cream
and chocolate cake birthday
—from his dream I hear him
cough then blurt out
“I Superman, Daddy.”
And in a moment my Camilo
slips back into sleep
to dream free of fear
between the innocence of the Lamb
and the curse of Cain
[“Security,” unpublished, drafted in mid 1980s]

Finally in another of his unpublished poems, he writes to mentor Carlos Cortez of a new compact with the Midwest land — some symbolic effort to redeem Cain’s curse and make of Mexican Midwest transplanting and implanting a transformational process that indeed bears fruit:

After a long absence
you wanted to see
the green sapling
planted in the yard
by the hands which once
carried you as a child.
Standing under its mature shade
you and your bride to be
gathered around its
full trunk and
embraced, rain and sunsoil and wind
winter and summer father and mother . . .
past and present meeting in one flesh.
El arbolito
still stands, now a tree in Wisconsin
years after the planters
have gone, leaving
a reminder
of what cariño can mean.
[“El Arbolito”]



[1]See Caraza, Xánath. U.S. Latino Poets in español. July 17, 2015. “Carlos Cumpián. 16587. Poeta de Estados Unidos.” In Poetas Siglo Veintiuno, ed. Ernesto Sabido Sánchez. “Copatronicado por el Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum.” Includes three poems translated into Spanish.

[2]Carlos Cumpián, “Cuento,” from Caracol, Vol. 3, no. 9 (May, 1977), p. 21. Later republished in Coyote Sun and elsewhere (see bibliography).

[3] Of course Castillo was more concerned in extending her novelistic skills than serving as the social historian the period really requires. In this regard, recent efforts by Lilian Hernández and Leonard Ramirez are helping to fill in the missing socio-political links leading to the Chicago Latino cultural emergence of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[4]Until further notice, all parenthetical numbers refer to pages in Coyote Sun, second ed.


Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.


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