Carlos Cumpián: An Aztlán Poet in Mexican Chicago (Part II)

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-10-02 02:06:47

Armadillo Charms and Later Work


El Poeta: Carlos Cumpián. Photo: Courtesy

Cumpián’s Totemic Lore and Armadillo Charms


In addition to their constant appeal to history, most of the poems of Cumpián’s early work involve patterns which ultimately refer to totemic or mythical animals caught up in a Chicano transmutation of indigenous magic and animism. While the coyote is often connected negatively with one who profits off illegal immigration, Cumpián, like his mentor Cortez, stubbornly chooses to connect Chicano struggles with the coyote in a positive light. The coyote represents Chicano Indian identity, perseverance and survival by wits at the margins of society and human habitat. Encroached, endangered, and stigmatized, the coyote is a magician, a trickster, a poet, a public transportation-riding beggar, who draws on the modern world (telephones, signing cards, even book publishing) to maintain his connection with nature and life itself. This is Cumpián negotiating his Texan Chicano identity through the complexities of Chicago Latino life. Somehow the coyote has attributes that take us to Cumpián’s earlier identification with Buddhism — but of course this is a connection always inflected by his concerns with New World indigenism, balance and ecology. The poetic expression of such concerns in a kind of urban anti-poetry made the young Cumpián a significant witness and representative of his time and place.

What may turn out to be the meanings accruing to the armadillo in Cumpián’s next collection will be a subject of our discussion as we get deeper into poetic vision and achievement.[1] However, it should be clear that this collection represents a development and enrichment of themes and images he developed earlier. In fact, the new poems of this collection speak to further mutations in the relation between nature and history, magic and technology, Chicanos and “los demás.” What is most striking in the more recent work is the extended range, the broader, more confidant poetic voice, the deeper ironies. And then the new characters: Oso, Beto and even Jack Kavorkian who appear on these pages where the armadillo weaves in and out casting his charms and spells. Let’s take a walk through this text.


The Two Overture Poems and a Third

The two opening poems serve as a kind of a double overture for the overall work —double in the sense that the book centers on the struggle between traditional, indigenous-rooted values and spiritually bankrupt modernity which threatens to destroy all, but which, as in his earlier collection, can also provide contemporary bases for resistance. The first and title poem (7-9)[2] portrays that survivor of ancient evolutionary patterns, the armadillo, now threatened in every way and in danger of extinction. Run over by cars, armadillos are like the drunken Indians of a long-forgotten Hemingway story — hence, the poem’s generalization from armadillos to another endangered species as well as to modes of narrating U.S. ethnic discrimination and prejudice. Like the welfare-ized and marginalized of the urb Cumpián knows so well, these armadillos are smart in that they’ve resisted the numbing zoo of the U.S. work world inhabited by life-threatening “two legged foreigners” (8). They want to be around when the whole cycle of nature-destroying civilization comes to end, but in the meantime they resist extinction and “skinning themselves/ raw while roaming hungry in the dark.”

Having escaped the meteor that left the world a dinosaur-less wasteland desert that could be inhabited and cultivated by the two-legged, the armadillo survived only to be discovered by mid-nineteenth century independence-clamoring gringos as part of a the overall takeover of south Texaztlán. Meat for nouvelle cuisine tacos, he survived once again, sticking to some kind of worm-based survival diet and becoming a hardened tourist walking backwards across the Mexican/Texas borderland. We are invited to try his diet (in fact food will be one of the main themes throughout the book), but we’re urged not to be like the Aschmucks” (here Cumpián breaks into Yiddish argot to talk about a certain class of pendejos who buy armadillo airport impulse-buy kitsch (and it should be pointed out that the term he uses has direct genital-area reference both in Spanish and Yiddish).

Cumpián’s point may well be that kitsch-collectors have appetites as undiscriminating (and loose) as a young adult’s sexual drive left to its own devices without any restraints. But the poet clearly wants to resurrect the armadillo’s connection to pre-conquest Indian identity and its survival in the postmodern world. So, in a final stanza, the poet notes how the “armadillo prefers his original Nahuatl name” and seems to say “don’t touch me.” Don’t trivialize or knicknack armadillos into extinction, says the poet. Adopt one, he says, satirizing the U.S. trend of adopting stray dogs and people by asking that they should thereby save individual armadillos in the good old American individual way. To be sure, this will not be the only appearance of the armadillo in this collection, and there will be other, related animal personae: our old friend the coyote, or a Chicano animal-named Chicago working class-stiff hero (a modern, urban surrogate for the armadillo), Oso. To be sure, also, the totemic, mythic Nahuatl and other dimensions are clearly emphasized by a direct reference to Joseph Campbell’s Jungian musings on heroes and myth patterns (see p. 53). But before we explore this and other matters, we turn to the other overture poem, which expands the references and cross-references marking the collection.

The other overture poem, “Don’t Wanna Peso Much,” anticipates subsequent pieces dealing with ecological destruction, with Thanksgiving turkeys, with the golf coursing of the American Eden, with the relations between Mexicans and Chicanos, with new immigration policies and the overall anti-Mexican backlash that are part of the postmodern ambiance which dominates the overall collection. The domestication and suburbanization of Aztlán, the reduction and rearticulation of nature in function of limited recreational, Gringo-dominated spaces is no new theme in Chicano literature, and is quintessentially portrayed in Alberto Ríos’ short story of Chicano boyhood heaven as a golf course, “Paradise Lost”; a related trope emerges fully in that great transvestite work (more Aztlán-centered than most Chicano literature, more magic-realism than most Latin American texts), The Milagro Bean Field War. Both of the works cited are old favorites of Cumpián; and it is not surprising to find them imbedded somehow in his texts. What is at least relatively new here is the expansion of Cumpián’s satiric style by organizing his poem in function of a kind of performance skit. The influence here is rather obvious and most clearly emerges in the final stanza (p. 13), when references to Mexico’s Superbarrio and other themes culminate in a reference to Subcomandante Marcos, with anti-PRI Mexican newspapers like La Jornada and Uno Más Uno and then the U.S. postmodern outlet, High Performance. Guillermo Gómez Peña is clearly the major influence in this new extrapolated Cumpián style, an influence that emerges in its rapid-fire geographies, its play with new communications technologies, its collaging, parodying and multi-voiced techniques.

The poem starts with a gibe at the contemporary penchant for novelty, the commodification of news coverage and above all, the push for neo-liberal privatization, and social amnesia, so that Thanksgiving, initially a ceremony of immigrant Anglos and Native Americans, is converted into an all-out attack on Mexican undocumented border crossers. Superbarrio is first presented as watching it all on his “tiny Tenochitlán tele,” as the roads to occupied México are sealed. A news broadcaster describes the border crackdowns, and the poem’s narrator notes how Superbarrio hears how the U.S. users of Mexican waiters, grocery boys, Kelly girl office clerks, gardeners and grounds keepers suddenly miss their brown workers. The poetry grows rhapsodic, Whitmanesque — with the full sweep of continental vi 

From burning beaches where ice blue raspas are shaved into cones,
to the dark apple orchards after the fall dumps its lonely pickers,
to the gravel pits of sorrow, where ruined bruised backs once gathered,
is there no one conducting an underground railroad to save
targeted people, who lack the empire’s proper papers for
staying this side of the fence (11). 

We move on to a vision of a whole football stadium of Los Angeles Spanish speakers being deported, as Brown Berets defend East L.A., and a Lobos concert is canceled. This is followed by talk show discussion of the Mexican effort to take over Anglo-California. More than any fear of lost tax revenues, the gringos are afraid of losing their parking spaces and, indeed, their golf courses. Worst of all, the fear is they’re “pushing for a permanent shift in our values” (12). Another call rather elusively and bizarrely takes us from L.A. golf courses to a Dallas grassy knoll — a reference, apparently to the Kennedy assassination, followed by a reference to Lee Harvey Oswald (All’s well, some one says). Why this reference is here — and why the anachronistic reference to cellular phones — is not clear — but we should remember the many telephone poems and references throughout Cumpián’s work and his sense that contemporary life spells a total confusion of times and space, and the erosion of historical and literary memory. (We may even recall a reference in Ginsberg to André Gide’s love of the telephone).

The poem closes with three stanzas on Cumpián’s generic Mexican Juan (an armadillo or Oso figure), beginning with a litany of his multicultural food experiences, and going on, in the second stanza, to his capture by the migra. Meanwhile, Chicago has been renamed Chicano, Illinois, and the majority of Americanos use/ more hot salsa que catchup (13). It is in the third and final stanza that we have our Gómez Peña references, as Californians are portrayed as rabidly eager to attack the new immigrants.

In effect, what emerges from a look at the two overture poems and even a few of the many references and inter-textual ties to other poems and poem-fragments throughout the book, is the interplay of mythic indigenous figures in their continuity and transformation (poem 1) with the forces previously, but mainly now, that seek to undermine, coopt and/or destroy them (poem 2).

Both themes come together in the third poem of the book. In “Jesus Walked,” Cumpián relates contemporary Latino gang life to the values implicit in U.S. Black survival through religious music and ritual. It would seem that the youths in this poem are living out their versions of matters Southwest Chicanos like Cumpián have been conscious of for some time. It would also seem that church forms will not withstand teenage alienation and police confrontation. Indeed, the church ritual implicit in the song is contrasted with the ritual of young men getting in trouble with “the Man.” And it would seem that we’re dealing with two poles of the same ritual, with Italians, Irish and others relating the U.S. Disney and gang-dizzy worlds; and though (not accidentally) there’s no direct Latino reference (is marijuana strictly ethnic?), the inference one could draw is that young Latinos will behave much as these young men do, especially when their identities (ethnic as well as sexual —as in the police’s direct reference to them as “ladies”) are questioned at every level. In this sense, this poem’s references to varying ethnicities, as well as readings from Dostoevsky and Camus, point to the multi-cultural but also dangerous world in which young people live. As in the case of poor urban Blacks, religion, whether Catholic or Southern Baptist, will not change the basic polarization in U.S. life — a polarization which, often dramatized in Chicano/Texas Ranger, Chicano/police conflicts in U.S. Southwest literature—seems to be at the very core of the Chicano corrido/literary world and the pachuco/low rider works that were so prevalent in Chicano movement writing: the male-centered confrontation with the emasculating other.


ii). Other Poems in Armadillo Charm

With far less detail, let’s follow some of the other poems in this collection, to pick up on some of Cumpián’s major concerns and conceptions within the framework thus far established. In these poems, history and animal symbolisms cross and combine to map out the full range of Cumpián’s ever expanding and deepening world view.

“Before the Great Gorge” takes us back to the first Thanksgiving and speaks facetiously of Indian displacement in the expansion of European domination; as in so many other circumstances, the Indian contribution to dimensions of U.S. life. Another poem (p. 19) bemoans the gringo destruction of nature even in its more seemingly benign guise — in the form of golf courses which the poet would like to miniaturize or eliminate entirely (cf. our mention above of Anglo golf courses in relation to Aztlán in works by Alberto Ríos and John Nichols).

“El Comandante,” is a whimsical look back at Che Guevara, in relation to a possible resolution to Western spoliation, exploitation and commodification. But did Che understand the indigenous world in which he sought to move? Did he misrepresent the people he sought to lead? And what of Latino poets like Cumpián? Here the poet questions his own function in relation to the subaltern Latinos/Chicanos he wishes to represent; here, as elsewhere in this collection, the poet would seem to ask, “Where can Latin Americans and Latinos go now?” Cumpián seems to be providing the answer to his question in “Getting Closer,” where he satirizes those who live and breathe their ethnic identifications, as if that were enough to establish who they are and where they should go.

“Soon it’s Robots” speaks to questions of economic restructuring, displacement and loss, as corporate heads make millions. The next text, “It’s Not the Heat,” portrays a New Orleans world based on the exploitation of its slave-past “quaintness” — as if the history of exploitation and slavery that underlie Louisiana and New Orleans charm set the very stage for the globalized world he has been intent on portraying in the prior poems. Cumpián then takes us to Herculaneum, Missouri to focus on further ecological disaster — a theme that will return. Then he moves on to describe some one getting a miserable new job in the midst of social blight — a job search involving FBI surveillance. Next our poet seeks relief in bar memories with two women — one a Chippewa, the other a hybrid of three cultures. In “Are the Tacos Taking Over?” Cumpián amusingly conjures the rising Anglo fear of a Chicano takeover, reminding us of La Raza Unida and other counter-hegemonic political efforts made over the years: “Somos quienes somos, y no somos sonsos!” he cries out (We are who we are, and we’re not fools). In the last stanza (p.35), he conjures up a vision in which “the windy city’ is the country’s leader in beans; que frijoles and habichuelas (that is, the new Mexican/Rican Latinos) are making music together, so the racists better start treating them right or they’re going to get down and organize a pedo — i.e., a windbusting, fart-wind fight night.

“Beto and Oso,” portrays a Chicago Mexicano who has hardly left his barrio war zone, cajoling his boss Beto into telling him of his exotic exploits as a participant in the Marine invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. More than anything, perhaps, this piece reveals Latino complicity in the Anglo conquest ideology of the Vietnam War period and its persistence to this day. Without any overt criticism or commentary, Cumpián portrays Beto’s jealousy for the life adventures of his boss and the values implicit in the story he has to tell: military jingoism, racism, chauvinism, ugly American contempt for the poor and “underdeveloped,” etc. Far from any standard solidarity poem such as many Cumpián and other Chicano poets have written, this one portrays frequent barrio attitudes — the reactionary world of Mexicano subalterns. The theme of barrio blindness recurs in the next telling poem, “Armadillo’s Diagnosis,” as the book’s world-weary participant-observer of barrio life watches a piñata birthday party and comments on how the persistence of Mexican customs leads to dietary imbalance. And yet, the poet defends piñata happiness, by specifying Armadillo’s birthday-party-less, sour-grape life. It might be asked if, in the wake of the previous Beto and Oso poem, this one might have lost an opportunity to make a richer conceit of the piñata game in relation to the way children live and develop their barrio lives.

“Hermanas guapas” is another of the odd, in some way non-sequitor poems in this volume playing with food smells, hygienic habits and eroticism — poems which perhaps spell out again Cumpián’s critical distance from the barrio or poverty romanticism of his earlier work. This new sense of sober-eyed retrospection emerges in “The Eighth Commandment & Uranium 235,” where Cumpián points to the relation between the emergent U.S. Latino world and the Atomic age — a theme at the heart of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God. He starts with a note from Native American poet Simon Ortiz about the involvement of a Navajo Indian, Martínez, in the discovery of uranium that would be used as the basis for vast nuclear and electricity projects in the southwest. Clearly Cumpián is not proud of the achievement of his Spanish-surnamed Native American brother, but, thinking of the ruined land, the lives of those working in radioactive mines, and the further capitalization of the Southwest (as well as the uprooting of Chicanos and Mexicans it would involve), he tells his brother-poet, “Simon, I wish these veins were never discovered,” and conjures up a vision of Anglo developers as so many “sharks ... with eyes like their makers,/ eyes that never close, but instead,/ continuously cast a fixed gaze on all they will devour” (47).

“Tejas Ode” (48) is a poem in questionable Spanish dealing with the Alamo, seen from a vulture-filled sky by a narrator who claims to have the tenacity or stubbornness of his cousin, the son of Tenoch. Next we’re “On the Bus” — a ride through ethnic Chicago, with White Castle slammers and pirogis, lottery tickets, local aldermanic ghost payroll moves, and much more as the bus moves from stop to stop, place to place, and we get a panorama o life in Cumpián’s town. In “Atrocity in the Assassin/nation,” Cumpián satirizes new computer industry technocrats who “take Bill Gates as guide” and participate in the planet’s pollution and desecration, “Appendectomy” is a rolling/rambling/ranting revery weaving in references to repressed ethnic hostilities in what was then Yugoslavia and the U.S., referring to “ol’ Joe Campbell”’s studies of mythology, Cumpián’s IWW-influenced view of capitalist politics (this a debt to mentor Carlos Cortez) and finally his view of Midwest Chicano life in relation to Texas outdoor workers and Mexican Harvard or Yale grads.

“Estrellitas” is a virtual exercise in imagery, with two Chicanos, “their chins lifted/like moon-struck coyotes” watching “heaven’s sparklers.” “Tochtli Luna and Cuauhtli” would seem a companion poem in which white men don’t contemplate the skies, but go beyond them to the moon, only to find Mexican huaraches there. Although, Cumpián has argued (in a private communication) that there is no connection between the previous poems and “The Gift,” this critic cannot restrain himself from seeing connections, as the huaraches seem to metamorphose into a “ceramic shoe” — some form of high-heeled kitsch, some ashtray, plant holder or candy dish — until it whispers its identity as some kind of Mexican equivalent of Cinderella’s glass slipper “looking for its fragile mate” — on the moon?

In “Premonition,” Cumpián gives us a vision of vast upheaval extending from Africa to America’s western shore, from Europe to the Caribbean, to Rio and the Mexican U.S. border, from L.A. to the Ganges by way of Las Vegas and Pueblo, Colorado. In the middle of it all we find our armadillos, now penitent, trekking their way up from border areas on to Oklahoma, and over to Iowa and finally Chicago and the termite and rat-infested housing projects of urban sloth and mismanagement. “Singing Armadillo” refers to a bar in Chicago, but the poem as a whole speaks to some Chicano identification with Caribbean immigrants, as a Jamaican Rasta dread locked truck driver meets up with “word dealer” poets Cumpián and Carlos Cortez as they’re waiting for a train to take them from a Kenneth Patchen Ohio poetry festival back home to Chicago (he offers to give them a ride if they write a poem for Haile Selassie — and perhaps this poem’s that poem). “Bout to Leave the Barrio” portrays two Mexican club boxers duking it out in a ring bout to see who’ll get the chance to rise out of the barrio world.

It’s hard to rise when the working class eats what it eats. So, in “Loco Chuy Raps wit Tony Atole,” our first protagonist tells his friend that he’s worked all week and is just not interested in having lectures on good living; he’ not interested in health food but good tasting, munchable hotdogs, bloody steaks and milkshakes, and the like. The poem is a ghastly catalogue of junk-food carcigens celebrating the most baleful aspects of one of the great U.S. gifts to a globalizing world — although one has a sense that our New Age poet sometimes can’t resist the fat-salt come-ons of the ghoulish products he conjures up for all to gag on.

Such foodstuffs kill. And sure enough, in the very next poem, “He Still Makes House Calls,” Cumpián writes of Dr. Jack Kavorkian’s misunderstood mercy-killings, and suggests a better approach in which death-applicants would be taken to gang-infested Chicago neighborhoods in attire that will guarantee their rapid liquidation. This poem is followed by “Evil Empire,” a meditation on the Watts, California race riots of 1965, now seen in the context of Beirut, the failed coup against Gorbachev and, implicitly, the then recent race riots in L.A., all pointing to the point stated in the title, that we have our own racist evil, quite apart from any Soviet evil announced by an evil-enough ex-California governor. “Estás Invitado y” portrays some fine Mexican identity soup that even helped Mexican boxer Julio César Chávez to win over Puerto Rican Macho Camacho. Then, in a final poem, “Armadillo’s Aquí Buey of Knowledge,” two of the book’s heroes (with or without a thousand faces), Oso, and our main figure, Armadillo appear living the good urban life, a Chicano odd couple sharing a sloppy bachelor pad while they await a long-delayed trial resulting from what happened when Armadillo tried to defend Oso after his friend’s sexist come-on to one of the bar women had led to a big fight with her boyfriend. This playful, sexy poem ends with a portrayal of Armadillo’s transformations through “four stages of tequila” but all of these stages and the whole poem should somehow be seen in the context of understanding that our friend Armadillo has come from the other side and is thinking of moving on. He’s an acculturated Chicago Mexicano who’s relating to his new culture, but still keeps his feet in the old (he probably eats Marta’s soup). But even this image is not enough if we remember that in the first part of the poem we’re told Armadillo’s become something of a carpenter scarred by nails and screws that somehow have obvious Christian as well as erotic, totemic implications.

In Cumpián’s images of urban uproar and displacement, of barroom brawls, ghetto riots and boxing bouts, from one end of the U.S. to another, through all the dimensions of the U.S.’s own “evil empire,” the struggle for Chicano culture and identity as important to Latino and even human identity, redemption and rebirth is the key drama — one imbued by new world indigenous symbolism, by Joseph Campbell-style world myth symbolism, but also by an imagistic pattern that is the central play of Christian iconography and, as suggested in relation to his early work as well, the final underlying level of Cumpián’s poetry.

These qualities and more make Armadillo Charms Cumpián’s most important book—one in which his concern with totemic or mythical animals becomes fully involved in a Chicano transmutation of Aztec magic and animism. Here, Cumpián is still the ironic rapper, the story teller, the performance artist on paper and in action. But now his new age qualities turn post-modern in a world [dis]order marked by great capital expansion, marked by outsourcing, gentrification and an anti-Latino backlash even as the Latinization and “Aztlanization” of the U.S. continue. Such themes continue in different ways in Cumpián’s first full-length play manuscript, Behind the Buckskin Curtain: Buffalo Bill’s Border World, a workdealing with the wild West charlatan and his relation to Mexicans and Native Americans (2006); the themes are also important in the first work he has published in years, 14 abriles.


The Poet: Carlos Cumpián. Photo: Courtesy


Recent Developments in Cumpián’s Life and Work and …14 Abriles


Musing about his life and work, Cumpián noted some years ago how his own continuing problems in finding a way to make a living while developing as poet and editor were an extension of the problems his father and many other Chicanos and Latinos have had even when they’ve had considerable formal education. “It is as if the so-called American dream has been a trickster’s joke on us,” he says, “And we’ve had to be improvising tricksters our whole lives just to hold our own.” Cumpián, like many other Chicanos, has struggled to find his own space, his own contemporary Aztlán in the new postmodern geographies of a changing transnational world with ever shifting and difficult-to-determine identities. The Chicago environment has not made that struggle very easy; and the struggle continues to this day.

Several years ago, after many temporary jobs and gigs, he took a very demanding job as a teacher in Chicago’s troubled high schools. The job and other problems, took a toll on his work as an arts and literary promoter, publisher and performer. And my sense is that it all but chewed up his work as a writer. MARCH slowed down, had some troubles in manuscript selection and completion and seemed to lose its way. Cumpián himself has continued his work, published some poems and essays in any number of vehicles; from time to time he seemed to launch a new writing project; but after the publication of Armadillo Charm, no new finished book-length work appeared — and this has been the case for many years and indeed until this day.

In the 1990s, he was invited to participate in many readings and conferences, such as his by-invitation reading at the Guadalajara Book Fair with Sandra Cisneros and other top Chicano/a writers. Worthy of mention also is a recording of various satirical improvisations he developed with other poets and spoken word artists in local radio workshops led by Guillermo Gómez Peña on the latter artist’s MacArthur Foundation trips to Chicago (several of them were played on National Public Radio; one fragment, involving Cumpián’s interpretation of a fundamentalist preacher, is reproduced in Gómez Peña 1993, 170). As noted, a few bits and the overall Gómez Peña effect appear in Armadillo Charm; and Cumpián’s readers had every reason to expect more work in this direction and in other directions in the years which were to follow. Perhaps this was the case with his Buffalo Bill play. However we have not seen the manuscript.

In fact the only body of work that Cumpián has published in recent years is an all too modest chapbook …14 Abriles: Poemas (2010).[3] In a tiny afterward (p. 33) explaining his reasons for writing and publishing this text, Cumpián pays tributes to his deceased “poetic and labor consciousness mentor Carlos A. Cortez (1923-2005),” noting that Cortez had predicted the “current anti-Mexican immigrant wave that has forged new paranoid tea parties, fat minute men and women and media rabid neo-Nazis to appear at various parts of Southwest’s bi-national border and stations beyond.” Cumpián points out that “in 2010 Arizona has started its own ethnic cleansing’; and in 2011 “working people all over the Midwest are standing up for their union jobs and rights.” So, he explains, “like a human cicada I’ve unearthed myself after 14 years and sprouted this chapbook in the spirit of resistance.”

I have long argued that the anti-Latino backlash would produce a new Latino and Chicano cultural emergence in Chicago and elsewhere. …14 Abriles seems to be corroboration of that view. Taking their shots at Chaucer, poets as different as T.S. Elliot and Ernesto Cardenal have stressed the cruelty and crudity of April, even as they know that it is also the month of hoped-for regeneration and resurrection; the crude cruelty of it all is if regeneration fails and we’re stuck in the ever-gentrified wasteland of our now post-modern world. After fourteen years, in this fourteenth April since Armadillo Charm, Cumpián, perhaps to convince himself and his readers that he is still alive or viable as a poet, sprouts this modest seedling, following his mentor’s mandate “to keep nuestra arte and poesía [sic] growing (ibid.). Let’s turn to a brief look at this text, which appears in the midst of the second emergence or rebirth of Latino resistance culture which I would date from the early years of the new century and millennium.

It is quite fitting that as the chapbook begins, we find ourselves in “Pilsen’s port of entry,” and very particularily at a bar/restaurant/performance space named precisely for Mexico’s great nun and poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It is on the other hand ironic that this cultural space was in the process of becoming defunct, as Casa Aztlan itself soon would be. Other, newer venues have emerged, but this is a rebirth, regeneration or whatever marred, challenged and endangered by a gentrification process which threatens community erosion and death even as it renovates and transforms properties. At the beginning of the chapbook, however, the Decima Musa is alive and well, serving as the locale for one of the Wednesday night open mic sessions of the Guild Complex. It’s 3 a.m. in the morning now; the session’s over and our Chicano poet is engaging in “scholarly banter” with the stragglers (Latinos and non-Latinos, one surmises) who are still there in the heart of Chicago’s Mexico.

Given the cultural mix or clash, it’s no wonder that the poet evokes poster images of Vasconcelos and Siqueiros and has the former try to get the famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (this from Cumpián’s Anglo-American literary training) to convince the latter (that is, Siqueiros) to adjust his mural style to what has transpired in this site just a few hours before. And, ironically, it is only then, with drinks still flowing that the hangers-on somewhat drunkenly and bilingually sing of Adelita and other rebels, and remind each other that during more than 14 Aprils, yes they can live (“sí se puede, Simón que sí”) — they can still at this time (and only after the formal poetry session is long over) breathe freely and generate the pure word, the palabra pura that in spite of all still exists, lives and now once again thrives within them.

From this initial platform in Pilsen, perhaps in the session earlier that evening, we see “a cityscape of the Mexican megalopolis’ skyline with “20 million souls nestled within an ancient double-volcano valley.” Then, in the midst of a spectral dance and flashing cameras, lo and behold, we’re witness to “Mexico City’s UFO angels.” Why? we might have every right to ask. Why this return to Mexico and where will this lead us now? As if to answer, the next poem evokes the women or daughters of the world and takes us all over “dancing without shame” to see all different kinds of women in every possible situation and every locale. We see daughters tied to drugs, dating Africa’s sons, daughters armed with guns, more traditional daughters involved in planting, others in emergency rooms, others on beaches — daughters in Brazil, Babylon, Sacramento and yes Chicago, but also in Port-au-Prince and New Orleans’ Katrina hurricanes. We see Delacroix’s daughter leading the French Revolution; we see golden-braided Tymochenko leading Ukraine’s Orange Revolution … The list goes on and on, to Mongolia, Catalunia, Afghanistan, the Middle East — even a place called Cambridge, another called Dulcelandia and still another spot called La Villita where the daughters are “responsible for cooking/but no one is home until seven” (p. 7). We are all over the place and we’re in so many places as we face an open and seemingly unbounded catalogue, as if the poet himself, like many of those he knows in all too many others open mike sessions, becomes dazzled and dazed just when the “Daughters of blindness lose their/ sun glasses as it starts to hail stones. So, Cumpián tells us that “when the beautiful daughters of Eros/ [have] man’s attention/ we must seek Agape’s council or/ chaos rules (p. 9). And this view seems to be borne out in the very next poem where Eros is indeed center stage in another open mike foray, with the male writers on hand to provide a seemingly tradition-bound treatment of woman as “man’s rib-mate temptress in/ slithering persuasion” serving her “human or womb man … death’s monkey food.”

The poem which follows tells how the Chupacabra spread from out of the “bowels of deepest Africa,” arrived in Puerto Rico and then, due to some hurricane (like Katrina or the Haitian disaster), arrived in the poet’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Texas and then moved up to Chicago and beyond. Testimonies convince the poet that Chupacabra “is no more mito than you or me.” But readers may wonder, “Are we not all mito? Isn’t that what ol’ Joseph Campbell told us?” Somehow the poem maybe migrates too much. Cumpián makes s a suggestive Rican-TexMex connection, but seems to get over-involved in the different names others have given Puerto Rico; then he spins toward a connection with baseball that leads (don’t ask me why) to the monster animal drinking (or chupando) from a goat’s neck and then ends up seemingly turning up in Humboldt Park, where the barrio kids are safe “but watch out Hyde Park” tracing the animal’s arrival as due to some hurricane “but watch out Hyde Park” (why maybe Obama cares or knows)] all because they’ve already been blood-sucked by Chicago’s July mosquitoes.

All these meandering postmod associations seem to steer Cumpián away from a poetic opportunity, especially since many researchers now agree with University of Michigan biologist Barry O’Connor who concluded that most Chupacabra sightings really refer to the very animal that the poet had early identified as crucial to Chicano identity—that animal that is just as Janus-like as April itself. What other animal if not the coyote?[4] — that exploiter of undocumented border-crossers, and yet the trickster so essential in a struggle which Cumpián’s very next poem presents as one with “Grays and Blacks.”

That latter poem portrays two clashing sectors of U.S. society each seeking to gain an edge on Chicanos and specifically in Colorado. Then follow two portraits of new types emerging from the urban struggle in Colorado and “Chicano Illinois” — first, a swaggering gangbanging teen bus passenger who “a moment ago … was just blowing/ on his cake with Leggo candles” and now is into petty theft; and then a “sinverguenza” who at age forty is still wearing his brother’s gym shoes and whose crack habit keeps him in nowhereland.

Two humorous texts, “Roseland Psychic” and “The Circus” might seem to leave Mexican or ethnic themes behind. The first portrays three adults and a teenager driving to a Christmas party so drugged that they skid off the road, and the teen wakes up the next morning only to have the “merry hostess” invite him to share her bed (here we might simply note that the teenager bears Cumpián’s own middle name). The second work portrays the performance of thirteen elephants using a verbal syntax structure that seems to stand as the equivalent of the “big-top idiotics” set forth in the text.

Three additional poems return us to the ethnic and urban themes which predominate in the small collection. The vississitudes of Chicano life emerge in the playful “Mexkimo Poem #1,” where with mid-April taxes submitted on time, the narrator is about to defy fate in one of the greatest possible quixotic gestures possible to Chicago man — taking down his “home winter barrier plastic” and his winter clothing in clear and mad defiance (like that of the Knight from La Mancha) of the laws of an Alaska-like city where, as the poet observes, there are only “two serious seasons, cold and colder,” where even the eighteen warm days of each year become “pure memory torture,” especially for those from near the Anahuac sun. “Yo Homie, Mexica TIhui!” starts with the images on high school tee shirts, as a way of introducing us to the theme of urban identifications with gangsters, outlaw leftists, and others, and then begins to focus on those tee-shirts which replicate the standard appropriations of Native American names and then turn to the question of Mexican relations to things indigenous as if to suggest that Mexicans who cannot learn to identify with indigenous perspectives are not fully Mexican at all.

But neither of these poems speaks as much to the thematics announced in the afterward as does the final poem “What do you call this place? OR Can the enchilada coexist with the hamburger?” The first half of this text portrays Arizona as a “magnetic vortex/ for snowbirds, retirees, Chicago Cub fans and thousands of brown starving families” fleeing the effects of the Narco and NAFTA wars and then traces the history of white-Mexican tensions back to post-war 1848, and questions whether its subsequent half-century territorial status might be “merely because there weren’t enough English speakers.” The poem pivots toward its second half when the poet expresses his wonder at how the white fears have converted thie state this land finally become into ARYAN-ZONA.

What finally can we make of this small yet varied collection? Clearly we are examining the work of a poet who uses every trick at his disposal to give us some sense of contemporary U.S. life and the situation of Chicanos and Mexicans therein. Some of the poems accomplish this. But the small collection cannot seem to link up its different themes into one coherent whole. This is a chapbook, then, awaiting the larger collection which we can only hope will emerge and then include the works presented here as part of a still richer and more complex pattern. Until that time, and may it come sooner rather than later, we are left waiting and hoping that Cumpián will find the time, situation and commitment required to fulfill the promise of his early work before entering his September years.

In 14 abriles as in Armadillo Charm, we may seeCumpián still struggling like other Chicanos to find his own space, his own contemporary Aztlán in the new postmodern geographies of a changing transnational world of ever shifting and difficult-to-determine identities. More than many Chicano writers, Cumpián has sought to project from his group’s particular concerns to the wider globalizing and globalized world. Still developing, still seeking to find his way through the maze of a post-NAFTA and anti-Mexican U.S.A., he now stands as a transnationalized Chicago-ized Chicano poet making every effort to understand and confront with courage and humor, the transforming and dangerous times in which it has been his lot to live.

It is true that Cumpián has written additional poems in several magazines and anthologies. “I have poems about painters, dead Chicano poets, children, etc. but they’ll end up in my next full collection,” he wrote me recently. Beyond this, many of his friends have asked him to draft a prose record of his high school days in Chicago and his coming of age during Chicago’s Chicano/Latino awakening. He began work in this direction during a writer’s residency this past summer. Hopefully this project and others will develop, as the world turns and Chicago’s warrior poet moves into full maturity. In forging his own trajectory, he will probably try his hand at other new forms and styles as he attempts to redeem the earth’s violation and regenerate Aztlán, by planting a tree in the Midwest (in Chicano, Illinois and the U. S.) that grows and reaches out its branches to all the long distances in the wide world beyond.



Articles Cited

Badikian-Gartier, Beatriz. 2014.Emergency Poems/Poemas de urgencia: Latino Poetry in Chicago, 1970s and 1980s.” El BeiSMan. 03-01 03:56:44.

Cumpián, Carlos. Coyote Sun. Chicago. MARCH/Abrazo Press 1990; 2nd printing with glossary, 1991.

____ Latino Rainbow: Poems about Latin Americans. Illustrated by Richard Leonard. Danbury, CT: Grollier Children’s Press. 1994.

____Armadillo Charm. Chicago. Tía Chucha Press. 1996. Second printing with new cover and corrections. 1997.

…14 Apriles. Poems. Chapbook. Chicago: MARCH/Abrazo Press. 2010.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. 1993. Warrior of Gringostroika. St. Paul, MN. Gray Wolf Press.

Johnson, Michael K. 1994. “Teacher Pens a Rainbow of Poetry.” Entertainment. The Columbia College Chronicle. vol 28. no. 11: 10.

Laity, Ci. Review of 14 Apriles 2014 :án-review.html

Schandelmeier, Cathleen. 1994. “Poetry Profile: Carlos Cumpián.” Letter Ex. Chicago’s Poetry Newsmagazine. Issue no. 95. August/September: 8-9.

Sparbeck, Josh. 1986. “Poetry Series features Chicago’s Cumpián.” The South End. Detroit. Wayne State University Newspaper. October 16: 2.

Marc Zimmerman. 1989. “Transplanting Roots and Taking Off: Latino Writers in Illinois,” in Writers in Illinois, John Hallwas, ed. Urbana, IL. Stormline Press: 77-116.

____. “Carlos Cumpián,” in Nicolás Kanellos, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Latino Literature, Vol. I. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press. 2008: 346-47.



[1]For my own purposes, I leave aside any discussion of Cumpián’s commissioned young adult book, Latino Rainbow, although it was probably his biggest seller and made him known to many young students throughout the country.

[2]Until further notice, page numbers in parentheses are from Armadillo Charm.

[3] For another view of the chapbook, see Ci Laity’s review (2014)

[4] See, which cites an article, “Scary chupacabras monster is as much victim as villain.” ( 2010-10-25. Retrieved 2011-12-24), where O’Connor argues that all the chupacabra reports in the United States were simply coyotes infected with the parasite Sarcoptes scabiei, whose symptoms would explain most of the features of the chupacabra: they would be left with little fur, thickened skin, and rank odour. O’Connor theorized that the attacks on goats occurred “because these animals are greatly weakened, they’re going to have a hard time hunting. So they may be forced into attacking livestock because it’s easier than running down a rabbit or a deer.” This article seems to have appeared after the publication of …14 Apriles; and Cumpián doesn’t buy O’Connor’s theory in any event. His own experience has led him to give some credence to unidentified visits from outer space. But my point is that, true or not, O’Connor’s appraoch opens the way for a poetic resolution more in keeping with dominant themes of the writer’s poetic vision.


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.


Carlos Cumpián: An Aztlán Poet in Mexican Chicago (Part I)

The poet Carlos Cumpián will be part of the panel "Chicago Latino Lit" on Saturday, October 31, as part of the first Latin@ Authors Book Fair. 



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