Gabriel Cortez on Beginning to do the Necessary Imagination Work
Gabriel Cortez is a spoken word poet and teaching artist. His poetry has been featured on Upworthy and the Huffington Post and performed live in front of thousands in venues such as the Oracle Arena, the Nourse Theater, and UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. He is a co-founder of Write Home, a project working to challenge public perceptions of homelessness and shift critical resources to homeless youth through spoken word poetry. Gabriel is also a teaching artist for Youth Speaks, the leading presenter of youth spoken word performance and education in the nation, and a 2014 grant recipient from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures. For more on Gabriel,like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter & Instagramat @gabesoprock, and visit GabrielMCortez.com.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I tell them I am a teaching artist. Most of my week consists of preparing lesson plans for youth writing workshops in classrooms, shelters, libraries, and community spaces throughout the Bay. I primarily work with Youth Speaks andWrite Home, a project I co-founded in 2013 with my partner and fellow poet and teaching artist, Natasha Huey, to serve local homeless youth using spoken word poetry. When I’m not writing lesson plans, I occasionally get to write and perform my own work.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Moving. Between 4th and 10th grade, I went to a new school each year. But I’ve loved getting to settle my roots here in Berkeley. This January marked my sixth in what I hope is a long list of years in the Bay.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Find your community and build! Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned came from participating in groups and organizations like the Hip Hop and Poetry Club at John Marshall High School, the UCLA WAC Summer Intensive, Get Lit, Youth Speaks, and CalSLAM. Each gave me access to resources that were critical to my growth, whether it was a sense of purpose, historical, philosophical, or pedagogical foundation, or a community of peers, mentors and, nowadays, mentees.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I think success is a daily process. This question reminds me of a story my homie and mentor, Dennis Kim, showed me, which said, “Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, ‘Can a man lay a new foundation every day?’ The old man said, “If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment.” I also appreciate the way local poet and activist Alok Vaid-Menon puts success into perspective in their recent TED Talk and shifts it from individual success to collective liberation.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Man, Dennis is about to get the double shoutout! When I’m going through it, I watch the video below featuring the big homie backstage preparing a group of youth, who will later perform in front of 1,600 audience members at Youth Speaks’ annual Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At the one minute mark, he puts the event into context and begins talking about nonviolence, love, sacrifice, ceremony, culture, collective vs individual success, and water. I come back to this when I need to be reminded what’s at the center of our work.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I had a great great great grandfather that skinned crocodiles in Panama. Legend goes that he would use his son as bait to lure them from the water. I don’t know if that makes him my favorite ancestor but it makes for interesting family mythology.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
When I was ten, I wanted to be just like my uncle Gemino. He introduced me to video games, wrestling moves, and had a pair of gold vampire fangs like Method Man. He showed me hip hop and how to pimp walk in jeans six sizes larger than they should’ve been. When I turned 18, we got my first tattoo together. If I ever get a gold tooth like my grandparents (his parents), it will probably be with my uncle Gem.
What’s wrong with society today?
I was talking with my homegirl Isa Nakazawa about this a while ago. One problem I keep coming back to is the way violence is embedded in society in ways that prey upon our inability to recognize it. Think prison-industrial complex, police violence, gun violence, food deserts, etc. It’s hard for us to identify abstract systems of violence (and easy for folks to deny them) when all we have are our five senses and the limited perspective of our individual lives. It’s even more difficult when a result of that violence is the elimination of our elders, who aren’t there to pass on their wisdom and experience and guide the next generation. There are industries designed to benefit from our ignorance like prisons, whoever arms militarized police forces, Coca-Cola, and gun manufacturers. This is why I’m a fan of how social media has been used since the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to inform each other about the police violence happening against black folks across the country. And it’s also why I’m such a big advocate for art and education and how they allow us to invoke history, scrutinize our present and begin to do the necessary imagination work to create alternative futures and realities in which we are no longer the victims of institutional violence.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Sometimes I get migraines so I always have a bottle of Excedrins nearby.
What is your fondest memory?
High school graduation. My parents live on opposite sides of the country so graduation was one of the rare times I got to see them together. It was like watching a family All-Star game.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Oh man — ALL the time. Because Natasha is one of the most incredible people on the planet. If you know her, you understand.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A global shift to renewable, sustainable resources. Also, my brothers and sisters have never met each other in person so I look forward to the day they are finally in the same room.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I used this Junot Díaz quote for a recent workshop. He says, “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” I believe one of the most important purposes of art is to act as a mirror that allow readers and audience members to see themselves in ways they could not see themselves before. I am incredibly grateful to the folks that introduced me to spoken word poetry because it was the first time I heard my story and experiences represented in a way that resonated with me and eventually found the resources to cultivate my own voice and critical consciousness.
What are you working on right now?
Currently planning the future of the Write Home Project, working on an anthology of young latino writers in the Bay, and creating lesson plans on lesson plans on lesson plans for Youth Speaks. As far as writing, I’ve had this idea floating around in my head for a new collection of poems about black artists and holograms. Tupac, Old Dirty Bastard, Eazy-E and Michael Jackson were all resurrected as holographic projections at recent live music events. There is something eerie happening here with the confiscation and representation of deceased black musicians, which I think might be an interesting point of entry into discussing other forms of violence enacted against black and brown folks across the country. You can see one piece I’ve worked on for this project in the video below.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I recently finished Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and Junot Diaz’sThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I admire how both authors thread together personal narrative and family history with magical realism and cultural mythology. As a writer, I want to learn to weave more genres into my own work.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Here are my top three:
#1 – This piece on gentrification by Chinaka Hodge shall be required reading for all moving to the Bay.
#2 – BART will become a bullet train that runs 24 hours a day. All fares will be set to $.50.
#3 – I would summon back Danez Smith, Sam Sax, Cam Awkward-Rich, Nic Alea, Toaster, Jelal, and any other incredible literary artists that left town over the last couple years.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Tourettes Without Regrets. And a woman swallowing a sword-balloon. Separate events but both coincidentally involving Jamie DeWolf.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words, a brief lesson plan:
A. Check-In: Name & favorite season
B. Brainstorm: “Seasons” (shout out phases, styles, and interests you’ve had and/or ways you’ve changed over time)
C. Prompt 1: Write about a “season of your life” beginning, “The season of ______ began…”
D. Prompt 2: Write about when this “season” ended beginning, “The season of ______ ended…”
With 50 dollars, I can almost take a full lap around the Bay to some of my favorite poetry events like CalSLAM at UC Berkeley ($5-10), the Berkeley Poetry Slam ($7-10), the Oakland Slam ($5-7), The New Sh!t Show ($5-10), The Lit Slam ($10), Tourettes Without Regrets ($10) and the Youth Speaks annual Grand Slam Finals ($5-10).
What are some of your favorite smells?
Jamaican patties in the oven, fried plátanos, grandma’s perfume, rain, the woods.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would journey to Panama, the Caribbean, and Africa to trace my mother’s side of the family as far back as I can and meet the people, cultures, and communities we come from. Then I would go to Eastern Europe for my father’s side of the family and do the same.