In 1973, at the University of Southern California, some of the world’s greatest Latino and Chicano poets converged for the first contemporary Flor y Canto festival in the United States. One of the participating poets was San Francisco’s current poet laureate, Alejandro Murguía, who has revived the festival this year with an international lineup reminiscent of that occasion.
“It was super-exciting for me because I was one of the youngest poets there, had only published a few things, but all the elder poets were very generous, included me as part of the festival,” Murguía said. “I was treated like a poet. Although obviously I didn’t have the reputation or the books that they did, it was a big moment for me and the community.
“It was the beginning, in some ways, of the Chicano literary renaissance,” he said. “The first books were just coming out by Alurista, and not to mention (Oscar Zeta) Acosta and other writers. … It was the very first time that the community of poets could get together, see each other, make contacts and hear each other’s work. It was really quite historic.”
The festival continued the next year in Texas, and then in New Mexico, Arizona, Wisconsin and Colorado, but then faded away. “So part of my work in the Mission, even before being poet laureate, was to get the momentum going for these festivals,” he said. The last one Murguía organized was three years ago, and before that 2008.
This year’s Flor y Canto is remarkable for several reasons: “The board of supervisors and the mayor declared 24th Street, last year, as a bona fide cultural corridor that needs to be preserved,” Murguía said. “So on the one hand the festival is strengthening the cultural corridor” where most of the events will take place. It’s also, he says, the first time a Flor y Canto has opened up not only to international authors, but also to non-Latinos. An event led by Jack Hirschman will include readings in Spanish, Greek and Turkish.
Friday’s reading features Daisy Zamora, widely considered one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Latin American poetry, with the poet laureate of Los Angeles, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Albuquerque’s Demetria Martinez along with the Mission’s Roberto Vargas and Lorna Dee Cervantes.
All of the events, including workshops and youth-based programs, are free, except for the concluding event: a reading by 90-year-old Nicaraguan luminary Ernesto Cardenal. The cost ($20, $12 for students and seniors) is to defray Cardenal’s traveling expenses; the festival was organized without a budget and entirely through volunteer efforts.
“Poetry, literature and the arts offer an alternative to what’s going on in our community,” Murguía said. “And it’s not just the gentrification, but the question of the violence, the arsons, the fires — all these things that are heavily impacting our community — we’re offering an alternative, and we’re offering hope.”
IF YOU GO
The international Flor y Canto literary festival: 6 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, May 14-16. Free, Cafe la Boheme, 3318 24th St., 643-0481,
Photo by Lou Dematteis