Recently in the midst of so much heaviness on all fronts, I went looking for some hope. I returned to poetry, my first written love form. I stumbled upon a poem that my former student (a third, fourth or fifth- grader at the time) typed up for a poetry appreciation class I led at Sequoia’s after school program. This was many moons ago. The poem was “Equinox” by the ridiculously talented Joy Harjo. That a young person vibed with her poem is proof positive that young folks are wise and deep.
The opening lines of “Equinox” stuck with me:
“I must keep from breaking into
The story by force
If I do I will find a war club in
This particular line reminded me so much of one of my favorite quotes by the unforgettable Zora Neale Hurston:
“I have been in hell’s kitchen
And licked out all the pots.
Then I have stood on a peaky mountain,
Wrapped in rainbows,
With a sword and a harp in my hands.”
That poem stanza and that quote led me to sit for a long spell and truly appreciate the ability us two leggeds have to create magic from our circumstances. To string together words that sing into our souls and touch us profoundly. And it was one of my former students who led me back onto this journey of gratitude for the written word, such a gift. It is the next seven generations we must honor in all we do and say, for they will lead the way as usual.
I was a young person when I fell in love with written words. I remember the experience very vividly. Crying and crying into my third grade desk because the reality of my home life broke my heart real hard on that day. My teacher, Ms. Carol Westgate (bless this being forever and ever), hugged me and handed me some books. Ms. Westgate (single, childless, loving, bee hive wearing and always matching her clothes) said, “These books can help you go somewhere else when you need it and help you find the words to describe what is hurting you now perhaps.”
My life changed on that day and in this moment, as I end this amazing internship, I must pay homage to what led me to embrace my storytelling.
I am grateful to Mexico and all the relatives, past and present. I am here because of my ancestors. Land laboring and loving people. My Tia Nestora and her goat- loving self comes to mind. My maternal grandmother Maria, who no matter where she moved to would always cultivate a small garden for her tomatoes and her flowers. My paternal grandparents loved their cows and goats, feeding their family and surrounding community with cheese and milk.
Gloria Flores, my mom, is the storyteller; she gave me life and stories. Gloria is my first love. She was the caretaker of the big ass penca of nopal in our backyard, my usual hiding spot. My dad, Antonio Contreras, was always growing food for us, cooking it or buying it. He started drying apricots late in the summer and would wake up early to water our plants on hot days.
My siblings -Raul, Ana and Tony- I am grateful to them for teaching me to share, to fight (literally and with words) and to love despite it all. My cousins (way too many to name as I have more than 100 of them) who I grew up with helped me become faster at running, climbing trees and seeking out places to hide. Thank you primos y primas.
The South Bay-Ramaytush as our Ohlone relatives originally call it- helped bring me up; and so all those magnolia trees and Rengstorff park have a piece of my heart always. They form the foundation of my story. I left Ramaytush in my mid 20s.
All of my former students from Melrose School on of 53rd Ave, Denman Middle School in the Excelsior SF, Sequoia School in the Dimond, Muir Middle School in San Leandro, San Mateo and Capuchino High Schools, in San Mateo and San Bruno respectively, and Golden State Prep in East Oakland. I am forever grateful for every moment I shared with each of them. All the laughs, that dance routine I did with my students at Cap during a rally, and all the questions I was ever asked. Those 12 school years I spent with young folks is the most important work I have ever done. My stories and inspiration come from connecting to all these young folks.
Here in the Huichin/East Bay I have flowered in ways that still amaze me. And the East Bay hills that I hiked with so many friends served to deepen my love for the land. Josh Healey and his “Make it Fresh” class series helped bring out the written story teller in me. Big props to him. And to any of my many homies who have shared a story or two with me.
I am healer in training because of the community that gathers around Tio Samuelin’s house on Rosedale Ave. Our sweat lodge is sacred and it is a reminder of the importance of the medicine our ancestors cultivated for us. Yesterday as I watched the fire burning, I was mesmerized by both its beauty and its power. All the elements make up our beings and in this space we honor all elements.
I am able to write and appreciate writing so much more because of all of these experiences. I still get excited when I go to a book store and it reminds me of the many times that I would wait anxiously for the book mobile to arrive. I finished all the books I checked out and needed more.
I am still that third grader seeking out my truth inspired by the words of others. And those others include my ancestors, the trees, the wind, the sacred fire, water oh water and all lands.