Activist, writer and educator Alejandro Murguía is San Francisco’s new poet laureate.
Following an incantatory opening by Jorge Molina, Shaman of the Mission, remarks by poetic elder, Roberto Vargas, and a performance by Dr. José Cueller (also known as musician Dr. Loco), Murguía took the stage on Sunday at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium.
“I learned to read in workingman cafes,” he said, as he offered his appointment to the community—those who read before him, the poets of the here and now, and the voices of the future. He read his poems “16th and Valencia,” “Lorca’s Dream,” and “The Poet Recalls His First Reading,” among other vivid, humorous, and moving bits and pieces.
Born in the US but living in Mexico until age six, Spanish is his native tongue, though childhood trauma left him speechless for a spell. He claims his first English words were “Pepsi, please,” ironic given his concerns as a poet and activist. As a young man and new arrival from the southland, Murguía was embraced by North Beach poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Hirschman, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman; his compañeros were the writers (like Ishmael Reed, Janice Mirikitani and Jessica Hagedorn) of Asian, Black, Latino and Pacific Islander heritage who were part of the Bay Area’s cultural empowerment movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In addition to his home among the Beats in North Beach and the poets of progress and resistance, Murguía fell into La Mission: The district became his cultural home, the place where he made lifelong friends, got politicized and became a fixture in the neighborhood. He was among the founders of the Mission Cultural Center, preserving and promoting Latino arts, and those of the area’s indigenous people. However, Murguía is not just a Latino poet—he embraces his post as poet laureate as an opportunity to serve all of the city’s people.
“From this day forward, we will no longer speak of parallel histories but of a literary history and true history of San Francisco, punto final,” he said. He would like to see San Francisco officially adopt the slogan, The City of Poets, and he suggests that we would all benefit from poetry workshops (but especially those in governance would benefit from studying the relationship between words and the truth, so to speak). Reminding listeners that poetry is a form best read aloud, he encouraged the reading not only of our own work, but of poems written by others. I once heard him read with tremendous impact from Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. Here’s the clip: