By Raymond R. Beltran
Crafting the difference between America and América is what Michael ‘Cheno’ Wickert had in mind when he and Fransisco ‘Pancho’ Bustos introduced Aquí Estamos, Ya Nos Vamos, a poetry collection that projects a unity between San Diego and Tijuana, only, with a rusty metal scar running through the heart of their lives: The Border
While Pancho, a resident of Tijuana and teacher at Southwestern College, struggles the daily border crossing in the piece “Good Morning America,” Cheno provides a daily log into the life of a steel worker living day by day with a broke down truck, a ride on the city bus, and a glimpse into a hopeful future in “Accidental Tacos.”
The collection was published this year by Calaca Press and contains a mix of poetry and prose. Some words read like conversations from the neighborhoods. At times, you become so comfortable that the message zooms right by, and other times, poems will knock your misconceptions of Latino life on the floor. All poems are translated both in English and Spanish.
The book begins with a forward by Pancho, translated by Chicano bard Alurista. Local painter, Ricardo Islas, provided his oil painting Border Crossing for the cover. Pancho and Cheno will be featured readers at this weekend’s International City Book Fair (see Tic Tac Tiempo, page 10), and sat with La Prensa San Diego to converse about language, Latino life, and the collection.
LPSD: When did you first start putting words on paper?
Cheno: I always remember telling stories, especially on long car rides. That was before DVD players were built into the back of car seats. Way back in the 1980s in seventh grade, I won some awards for writing from Palm Jr. High in Lemon Grove and kept writing through high school. I used to keep a journal in high school; it had a purple cover (not very cool, right), but it was what I had so I used it. I couldn’t steal a cookie if it was free, so I used what was available.
LPSD: What inspired “Aquí Estamos, Ya Nos Vamos”?
Cheno: The book (is) an avenue for bridging the gap between San Diego and Tijuana. After all, they are one big city with a metal plate running down the middle. How sad is that? So we took a couple thousand dollars and are trying to heal a part of the wound or cut a hole in the fence with words. These people trying to build the wall are complete idiots and the American people do not even realize they are allowing our nation to become the next Empire of paranoia like those that plagued China, the Soviet Bloc, and Nazi Germany.
LPSD: Talk about code switching or the use of Spanish and English intermingling in the book.
Bustos: The fact that we constantly code switch in everyday, ordinary border life makes it possible for many of us to switch between languages and somehow be understood on some level when we share it. And when the switching gets a bit too complex, you might not fully understand every phrase in a poem, for example, but you’ll feel a muse and grasp an image here or there, and even though you’re not sure what the entire work might mean as a whole, you can think of the bits and pieces as one multifaceted quilt of sounds and meaning which any reader can experience on any given mixed poem.
LPSD: Do you think Latino writers have an obligation to write about Latino issues?
Cheno: I feel that writers have the obligation to tell the stories they find relevant. If a Latino writes a science fiction piece where the protagonist is Chicano, is that relevant? Sure it is, who else is going to put Oswaldo Gonzalez, a recipient of affirmative action, a graduate with honors, a brilliant scientific mind who eats machaca for breakfast and Soup Plantation for lunch, in a position to save the world? Plus he lives in the U.S. and is an American citizen. It relates to everyone that a significant art of the American psyche resides in Latin America.
LPSD: Seems like you two are doing readings on both sides of the border. How is the poetry scene is Tijuana?
Bustos: Tijuana is alive and beautiful with much poetry and great poets. We have read alongside poets, like Laurel y Canto Poetry Project, from Tijuana and other Mexican cities, at various spaces such as cultural institutions, schools, coffeehouses, bars, and even the beer factory in the city of Tecate, and now we’re ready to participate in the International City College Book Fair on this side of the border. We hope to start a long lasting relationship on this side too, with local San Diego spaces willing to experience bilingual lectures in the multi-cultural region we live in.
LPSD: On the back of the book, the summary says the book doesn’t belong to Mexico or the U.S. but it lies on the border itself. In what way?
Bustos: The book has work which was felt on one side, yet written on the other, then read on both sides. With so much crossing, while making and sharing this book, it’s hard to think of it as a book from only one side of the border. Some poems were written on the border while crossing or waiting in line in my car. Some books are in Chula Vista, National City, San Diego, Tijuana, Mexicali, and Ensenada. Some are in my trunk and cross a few times a week, both ways.
LPSD: Who are some of your influences in literature, and what are you currently reading?
Bustos: Currently, I am reading books which I am using in one of the classes I teach at Southwestern College: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (U. S.), Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee (South Africa), The Song of the Hummingbird by Graciela Limon (U.S), and The Moon Will Forever Be a Distant Love by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite (Tijuana). I am also reading an anthology of Latin American short fiction with great writers like Julio Cortazar, Angeles Mastretta, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Rulfo, and Clarice Lispector.
LPSD: What’s the market like for Latino writers right now?
Cheno: Well, Latinos are not like the evangelical Christians who buy everything out there just to support the cause. It is difficult to find stores interested in carrying the book, plus it is difficult to find distribution. Since we are new to the business, we need to find a more solid outlet to reach our potential readers. That is why going to book fairs and reading at events is important. Yet, we need to begin spreading outside of San Diego/Tijuana into other places in U.S. and Mexico. As we make more opportunities happen, we will continue to find success.