By Raymond R. Beltran
Once in a while, you may discover a piece of Chicano literature in a small bookstore, hidden in crevices on old bookshelves, at local spoken word performances, or maybe in a stranger’s hand at the bus stop in your barrio. If you’ve felt the magnetism to pick it up and skim through a few pages, you’d find that Chicanos are beginning to creatively rewrite their own histories and tell their own stories through poetry, but with the help of that little calaca man on the back of the book, sporting his sombrero in front of the green, white and red.
This logo, a calavera, represents the home-based, family-oriented, Chicano lit-publishing, Calaca Press. Poets from all over the southwest gathered together at UCSD on Saturday night to celebrate Calaca’s fifth year of supporting Chicano art. Poets such as Manuel Vélez from El Paso, Texas, Leticia Hernández-Linares from San Francisco, and San Diego’s very own Taco Shop Poets came together to explode on the microphone with all the vitality and forcefulness that the Chicano lingo could supply.
“We’ve exceeded every expectation that we’ve ever had,” says co-founder Brent Beltrán. “We’ve done a lot more ... You always dream about things, but in reality, we didn’t know that we’d be where we are now.”
Beltrán is a left wing, former community activist. He began his political consciousness and experienced, what he calls, his “born again Chicanismo” in 1991 at Mesa College where he joined M.E.Ch.A. after surviving an almost fatal car accident that broke his neck and left him partially paralyzed.
“I was just going on without a purpose,” says Beltrán. “ Just one of the many youths that wasn’t going to a University, and who didn’t want to be a laborer right out of high school.”
Raising his awareness to new levels in the barrios, Beltrán stumbled on to organizations such as the Raza Rights Coalition and Unión del Barrio from the time between 1992 through 1996. “I began taking on a more active role in the community, [taking on issues like] police brutality, border patrol, and defending rights of the people,” he says. “I met Harry Barra, the editor and chief of Voz Fronteriza (a political Chicano newspaper), and we became roommates.”
Organizing with these groups, he began gaining knowledge of literature and the powerful influence it sheds while engaging in the distribution of political propaganda. The two organizations leafleted journals such as Voz Fronteriza and La Verdad Publications that focused on issues pertaining to the struggle for rights within the Chicano/Latino communities.
“Working with Voz, that peeked my interest in publishing and what it means to raise consciousness of the masses,” says Beltrán. “I had started to acquire some publishing skills, and started gaining knowledge on how to use computers. I began learning how to put newspapers together. La Verdad made fliers, pamphlets, books, and I learned how to use publication as a means to help liberate our people.”
In 1996, he married Concuelo Manríquez who he met through his membership in the Unión. Manríquez is a teacher at Memorial Junior High and also a community activist. While teaching in classrooms that consisted of 90 percent Chicanos, she began looking to provide literature that was more relevant for her students, literature that would relate to them and to their lives as Mexicanos living in the United States.
“We left Unión and decided to do something else,” says Beltrán. “We decided to help our community outside of the republican and democratic parties, and outside of working with social service agencies or the city government. So, we said, ‘Let’s go into publishing Chicano Literature, but we’re going to do it on our terms, for our people, not on the government’s terms.’”
With the inspiration of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a broadsheet maker that used calaveras to portray Mexican government officials, they came up with Calaca Press. “It just popped out. I wanted to pay homage to [Posada] and the calaveras. So, I merged the two images of the calaca with the sombrero, and Calaca Press was founded in 1997.”
While Manríquez and Beltrán were merging ideas, they also had at their side the El Paso poet, Manuel Vélez, a graduate from University of El Paso, Texas who had an MFA in Creative Writing. Vélez had a manuscript of his original poetry that had been used for his college thesis, and Manríquez felt it was the type of material that she had been looking for.
“When we first started, we wanted to create a chapbook of Manny’s poems,” says Beltrán. “But, it turned into a real book with color, and graphics, and illustrations by Victor Ochoa.” In 1998, that book turned into Calaca’s well-known first book, Bus Stops and Other Poems. “Then, we said, ‘Let’s focus on publishing one title per year.’”
Since 1997, Calaca Press has “exceeded every expectation,” having published thirteen books by a variety of artists in their five years of existence. They introduced such artists as San Diego’s very own Taco Shop Poets (Raza Spoken Here 1, Chorizo Tonguefire), San Francisco poeta Leticia Hernández-Linares (Razor Edges of My Tongue, Raza Spoken Here 2), Olga Angelina García Echeverría (When Skin Peels), and Los Angeles poeta Ariel Robello (Raza Spoken Here 3).
“I think one thing I want to highlight is the relationship we have with our authors,” says Beltrán. “When they come to town, they stay with us, we feed them, and when we go to their town, we stay with them. It’s not a publisher/author relationship. We share the same political ideals, so we can relate more to each other, and a lot of the big publishing houses don’t have that with their artists. We just want to give to our community.”
Calaca Press publishes literature with funds from their own pockets or from the author’s, and some literature’s costs have been split down the middle. “We’re not in it for the profit, but to highlight the literary talent within our community,” Beltrán says. “We split the cost fifty-fifty, and then we split the titles. If we make a thousand copies of a book, five hundred go to the writer and five hundred go to Calaca. But, almost everything we do is from our money.”
After publishing their first piece of literature, Calaca Press asked, “What’s the next pro-ject?” Then Manríquez and Beltrán “stumbled on to spoken word,” they realized that it would be more affordable to make c.d.’s than to make books. So, homemade desktop publishing matured and transformed into desktop recording.
“Manny’s work is good on paper, but when you hear the vocals, the inflections, the cadence, you get a better understanding of it, and it’s that much better,” says Beltrán. “We began recording in 1999 with Rafter Roberts for our first c.d., Raza Spoken Here 1. It featured nine different poets, and when it first came out, people were impressed. Plus, we found out it was cheaper to make c.d.’s.”
With Calaca currently working on Raza Spoken Here 3, Beltrán says that the most encouraging discovery in making the c.d.’s was that they realized they could go multi-media, and “use a medium that the youngsters are into,” without distribution, without business skills, “and it came out pretty good.”
Along with working on their third volume c.d., Calaca Press has also come together with the Voz Alta Project and the Taco Shop Poets to open a performing arts space called Voz Alta (Out Loud).
“One of the main reasons [we opened it] was there is no Chicano cultural center open to the public with the boycott of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, Chicanos can’t perform,” Beltrán says. “Because the Centro was given up for corporate interests, we decided along with the Taco Shop Poets and the Voz Alta Project, to open a performing arts space.”
Calaca is also currently working on a literary journal called La Revista Calaca, which will be edited by Manuel Vélez. Although, from the idea of one pamphlet of poems- turned-book, to c.d.’s, to performing arts studio, to whatever else comes their way, Calaca has truly opened up many doors for artists who may not have had their voices heard otherwise.
“If anything comes out of Calaca,” says Beltrán, “I want people to say, ‘Hey, I could do that, and make mine better.’ It’s nothing new. We did it with no money, but some knowledge and know-how. It’s the same thing people in the 60s did. I want to encourage people to publish on their own and learn how to use computers. Maybe we could have little Calacas all over.”