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The Poetry of Ciudad del Sol MAG
An hour can mean nothing; it can be wasted like vegetables left for too long in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator. Or, an hour can change your life. I volunteered 20 hours a week, three weeks a year, for two summers at the Ciudad del Sol Migrant Center. I measured some of the best hours of my life in those moments of growth and play shared with the students in all the friendships forged, books read, and in the poetry written together.
I also measured that time in bug bites. We used the grassy field by the classrooms and students’ homes for recess during my first summer. The problem with this half-hour soccer break was what we called the “man-eating diving bug,” something between a mosquito and a flea, and its posse of a thousand cronies.
The young students of Ciudad were models of resilience. Undaunted by the attacking bugs, they pulled me along with eager grins, determined to play. I dove full force into those soccer games and left the field covered in bites. The only other issue involving our games arose when choosing team names; everyone wanted to be on “Team Mexico.” After much deliberation, I suggested a solution that met everyone’s satisfaction: during the daily Mexico vs. Mexico soccer matches, Mexico always won.
Last summer, I returned with a fresh objective. I had worked hard to hone my poetry skills at Cal Arts’ Creative Writing program and wanted to share this with students at Ciudad. With an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the lead teacher, I created and taught a 10-day poetry course for the fifth-graders. As I constructed my first lesson, I imagined I was a painter with an empty canvas, thinking, Anything is possible. The reality of the first day, however, revealed that my students didn’t connect with my first lesson; they claimed complete disinterest in the world of poetry.
For example, there was Miguel, who spent his year traveling California and south into Mexico following farm crop cycles, continually adjusting to new homes and schools. How could I reach this boy who protected himself by being tough and reclusive? I went to the library for help. There I found the works of Francisco Alarcon, a local poet who writes illustrated children’s books in both Spanish and English. Many of his poems address the lives of migrant farm children.
I cleared the shelf and brought nine of Alarcon’s books to class, each selected to link personal struggle with art. With my heart pounding expectantly, I silently laid them on the table. My students smiled, curious about titles like Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems.
I nodded encouragement as they opened the books and began exploring. As we read lines from our favorite poems in both languages, I proposed that we create our own book of poems, just like Sr. Alarcon’s. With his inspiration, everything changed and the project took flight. Day by day, we practiced different styles, from lyrical to haikus to free-form. I brought paintings and music, fossils and ribbons to trigger their imaginations as they crafted their first tentative poems.
A crystalline moment: the proudest experience of my life, and I mean this sincerely, was when Bibiana, a rambunctious girl who loved diamante poems, came to class with a sheet of paper. “I wrote these at home,” she said, showing me the page, a little embarrassed. It was covered on both sides with poems.
How do you describe a moment like this? I was brimming over with happiness. Even Miguel wrote his fair share, including haikus about 50 Cent and a descriptive poem about Pancho Villa. On the last day of class, as I handed out the chapbooks containing 30 poems written in six styles, illustrated and typeset by the students, they beamed with pride.
“Do I have to give this back?” asked Miguel, clutching his chapbook.
“No, Miguel, that one is just for you.”