Part Two of a Two Part Interview with the Former Chula Vistan and UCSD Student
By Brent E. Beltrán
For Part I of the interview please visit.
In this second installment of my two part interview with playwright Paul S. Flores he discusses the founding of Los Delicados, what poetry means to him, his novel Along The Border Lies, what attracted him to theatre, his play PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, the casting of Culture Clash’s Ric Salinas in the lead role, the outreach for the play, him being named a Doris Duke Artist, and what advice he’d give to fledgling minority writers.
In 1996 you cofounded the spoken word group, Los Delicados with fellow poets Darren DeLeon and Norman Zelaya. How did this come about? And what were some of the highlights of being a member of that group?
Delicados happened because 1) we were the only Latinos in the MFA program at San Francisco State University and we had to stick together to survive. And 2) because Norman was hosting a very popular reading called Poems y Poemas where all the Latino poets in SF gathered monthly and the idea was hatched to start a collective that performed group or linked poems. We were more interested in the Chinese linked poetry on the walls of Angel Island where one poet started a piece and another continued a poem.
Our whole form and philosophy is contained in the poem “Presente!” And we were also into the tradition of the Last Poets so we had to have music. There were five original Delicados. But only three of us recorded poetry on a CD with Calaca Press called Word Descarga.
I think my favorite parts of being a Delicado was traveling up and down the 5 freeway in a Crown Victoria with a case of Tecate, a bag of oranges and some chicken strips. We called that fuel. We invented skits in the car that later became the beginnings of our performances. We basically wrote our play “Guayaberas by the Pound” in the car. We were road warriors from the beginning. Like the Rolling Stones of Latino poetry.
There was a time in Reno where we got kicked out of the club because we didn’t tuck in our guayaberas. That’s sacrilege. You don’t tuck the tuxedo of Latin America. Then we performed at San Diego Street Scene and Darren was so wasted and out of breath from smoking cigars and drinking all day, he literally collapsed on stage in the middle of our poem “Jesus Loves those Delicados.”
I remember performing “Robert Frost Is Dead” for a blind Steve Cannon in the backyard of his lower Eastside New York apartment. And he was jammin with Jimmy Biala rocking the congas outside and I thought at that point in 1999 that we had realized our destiny right there.
We never won any awards. We were too crude for that. Too naked. Too offensive. Too irreverent. I remember some of the Latin American lefties didn’t like our work because we put Celia Cruz with Fidel Castro in the same line. Apparently that’s sacrilege in Chile.
Los Delicados are legendary…to us. And we didn’t break up. We only come out when the people call us. They shine the Bat light in the sky and we appear.
Poetry has taken you all over the US and beyond. What does poetry mean to you? And why did you choose this form of expression during your early years?
I love poetry. I love the direct line on the page, 10 to 12 syllables that just stabs you in the heart when you read it. I love the turn in a poem and suddenly you realize you’ve been changed. Poetry sings to me. Poetry is raw voice. I still write poetry now. I’m working on a series of poems that is inspired by a writers retreat with Jimmy Santiago Baca to The Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Hopefully I’ll finish it soon.
Poetry is not your only creative form of literary expression. You are an award winning novelist for Along The Border Lies, a novel about the San Diego/Tijuana border region and the shady shit that was going down during the mid 1990’s. What interested you in writing about this period?
The 90’s were the time when I came of age. Also, like I mentioned before, 1994 was a pivotal year in the consciousness of a new generation of Latinos. What governor Wilson thought would destroy us ended up inspiring us to be leaders in our community. Big ups to State Senator Ricardo Lara and San Diego State professor Roberto Hernandez. Both of whom were very active in the anti-Prop 187 movement. Thank you Peter Wilson for Proposition 187 that boosted my interest in my background as a Chicano in the U.S.
Let me be a little more detailed about what was happening on the other side of the border in the 90’s. Cocaine was flooding Tijuana from Colombia. There was a war for distribution in the US. A lot of people died. Including my friends on both sides of the border. It was no joke that time. I left because it was getting a little too serious, too close and I had an opportunity to go to San Francisco.
People we’re getting arrested and shot while eating Tacos El Gordo and shit. Fili’s seafood was shot up where I had celebrated a birthday with my best friend. My wife’s father was threatened with family ransoms. Became hard to have a good time in Tijuana. When family members started getting caught up in the game things really changed. I wrote the book because I felt the war on drugs was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery.
Along the Border Lies was initially inspired by a young man who sat next to me in my 10th grade history class. Was a short Chicano, a member of the Junior ROTC program at my high school. He was a nerdy kind of quiet dude. Then we found out he got arrested for taking immigrants hostage at the border with a fake gun. I realized that the violent military mentality of San Diego penetrates all folks living there with this false nationalism. This idea that Mexico is only a dumping ground for all the bad shit that happens in the United States. The shadow self of the US.
In addition to being a poet and novelist you have written a few plays including You’re Gonna Cry, Representa!, and Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, which you are bringing to San Diego April 23-25. What was it that attracted you to theatre and how does it differ from writing poetry and prose?
Theater is action. Live action. And I love hearing the words I write being performed by people who will embody my imagination. Who doesn’t want the manifestation of their imagination to come alive in front of them? It’s the best feeling. It’s like drugs; visceral hallucination, except it is real. What you see in your mind becomes real on stage with people performing your ideas. I recommend everybody become a theater artist. It’s really hard and you have to depend on others. Really breaks down your ego. You become naked and vulnerable in front of everybody. A great way to connect. It is so human.
You’re bringing PLACAS to town this month. Tell me a little about the play and why you chose this particular subject matter?
I was commissioned by the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN-SF) and the San Francisco International Arts Festival to write a play humanizing Central American communities impacted by violence and stereotyped as violent, gangbanging, murderous people. So I interviewed over 100 folks going through tattoo removal, or connected to the tattoo removal procedure including therapists family members police intervention workers, healers.
I did interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles and El Salvador looking at the origins of the transnational gang phenomenal between Central America and California. Studying how and why they were having their tattoos removed gave me an insight into some of the reasons of even why you join in the first place.
Most of it came from pain. Many of the gang members said they wanted to see their love for each other portrayed on stage. They wanted to see their support for a dead homie’s mom, or everyone pitching in to feed the homie who couldn’t walk anymore or had life altering injury. We had Alex Sanchez as a consultant. Alex was the founder of Homies Unidos gang intervention program in Los Angeles. Alex helped me get access to a world that I didn’t really know. On his word I was able to record true stories and turn them into the play that you’ll see in San Diego this month.
Ric Salinas from the famed theatrical comedy group Culture Clash is the lead in PLACAS. He’s known more for his comedy skills than for being a dramatic actor. I haven’t seen the play yet but I heard that he’s badass. How did he become a part of this, what was it like working with him and is he as badass in that role as I’ve heard?
Ricardo Bracho was doing casting for me and he thought Ric Salinas would be perfect for the lead role of PLACAS, if we could get him from Culture Clash. I knew Ric from SF, where his family still lives. I called him then, gave him the synopsis and thought that his own experience being born in El Salvador, and a victim of gang violence would lend some authenticity to the play. He loved the idea and believed in the script.
Then it worked out that he happened to be on a break from Culture Clash production, well all of them kind of got involved in their own individual projects. It was good timing. And then his presence in the play is amazing. He is a comic actor playing a serious role. But he definitely gets his zingers in. And they are hilarious and superbly timed. He is such a beautiful, generous man. A true professional.
The outreach for the tour of Placas is being organized in a very grassroots, community based kind of way. Lincoln High’s Theatre was chosen to host San Diego’s run instead of one of the more well known venues. What was the reasoning behind organizing the outreach in this manner and why was Lincoln High selected to host?
Lincoln High is connected to the funding we received to produce PLACAS through The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative in City Heights. BHC is an initiative to help improve healthy outcomes for struggling communities. Our role was to do arts and culture for healing.
There is a public health component to this play. We’re trying to create conversations addressing intergenerational and untreated trauma in our communities particularly immigrant communities. We’re using the play to advocate for more services for violence impacted young people particularly young men and boys and color. We’re also hoping that plays like this that address taboo subject like gangs and prison begin the healing process and have people start talking about sustainable change.
So the reason we’re connecting with so many local grassroots organizations is because we want to activate the ways in which organizations can use culture and healing to achieve positive results and hopefully sustain that through policy and having systems invest in the improvement of our committees.
It was announced earlier this month that you are one of seven theatre artists to be named a 2015 Doris Duke Artist. That’s an amazing accomplishment. How does it feel to be recognized by a prestigious, mainstream foundation like this?
I was totally surprised. Luckily my mom was there when I got the call from the Duke Artist Awards. If you stay in the game long enough sometimes opportunities make their way to you. I think I have a few secret champions out there. And I want them to know I love them. Also, recognition for a Chicano to receive such a large award like that doesn’t happen very often, particularly a New York foundation awarding an artist who is very California, and who has worked most of his life in community based nonprofit art. It means I’m finally coming of age, and am no longer an emerging artist. But I’m still working hard and have a lot more to do.
And lastly, what advice would you give to fledgling minority writers who may be considering a career in creative writing?
Don’t take no for an answer. Not from yourself or anyone else. There is always a way to achieve your dream. 90% hard work, and 10% talent. Write what matters to you, what you must say, and what is urgently needed. Read and go listen to poetry. Finish what you start. Call your mom when you are on the road.
Performances of Paul S. Flores’ play, PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, will take place April 23-25 at the Lincoln High School Performing Arts Center, 4777 Imperial Ave. Tickets are $12 in advance through Brown Paper Tickets and $15 at the door. For more information please visit http://www.placas.org.