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You Are a Poet

San Antonio's Chicano poet laureate

By Carmen Gray

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The name Nephtalí is of Hebrew origin, meaning “struggling”. The new Poet Laureate of San Antonio couldn’t have a more fitting first name. I had a chance to meet Nephtalí De León and speak with him in person about the many struggles he has risen above in his life, starting with escaping the toil as the child of migrant workers. “In the fields I would scribble notes as an escape,” he said, recalling how drawing and writing liberated his mind from his fate; he could use his imagination to travel to other places. The men and women in his community took notice of this and told him, “You are a poet. You are an artist.” This is what led him to his path.

Nephtalí was born in Laredo, Texas, to migrant worker parents who were formally educated only to 3rd grade. Despite this, he pointed out that they introduced literature to him, his two brothers and sister. In fact, his younger sister, Maria, went on to become a bilingual educator. One of his brothers, Hector, became a fighter pilot and the other, Francisco, was an army captain and served two terms in Vietnam, but they both also earned art degrees. Clearly, this family is made up of gifted learners and artists.

Nephtalí published his first book—Chicanos: Our Background and Our Pride—during his senior year of high school and continued in the path of writer, community activist and artist. From 1968 to 1973, Nephtalí was an editor for a bilingual weekly journal, La Voz de los Llanos in Lubbock, Texas. Since 1973 he has been a freelance poet, writer, painter, and sculptor. He has also been the president of Le Cercle Francais, director of Teatro Chicano del Barrio, vice chair of American Civil Liberties Union, and Ciudadanos Pro Justicia Social. He has given poetry readings on television and at several universities, schools and community events throughout the United States and also in Mexico. His work has also been published in Mexico, France, the U.S., and Spain with his stories being translated into several other languages (German, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese).

Nephtalí’s youthful exuberance at 78 years young is catching, and it was hard not to be mesmerized by his unique presence (I loved his flair for fashion with his signature shiny scarf!) and animated conversation. When he speaks, he speaks eloquently like a true poet. It is clear he is beloved by his community, but it is so because he dearly loves his community, noting that, “In sharing this journey full of strife, it is a collective quest for excellence with my community.”

He also spoke passionately about the word, Chicano and its origin. “Chicano comes from the word, Mexica,” he began. Like many historians believe, he reiterates that the word Mexico came from the Nahuatl-speaking Indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who ruled the Aztec empire and chicano is a term meaning Mexican. Chicano pride became popular during the U.S. Civil Rights movement and specifically during the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement, known as the Chicano Movement. Out of that movement came this kind of consciousness raising of Mexican Americans who felt a sense of pride in being indigenous Americans. Nephtalí notes that he brought in the word to his published writing as there were virtually no books containing those words before that. He depicts the "dreams, desires, and aspirations" of the Chicano people and says, “I live in the epicenter of Chicano culture.” He believes that Chicanos have been "held in psychological and spiritual bondage...and that they are cultural and intellectual hostages in American society". In his works he tries to trace how this predicament has developed throughout history and he also attempts to display the dreams and attitudes of the Chicano people. His writings are based on ancient Aztec language and culture.

It was so impressive to see all of the work Nephtalí brought with him to share at our meeting: Chicano Popcorn, El Tesoro de Pancho Villa, his beautiful artwork and the screenplay, La Llorona. He wants to get La Llorona produced as a full-fledged film. He is currently looking for the right producer for this work.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the city’s Department of Arts and Culture will host a public investiture ceremony on April 10th at City Council chambers, 114 W. Commerce St., to formally appoint Mr. De León poet laureate, a position that promotes and preserves the art of poetry while celebrating the culture and history of San Antonio. It is a three year term. The previous San Antonio Poets Laureate are Carmen Tafolla (2012-2014), Laurie Ann Guerrero (2014-2016), Jenny Browne (2016-2018),

Octavio Quintanilla (2018-2020) and Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson (2020-2023). Mr. De León joins them as San Antonio’s sixth Poet Laureate, which is an incredible achievement and fitting as a lifelong community activist, poet and artist.

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