Machismo hurts men, too


BIO

Alejandro Jimenez is a poet, educator, and long-distance runner from Colima, Mexico. As the first member of his family to graduate from college, he moved to Denver in 2009 to organize for immigrant rights.

A recent performer at Point of Departure, Alejandro helps lead an after-school program for high school students in North Denver. In 2011 he became the first Latino to win the Su Barrio Slam Poetry Competition. The following year he was a member of the SlamNUBA! poetry team that placed 5th at the National Poetry Slam Competition.

Here, we talk about life in Mexico, long conversations with grandmothers, and the power storytelling.


When did you realize that you were a poet?

When I was four or five, I remember getting tin cans and pots from the local dumpster and arranging them in an empty pig pen so I could bang on them. I would sing whatever song was popular at the time. Whenever people ask me when I knew that I liked writing, I think of that story.

Then in school they had us memorize all these little poems and I always liked that part of school. I still struggle to say, “Hey, I’m a poet. I’m a writer.” but I think I’ve always known. I really found myself as a writer five years ago when I joined SlamNUBA.

Do you write in Spanish and English?

I write in both. For performance poetry, I’m more comfortable writing in English, because that’s how I was introduced to it. I write a lot of poems and short stories in Spanish as well.

Do the different languages have advantages and disadvantages in terms of expressing ideas?

Yeah. In Spanish it’s a lot easier because there are so many more variations on words. I can describe a chair in 18 different ways using the same word, by changing the inflection or the ending. English is very rigid. It’s my second language as well, so a lot of times I don’t know the right word.

Do you view your art form as both a vehicle for self expression and a political tool?

The first answer that always comes to mind is “I’m not supposed to be here.” I’m a brown man from Mexico whose ancestors were persecuted by Spanish colonizers. So the fact that I speak every day is an act of resistance. The fact that I write poetry is an act of resistance.

The second answer is that when I first started writing poetry it was out of anger. I didn’t feel heard in high school or college. Then I read a poem at a festival in Oregon about growing up and learning English in the third grade and how it wasn’t the best experience. After the show a lady come up to me. She was in her 60s, using a cane, and she said, “Hey I just wanted to tell you that story you wrote about, that’s exactly what happened to me 40 years ago, when I was the only brown kid in school.” That’s been one of the most powerful interactions I’ve ever had with someone because of my poetry. That’s when I realized that this is something bigger than just me being angry, or sad, or just wanting to see change. It helped me come to terms with being a writer and a poet. It helped me realize that I have this gift and I should feel comfortable in it.

What’s it like in Colima, where you grew up?

Colima is a small state in Western Mexico. The big city there on the coast is Manzanillo, but I grew up in the mountains, right next to a volcano. You could be at the base of the volcano and drive maybe an hour and get to the beach. It was a pretty cool place to grow up.

When did you leave there for America?

I left Mexico when I was eight years old—so 22 years ago this November. My mom came first, so I lived with my grandma for the first eight years of my life. The first images I have of my mom are of me running away from her, because I didn’t know her.

You want to put your family in the best position possible to be successful—to have the opportunities you may not have had in Mexico, or wherever you’re coming from—but that always comes at a cost. Some of my aunts and uncles haven’t been together in the same place for 35 years.

Have you been able to go back to Colima?

I was undocumented when I came here, but now I have my green card so I’m able to go back. My town is like 500 people, up in the mountains. It’s really cool to go back and walk on the streets and see the fields. The first time I went back I was 18 or 19 and so many memories from my childhood came back.

When I’ve been to Mexico, I’ve noticed that people seem happier there.

Yeah, I mean I’m happier there. I’m definitely biased, but I think the style of life down there is a lot slower. You spend a lot of time just hanging out. You can work, but you’re not going to get out of your economic situation.

My girlfriend and I went to Mexico three years ago. She’s from America and I told her, “A lot of the time we’re going to spend just hanging out, sitting with my grandma and not doing anything other than talking.” I grew up like that—when you have nothing to do you just hang out with your family and talk and tell stories and gossip. Whereas in America, we’re just “go-go-go, time is money,” that kind of stuff. We were there for two months and my girlfriend really misses it—slowing down and taking the time to relax and be present. Just enjoying whatever it is, like drinking coconut water from an actual coconut and listening to the rain.

I sometimes forget just how big Mexico is.

Mexico is so big and so, so diverse. There are still over 20 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico and there are so many indigenous groups still there.

I remember touring the Tulum Ruins and learning that the Mayan culture put a really high premium on their elders. I don’t feel like we always do a good job of that in America, especially as we rely more and more on technology for information from the past. Spending hours talking to your grandmother sounds like a great thing.

I was lucky enough that I also met two of my great grandmas and talked to them into my teens and early twenties before they passed away. They had so many stories. I would just sit down and ask them, you know, “When was your first kiss?” “When was the first time you got drunk?” “When was the first time you did this or that?”

One of my grandmas loved to sing so I would ask her to sing me the songs she liked when she was 12 years old. I got to ask what it was like raising 20 children in rural Mexico. I got to ask them, “How was it?” “How did you give birth?” ‘Did you go to a hospital?” I feel like we’re the last generation that will have that experience.

Where did your family settle in America ?

We first settled in Oregon in the Hood River Valley. So we moved from one volcano to another. We worked on orchards—cherries, apples, pears. My first summer here, when I was going into 4th grade, I remember going with my father to pick cherries at four in the morning. He was babysitting me because my mom was also working and we couldn’t afford childcare.

What brought you to Colorado?

Work. I’ve been here eight years. Growing up undocumented, I always had this fear of being deported, and I still do. I have my green card but that doesn’t really guarantee you anything, especially now. I had heard about the Swift immigration raids in 2006 in Greeley. I was in college at the time reading about this and thinking, “Who’s helping these people?” In college I really got exposed to community organizing. When I graduated in 2009 I saw that there was a community organizing job here in Denver. I’ve been here ever since, working with the community.

Do you have a favorite TED talk or performance?

Yes. It’s by Mark Gonzales, he’s a poet, activist writer, thinker, philosopher. He did a talk at TEDxForestRidgeSchool about using storytelling to prevent suicide—about the fact that storytelling can have the power to save lives. His talk is really powerful. It’s about how to heal the self and the collective.

A lot of research is coming out now that suggests if your parents went through a traumatic event you’re still feeling that as a child, and even their grandchildren and great-grandchildren might feel it as well. How can we be mindful and address trauma in a way that people feel comfortable with? Storytelling is always there. Words are medicine in a lot of ways.