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Poet explores race, prejudice at Latino History Month's kick-off

Award-winning slam poet Carlos Andres Gomez kicked off Latino History Month last night in front of a packed Salomon 001.

The theme for this year's celebration of Latino heritage is identity, said Elizabeth Gomez '11 and Daniel Prada '12, the event's organizers. The poet said much of his work has been shaped by his experiences as a social worker in Harlem and the South Bronx, and as a public school teacher in Philadelphia and Manhattan.

One of the half dozen poems he shared dated back to his days as a public high school teacher, when he brought a poet in to perform at the school under the condition that she would use no profanity. Unaccustomed to performing in such settings, the poet let two swears slip, and the principal told Gomez to shut her down, according to the poem he recited based on the incident.

Gomez recalled getting on the stage, looking out at the audience of students — some of whom were in gangs, and some of whom were pregnant 14-year-olds — and thinking about their outdated textbooks from 1952. Then, instead of telling the performer to leave, Gomez asked the students to raise their hands if they knew what the Holocaust was. Many raised their hands.

Then, Gomez asked them to raise their hands if they knew about Rwandan genocide. According to his poem, not a single high school student raised a hand, until one, named Luz, raised her hand to ask, "What is genocide?" Through this poem, Gomez challenged the audience's conception of what true profanity is.

Many of Gomez' poems also go to the heart of racial issues.

One moving poem Gomez energetically recited addressed the way in which "Latinos and other men of color kill each other over nothing."

Based on a true story, Gomez's poem starts in a club, he said, not unlike those in Providence. Gomez accidentally bumps into another Latino man in the club, who then prepares to fight him. Without thinking, Gomez steps forward toward the man and begins to sob, but not because he is afraid.

"It hurt me that he valued his life so little that we could both die over this," Gomez says in the poem.

Gomez said that as soon as he started crying, the man went running away, as if he had taken out a machine gun and shouted, "Say hello to my little friend."

"Hermano, I'm not going to fight you," Gomez said in the poem, giving words to how he felt at the time of the incident. "Hermano, we've lost too many already."

For Gomez — whose father is Colombian and mother is American — race has been a major factor in defining his identity. He recalled one performance in Indiana, after which a woman came up to him to ask him if his name, Carlos Andres Gomez, was just his stage name. She said she had never seen a Hispanic man in real life, and he did not look like one to her.

"I've got a question for you, princess," Gomez recited in his poem about how he should have responded to such a question. "What exactly does a Hispanic look like to you?"

Gomez asks the woman if by a Hispanic, she means a "low-priced gardening tool," an "invisible harvesting instrument" or a "stand-in parent" who raises kids and does chores around the house. The poet's confrontations of common stereotypes brought a roomful of snaps from audience members.

In the poem, Gomez described the different ways that Hispanic people look, speak and cook, and said one would be naive to judge a person's ethnicity from such superficial aspects.

"Cut open my chest and stare at that proud glow, and then ask me if I look Latino," Gomez said.


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