The Young Males of the Barrio

Lourdes Vázquez


Translation by Bethany M. Korps-Edwards


Somos los young males en el barrio.

Los young males representantes de la calle...

Salmos del cuerpo ardiente


We are los young malesof the barrio

Los young males, street representates...

May the transvestites of my island...


--trans. Rosa Alcalá





Poetry in Latin America, with its great capacity for transformation, moves in buds of great truths. That cosmology, besides consisting of word, rhythm, melody and verse, has been the conduit of deep historical realities. Themes like peace, war, injustice and terror expand throughout this universe, unfolding an accordion of everyday possibilities like condemnation, protest, indignation and rage.

In the twentieth century, many of us believed that poetry was so powerful that it could change history. Pablo Neruda and Roque Dalton come to mind. In the Caribbean, there has also been a long history of poetry as a weapon in the struggle for social justice, and the poet has also acted as a social crusader. Puerto Rico is no exception, and five representative poets come to mind: Julia de Burgos, Clemente Soto Vélez, Juan Antonio Corretjer, Francisco Matos Paoli, and Graciany Miranda Archilla. Four of them incarcerated, and all persecuted by the FBI in a systematic and inexhaustible witch-hunt until they lost their jobs, their homes, and in some cases their minds; this required arduous work on the government's part at all levels. Because of and in addition to the censorship of their poetry and essays, a tunnel of immense myths grew up around them. It is for this reason that for a long time -- even today -- we have found ourselves rebuilding that part of our history, searching for chunks of poems here and there, in order to try to understand and make sense of all that was.

      Although there is not the slightest doubt that I have been influenced, as have we all, by these great masters, I work more in the fragmented poetry of the metropolis, tied to events that are small and often personal. And all this linked to a great aesthetic burden of language, dealing with not only writing, but also and furthermore the rhythm and sound of the poem. Because I agree with Gonzalo Rojas when he says that writing is used also to "illuminate" the way, I work with texts that are viscerally personal and almost mundane, which illuminate and chronicle distance and emotions; but this does not make them any less political. To articulate a real fact within poetic form consists not only of manipulating a technique or methodology one has learned; rather, one must have a unique vision of the problem and the mental capacity to articulate that "whole" in synthesis. It is a poetics of decomposition and searching, of condemnation of facts and with a deep love for the affirmation of life, showing bewilderment and uneasiness when faced with discrimination, injustice, censorship and abuse. I am the mistrustful artist that looks at us, looks at herself, and submerges herself in the ocean of her thoughts with all her perpetual doubts, undoubtedly her sensitivity, and her passion for truth.


{The Facts}


In my country in 2003, 750 people died in violent crimes. We are talking about an island fifty by a hundred miles in size, with a homicide rate three times higher than the average in the United States. More crimes occur there per capita than in any city in the United States. On this island of almost four million, statistics show that more than half of young professionals and many retirees flee to the United States, at least in part because of the crime rate.\footnote{1} All these murders are doubtless related to drug trafficking. The island's newspapers compete daily to give the most exact figures of dead. Since the island has 260 miles of coast that are completely desolate, it has for a long time provided an easy throughway for large shipments of cocaine and marijuana; from there, studies say, up to 75% of those shipments are distributed to Miami and New York.

The mules are young; predominantly members of poor communities, and from the age of eleven on, they are the ones who move the drugs. They are enlisted by the lords of the drug rings, because the island's Minors Protection Law provides "healthier" options to minors: they generally do not go to jail, but to juvenile detention centers, and can be set free in a matter of days. Since the competition for these drug shipments is fierce, part of the reason for the skyrocketing crime rates is the murder of the mules, the heads of the drug rings, and their associates. These young people are abused both by the violence of the drug rings and the violence of the state. As soon they are recruited, they immediately hang multiple wide platinum chains around their necks and go through automobiles and designer clothing the way they go through chewing gum. These kids leave school and devote themselves to slipping through the cracks of a city lacking in resources. My island is home to an undeclared civil war, along with a society that acts and develops as if nothing had happened here: highly consumerist and individualist, the uses and customs of the community having evaporated into the mists of the here and now. People live locked behind the bars of their little world and are transported in SUVs with a complete lack of interest in social causes and a deep existential solitude that overruns even the mere possibility of a good life. The citizenry's power of diplomacy is almost nil, and any effort to promote the interests of diverse social sectors is ignored or flattened by corruption or governmental ignorance, which have run parallel to each other for many years. The latter has gone so far as to publicly accuse the nuclear family, in particular women or the figure of the "mother," of being the sole party responsible for so many young people's being out on the street and acting crazy. This is the society that my children and my children's children have inherited.

I, as a spectator of that madness and being faces with so much death, devoted myself to observing, studying, and researching, with the goal of writing a condemnatory essay. I met many mothers, sisters, girlfriends, grandmothers, aunts, and friends, and in particular, the friends of friends who have lost their children in this war. Personal subjects drew my attention; that is always what moves me to write, and I thought of a generation of young people dead, of the numbers of funerals and wakes, of the sorrow of all these women. But I ran into a massive dilemma: how to articulate in an essay the sorrow, pain, grief, and social alienation. Poetry gave me the answer. I recalled Ernesto Cardenal and Eliseo Diego, and my work turned in that direction. Being an avid investigator of ancient rites, I also devoted myself to studying Biblical psalms. I wrote some Psalms \footnote{2} as a way to proclaim our right to peace; our right to raise strong and healthy children; our right to be protected by the state; our right to a serene life, without bad tastes and violent memories; our right to question, insist on and demand a better life for future generations; our right to expose malaise and society's shortcomings; our right to give our children public assistance and special attention; the right of all families, in the widest sense of the word, to be protected; and the right of our young people to be protected physically, mentally, and legally. I have written my poetry as a testimonial, not only to document the great traumatic experience that we are living, but also to bring together a record of what is happening in the city in a way that is more personal and derived from my perception as a woman. Poetry has the extraordinary ability to be effective and symbolic at the same time. It also has the ability to be transformationally utopian.


Originally presented at the "Poetry and Human Rights Conference," Ciudad Juarez, México,  May-June, 2004.



1 See article by Abby Goodnough  "Two-Front Battle in Puerto Rico: Crime and Apathy." New York Times,December 28, 2003. See also Taina Rosa  "With the Highest Murder Rate in the US, Puerto Needs Immediate Solutions." Caribbean Business, January 20, 2005.

2 See also Salmos del cuerpo ardiente}(México: Chihuahua Arde, 2004); or May the Transvestites of My Island Who Tap Their Heels Exquisitely, bilingual ed., trans. Rosa Alcalá (New York: Belladona Press, 2004).