Poemas of the Solitary: an Entrevista with Jacinto Jesus Cardona

By: Juania Sueños

The bookish bato, Jacinto Jesus Cardona (“Jesse” de cariño) author of Pan Dulce, and educator in his 53rd year teaching, talks about growing up in a small Texas town and gives insight into his upcoming book, Amapola Song, A Cancion de mi Vida. Jesse, inspired by conceptual Mexican artist, Ulises Carrion, has been publishing zines, what he calls libritos, for half a decade. His first full-length book, by Plancha Press a division of INFRA, is a collection of poems recounting his childhood and experience as a writer.

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INTERVIEWER

In your poem “Laconic” the speaker reflects on this time of early childhood that he stopped speaking. You grew up during the time of the atomic bomb; you also witnessed segregation, and in later years JFK’s assassination. Despite these looming threats and disturbing events, why do you think your writing is often playful and humorous? 

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

I think humor is a sort of mask, like all children you get some kind of problem, and by writing about it in a humorous way, when I was growing up, I put myself at ease. I was three when the bomb was dropped. Humor is a survival tactic. Instead of being grim about experiences, I have to see the humor in them, otherwise, it would be all doom and gloom. 

At poetry readings a lot of the time people go mmm, mmmm, it’s very serious. When I read, I preface my poetry with, when I discovered I belonged to the cosmic race, I went shopping for a galaxy. A lot of my poems are about serious topics. I just put a humorous spin on them. I love playing with words. The book is about writing, a lot of it is about words, you carry words with you. 

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of words, you use a lot of vernacular; many of your poems go from high to low diction. Some of the joy of reading your book comes from seeing words like d’oquis, which I’ve only heard spoken.

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

Yes, that’s the other thing, the humor appears from words and phrases. Recognizing these things our parents used to say, Ese esta d’oquis, and my joy when I found it—I’d never seen it anywhere, but I found it in this old dictionary: dee apostrophe oquis, sounds like a Nahuatl word; it means not doing anything. I heard my mom say a lot of unusual words. She would say, es puro güiri, güiri and I was like what is that, like talking a lot, and I found it, güiri, güiri; visually it’s very beautiful. I’ve always gotten words pegadas. The first time I heard bato I thought wow, I like that. So I went home and I told my brother, Raul, aye, bato. And my mom—very concerned said, aquí no hay nada de bato. 

They’re words that are under-appreciated, I want to rescue them. I write them to preserve and celebrate them so they don’t disappear. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever have negative experiences with words? There’s a poem in your book about a slur you were called once.

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

I bought these white, buckskin shoes once, after Pat Boone’s, and I was walking by myself and these two pachucos said to me, me caen tus calcos dude. And I liked the word calcos. It wasn’t my word, I didn’t talk like that. I reacted to words, looked them up in the dictionary at the library. Even when they called me slurs, like mayate, I wasn’t upset, I was intrigued by the word, the way it sounded. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you access poetry? I recently heard Tommy Orange refer to a POC’s encounter with literature as a “backdoor entrance,” what was your “backdoor entrance” to reading? 

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

I just walked to la liberry without nobody taking me or showing me. The first book I read was the autobiography of Kit Carson. I must have been seven or eight. 

INTERVIEWER

Evaristo, from your poem “Amigo Imaginario,” is reminiscent of your other poem “Bato con Khakis” (which was selected for performance at the New York City Symphony Space) in the sense that both these characters are exiles of not just their “own” Mexican culture, but of the dominant American culture, leaving them doubly othered, what made you gravitate toward these misfit characters?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

When I was twelve or thirteen I used to ride my bike all over town and I’d see this guy by the Lozano Grocers and he’d be wearing all black. I would pass by and he’d be there just standing. On my way back home it’d be kind of dark already, he’d still be there. So one night I got home and waited to sneak out, with a headlight on my bike, and I went there and he was still there. He wouldn’t talk. Era un bato solitario. Every barrio has these unusual characters. And I would wonder who are they, what’s on their mind

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel a sense of belonging in your household? Or at school, being a bookworm?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

I felt shunned by other Mexican American kids who thought I was weird. That was a double isolation. I think that’s why I relate to the loner, el otro. One of the worst things about racism is that you then do what I did. I didn’t want to be Mexican as a boy. To be Mexican was not good in those days. You were dirty, you were lazy, right?

A lot of self-loathing comes from that. Bottom line though, I was a loner. I had to be comfortable with that. T.S. Elliot was asked, where do these poems come from? And he said They’re not easy. They come from dark places and there’s a cost. All of these things took a toll.

A lot of generations after mine grew up proud of being Mexican, and at that time there were already Latinx leaders, activists, but I was not aware of them. The Felix Longoria case happened in Three Rivers, right outside of Alice, in 48′ when I was merely six years old!

INTERVIEWER

 In your “My Tex-Mex Essay” there’s a line that sticks out to me from the rest of your collection, it’s “Yes, as a Tex Mex I must admit at one time I was in the grip of an inferiority complex, even went to the flea market to buy me a fake Rolex.” It’s more somber than the rest of your poems, but then the poem reverts to humor in the end.

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

Yes, it is dark, but the speaker in the poem does not want to end up with darkness. I suppose it’s a nervous laughter. I remember in Langston Hughes’ “Theme B for English Class” he tells the teacher this is who I am. Hughes is one of my heroes. He uses a common language that’s very simple, but so powerful. His poetry is very accessible and jazzy. I love “Florida Road Workers,” which is funny at first glance, [the men in the poem saying] Hey look at me I’m building a road, but it’s very dark behind that. The implication is these men are building a road, but they’ll never get to drive on it. It seems very simple but he was recording history.

INTERVIEWER

You write a lot about your parents, what was it like growing up with them?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

I was rather naive because my mom didn’t allow me to go out. We stayed home. I was always by myself. I really wouldn’t talk. I didn’t care to talk. My mother would say: He’s very noble but curt. She’d always introduce me that way. You more or less follow a script that your parents layout for you. As soon as your parents say you’re the wild one, you do become the wild one. When I graduated from high school I didn’t go to college. I went to Corpus to look for a job. In the back of my head I kept saying: When are you gonna think about making a living wage? My mother worried that I was totally inept, only good at reading and writing and nothing else; that I wasn’t going to earn a living. And like I said, you follow the script, I’m totally inept, I thought.

She was also always seeing curanderos. She was very high strung, suffered from anxiety. She was an orphan and married very young to this man who abandoned her. I was born in Palacios, but we moved to Alice because she was afraid of hurricanes. During storms, she would make my brother and me cover all the windows, every glass in the house until the storm passed. She made us recite Divina doncella líbranos de rayo y centella.

INTERVIEWER

Your poem “Mother Never Read to Me” reflects some contrasts between you and your mother. While you loved being lost in books, she was unable to read or write.

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

Yes. She signed her name with an X for a long time. I asked her to practice writing her name, and I convinced her to get a credit card so she could practice her signature. And we would sneak out to Dillards—my father was frugal—and I would always tell the clerk you may wanna take care of them, sir, because mom is going to take a while signing that. And she would write Eloisa Rodriguez de Cardona really slowly. She also never drove a car in her life. My mother is my hero. She suffered so much injustice. The night before she died, she was singing along to “Un Rinconcito en el Cielo” by Ramon Ayala, and at the end of the song she let out a yell. As her last breath swept over me, I heard my sister Elsa’s dogs begin to howl.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your allusions to film in your work come from your father who lost an arm in an accident?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

He taught me all this classic film he knew from being a projectionist for some years. He also worked at a funeral home with his uncle, where they made everything from scratch, including coffins. This was while his mom worked as a midwife, so by day he worked with coffins and death, and by night new life. Then he was a photographer for a number of years but that didn’t work out. He was chiflado, partying. One time he hit a brown Express truck. He was drunk and wanted to pass the truck and decided to pass it on the right side, but the truck moved over to the right lane while my dad was in his blind spot with his arm hanging out of the truck’s window, and it got smashed by the Express truck. His mom took him to see a revered doctor in San Diego, and he told her, we’re gonnna have to amputate it; he’s not going to be able to lift it, it’s destroyed. And she said no, no, no le mochen el bracito. He built our house with one arm only. He’d ask me to help, but I just wanted to read. 

INTERVIEWER

He was also a fry cook?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

Yes. He finally got this job at this hamburger joint, and the cook was a racist, and one time all these guys from the oil fields came in and my dad offered the cook help who said to him, I don’t need no help from a Mexican, then the owner came in and fired the cook and said, Jesse, you’re gonna cook now. He was a businessman; he didn’t care what race my dad was. 

INTERVIEWER

You talk about Hughes and Elliot, are there any other writers you gravitate toward, and what compels you about them?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

One of my favorite books is Trilce by Cesar Vallejo. People all of the time say what is that? But some scholars suggest it’s a combination of triste and dulce. I love writers that play with words. Then of course there’s Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, a total wacko; depressed, psychotic, and one of the first modernists. He published poems under three personas, each one with their own aesthetics, their own politics. They weren’t just pseudonyms. He is a reminder of that ambivalence of life: we all put on many personas all the time. I have my poet persona, my teacher persona, my husband persona, my father persona, son persona, and so forth. Borges also talks about this in his “Borges and I” flash essay.

In the first librito I wrote, At the Wheel of a Blue Chevrolet, I alluded to Pessoa who didn’t have a car but borrowed one to go to Sintra. In that poem, I’m doing the same thing.

I also gravitate toward Elliot who was a banker. He wore a suit and little, scholarly glasses. He once went to a party and painted his face green, which was totally out of character; he was a banker! Prufrock is a poem that defines him well, about being anxious and unsure and wondering who he was and who he could be; that was me. 

INTERVIEWER

Hablando of what you can be, do you regret not getting a postgraduate degree?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

I decided to get a master’s one summer and I went into [a graduate course] American Literature, and all of a sudden I started sweating. I couldn’t breathe. I’ve never experienced that. I ran out and never went back. I was already teaching then, in San Isidro, Texas, a small community in Starr County. One summer I told the school superintendent: a lot of these kids never leave here during the summer, can you find some money so I can take them on a trip to McAllen, you don’t have to pay me. He did and after that, I would shave my head and spend the rest of the summer on the beach. It was like a ritual. All by myself. A lot of teachers suffer burnout, and they ask me how do you do fifty-three years? The summers were mine. I wrote and read in the summers. I’d be a different person, a different writer if I taught at a university.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have found a community of other Chicanx artists in San Antonio, how did this happen?

JACINTO JESUS CARDONA

Yes. that happened much later on in my life. I was teaching at John F. Kennedy High School, and Centro Cultural Aztlan was at Las Palmas Mall, on the Westside of San Antonio. In 1985 a colleague of mine, Professor Rafael C. Castillo, became editor of ViAztlan: Chicano Journal of Arts and Letters. It was an exciting time, but the journal was later defunded because of a controversial Texas sesquicentennial poem by San Antonio poet Jose Montalvo, “What the Sasquash-centennial Means To Me!”

During the 90s, I continued working with Centro Aztlan organizing poetry readings, and they had a gallery. My wife Olga is an artist so we enjoyed all the art exhibitions and receptions. Our first date was in November at a Día de Los Muertos exhibit at UNAM-San Antonio. She worked for several years at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center so we got to know many more artists. I am also part of Voces Cosmiscas—founded by San Antonio poet, Fernando E. Flores, and Carlos Loera, a librarian there. They organize weekly meetings at the Collins Library and publish our work several times a year; they also host many special events. This literary hub has been alive for around a decade!

Juania Sueños

Infrarrealista’s Spanish & English Editor

Featured image by: Katarzyna Pe

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