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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-09-06



Puerto Rican activist discusses life, poems
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times

This article shared 3929 times since Wed May 22, 2013
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Luzma Umpierre-Herrera, a leading and out lesbian Puerto Rican poet and critic, was in Chicago this past week to present on her work.

One of these events was held at DePaul University's Student Center at 2250 N. Sheffield on May 17. Umpierre-Herrera read from and spoke about her most recent work, a volume titled "I'm Still Standing: Treinta años de poesía/Thirty Years of Poetry." This anthology collects some of her most well-known poetry, including The Margarita Poems, first published in 1987, a set of poetry that openly discusses lesbian sexuality.

The events were organized by collaborations between DePaul's Center for Latino Research and the Women's Center, The Butterfly Poetry Project, Casa de Cultura Calles y Suenos, En Las Tablas Performing Arts Center, Voces Primeras and the LBTQ Giving Council of the Chicago Foundation for Women.

The venue for this first event was significant because Umpierre-Herrera is the first woman to have her papers collected at DePaul, which acquired them in 2008.

Umpierre-Herrera read from the anthology, interspersing the poems with biographical details about its origins and about the events in her own life at the time.

She introduced her own biography by speaking about how she came to the United States in 1974, to get a Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr. She said she left because she was persecuted for being openly lesbian; her principal at the school she taught in at the time told her her life would be threatened if she didn't leave the country.

Her first poem, in Spanish, with a title that translates to "The Term Paper" was an onomatopoeic piece that combined words with the sounds of the typewriter she used one night to finish an assignment. It was also, she said, a reflection of the isolation she felt as a Puerto Rican woman in white, upper-class Philadelphia.

While still pursuing her degree, she worked with bilingual children in barrios of North Philly, who were taught inside garages because they had been labelled "abnormal." Out of this experience came the poem, "Rubbish," written in both Spanish and English, which combined the speech of a Spanish speaker with the intermittently puzzled Anglo response, "I beg your pardon?"

Umpierre-Herrera also read from her poetic exchanges with fellow poet Sandra María Esteves. In the 1980s, the two wrote poems in response to each other, with Esteves writing a piece about her idea of traditional Puerto Rican womanhood. Umpierre countered with a poem she read this evening, titled, "My Name Is Not Maria Cristina," where she portrayed herself as someone who did not depend on men—a line repeated throughout insists she fixes her own faucets.

Umpierre-Herrera has been sexually explicit in her poetry, and this was especially evident in her reading of one of the Margarita poems, filled with images of female sexuality and which Umpierre seemed to relish performing, running her fingers down her body as she named her sexual organs.

The reading consisted of humorous pieces as well—Umpierre-Herrera said she often turned to humor as a way to survive her experiences, particularly in places and times where her identity was ignored or derided. Before reading "Only the Hand That Stirs Knows What's in the Pot," she spoke of how, at Bryn Mawr, "Anglos were not interested in the political conditions of Puerto Rico or gay and lesbian life in Puerto Rico—they just wanted to know the ingredients in my recipes for the Puerto Rican food I served."

In "God Is Moving," Umpierre-Herrera wrote about a God tired of the salsa music and Puerto Rican food invading Philadelphia, a God who longed so much for the return of waltzes and familiar American cuisine that he decided to leave the city. In "The Cat's Meow," she wrote about the difference between Puerto Rican felines, who were only kept around as hunters of mice, and American cats, used to cushions and special cat food.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Umpierre-Herrera spoke of the importance of gay rights in Puerto Rico, where a non-discrimination bill has just made its way through the Senate. She said it was important that Puerto Rican gay activists not fight about who would be the spokespersons for the movement, and that they always acknowledge the work of pioneers who had laid the groundwork for current work.

This article shared 3929 times since Wed May 22, 2013
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