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The Tropics of Pocho-Ché

Historical Essay

by Juan Felipe Herrera, from "Riffs on Mission District Raza Writers" in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture A City Lights Anthology (City Lights Books: 1998)

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The Mission Cultural Center between 24th and 25th, a product of activist poetry.

Ysidro Ramon Macías, a fair skinned and brainy Chicano from Fresno founded Pocho Ché Collective in 1968 and recruited Mission members such as Roberto Vargas, René Yañes, Magaly Fernandez, Gilberto Osorio and Alejandro "Gato" Murguía. Pocho-Che ignited the Tropical vision. The collective felt there had to be a forum for the social issues confronting the Mission and its people. They wanted to fuse two disparate realms of political and cultural turmoil and potential collective power: Latin America and the Chicano territories of the United States and Mexico. With this in mind, they chose the name Pocho-Che: Pocho, a pejorative term used to signify "half-breed" Chicano/as--caught in the fracture of identity, neither American nor Mexican, a mere "Pocho", a stuttering kind. Being Pocho was to reacquire, to transform. Che was Latin America itself, its political change; the revolutionary figure of Che Guevara, a key thinker and actor in the Cuban revolution hovered over the palm trees of San Francisco.

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Cover of Tin Tan, Summer 1977

"It had to do with living in San Francisco, the Central American and Mexican Barrios; the contact among us all. It was a year and a half after Che's death which sparked a lot of reading, interest and investigation in Latin American guerrilla and political movements... and the call for the Zafra came from Fidel (Castro). Latin American movements were very strong in the late sixties. It kind of forced you to find out who Carlos Mariguela was or who Camilo Torres was; Pocho Ché came out of this mixture. It was a sense of community. We said: here is our barrio (Mission District), here is our gente--but we are also part of La Raza, you can't deny it." —1984 interview with Alejandro Murguía

On July 26, 1969, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Cuban revolution, the young Pocho-Ché poets came out with their first mimeographed issue of Pocho-Ché, featuring a cover of Fidel Castro and the Cuban military hero, Camilo Cienfuegos. The project had been a nocturnal secret, printed at night in the Mission's Neighborhood Art Program where Roberto Vargas worked as a program administrator. In this issue, an essay by Ysidro, "the Evolution of the Mind" seemed to herald the political charter for new Raza writers of the Southwest. It underlined the Third World as the literary audience for the new artists in the Mission, a very different focus than that taking place in other parts of California. Macías stressed the progression of historical consciousness from the initial plane of "Mexican-American" being to "Third World" and then "Humanist" awareness. Although the number of copies was meager, 500-1500, and although they sparsely filled the bottom shelves of some of the sundry stores and magazine shops of the Mission, they reached a highly mobile, articulate set of young activists and artists across the states.

The second issue of Pocho-Ché, an offset production with cardboard covers, was published in the Spring of 1970. This time Ysidro Macías persuaded a friend to print the magazine. He operated an offset printing machine at the Berkeley Alternative School, housed in a Presbyterian church at the Sacramento and Grove intersection. Alejandro Murguía assisted in the editing, making sure that it would be finished in time for the second Denver Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. He and Ysidro, Roberto Vargas and a friend, "Teen Angel", packed up in a VW van, riding in the snow, carrying a fresh set of issues, represented the Pocho-Ché project. At the conference they learned what others were doing across the nation, met poets and thinkers like Abelardo Delgado from Texas, Alurista from San Diego (a mesmerizing speaker whose ideas would soon come to bear on the Mission scene), young playwright Luis Valdez from Delano, California and members of the Young Lords Party in New York.

mid-1970s flyer, courtesy Nina Serrano
By 1973, the Pocho-Ché group had produced two additional issues and journeyed to Cuba to work in the Third Venceremos Brigade, assisting in the sugarcane crop, meeting young Angolans and Vietnamese, and intensifying their internationalist perspectives, their visión tropical. By this time they had also initiated the Pocho-Ché Editions project, publishing small double-backed poetry chapbooks.

The early Mission poets, along with Latina and Latino writers and activists such as Nina Serrano, Isabel Alegría, Fernando Alegría and Bobby Miranda provided some of the necessary re-thinking for the Experimento Tropical — the search for a Latino discourse that was intent on re-connecting strong international histories and social movements throughout the Americas into the Mission conciencia. This greenness had been in motion for a while. The advent of the McCarran-Walter Act easing immigration in the mid-fifties and the exodus of Latin Americans and Southeast Asians from their homelands in economic and political turmoil had released the socio-political waves, the cultural displacements, the slippage of nostalgia, the reclamations for the New Greenness. Early poets, artists and writers in the Mission moved and wrote to the mix and flow of exile and displacement, romantic memoir and a newfound politicized love.

When they disbanded, they re-grouped into the Third World Communications Collective (TWC) with new members such as Janice Mirikitani, Ntozake Shange, Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Serafn Syquia, Geraldine Kudaka, George Leong and Victor Hernandez Cruz--all major figures in the Mission's literary world. They acted quickly and produced two major anthologies: Time to Greez: Incantations from the Third World and Third World Women.

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Time To Greez at Poetry Festival at San Francisco State.

Image: Joe Ramos, courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission

Ironically, the TWC only lasted six months. Their hectic schedules, lack of economic support and the death of one of their members, Serafin Syqua toppled the collective. Later in the year, on October 4th, "Gato" Murguía and Roberto Vargas met with Fernando Alegría and others to plan an emergency support reading event for Chile downtown at the Glide Memorial Church featuring Pocho-Ché poets and others such as Diane Di Prima, Kathleen Fraser and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Formless and at the edge of breakdown, the group continued its mission of internationalist poetics and consciousness; yet all these projects seem to be preliminary heats for the mega event to erupt in the late spring of 1974: El Festival Sexto Sol. With Sexto Sol, the Pocho-Che called for all artists and poets to conjure the Sixth Sun, to make the tropicalized word and world live.

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Nina Serrano, interviewed in April 2016, describing the evolution of the Bay Area Latino poetry scene from 1968 through the El Sexto Sol conference at Stanford and the many luminaries who contributed to it all.

Video: Shaping San Francisco

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