From The Block To Your Classroom

San Jose poet Yosimar Reyes tell us how it is to be raised on the San Jose block on the East Side, traveling and teaching in classrooms around the country and still coming home to the "Hood".

I grew up in small apartment in the East Side of San Jose. My block was always the one kids would make fun of when they talked about bad neighborhoods. Everyone always told my grandmother that we had to move, that it wasn’t safe living in our area. As a kid I saw everything with innocence. I never questioned why everyone thought about my neighborhood as something bad. I never ask my grandmother why we had to wake so early to go into people’s trashcans collecting bottles and cans. My Abuela never sat me down and explained to me that we were undocumented and poor. There was never any clear language that explained our situation. To my Abuela this was life, whether we liked it or not these were the cards we were dealt with so instead of us questioning and dwelling on all the things we did not have we were grateful for our hands and our ability to work.

I think about my house a lot. This small two-bedroom apartment we call home. I think about how for the longest time I slept on the living room floor next to my grandmother. Every night we shared this hard floor and she would talk to me until sleep took over. It was in this crowded apartment with white stained walls; mix matched furniture and cucarachas that I began to write my first poems. I had to drown out the sound of the loud Novelas on TV, lock myself in the bathroom and pen down my thoughts.

It was in this ghetto ass neighborhood that I learned about community. The lady in apartment 40 would hustle sodas out of her house, the one on 37 would babysit your kids and the lady on the other building could connect you with someone so you could get your green card. This was my block. Every apartment filled with a different story. Every family from a different place in Mexico but we all had the common understanding that this was not home and we had to help each other out.  We were strangers in a strange place.

It was in this block filled with immigrants, raza, corridos y borracheras that I learned about stories and the language we used to tell them. Abuela would feed the neighborhood Jornaleros that came to the US to work seasonally. I used to hate my house from the hours of 6-9 PM because about 12 men would come into our small apartment to have dinner. Among their noise and the TV I never really had space to write but their conversations would seep into my thoughts and I began to hear the message in each of these men’s stories.

These men laughed, joked, talked about their families back home and how difficult it was to find a job here. They would even ask me to teach them basic sentences in English so they could communicate with their bosses. As a child never did I think of my life as an Anthropological Study.  In my mind this was life, everyone I knew lived like this.

I am older now. No longer that fat boy running around barefoot playing cops and robbers. I’ve learned to define whom I am by words that sometimes feel heavy on my tongue and even heavier on my spirit. I’ve learned about systems of oppression and privileged.

I’m a poet now. I tell stories. My Abuelita still can’t believe people pay me to speak to them, to tell them of where I am from. It amazes her that so many people follow my work so she believes it’s a blessing that people want to hear about our lives. I tell her that she is a poet too, that she is the reason why I write but she does not think much about my silly words, for her the only thing that matters is that I am a good person and do my part to help others.

Often times I find myself caught between the access my poetry has granted me and the reality of my existence. No doubt that have been blessed that people see their lives reflected in my words but I still find it hard to believe that as I am praised and celebrate I come home to a neighborhood where nothing seems to change. I sit in classrooms where people call each other out on their privileges.

I see students brown like me, from neighborhoods similar to mine trying to survive in these classrooms were the discourse around our lives is made to seem something distant and disconnected from our intellect.  It is these places, located in lands far from our neighborhoods that so many us come into the understanding of what struggle means. We learn new language, write papers about global struggles, organize around social issues and yet when we come home to the blocks we have known since babies we can’t seem to even talk to our neighbors. School does not teach us how to have heart to heart conversations and how to work beyond the so-called problematic language our communities speak in. We get caught up in the semantics of who we are as people that we forget that while language is something that needs to be check our people will show they care not by words but in the actions they demonstrate.

 I am older now. Learned most of my life lessons in this street. This place everyone fears, this place I so desperately want to leave. I grew up in a small two-bed room apartment in the East Side of San Jose. Grew up around so many people, each one with a story tell and each story I heard began with at least one thing to be grateful for. 

 Sometimes I get confused with folks that constantly talk about oppression. Have a whole essay that speaks about their struggle and thou I respect the pains and traumas we have all lived through I can’t help but think that deep down in all this misery, in all this pain we still have each other.

 If you ask anyone from this block about their lives they will be honest with you, they will cry with you but somehow in some way they will also manage to laugh with you. This is the greatest lesson I’ve learned from this ghetto ass neighborhood that you got to make peace with your pain and live to hustle another day.

This article is part of the category: Community 
This article is part of the tags: East Side San Jose  / ESSJ  / Spoken Word  / Yosimar Reyes 

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