By Elias Serna PhD
The first time I heard Matt Sedillo, he was the poet shouting in the street. Literally. And the streets have always been the terrain of poetry as well as polemics. When Rudy Acuña stated that “polemics are the engine of revolutions” he was referring to Corky Gonzalez’ epic “I am Joaquin.” It was what a generation needed. A historical consciousness, which the poets delivered before the historians completed their manuscripts. In my own scholarship, I have described movement speech as pleito rhetoric, speech that confronts power through multi-lingualism and academic English, evoking the street fight. Today, Sedillo, much like Corky Gonzales did with “I am Joaquin,” summons a historical consciousness, evokes the revolutionary pleito, stokes the fires next time.
The setting for Sedillo’s poems are rebellions past and present. Numerous uprisings throughout history are set off after a child is murdered or abused by ruling forces (Noche triste, the Tongva/Chumash revolts, Black Lives Matter). It must be the last straw for a people, the last condition they are willing to tolerate, the last shred of dignity taken. The child representing their future, the people’s hopes and potential. After Jesse Romero was chased through Boyle Heights on August 9, 2016 and shot dead after disposing of a gun, his corpse was unceremoniously turned on its stomach, limp hands handcuffed behind his back by officers. A street protest followed and ended on the spot his body lay. The speakers were visibly anguished, distraught. Then Matt Sedillo took the mic. He too was enraged but composed, words weaponized and aimed, the poet shouting in the streets. He read a poem combining “Here is a Nation” and “Kingdom of Cages” and it was fiercely electric.
In his inaugural book of poems, Mowing Leaves of Grass (FlowerSong Books 2019), Sedillo assembles an invigorating collection of poems providing an Ethnic Studies curriculum via scalding ideological and ironic wordplay. His opening poem “Pilgrim” offers both biographical data and a no-nonsense (or anti-nonsense) biting analysis of current racial politics. Like Alurista and the early Chicano Movement poets, Sedillo expertly weaves literary and pop culture allusions with the cadence of radical Chican@ Studies curriculum to produce literary dynamite. He contrasts those who “were born to summer homes, and palatial groves… where the Red Fern Grows” to a Xican@ self, “Always Running, down the Devil’s Highway, through Occupied America, on the way back to the House on Mango Street, and all those other books You didn’t want us to read.” He points out how “some were born to the common core, whose faces graced the pages of doctrines to discover,” leaving others out and reminding readers how the nation’s foundation relied on the colonial ideology of white supremacy.
When Sedillo writes, “The Melting Pot was never meant for the hands that clean it,” you get the sense that few have the courage to say this truth, or the audacity to write like this. His fierce irony, literary allusion and rhythmic alliteration become that much more pointed when he viscerally connects harsh historical truths to our present, accusing schools in particular: “Cause you don’t teach it, Could write a book, But you won’t read it… This is about you, and 1492, And the Treaty of Guadalupe, California missions, And Arizona schools, And these racists, That try to erase us… From Popol Vuh, To Yo Soy Joaquin, To the Indian that lives in me, From Mexico 68, To the missing 43, They tried to bury us, They didn’t know we were seeds.” The allusions pour down, line by line, a rain of the terror upon an indigenous Chicano history. The image of burying of revolutionary seeds, first published during Nicaraguan revolts in Ernesto Cardenal’s “Epitaph for the Tomb of Adolfo Báez Bone” in 1954, has been appropriated in recent struggles by Tucson Raza/Ethnic Studies organizers, to Mexicans protesting the Ayotzinapa massacre, to Black Lives Matter protesters. But like Central American poet-priest Cardenal, Sedillo articulates a leitmotif that signals uplift and regeneration. Sedillo ends his poems in balletic form, a cutting irony: “We didn’t cross the borders, The borders crossed us, Who you calling an immigrant, Pilgrim.” The rhetorical question, full of pleito, is enforced in the echoes of a radical Xican@ arts tradition, alluding to Aztlan Underground’s hit song and Yolanda Lopez’ iconic movement posters.
Imaginative poems like “The Devil” personify and illustrate clear sources of misery and inhumanity like war and consumerist traditions, while calling into question the enabling problem of apathy, misinformation and irresolution in every one of us. “Defend the Eastside” spotlights familiar places and conjures spiritual moments in the barrios east of downtown L.A., bastions of Chicano culture and resistance. As the title suggests, the poem makes a declaration to rise up to protect these sacred spaces. A few poems like “Pedagogy of the Oppressor,” a critique of the Thanksgiving mythology, are succinct and blunt, although rich in disturbing imagery.
It was rewarding to see “Kingdom of Cages” and “Here is a Nation” in print. As a witness to the spoken poem, I appreciate its still life form in front of me. As a student of literature, I rejoice in the close reading. “Here is a Nation” is a critique of contemporary state-sanctioned killings of Black and Brown youth in the context of a national tradition of racist violence against liberation movements. Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen recently wrote an op-ed in a similar fashion about anti-Asian violence as not new, but part of a shameful national tradition of racist violence against non-whites. But Sedillo’s economy of words (most of the lines in this poem are one, two or three words) pack more elocutionary force than police batons. Condemning the moral crisis of today, he writes:
They are killing our kids
While half the nation
In the homeland’s defense
Because they think
That a white woman’s purse
Has more value
Than a black or brown boy’s life
Sedillo possesses an art of drawing conclusions that are spatial, visual and revealing. “Here is a nation/ That eats its young/ This is not a democracy/ This is not a republic/ This is an open-air prison/ An industrial scale plantation.” His juxtaposition of modes of patriotic tradition with scenes of violence produces an ironic onomatopoeia: “Peculiar institution/ Institutionalized racism/ Declaration/ To Plantation/ Anthem/ To Slave Ship/ The bicentennial/ And back/ To the slave whip.” While the presentation of evidence is blunt, its arrangement resonate visually and stunningly: “To Arizona’s/ Blood red/ Coyote trails/ Traffic/ In brown flesh/ Brick by brick/ Grave by grave/ Inch by inch/ slave by slave/ Here is a nation/ There are its chains.” The last two pages of the poem set two lists of martyrs side by side: revolutionary martyrs over time and more current innocent children murdered by police. Except one: Brisenia Flores.
In 2009, the nine-year old girl, daughter of two Mexican workers in Arizona, was murdered alongside her father by a nativist vigilante group who invaded the family’s home and shot her at point blank range as she pleaded for her life. The murder of the innocent third grader illustrated the depraved status of racist vigilantes as well as state-sanctioned violence provoked by anti-Mexican rhetoric, immigration policies and education laws. Sedillo’s roll call of martyrs is a reminder that the murders of Tecumseh and John Brown centuries ago, of Malcolm X and Ruben Salazar 50+ years ago, and of unarmed children today are still “applauded by half the nation.” It is also, as the poem concludes, “a call to arms.”
The shorter “Kingdom of Cages” opens by marching out a cast of police characters in a country (U.S.) with the highest incarceration rate in the world, condemning the internalized (in)justice system, “the thin blue line on an all white jury.” The social movement for culturally relevant curriculum points out importantly that education outcomes hinge on the class being meaningful to the present, to books reflecting student lives. Sedillo’s poetry abounds in this quality. The evocative repetition of “As they shoot us as we run” reminds us that for white colonizers, real estate developers or gentrifying neighbors, people of color have too frequently served as “their open frontiers, the neighborhood threat,” a justification of racist colonizing and violent policing of space.
It also summons the memory of that raw emotional day at the wake of 14 year old Jesse Romero, as the crowd formed around the youth’s shrine off of Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. The tragedy repeated this year when Adam Toledo was killed in similar fashion by Chicago police. We need Matt Sedillo’s poetry like the 1960’s needed “I am Joaquin.” Sedillo’s rhythmic anthems stand alongside Ana Castillo’s “In My Country,” and Abelardo’s “Stupid America” – unapologetic, poetic and brave. If our current racial crisis is a house on fire, is Matt Sedillo the water, or a strong wind? The deeper answers to our social ills won’t likely be debated effectively in city halls. And before the social scientists write their analytical manuscripts, the vision of a better tomorrow may be first observed in the enraged elegies to murdered children, in the voices of the poets like Sedillo, shouting in the streets.
Elias Serna is a parent, artist & educator, formerly an assistant professor of English at the University of Redlands. He is a co-founder of Raza Studies Now, the Xican@ Pop-Up Book movement, and is currently helping coordinate Xican@ Quincentennial Moratorium events. He holds an MFA from UCLA Film School and a doctorate in English from UC Riverside. As a MEChA co-chair at UC Berkeley, he organized Ethnic Studies activism and helped negotiate the American Cultures requirement. He is a co-founder of teatro group Chicano Secret Service which has toured nationally and performed at the HBO Comedy Festival and in the tv pilot “Pochonovela” (PBS). In 2013, his archive titled “Chican@ Movement Banned Books,” won 1st place in the Library of Congress’ National Book Collection contest. He is a board member of the Pico Youth and Family Center.