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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Across the Line / Al otro lado

The Poetry of Baja California, edited by Harry Polkinhorn and Mark Weiss; Junction Press, San Diego, 2002, 382 pages, ISBN 1881523136 US$25

The poems of these seventeen poets were selected from the anthology Across the Line / Al otro lado for Jacket magazine by Mark Weiss

button Introduction by Mark Weiss
button Raúl Antonio Cota — The Possible Myth
button Francisco Morales — The Art of Poetry
button Estela Alicia López Lomas — from Alice in Wonderjail
button Raúl Jesús Rincón Meza — The Vixen’s Thought / — Empty House
button Víctor Soto Ferrel — Voices from the Earth / — The Girl
          with the Dazzling Smile
button Luis Cortés Bargalló — from ‘Towards the Untameable Shore’
button Javier Manríquez — from ‘The San Antonio Notebook’
button Roberto Castillo Udiarte — The Magician of Mirrors’ Last Show
button Edmundo Lizardi — from ‘Baja Times’
button Rosina Conde — Mary Kay
button Gilberto Zúñiga — The Ballerina of the Balcony
button Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz — Raymond Chandler, San Diego, 1958
button Elizabeth Algrávez — Sandbook
button Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal — Orange
button Heriberto Yépez — Maniacs and Crazies
button Juan Reyna — ‘This is not your lover...’ / — ‘Here’s a lover...’
button Dante Salgado — ‘The night grows long in the desert...’
button Translators, editors, artist: biographical notes

Book cover

The cover illustration is ‘Tía Juana’, graphite and charcoal on board,
by Hugo Crosthwaite
(b. Rosarito, Baja California.)

This piece is 5,000 words or about twelve printed pages long.

Introduction by Mark Weiss

Baja California’s vibrant poetry scene has developed in less than a lifetime. Before the 1970s there were only a very few minor writers in what were then the small cities and villages of the peninsula, and those who created the cultural explosion that was to follow are still among us.
      At a gathering shortly after the November 2002 publication of Across the Line/Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California (San Diego: Junction Press, 2002), from which the current selection is drawn, I watched Luis Cortés Bargalló and his school chum Alberto Blanco perform a rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Oh Darlin’ and Donovan’s ‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven,’ and I found myself imagining Luis and the other Tijuana poets at the party as they must have been in the late 1960s, when Tijuana was a conservative backwater of something less than 30,000. The oldest members of that group ( of whom Raúl Rincón Mesa, Víctor Soto Ferrel, Luis, and Gilberto Zúñiga are included in the present selection and poems of another of their number, Víctor Hugo Límon, can be found in Jacket 14) were born in 1948, and I imagined them as a bunch of adolescents hunkered down in an old jalopy near the US border listening incessantly to the stations broadcast from the north, or maybe to the voice of Wolfman Jack, the legendary outlaw dj said to be sending his subversive music over the airwaves from south of the border (then and now the border was thought of as a transgressive space, a sort of liminal region in which there are few guidelines or restrictions). It occurred to me that these must have been strange kids for that town. As the bookseller and scholar Edgardo Moctezuma, who was one of them, confirmed, ‘we were really weird kids.’
      There were a lot of really weird kids running around in those days. Mexico was in a state of what seemed to be perpetual ferment. In 1968, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit was haranguing Parisian crowds and sit-ins closed Columbia, my university, and Berkeley, a series of student and worker strikes in Mexico City were punctuated by the military slaughter of several hundred university students in the Plaza de Tlatelolco, and in 1971 Avándaro, Mexico’s Woodstock, shocked the nation (it was a very conservative nation) with displays of public nudity and open drug use. Thinking about this, what should have occurred to me long before suddenly became clear: that out of this ferment had begun the growth of the culture of modern Baja California.
      In a recent letter Cortés Bargalló vividly described some of those events. My translation of part of his account follows. In those days one had to leave Baja California to study for a degree in literature, and he arrived in Mexico City in 1969, where he enrolled in the private, Catholic Universidad Iberoamericana; he couldn’t attend the public UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónima de México) as he had planned

because the strike was still on. There were a lot of us in that boat. As you can imagine, the aftermath of 1968 had marked everyone in Mexico City, especially the young. 1968 was followed by a period of enormous disillusionment, repression and ‘dirty war’ that, among other things, prepared the ground for the June 10, 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre. I witnessed and was affected by these events more directly than those of 1968, whose powerful moral impact still endured, although their emotional immediacy had begun to fade. On the tenth of June I was in fact a part of the demonstration, but I left a little before the shooting began. It was clear from the beginning that something was going to happen. A few hours later I happened to be at UNAM (where I had a lot of friends and was auditing classes) when some of the marchers arrived carrying the dead bodies that they had managed to recover from the Halcones. It was terrible.

The Halcones were gangs of thugs recruited, paid, armed and to an extent directed by the police and the military, which stood by while they killed at least thirty marchers and wounded many more.

Although we were depressed, there was an atmosphere abroad of protest, a social ease, that I think was in itself a form of disobedience. This was very important at the time, when the counterculture was the only outlet for the young.
      Avándaro, which I attended, happened a few months after June 10th. It was a kind of counterpart to those events, and decidedly political. The more rigid leftists condemned the festival; they considered it frivolous, an importation of foreign values, and inappropriate for such a dark time, but it seems to me that it was a manifestation of the excess and rebellion that characterized the early phases of the student movement (something like ‘the more festivals, the more anarchy’). But it’s important to point out that it wasn’t just students and members of the middle class who attended — most of the audience were workers and working class kids.
      Musically it wasn’t much, but I think that socially it established a precedent for autonomous power that had never before existed beyond the restricted circle of government. In a country in crisis like ours every social act is by its nature political.
      Although Raúl Rincón Mesa and I were in Mexico City by the beginning of the 70s, we never got together then, because even though we at times found ourselves in the same place we didn’t know it. My enduring friendship with both with him and Víctor Soto Ferrel began in 1973, when Raúl had already returned to Tijuana.
      The three of us shared intensely the collective experience of the young of that time. This was in fact the basis of our friendship.
      I think that all of these experiences are part of the cultural transformation that identifies our generation. You ask me how important these events were. Very important, I think, especially those of 68 and Corpus Christi Day. They signify a rupture, and at the same time the sad expression of a great social disorder, that has not been resolved since, but has become more visible and inexorable. Over time the awareness of these events has nourished the bases of solidarity and tolerance that, despite everything, endure. They are what keep the country afloat.

      Out of the energy of that time and the repression that followed came the rebellion in Chiapas, the growth of indigenous movements throughout Mexico, the vast improvement in the lives of middle-class women, the beginning of cracks in Mexico’s ancient caste system, and the overthrow of the PRI (Permanent Revolutionary Party). By all accounts it may well result in the defeat in turn of the PAN (National Action Party) and the return of a leftist party in the next election. And well in advance of the population explosion that continues to overwhelm its cities it produced the modern culture of Baja California.
      To understand the few resources that this group of post-adolescents and the very few older poets and contemporaries (among them Francisco Morales, Riberto Castillo Udiarte and Rosina Conde i n Tijuana, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz in Mexicali, and Raúl Antonio Cota, Javier Manríquez and Edmundo Lizardi in La Paz ) had available for building what increasingly seems to me a distinct province of Latin American literature one has to know something of the place and its history.
      In 1971, when I first ventured into Baja California, it took ten minutes to pass through Tijuana. Where now there is unbroken development there were a few villages and hotels along the 70 miles of coast south to Ensenada, Ensenada’s streets were largely unpaved, Hussong’s, its famous old bar, now at the hub of a flourishing urban center, sat on a dirt parking lot, and the pavement on Mexico 1, still the only paved road that runs the entire length of the peninsula, ended a few miles south of town — from there almost all the way to La Paz, 800 miles south as the crow flies, and Cabo San Lucas, 100 miles further, was a dirt track. It was so bad that it used to be used for the annual Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas endurance race, one of the world’s toughest off-road events.
      In those days and in the 300 years of Spanish, then Mexican, occupation preceding it Baja California had been the wildest part of Mexico’s sparsely populated north, the last settled and the last explored, its equivalent in fact and in myth to the Wild West of the United States. The peninsula’s nine hundred miles snake down Mexico’s west coast. A hundred miles wide at its widest, but for most of its length less than half that width, it is separated from the rest of Mexico by an equal breadth of water. Even now its deserts and mountains (it is almost entirely deserts and mountains) are virtually empty of human life, the population largely confined to several very new cities (by the standards of Mexico, many of whose cities measure their age in millennia): the four border-region cities of the state of Baja California, Tijuana (founded in 1889), Mexicali (1903), Ensenada (1870), and Tecate (1892); hundreds of miles of desert to the south, the resort cities of the state of Baja California Sur, La Paz (1811) and the smaller towns of the cape area; a couple of agricultural regions in the far north and far south; and a scattering of small resort towns, date palm oases, mining towns and fishing ports. One can still drive hundreds of miles of Mexico 1 without seeing any sign of human life except for an occasional gas station or greasy spoon. A beautiful but forbidding landscape.
      The road wasn’t completed until 1974. The northern half of the peninsula had only surpassed the constitutionally-mandated population of 80,000 to become the state of Baja California in 1952; Baja California Sur became the final territory of Mexico to achieve statehood in 1974.
      Its distant overseers had largely ignored Baja California until then, and they continued to do so as long as they were able. As in the United States, federal aid and representation in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives or Britain’s House of Commons, is proportional to population as determined by a decennial census. The PRI was not amused when the state of Baja California voted in 1958, in its first national election, for the presidential candidate of the PAN, and census figures thereafter have been highly suspect. An educated guess would place Tijuana’s population at something under 2,000,000 (it’s the third or fourth largest Mexican city), Mexicali’s something under 1,000,000, Ensenada’s over 500,000, Tecate’s between 100,000 and 200,000, and La Paz’ at about 100,000.
      But the north in general, and especially Baja California, the land of the norteados (the confused) and of Mexico City tabloid reports of flying saucers, has become the tail wagging the dog. After a generation of questionable PRI victories in local and state elections, the PAN won the municipal elections in Ensenada in 1986 and the gubernatorial and legislative elections in Baja California (its first state victories anywhere in Mexico) in 1989. The PAN has been in solid control of local and state governments in Baja California, and in the north as a whole, ever since, and it has been the party’s most important power base. Since the establishment of maquiladora factories (which relieved U.S. corporations of the burdens of U.S. unions and most taxes and customs duties) beginning in the 1970s (and even more since the enactment of NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated whatever tariffs remained on most goods passing between the United States, Mexico and Canada, in 1994), the north, and again Baja California most of all, has come to wield enormous economic power, second only to the capital’s. With the PAN in control (since 2000) of the Presidential palace and the national legislature, one can expect the 2010 census to reveal an extraordinary jump in reported population.
      Baja California remains in the Mexican imagination something of a stepchild, and the disdain with which the Mexico City elite has tended to view its citizens persists, as well as the distrust in the other direction, which in the past was expressed in periodic movements for independence. Norteño music, the north’s country music, may have taken over the national airwaves, but Baja California is still seen as different, and not quite ‘Mexican.’ There’s some truth to that view. Mexico is a country of very old regional cultures. The enormous growth of its urban centers in the twentieth century tended, with the obvious exception of Mexico City, to draw on each city’s immediate hinterland. Ties to the regional culture, and proximity to its rural or small town sources, remained. The cities of Baja California, in contrast, have very little in the way of populated hinterlands, and although almost three quarters of the poets in Across the Line were born in Baja California, very few of their parents were, and almost none of their grandparents.
      Missing in most Baja California cities, along with a great many other of the givens of Mexican life, is the communal cement of the paseo, the evening stroll of large numbers of townsfolk around a central plaza, that tends to create a sense of exclusivity and belonging. Neither Tijuana, nor Mexicali, nor Ensenada has a central plaza, and the intimate cultural habits, the musical and culinary tastes of all the regions, ethnic and linguistic groups of Mexico, as well as of the sizeable minorities of Chinese, Russians, English and North Americans living in Baja California, create a cultural stew that exists nowhere else in Mexico, which defines for its children a new sense of place, moving to the frenetic rhythms of cities in a constant state of change.
      And there is the special circumstance of the border. Readers of Across the Line and of this selection from it will note its frequent appearance in the poems. Attitudes towards el otro lado (the other side), as Mexican border residents call the U.S., are decidedly mixed. Baja California is the crossing point for most illegal immigrants to the U.S., but illegal crossings are far outnumbered by the daily tides crossing to the north in the morning and to the south in the evening of those legally permitted to work or shop in the United States (but nonetheless subject to capricious and humiliating interrogation), and even of U.S. citizens who live in Mexico and commute northwards. The floods of Southern Californians who maintain second homes in exclusively English-speaking coastal enclaves, and the weekend invasion of young gringos intent on a cheap drunk, do little to enhance the local attitudes towards estadounidenses (U.S.ians).
      The border crossing at Tijuana is the world’s busiest, and it must also be one of the strangest. Most passages from the underdeveloped to the developed world are mediated by several crossings: one passes, for example, from Syria to Turkey to Greece to southern Italy to Germany. In Tijuana the residents of the hillside communities of shacks that spring up almost overnight to house the newest arrivals can see across the border fence into the well-ordered residential districts of San Ysidro or Chula Vista. The people in those dependencies of San Diego also speak Spanish, watch Mexican television, listen to Mexican radio, and flavor their food as Mexicans do, but they benefit from the most powerful economy the earth has ever known.
      The passage from one side to the other, whether legal or illegal, is from one place to another that shares the same name — both are California, and few on the Mexican side ever forget that the other California was once Mexican. And the culture of the other California has a profound impact on the culture of Baja California.
      The Mexican border towns and many of those on the U.S. side exist only because of the border and are almost completely dependent on it. Mexicali was founded by the U.S. land and irrigation company that created the Imperial Valley al otro lado, and its twin, Calexico (note the mirrored names), is essentially a supermarket and department store for its much larger neighbor. Tijuana began as a resort and entertainment district for Southern Californians. San Ysidro was and is its market. Ensenada, like its larger neighbors, flourished with the onset of prohibition across the line. The prosperity, and many of the problems, among them the traffic in illegal drugs and illegal immigrants, are entirely responsive to developments in the United States. If U.S. companies decided to move their factories to Asia, as some have done, the border cities would shrink drastically and revert to dependence on local tourism, and if North American tourists changed their taste in beaches the economy of La Paz and the cape region would dry up.
      A graphic example is playing itself out as I write. The attack on the World Trade Center has led to a tightening of already very tight controls at the border. The result has been delays that can last three hours for those going north, a crushing inconvenience for those who must cross for work or school, and it also takes its toll on tourism to the south (because potential tourists aren’t eager to face the delay returning) and to retail trade on both sides.
      It’s worth noting that for many years border traffic control was casual in the extreme; people would stroll at will across the border in either direction. For awhile in the 1970s the U.S. Navy’s old beach-front Border Field gunnery range, which became Border Field State Park, was known locally as Friendship Field: Mexicans and U.S. citizens would climb the low fence to stroll on each other’s beaches. Now a rusty twelve-foot-tall corrugated steel fence crosses the beach and runs out to deep water to discourage migratory swimmers, and the surf casters who never catch any fish are U.S. Border Patrol agents in transparent disguise.
      It should be no surprise that there’s a profound ambivalence towards gringos among those on the south side of the border. That ambivalence has been one of the major themes of the poetry of Baja California. Edmundo Lizardi’s long poem ‘Baja Times,’ for instance, is a disenchanted survey of the tourist culture of the entire peninsula, as seen from the perspective of a native.
      The modern literary culture of Baja California begun by the young poets of the 70s developed as the population exploded and the necessary infrastructure developed. There is a state ‘autonomous’ (meaning secular) university in every Mexican state. The Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), the first of Baja California’s institutions of higher learning, was founded in 1957 but wasn’t fully functional until the early 70s. There are now campuses in Mexicali, Tijuana, Ensenada and Tecate. Other universities and research institutions followed, but they have had relatively little influence on the literary culture.
      For thirty years after the founding of UABC it was still impossible to get a degree in literature in Baja California. Since 1986, when the Escuela de Humanidades at UABC-Tijuana was founded, degrees in literature have been available, but only in Tijuana. Before that (and still at the other campuses), literature courses were taught under the rubric of disciplines like communications sciences and human sciences (roughly, our social sciences).
      The same situation prevails in Baja California Sur. UABCS in La Paz was founded in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1991 that it became possible to graduate with a degree in literature.
      No matter the rubric, there is no such thing as a degree in creative writing and no equivalent of our M.F.A. programs there or anywhere else in Mexico. Instead there are informal talleres (workshops), run by whoever can get people to come once a week and offer their work for criticism. Although they are often held at universities they are open to all, there is no course credit, no tuition, no mandatory attendance, and usually no salary for the director. They exist only because of the passion and commitment of their members, which have included most of the poets in this anthology. Some of them have nonetheless lasted for years, with membership as stable as the vagaries of life allow.
      Aside from the universities talleres have been (and continue to be) held at Ensenada’s Centro Social Cívico y Cultural, established in 1977, Tijuana’s federally-funded Centro Cultural (1982), the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California (1989) in both cities as well as Mexicali, and at the Casas de la Cultura that exist under municipal auspices in most Mexican cities, where inexpensive classes in cultural subjects are offered.
      Talleres are very much like workshops on this side of the border: members submit work for the review of the group and the director. As important, the group tends to retire afterwards to a bar or coffee shop, where a lot of the cultural work gets done: literary friendships are solidified, and journals and small presses are spawned.
      The first and historically most important of the talleres was the Voz de Amerindia, which met at UABC-Tijuana. This was the taller of Cortés Bargalló, Soto Ferrel, and Rincón Mesa. From it emerged the first important literary publications in Baja California: the first journal (Amerindia), the first book of poems published in Baja California (Raúl Jesús Rincón Meza’s Poemas de santo y seña para descubrir un rostro), and the first regional anthology ( Siete poetas jóvenes de Tijuana), which included Rincón Meza, Víctor Soto Ferrel and Luis Cortés Bargalló, among others. In the years since four other regional anthologies have appeared: Parvada. Poetas jovenes de Baja California (1985), edited by Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz; Baja California Sur. Otro mar otro desierto (1991), edited by Raúl Antonio Cota; Un camino de hallazgos. Poetas bajacalifornianos del siglo XX (1992), edited by Trujillo Muñoz; and Baja California. Piedra de serpiente (1993), edited by Luis Cortés Bargalló.
      Since Amerindia a few dozen journals have appeared in Tijuana, Mexicali, Ensenada and La Paz, and there are weekly culture supplements in all of the local papers, which often include extensive poetry selections. There are, as well, numerous small independent presses and the institutional presses of the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California, Tijuana’s Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura, and the Fondo Editorial de Baja California. Tijuana’s Centro Cultural is about to inaugurate an imprint of its own. Almost all are government subsidized. And Tijuana has become an essential stop on the reading and lecture circuit for intellectuals and writers from all of Latin America.
      There are also frequent presentations, a phenomenon I think unique to Latin America. It’s the custom in Mexico for new books to be presented formally, several speakers delivering brief critical introductions followed by a reading. At these presentations, it’s not unusual to have crowds of several hundred. To a gringo this is simply astonishing.
      The young revolutionaries who formed Voz de Amerindia remain the only poets of Baja California who can be identified as a coherent group: of those in the present selection these include Rincón Meza, Soto Ferrel, Cortés Bargalló, and the younger poets Víctor Hugo Limón and Gilberto Zúñiga. Despite the audacity they displayed in imagining and helping to establish the literary culture of Baja California, their poetry tends to be conservative in Mexican terms, strongly influenced by the French poets Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud (who have been integral to Latin American literature since Rubén Darío and others introduced them in the early years of the twentieth century), the surrealists and the American objectivists. This group of poets tend to write lyric poems of allusive delicacy and musicality and an aesthetic detachment that is unusual in Baja California, where a great many poets, otherwise very different from each other — Francisco Morales, Rosina Conde, Roberto Castillo Udiarte, Edmundo Lizardi and Heriberto Yépez among them — write poetry that is involved with and in protest against the grittier life around them and tends to employ the language of everyday speech, even the everyday speech of the gutter.
      A third kind of poetry, more a way of conceiving the poem than a defined school, is the neobarroco, whose practitioners, beginning with José Lezama Lima, twentieth-century Cuba’s most influential poet, create collages combining the everyday, personal history, the erotic, the esoteric, dialects, languages, professional jargons, and the speech of different social classes, presented without hierarchy. The moment is seen as infinitely complex, a multitude of voices, only comprehensible by means of the accretion of linguistic perspectives and the detritus of culture.
      The neobarroco has become perhaps the most powerful tendency in Latin American poetry, and it has had important influence in Baja California, notably on the work of Estela Alicia López Lomas, Elizabeth Algrávez, Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal and Juan Reyna.
      One tendency largely missing from the poetry of Baja California is the confessional. As in the rest of Latin America poets are considered public figures, and even those incapable of reading them listen to their pronouncements on all manner of social and political issues. This tends to bring forth a poetry which is always aware of the reader and rarely filled with unmasked personal information. It’s worth noting, for instance, that Rosina Conde’s ‘Mary Kay’ is not based on her own very different life, although one doesn’t doubt its portrayal of the lives of many middle class women and the ambivalence with which the life across the border is met.
      This is a literary culture of great diversity and sophistication, partaking of the dominant tendencies of modern Mexican and Latin American poetry. What differentiates it is the greater and easily-recognized influence of more recent poetry from across the border (many of the poets are prolific translators) and the presence of the border itself, as well as an unusually intense, unsentimental investigation of place.
      One of the peculiarities of the post-conquest cultures of the Americas has been their constant asking of the questions ‘what is this place,’ ‘who am I in this place,’ and ‘what am I doing here.’ There is a sense of metaphysical nakedness, not just each of us alone within our society, but alone in time as well, a heightened sense of the insecurity of things and of our own transience — abandoned by or having abandoned the former life, we or our near ancestors have built a new one amidst the evident ruins of other, unknowable cultures to which we can have no certain connection.
      Mexicans in the past century have come to identify themselves with a dual heritage, unavailable to most of us to the north, as descendants of both conquered and conqueror, indigenous and invader. It’s a dubious and conflicted comfort, but a comfort of sorts. Baja Californians, separated from familiar cultural and physical landscapes, and faced with the inexorable fact of their neighbor al otro lado, across the long scar of the fence that many refer to as ‘the Berlin Wall,’ more radically than most others in this hemisphere experience themselves as displaced, or at best provisionally situated in an unfamiliar place. They live, literally, in a liminal space — a threshold, a border. Here even the native-born experience themselves as exiles, because place exists in the dimension of time as well, and change through time has been so rapid and so extreme that the remembered place appears to have moved from beneath them. All of this enacted as if in an existential landscape, against the background of the great unpeopled, inhospitable territory beyond the cities.
      This, I think, is what gives the poetry of these poets, young, most of them, as the careers of poets are measured, much of its edge: Edmundo Lizardi’s restless eye, the reptilian landscape of Elizabeth Algrávez, the uneasy metaphysics of Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal, the social disquiet of the poetry of Heriberto Yépez.
      Baja Californians remain orphans of sorts, caught between and on the edge of the two power centers that determine their fates and that tend to render them invisible. Our goal when my coeditor Harry Polkinhorn and I began Across the Line / Al otro lado was to make them visible.
      Baja Californians, and Mexicans in general, have ample reason to question the motives of the gringos who pass among them. It has been a long history of belittlement and exploitation. In commemoration of a war that Mexicans have never forgotten and we al otro lado scarcely remember, most Mexican cities have an Avenida de los Héroes — Avenue of the Heroes, the 5,000 teenage cadets slaughtered by the U.S. army in the 1847 battle for Mexico City. Over Tijuana’s version towers a monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln. The Good Gringo.
      Despite the thousand acts of generosity that made this book possible we are aware that as outsiders we have inherited this ambivalence. Editing an anthology is not the best way to make friends, and probably none of the poets are in total agreement with our choices, whether to include or exclude. We hope that we have succeeded in representing both the scope of the region’s poetry and its best products.
      Part of the task of determining who to include in a place that so many pass through has been determining who to consider Baja Californian. Cortés Bargalló, who settled permanently in Mexico City in1975, put it well in another email message: ‘I don’t think that I ever really left Tijuana — I still live in that same interminable city that never stops moving and changing.’ That commitment to place was our desideratum. As Javier Manríquez, resident in Mexico City since 1971, tells us of the small mining town where he was raised,

There I lived my clarity,
the origin of spaces
beneath the June sun.

Years go by unheeded,
leave their stony geometry
in the corners
where shadows
but the image burns,
transparency endures and overflows.
My names appear,
my ghosts
— your ghosts
that haven’t aged
that remember me now...
(‘Cuaderno de San Antonio’)

Mark Weiss

...back to Baja contents list

Raúl Antonio Cota

(b. La Paz, Baja California Sur, 1949)

Literary journalist, editor, anthologist and poet. Founder of La cachora, the first, and for many years the only, literary journal in Baja California Sur. Editor of Baja California Sur. Otro mar, otro desierto (1991), an anthology of the literature of Baja California Sur. He has published six poetry collections, including Antigua California (Mexico City: UNAM, 1994), from which ‘The Possible Myth’ was drawn.

Image from book cover

The Possible Myth

I believe in the California that 17th century Europe
agreed to dream
which began with The Labors of Esplandián and became
the collective imagination: woman warriors
in the struggle
between Christian and Turk;

in the California the Jesuit Baegert* celebrated
with his contempt;
the California that the Guayacuras, Pericús
and Cochimís lost in the catastrophe of contact.

I believe in the California of the enigmas:
paintings that the sun tints ochre,
bodies and hands on the path,
in lookouts along the cliffs,
mountains of salt that defeat the light,
the whale and its punctual arrival
at the protective shores,
the sand’s ignorant wanderings;

in the warm and silent flow of its tides
into the estuary of the Gulf of Cortes;
in our bodies, hands, and eyes which roll
topsy-turvy in the great river of sand
                                                             which falls
                                                       into the sea’s
in the astonished agitation of shoals of fish
the spiny haughtiness of the cacti
wrapped in their green and bitter silence;

I believe in California,
obstinate invention of Jesuits
who made empires of the stone of faith
flower in the desert

I believe in the California
where deaf labor spent itself in the missions
and any voice became a command
not out of blind obedience
but as reflex, repetition of a series of acts
waiting since the beginning of time
for something more powerful than cross or sword;

in the California that built temples
with Indian or missionary voices, cloisters, oratories, chapels,
passageways, thick walls worn down
by flickering tapers;
I believe in the California
which exercises its power by the signs
of the terrible sea and the naked desert;

I believe in the California despised
by the solemn ones awaiting exhaustive
explanations of her origin and history.

I believe in the California of the Indian
who died of fright at the first toll of a bell.

I believe in the Strait of Anián
which joins the Atlantic to the Pacific
and has yet to be discovered;

I believe in the uninhabitable California
and in the never-discovered Islands-Rich-with-Gold and
that Vancouver and Cook
marked on their charts;
I believe in the California the French sacked
carrying off gold hidden
in make-believe copper mines,
and in the unlearned lesson

of the vast desert cemeteries;

in the California of mysterious skeletons
of miners who lie in the depths of gunshots
in the copper’s metallic slime;

I believe in the silent rhetoric
of the California rancher,
in his anaphoric language?
   irony between pauses and repetitions;
in the California of farmer and fisherman
whose weapons were rifles and stones
who made their protest at sea —
                                            canoes in a row
                                            songs and placards aloft
                                            among sea birds;

I believe in the California
of myth —
the only one possible.

Note: The name California is first used in Garcia Ordoñez de Montalvo’s 1510 romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, translated by William Thomas Little as The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandian (Tempe: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992): ‘Know that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons. They were of strong and hardy bodies, of ardent courage, and great force. Their island was the strongest in the world, with its steep cliffs and rock shores. Their arms were of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts they tamed to ride, for in the whole island there was no metal but gold.’

*The Jesuit Baegert. Johann Jakob Baegert (1717–1777), Jesuit missionary and founder of San Ignacio, Baja Califonia Sur. In 1773 he published Nachrichten von die amerikanisher Halbinsel Californien (Observations of Lower California), which contains the best early ethnographic data we have for the indigenous peoples of Baja California. His comments were nonetheless largely disparaging.

— Translated by Joan Lindgren

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Francisco Morales

(b. Cananea, Sonora, 1940)

Resident of Tecate from 1950 to 1969 and of Tijuana thereafter. He has published nine poetry collections, most recentlyDesolado amor (Tijuana: Colección La Maldita Palabra/Editorial Aretes y Pulseras, 1999), from which ‘The Art of Poetry’ was drawn.

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The Art of Poetry

Made for the voice
by the stupid reference to internal events.
Witness to the conversation between pencil and paper.

Entered prancing
the flourishing of the intervals that the days allow
the sad nights each time bleaker and harsher.

Mounted magus
                              of the boreal steppe
at the very center of overwhelming interpellations.

From figtree to family tree:

Examining the concupiscence of forks and bottles
the abstractions of locomotives and missiles.

In the near wilderness of dreaming and laughter.

Attentive to hunger and to the lucubrations of gluttony
  to the sclerosis of kisses
                                 and of tibias — ah! — touching sometimes.

To the return of the season and the apricot.
To inhumations and their osmosis.
To the scream in flight from life.

Made for the voice.


— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Estela Alicia López Lomas

(b. Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, 1944)

Also publishes under the name Esalí. Resident of Tijuana since 1957. Fiction writer, essayist and poet. She has published three books of fiction, one collection of essays and six poetry collections, including Alicia en la cárcel de las maravillas (Bacalar, Quintana Roo: Nave de Papel, 1995), from which the present selection was drawn.

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from Alice in Wonderjail


ay! alice was the strange little girl they locked away before she was born
the one they locked away in a bitter almond when she was born from
              another bitter almond in turn locked away in a bitter almond
because alone unnoticed the woman who out of obedience locked herself
              away in another bitter almond out of habit the gullible verboman
              the woman-word


she to whom they might have said don’t try to come back it’s impossible to return to the birth flesh to the seed to the uterine wind never again no one dares no one returns to the home she didn’t have to the mother who isn’t there to the earth lost in the exodus no one returns only the sweet smell of the almond returns only the almond insists on looking back


to go to the hearth of nothing? but to the home of the word that is woven to this woman who is weaving her bodyhome her facehome of letters this woman who broke the lock of pain the cell of confinement rebelled against the cross of obedience and alice here promises to live the infinite of this ductile number of lovewords


oh magic word of the desired breath of the two breaths in one the sands
of the sea all its waters god the measure of love measured the measureless song that denies being a cry denies home to alice solitude of the tortoise of the pack of the camel the clock of the mirror sped forward the scimitar queen the lachrymose jail relinquishes alice here


usurious country where song cuts the bassoon where the guitar continues singing along with the story the nightmare of the grandmother from santiago so syntactic so tactless alphabeting infancy is destiny! ‘and why did my grandmother lock me away and what was good for me is good for my seed’ — lock alice away!

— Translated by Harry Polkinhorn

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Raúl Jesús Rincón Meza

(b. Tijuana, Baja California, 1948)

Translator, anthologist and poet. He has published a volume of translations of English-language poetry, an anthology of Japanese poetry, and two poetry collections, most recently Guardar todo (Tijuana: Imago Ediciones, 1998), from which ‘The Vixen’s Thought’ and ‘Empty House’ were drawn.

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The Vixen’s Thought

Slowly the hand caresses
the page
running along the appropriate edge

The damp word useless
to a heart full of ashes

The vixen’s eyes
burst the lightbulb and ink flows
from the source of things

We add our weight
to the salt and the changes
they ask no questions they dream
their throats get down to business

In this dimension children wait patiently
they know that the sea always returns
and they say
that a sparkling sea is worth more
than a heart in the hand.

Empty House

for Germán Gilbert

The vixen approaches the table
her cold eyes
tip the floor
while the grandmother caresses the boy
who tugs violently at the tablecloth

spilled filthy milk
contemplates the fly’s last agony

the light from the other room
dissipating strikes
the edge of the silver fork
that rings exploding in autumn

leaves fly in the vixen’s blood
smearing themselves in her shadow

children contemplate the dark night
the insistent stars
they smile they hide they are summoned.

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Víctor Soto Ferrel

(b. San Miguel del Cantil, Durango, 1948)

Resident of Tijuana since 1953. Physician and professor of Spanish literature at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. He has published two poetry collections, most recently La casa del centro (Mexicali: Fondo Editorial de Baja California, 2001), from which the present selection was drawn

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Voices from the Earth

Dark drop, I breathe
from the knife’s edge.
The horses avoid
the smell of blood
spilled by the dark.

Rags burn,
seeds ignite.

The sound of weeping from the grove
leads me to the fruit

through the forgotten street;
among roots
voices from the earth
in the garden.

The Girl with the Dazzling Smile

Fog covers the willow, it enters
in whitewashed boards.
                                          A white dog leads me.
I don’t want to follow the path of its barking.

From the window
                                 the boys see the ambulance arrive.
A circle opens to true pain.

Through the street
                                 comes the girl
                                                           with the dazzling smile.

The boys grow,
                             they sing
they embrace the woman who in the kitchen
spills cascades of light from her hands.

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Luis Cortés Bargalló

(b. Tijuana, Baja California, 1952)

Resident of Mexico City since 1975. He has published, among others, volumes of translations of the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Gary Snyder, the anthology Baja California. Piedra de serpiente (1993), and four poetry collections, most recently Al margenindomable (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 1996), from which the present selections were drawn.

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from ‘Towards the Untameable Shore’


             I feel it close. Small islands beneath the clouds, a copper leopard. Black tufts drip from the sky. Skin of glass and yellow ice.

             Motionless as a beast poised for the kill, as a pit of burning basalt.

             Inside invisibility, cyclonic weft; clothing, linen of light, corpuscular sardines bitten from the rope of the surface. Also the backyard at midnight: shirts flying, frozen in the sleet, gray trees, the mast’s prayer, crossbows loaded, yardarms humming in the darkness that empties shapes.

             The common grave of the shell midden and its black stench. The shorn buoys. The sea urchin’s numb, tuberous spike. Tangential moon of the lighthouse blinking.

             In the bower broken traps and the fugitive lobster that raises torches against the wind (they say that it has no mouth; where could so many sighs have come from?).

It gains strength. Everything does. The lights asphyxiated by the wind’s velocity reappear riding bareback on the striped back of the rain.

             The dream is a black ocean and mists, the thick salt sunk to the white flesh. A single impersonal branch: the wind strikes and shrieks, tense trunk of vowels, it wants to reach still further. It screeches, stretches: a sailor’s knot.

             Night dissolves like clay in a stream.

             Winter, and the moon discovers sparks in the frost.


The little bodies of the bathers, flakes of ash, windows.
             That stout man, chin and head clean-shaven, grayish chest hair, returns to shore dripping like a bear and rests, docile, against his mother’s thighs at the water’s edge. I try to imagine their relationship. The woman’s face is almost square, her jaw and cheekbones wide, her mouth a groove with calm, correct corners. Beneath thin lips grow delicate wrinkles like lily roots encircling her chin and descending her neck to collar bones covered by damp underwear. Her white hair and eyebrows are lilies shading her olive skin. Her hands are in the sand, her slender naked arms like the trunk of a vine. Her back is not very straight, her shoulders pushed forward. Gray glints emerge from between her squinting lids. Now that I begin to see her eyes I try to imagine this relationship, but  they separate: the son sways, pulls his boyish head back, takes his mother’s hands, and with one pull raises her fragile body. They wobble by the water’s edge, into the distance down the beach like a flake of ash. Windows.

From the ocean my wife’s body, her full-moon face that I’ve kissed so often, moons of Mexico, ‘place of the moon’s navel’; moon of wheat in Kensington Gardens; Spanish moons in the Albaicín,* red like the sighing waters of Granada; moon of snow and savage fleece over San Pedro Martir* and La Rumorosa.*
             So lovely, her damp earlobes like native pearls. And to think that we met on the shore, embraced in our solitudes, lost ourselves sadly in distance like a flake of ash. Windows, luminous windows.


Marianne Moore: ‘...O tumultuous / ocean lashed till small things go / as they will, the mountainous / wave makes us who look, know / depth.’

             (the line aflame and a curtain of pink flesh reverberating in the bodiless body of a wave colorless shadows broken from other lives and my life fear the soul the trap dreams masks succession of water clothes swelling like the mouths of anemone mouths spilling like cuttlefish lightning in the iron knotted depth link and lever of a lost tongue in illo tempore like the white line at the bottom wake of an insignia the volatile eel whipping the antelope’s womb in the cormorant’s flight feathers and the boar’s collar the line the mark the navel the space between brows the pale flame that colorlessly inflames the crown of the head the plankton stain their fingers of red ink extending through the blackness elevated in the white bubbles of the place where skiffs of our departure emerge ash floating on the surface of pure tensions that now with their hammered glitter are
...the end of belonging...)

             But neither tumult nor the transparency of old shadows suffices. Submerged in the mind’s landscape there is its own landscape made of pain and sorrow, broken stones, fire holes, ditches, the bones of lost cities, embers enveloped in smoke, vibrate like a stain of the sun on the retina.

*San Pedro Mártir. The highest peak in Baja California.
*La Rumorosa. A pass through the mountains west of Mexicali.
*Albaicín. A hillside district of Granada, Spain.

— Translated by Harry Polkinhorn

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Javier Manríquez

(b. San Antonio, Baja California Sur, 1952)

Resident of Mexico City since 1971. Editor for the Institute for Historical Research of the Universidad Nacional de México. He has published one collection of poetry, Cuaderno de San Antonio (La Paz: Colección Cabildo, 1982), from which the present selection was drawn.

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from The San Antonio* Notebook

for my parents

‘And I will enter on newly-arrived feet...’
                         — Ramón López Velarde


The breeze.
The brevity of sparrows.
This earth ochre and red at evening.
The glances.
The noises,
the missing water.
The procession of days. Autumn
that I will never see again
         from the plum trees.


A big house,
iron-barred windows
that open out
to the countryside,
the naked ocotillos.
At times the house is damp:
          an island of slow ash
bound beyond the dust
to its bricks.

There I lived my clarity,
the scream,
the origin of spaces
beneath the June sun.

Years go by unheeded,
leave their stony geometry
in the corners
where shadows
but the image burns,
transparency endures
and overflows.
My names appear,
my ghosts
— your ghosts

that haven’t aged
that remember me now —
lessons anchored
in the white tide
of the paper:

everything speaks
in the night of
the yellow house
that the breeze once visited:
a sketch of smells
in the afternoon,
when the five o’clock sun
would rub my eyes out:
calligraphy of cinnamon
and honeysuckle
at the punctual dinner.

One must awaken
the water
that at night
drips off
to the side.
One must awaken everything,
the hand bringing close the recollection
that spies on me
from within the ink.

My brothers would play
in the yard.
                     With them
I climbed the scales
of the mesquite,
its undulant garden.
I slipped singing
through the blind
of trees
and arrived at the emptiness
of arid days.
I arrived.
                I found myself.
‘Is this where you appear?’

You arrive from somewhere else,
from unsteady places;
sleepy plazas with no answer
but the cautious green
unpronounceable branches,
cold canyons
where pearls almost found
the bent infirmity
of their shadow.

You arrive,
but nobody feels you
your wing,
No one awakens me
your fingers
                     the tokens of
my body,
your skin.

And this silent, briny
the tide that with its breath polishes
the usual city,
that moistens forgotten corners,
that always flows into our dust
so as to earn misery
or the dry husk of a murmur.

Everyone has left.

I have withdrawn from water,
from its writing
that grows
at night,
climbs the stairs,
visits one’s features
and makes a guess.
             — In those days, Alja,
through the black bars of the window
I’d watch the clear sky,
the vines
— the innocent flame.
Languages would burn.
A delicate lark
would fly
through noontime.

*San Antonio. A small mining town in the arid mountains of Baja California Sur.

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Roberto Castillo Udiarte

(b. Tecate, Baja California, 1951)

Resident of Tijuana. Teaches at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California+Tijuana. He has published a volume of translations of the poetry of Charles Bukowski, two books of nonfiction, and one of short stories, and four poetry collections, inclding Blues cola de lagarto (Mexicali: Gobierno del Estado de Baja California, 1985), from which ‘The Magician of Mirrors’ Last Show’ was drawn.

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The Magician of Mirrors’ Last Show

Manuel Scorza (in memoriam)

If you live in the valley of happiness
and exercise daily in your blue jayceepenny outfit
while your wife is in bed with your best friend,
step right up.

if your husband is a good-for-nothing
and you’re a philanthropist
giving candy and broken toys to poor kids in the slums
for the Day of the Three Wise Men*
and that’s what keeps you happy all year
step right up.

if you’re a girl with foreign names
and you pay to to be mentioned on the society page
to scare up a rich kid or a well-dressed executive
to rescue you from your parents’ palace,
step right up.

if you’re an executive
an office puppet with a fluoride smile
and an impeccable sears suit
and you believe that real life is being the boss
and at home you beat your wife and kids,
step right up.

if you’re a frustrated secretary
and every day you read your horoscope and the latest
novelists in vanidades* and cosmopolitan,
or how to snare your boss in three easy steps
and one horizontal position,
step right up.

if you hang out
at singles bars
where a trio’s been singing the same songs
for twenty-five years
or if you go to coffee shops
to talk about the future of the nation
while leering at working girls
embraced by their cheap tweed pants,
step right up.

if you’re a single man
or an abandoned woman
lost in the silent crowd
and you live in a hotel room or an empty apartment
step right up.

if you stand on line to buy tortillas or milk,
to get into the movies, to take a taxi or bus
and push your way to a seat
or fight your way through in silence,
step right up.

if you read in the paper
that a little girl’s been raped by an old man
or an old woman by a young man
or that war has broken out everywhere
and the price of sugar’s still going up
and you don’t agree,
step right up.

if you’re a student with an uncertain future
books under your arm
and a notebook full of unnecessary notes
step right up.

if you’re a teacher
who sees every girl in class as a latent possibility
and you teach incomprehensible classes
to fill the fifty minutes
for lousy pay,
step right up.

if you’re a budding writer
dreaming of your work being published
in letters of gold,
step right up.

if you’re a night-beat cop
raping the girls who hang out in the street
step right up.

if you’re a cholo*
and the cops are after you
because you’re a cholo
and you show up daily in the local news
and your pants, your bandanna and your tattoo of the virgin
are wearing out,
step right up.

if you’re a bricklayer
and you breakfast on candy and soda
waiting anxiously for payday
to buy a tabloid and a hero comic
and a few tequilas in the zona norte,*
step right up.

if you’re a prostitute from the zona norte
where the high and mighty never get drunk
and you’ve been getting old since you turned fifteen
drinking with workmen and gringos
and homosexuals in drag,
step right up.

if you’re selling flowers on the street
cleaning windshields or hawking papers
a fire-eater
a beggar who begs in god’s name
outside the banks the banks the banks
step right up.

if you’ve come from the South looking for work
and you walk with lowered gaze through streets full of ads
with your backpack of screaming colors and your broken pockets
pursued as an illegal
jailed as an illegal
condemned as an illegal,
step right up.

if you’re a trash-heap scavenger
dragging your garbage through the city
or a pitiful drunk or a street crazy
step right up.

if you read what’s written here
and ask yourself where I’m going with this,
what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to say,
step right up.
it’s a few minutes to the start
of the magician of mirrors’ last show.

*Day of the Three Wise Men. January 6 , on which children are traditionally given presents.
*vanidades. A Mexican woman’s magazine.
*cholo. A street tough, a delinquent; also, any young man dressed in the style of a cholo.
*zona norte. Tijuana’s red light district.

— Translated by Joan Lindgren

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Edmundo Lizardi

(b. La Paz, Baja California Sur, 1953)

Editor, journalist, fiction writer and poet. Has taught at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California+Tijuana. He has published a collection of journalistic pieces, a book of short stories, and four poetry collections, including Preludio de las islas (Tijuana: IMAC, 1999), from which ‘Baja Times’ was drawn.

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from Baja Times


This February morning, at the Mercado Negro*
the sea once more becomes the olfactory metaphor
that soaks into the peninsular resident’s very bones

Blessed be the smell of fish
of rumbling guts
the live clam quivering like the little asses
of the girls of the port

‘Miss, give me another big black clam, with lots of everything
to let me know that my body’s on terra firma, to let me charge my batteries’
because tonight the gentleman says he’ll be going out to fulfill
                                                                 his manly duties

(Some little waitress he’s dreamed of at night
from one of those bars of the Bajío)
‘What won’t the gentleman say! such a liar, such a drunk
so bittersweet, such a pot-head, such an I-don’t-know-what’
He says there was a night at Las Playitas
(Or maybe Playa Hermosa)
around the bottled genie of Sir Santo Tomás
an open fire and a moaning guitar
when a little Chicana with broken Spanish and sweet saliva
her pussy as taut as a wrestler’s tights
the kind with little dogs and all that other froufrou
called to him from her lumpy bed:
‘I’ll suck out your blood like a smooth grape
                                                     I’ll suck your peyote sap
Our son will be called Euphorion
Why do you tremble?’

And the gentleman says, ‘Oh Mister Moonlight!’
now, tonight, they’ll go to the carnival
to dance in the middle of some crossroad
                                                     to drink at Hussong’s*

where an old gringa asks the band to play ‘Cielito Lindo’
                                                                          for the nth time

another tequila and another kiss for her stud

and my homie Lombillo sings and sings

‘Poets,’ says our friend Chuck Baudelaire,
‘happen even in the best of families’

Vive la différence!
Between the sons of usurers
and the sons of poets
yawns the abyss of night
full of talking cactus

The song of the hump-backed whale
that swims southward
                                              through Todos Santos Bay
Toward ports where the usual widow
                                                                 a babe in her arms
               on the usual beach
for the old captain’s return

Sing, hump-backed whale, gray phantom!
Heirs of the patriarch of the Jordan
                                                                 we salute your song

Your footstep on the living wave
the wake of your navigation

A ray of light in the water of the traveler’s memory

All praiseto the heirs of the God-Devil!
Neon eyes of the Tijuana night
Heart of the cobbles of El Sauzal*
Shade of San Luciano
Imp of the mineshafts of Boleo*
Shipwrecked pirate in the Bay of La Paz

The poet’s sons order another round
                                                               of music and wine

Vive la différence!
(Granny Juanita, pray for us)


Three clowns out of a Fellini film throw their nets over a group
           of Korean sailors who don’t know what to make of so much
           occidental stupidity.
The crowd grows in front of Hussong’s, collapsing inward,
           weakened by the smell of tar, the piss of drunks, the sea’s guts.

And the stubborn old gringa orders another margarita and another
           round of ‘Cielito Lindo.’
In the arms of her native sweetie, her property, fresh from sweet-talk,
           he listens to her as if for the first time.
Our drowned faces float in the mirror behind the bar
and Hussong’s is a ship going down with its lights on.

*Mercado Negro. Literally, ‘black market.’ The fish market of Ensenada, a major tourist attraction.
*Bajío. An entertainment district of Ensenada.
*Las Playitas, Playa Hermosa. Beaches near Ensenada.
*Hussong’s. The oldest and most popular bar in Ensenada.
*El Sauzal. A coastal town just north of Ensenada. The beach is covered with cobbles.
*Boleo. The copper-mining district surrounding Santa Rosalía, Baja California Sur. San Luciano was one of the mines.

— Translated by Harry Polkinhorn & Mark Weiss

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Rosina Conde

(b. Mexicali, Baja California, 1954)

Resident of Tijuana since 1958. Poet, fiction writer, editor, jazz and blues singer and television director. She has published five books of stories, one novel, and three poetry collections. ‘Mary Kay’ was published in the anthology Baja California. Piedra de serpiente (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 1993).

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Mary Kay


Mary Kay became a hippie in the sixties
went to India and I heard no more about her;
back then I was too stupid to become a hippie,
barely found out about Vietnam
or the Plaza de las Tres Culturas*
in Tijuana it wasn’t easy to learn about the Black Panthers or the Chicano Movement


My boyfriend was blackmailing me with his leukemia,
they gave him two years twenty years ago
and today I see him with his wife and five kids.
On the phone he would describe his funeral to hear me cry,
making me promise I’d always remember.
I hadn’t heard the Beatles, I was too naive to become a hippie:
Chucho el Roto and Memím Pingüín were enough for me.
I wept over María Isabel* while my mother taught me to cook out of cans.


My father wouldn’t let me compete for Queen of the May;
His daughters, he said, should know their own worth; they didn’t need to prove themselves in a beauty pageant.
Now I have a husband who thinks I want to control him and his wallet also.
He threatens to leave me and we compete
to see who can put the other down.
My mistake, he says, was being born a woman.


When I met Mary Kay I discovered the taste of barley and brown rice;
I learned about the war, too, without understanding it.
But all I thought about was leukemia and its cure;
I swore I’d go to medical school to combat it.
My father refused.
My boyfriend didn’t die in two years as predicted.
He had lied to hear me cry, I later thought, and then he dropped me
to go out with someone who didn’t know any Mary Kays.
Then I heard about the ruins of the Templo Mayor and thought I’d study anthropology.
But my father said no again:
he found me a proper career and sent me off to the States
to study interior design.
Now I deck out houses with velvet curtains and art deco furniture.


Thanks to Mary Kay I listened to Dylan and the Stones.
In return I showed her Tijuana.
I couldn’t understand why she wept over Cardboard City,
the one beneath the bridge,
with its lepers and dysentery.
That’s when she told me she was going to India.
She had long hair and huaraches.
She was very gringa.
She cooked in clay pots and tossed out the blender while my mother was learning about electric can openers.
My father wouldn’t let me see her and said
it was his fault for sending me to the States.
He asked himself which was worse:
my hippie friend or the Plaza de las Tres Culturas;
because, he’d say, you have to choose the lesser evil,
which I understand now, watching my kids imitate Capulina or Chavo del Ocho.*
O.K., Mary Kay’s hair was long and she wore huaraches,
bought bead earrings and Navajo bracelets,
and liked embroidered Indian blouses and full skirts covered with stars or flowers.
Just like Lucy.
She had seen I Love You Alice B. Toklas
and was raped at fifteen by her boyfriend who left for Vietnam
and died there.
And me, what did I know about hunger, cold, or homelessness,
when I heard about the Biafran children the sound could have drowned out Niagara Falls. I was overwhelmed!
I don’t know if my friend Mary Kay knew much about that;
she turned vegetarian and left for India.


Eugenia fell in love with her math teacher;
she tore up all the poems she had read or written, and her letters from Mary Kay,
because he told her to;
she gave birth to a baby girl in hiding, since he, already divorced and with a new wife, couldn’t endanger his position,
and she shut herself away until she found a way to emigrate.
Now he visits her once a month or they go on vacation
and he boasts that he satisfies three households.


My friend Alicia was smarter, she says;
she kept her virginity and found a famous lawyer.
She rarely saw him, luckily,
and now and then went with him to Acapulco or Europe.
She was left a widow.
Now she doesn’t have to wait up all night,
her legs spread and dinner getting cold;
now she can stretch out on the chaise longue and sleep if she likes
without having to wear the negligée that never did the trick anyway.


When I decided to become a hippie it had already gone out of style;
I found out that Maria Sabina had died
and that Woodstock and Avándaro* had happened twenty years before
while my boyfriend was tormenting me with his leukemia and I was promising to become a nun.
Then I understood that I would never be Queen of the May and that negligées were too stylish for me.
That was when I remembered Mary Kay; I wanted to hear about her Indian adventures.
Maybe she’d had a child who could teach my kids about life!
Like their father and grandfather they think that feudalism still exists,
that an ideal woman says nothing
and that they’re going to inherit the land and the vassals too.

*Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Plaza de Tlatelolco, site of an anti-government demonstration (October 2, 1968), at which several hundred peaceful demonstrators were killed when units of the army fired on the crowd. One of the pivotal events of recent Mexican history.
*Chucho el Roto. Nom de guerre of Jesús Arriaga (died 1885), a bankrobber who has become in the popular imagination a Robin Hood figure. The hero of many films and, beginning in 1968, a long-running television show. Memím Pingüín. The eponymous hero of an enormously popular comic book (1963-1977; reissued in the 1980s). A young black boy who is a sort of universal innocent. María Isabel. A literary, film and soap opera heroine.
*Capulina. A childlike comic character, hero of numerous films and comic books of the 1980s and 1990s. Chavo del Ocho. Eponymous hero of the long-running (1973-1994) comedy show, played by the adult Roberto Gómez Bolaños as a child, and dressed in children’s clothing. For the entire duration of its run the most popular show on Latin American television.
*Avándaro. An outdoor rock concert (September 11-12, 1971) attended by hundreds of thousands, many of whom indulged in public consumption of recreational drugs and public nudity. The Mexican Woodstock. A seminal moment in the history of the Mexican counterculture.

— Translated by Joan Lindgren

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Gilberto Zúñiga

(b. Tijuana, Baja California, 1955)

He has published one poetry collection, Nightfields (Mexicali: UABC, 1991), from which ‘The Ballerina of the Balcony’ was drawn.

Image from book cover

The Ballerina of the Balcony


I know that the seagull watching me knows your whereabouts
touching another wind with your long hands

Already the poppy has begun to extinguish your scent
but you will always remain on these beaches
in this living wreck of a world

I didn’t know it was time for that goodbye
behind the garden wall there is no time to spare
let us stay a while longer
staring out at the oncoming waves
our anxious eyes flitting nervously


The sea is understanding
an extinguished cigar
the cold coffee
an I-have-to-eat
the seagull in its own shadow
the sand sparkling to the touch.
The cross-eyed waitress
returns to her Kena *

‘flabby and protruding bellies, disgusting!’

We will meet when geraniums bathe in the breeze

‘It goes up, it goes down’*
The dead are with the dead
and the living with the living
I don’t know where you are


Nostalgia for the sea is different
the four o’clock breeze
rustles the tablecloths on the balcony tables
alone the radio fights on

Winter-battered the leaves of the palapa fall
the sun departs saying so many things...

*Kena. A Mexican women’s magazine
*It goes up, it goes down. A line from a popular dance tune.

— Translated by K.A. Eherenman

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Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz

(b. Mexicali, Baja California, 1958)

Professor of literature at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California+Mexicali. Editor, fiction writer and poet. He has authored or edited over one hundred books, among them the anthology Un camino de hallazgos, poetas bajacalifornianos del siglo XX (Mexicali: UABC, 1992) and twelve poetry collections, most recently Rastrojo (Mexicali: Plaza y Valdes/UABC, 2001), from which Raymond Chandler, San Diego, 1958’ was drawn.

Image from book cover

Raymond Chandler, San Diego, 1958

Regattas: in the distance planes climbing
The Coronado Bridge: history that is
Wind and spray and tea from China: I order a coffee
The past is a game of chess
A long, lingering good-bye: the dream
Of an innocent and glamorous time

If I at least knew who I follow,
That it’s my shadow, while the rain
Falls on the wooden roof: music
Of the time dogging my footsteps and hiding
On street corners like a badly paid detective
Who reluctantly accepts his fate

Nostalgia is a solo dance
A sip of coffee between two options  
A sip of coffee between two options  A sip of coffee between two options  A sip of coffee between two options  A sip of coffee between two options  Facing an ocean that knows my name  
Facing an ocean that knows my name  Facing an ocean that knows my name  Facing an ocean that knows my name  Facing an ocean that knows my name  And a world that at the moment lacks the means
Of returning blow
For blow: retributions: back doors

This is what I am: a chalk drawing
A badly outlined body in an office
Where the telephone keeps ringing
Without anyone answering it
If at least I could explain my own life
What the motive was
For the accumulation of so much blood
It’s late now: regattas
Boats moving up the golden coast
The sea’s turmoil and the squawking
Of birds: a picture postcard of serene
Beauty: today I’ve paid my debts
To the last penny: may the investigation end

May the femmes fatales lose their way
In the morning fog: today I believe
Only in the unmistakable sound of gunfire
In giving to each his just deserts
Neither more nor less: it’s time to close
The case: to go on a killing spree

Far away: somewhere
In some dark alley
Someone knows that I’m lying

— Translated by Harry Polkinhorn

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Elizabeth Algrávez

(b. Mexicali, Baja California, 1972)

Currently a resident of Tijuana, where she is director of the Municipal Institute of Arts and Culture. She has published Cantos buranos. Traducción de los Carminas Burana (1993), and three poetry collections, including Trilogía de arena (Guerrero: Monte Gargano, 1999), from which ‘Sandbook’ was drawn.

Image from book cover


                Slither, sandbook
Thereisnosand snake stopped by your step
                                                you slide away no longer
                                from hand to hand
                                                      holds you back.  


                You barely touch it and the desert opens,
surrenders itself slippery crescent of sand imprisoned between your hands;
it overflows    runs over    slips away
slowly on its surface you build new faces
castles, fortresses, caverns, dark salty depths where it’s
dry, not, wet, warm.


                There are no birds, no songs,
only the dry sound of skin against sand,
the reptile’s trail a subtle zigzag
the reptile’s arid purr sweeping the skin of the desert
and the reptile is going to sweep the skin of the desert
and the reptile goes, sweeping the skin of the desert
and the reptile, laughing slime, the skin of the desert
and the reptile froths, laughs on the skin of the desert
which is sway and sling, and silk, and surrenders itself.


                The hot sun on the skin of the desert
finds its geography of uncertain womanhood     dunes
depths    clefts and tracks
                       tracks of the reptile

                Serene    the skin of the reptile slides through grains of sand
across the skin of the desert.


                The reptile streaks through the skin of the desert
finds it, searches, again and again runs over, beneath and across the open sand
which unseals itself and pulls itself together
gives itself, withdraws, opens and closes.

                Like the path of the reptile it dives inward
among dunes and stones,
rejoices, luxuriates,
with the skin of the reptile which is courage and fear
and the bed that never stops
but rises and falls like the reptile
that finds its prey and grasps it.


The reptile grows and shrinks beneath the caress
the scraping of skin
disturbs it, troubles it
turns it to liquid, a deep (sea)
and it will spill onto the sand
which expands, fulfilled,
and in its vast expanse
knows itself to be sand, to be nothing
(but loved nonetheless)


                The sand is not silence
it’s the murmur of secret internal tides;
the reptile listens, reclining on the skin of the desert:
there are rivers, there is rain;
birds live and beasts run beneath the skin of the desert
and become eternal.


The sand drains away,
grain by grain, slips
in your hand, and if you close it


                The desert moves, slowly rising and falling
it is so large that only the reptile can know it
the birds will fly over it, but it won’t be enough
the beasts will run through it, but it won’t be enough
a thousand men will walk through it, but it won’t be enough
the wind, the sun, the cold of night, sorrow, will not be enough
because it’s so large that only the reptile can know it and the desert wants
wants to be known and surrenders, is stripped of, its garments
it takes the reptile by the hand and shows it the way,
it leads the reptile by the hand to the oasis that it may drink its fill
and the reptile surrenders and goes and drinks before, in the face of, the oasis
and it is all water, salt, humidity, warmth, trembling notknowing
if it’s desert or reptile trembling
or both
or neither.


                The reptile’s caress scrapes the skin of the desert
evaporates, ooze-whips, exploring sensations:
smoothly it climbs a curve to the summit
descending threateningly to the abyss
overflowing onto a thigh a knee undoing the geography
of the desert with a breath and remaking it with its hands;
sculpting new landscapes, a higher dune, an oasis more plentiful,
more fragrant; filling the desert with traces, caves for reptiles,
to fill the skin of the desert with heat.


                Without its lover the desert burns
with expectation, it’s a dry tide
an ancient coming and going of waves corroborates it
its murmuring speaks of fish, of damp geographies now gone.
                Little remains of that desert adornment
                                    some shells
the trail of a mollusk in stone.


                At night the skin of the desert glitters
the moon embroiders it with its silver rays
the sand/ yesterday gold, yellow, shining/ dust
today is water
the heat of the day has melted it
it is glass.


                A desert has no life without a reptile
it thinks
it expands and glitters beneath the sun’s passage
it undulates
it seeks to imitate the reptile’s passage across its skin
it is filled with longing
                The reptile arrives
reptile-embrace, reptile-kiss, reptile-hand, reptile-caress
and embraces, kisses, touches and caresses it
seadesert, sanddesert, airdesert
that unfolds, surrenders, yields itself.

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal

(b. Mexicali, Baja California, 1974)

Fiction writer and poet. Graduate in communication sciences of UABC+Mexicali, where he teaches, as well as at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California+Tijuana. He has published one book of short stories and four poetry collections, including Befas (Tijuana: CONACULTA/CECUT, 2000), from which ‘Orange’ was drawn.

Image from book cover


and the glance follows
like two snakes in bed
like a gruesome bird

angel or artifact


in our country the landscape

the sky is a taunt
trees scarce and rocks abundant

alongside the dry watercourse
dead lambs dance

in a gully
voices from another sea are purified
expecting the solstice of the times
and they don’t hesitate to disturb travelers

down by the road
the sudden fire of a sigh and a cirio cactus illuminate us


nothing is possible
when vermilion saturates the horizon
and the sky is white
the gaze’s flight
           a single line


they kept the elixir from us
they changed the lines on our hands

we are mother’s consolation


we are shock   the lost voice

we are the signs of the times
an archipelago
a continent traced on the air
hands that say what the wind says


another world awaits us in the morning
a calm life
the endless brotherhood
beyond the agripnia

sanctimony’s wheels  

innocence wrenched away


coyotes came out of our sides
and our hearts filled with water
the cliff of souls was very close

you said, ‘moon is sun to the deer,
voice is the well of men
before death’

I said: ‘we need a chair
some flowerpots’

but an embracing obstructed our many-voiced prayers
then a postal silence
the thistles
madness and the flood of tears

a continuous line postponing the meeting of the flesh


to make a mistake is a solace like any other
like shooting at birds with a shotgun


and the useless poplars
and the dazzling wounds

— Translated by Scott Bennett & Mark Weiss

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Heriberto Yépez

(b. Tijuana, Baja California, 1974)

Lifelong resident of Tijuana. Essayist, literary journalist, translator and poet. He has published three collections of essays, a volume of translations of the poet Jerome Rothenberg, and one book of poetry, Por una poética antes del paleolítico y después de la propaganda (Tijuana: Editorial Anortecer, 2000), from which ‘Maniacs and Crazies’ was drawn.

Image from book cover

Maniacs and Crazies

ubiquitous gimps with matted hair
        and greasy clothes
walking down bottleneck streets,
digging through piles of garbage    the remains
of school lunches and restaurant scraps    plunging
their hands and muzzles into boxes of mixed leftovers of chinese takeout,
harvesting half-rotten lettuce tossed into the street by taco stands,
hovering around food vendors,
                 their only hope for a mouthful of warm food,
although the taco makers’ blood-spattered aprons terrify them
reminding them of the horrors of psych wards.
Maniacs recycling dried-up vegetables outside cut-rate markets,
eating cats and pigeons that they kill and cook
on dead-end streets, using their armpits as cupboards, drinking water
from gutters in public parks or puddles
in the asphalt’s potholes, gathering soda bottles,
searching the manholes of despair for aluminum cans,
panhandling for empty bottles and scraps of bailingwire,
their features a mockery of the face of the world outside
and of the catacomb
Crazy monks
                    possessed mendicants
the brutish blind and the disabled who calculate
the profits of disability
encountered on the avenue asking for coins
                     in exchange for foul breath blown into the faces
of the sane, the deformed tapping
their plastic cups all day on the cracked sidewalk,
pressing grotesque faces to shop windows,
pissing on phallic telephone poles and dumb fire hydrants,
crossing the streets naked, their skin
                                                             burned and blistered,
fondling secretaries from high-class companies and the others
                 who work to exhaustion in sweatshops,
hassling students about to graduate into god-knows-what,
making faces at executives waiting for the light to change
according to the government schedule of corruption.
Incurable maniacs tugging at the shirt-sleeves of passersby and scratching at windshields,
letting their beards grow as their teeth fall out
because of infections,
losing even their eyebrows,
pushing precarious shopping carts with broken wheels,
grimacing, addressing orations
                                                     to the streets at large,
these products of social engineering,
deaf-mute heroin addicts
                demanding alms,
the more depraved in hiding
anywhere, in bus shelters,
empty lots, on a bench beneath the eaves, in wait
                      for victim or benefactor.
The police gather them in, but the authorities at the local psychiatric hospital
don’t want to know anything about them, the deranged
migrants who lost it because of the sidewalk’s heat
drug addicts who’ve never come down
                   cut off from home
unemployed workers who a few months back
lost jobs and minds, men and women
divorced from their families, social outcasts
shouting nonsense and denunciations
while clutching the transfigured rags they wear in place of pants,
street crazies on every corner
screaming, crawling,
suppurating, stinking
perverts    fences    pickpockets    muggers
                of tourists and Indians,
punching-bags nurseries of gangrene
abductors of children   
rapists    runaways
roasted by the sun    wrecked
by the noise of cars     and at night
chilled to the bone.
Even jumpier than the rest of us from the sounds of gunshots
in the streets    they’re always
in motion, bumping
through crowds, run down
by traffic
           the maniacs and crazies of a city
that spits at them cold showers beatings
and coins rubbed thin by avarice which is why
no longer frightening
they hide from view at nightfall
when abandoned buildings become terrifying and the drugstores
have shut their streetlights, the shoestore clerks
have left for home and there’s no sound
but the other crazies, and they huddle against the gratings of the few stores
whose alarms don’t go off at the merest touch.
Then the street crazies beat their heads with their fists they hide
from each other they sleep
in cardboard boxes discarded by consumers and pizzerias,
in barrels, or wrapped
in shredded blankets,
the world of the employed, the normal
                       (those who pay the rent and wash their cars)
rehearsed in their minds as they fall
into the second part of a dying voyage,
                because each time the city’s day threatens
to turn to night
a certain proportion
                                 of its crazies die.

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Juan Reyna

(b. Tijuana, Baja California, 1980)

Has published one poetry collection, and, in Antología de jóvenes creadores (Mexicali: Fondo Editorial de Baja California, 2001), the book-length selection Próximo estoy a descubrir un tumor en la lengua de los hombres, from which the present selection was drawn.

Image from book cover

‘This is not your lover...’

for  H.M.E.

This is not your lover it’s
a reproduction of your lover
no, a photograph of your lover. It’s an old
photograph of your lover, worn from use, I said: ‘The reflection
of your lover
is someone who dreams of your lover
a woman who dreams of becoming your lover
a scribble on the wall that says ‘lover’ next to
the telephone number of someone who claims to be your lover but is only
someone identical to your lover
the image of your lover
an inflatable doll with your lover’s figure
your lover’s twin someone
to whom everyone says that they understand her to be your lover
someone who neither you nor anyone else knows is your lover except her.
And in the end she becomes your lover.’

‘Here’s a lover...’

for  H.M.E.

Here’s a lover: good looking, sweet face, well-built,
a poet with a model’s profile, money in his pocket and he wears
                a sign on his chest that says: ‘Step right in,’ and
inside there’s a woman: cute, smart,
nice (and great in bed), wearing a sign
on her white breasts proclaiming ‘Step right in,’ and inside
and within her once again her lover, his eyes lost in the tropic of desire,
wearing a sign that says ‘Step right in’ and inside
there she is again, his lover: a woman
losing herself in her beloved’s verse and wearing
between her navel and her chin (who knows how near her genitals) a sign
that says: ‘Step right in’ and inside and within her he, then she,
successively repeated, each time smaller, so that each can fit
                  within the other and so on and vice versa
each time the sign that each one wears
becoming smaller and more difficult to read
bit by bit the letters dissolving
before their eyes, their bodies each time smaller until they remain
only in imagination: and here we have
two empty lovers.

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Dante Salgado

(b. La Paz, Baja California Sur, 1966)

Teaches at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur. Editor and poet. He has published three poetry collections. He was also one of the four poets included in La piel del desierto (Mexico City: UNAM, 2000), from which ‘‘The night grows long in the desert...’’ was drawn.

Image from book cover

‘The night grows long in the desert...’

The night grows long in the desert
angels and demons
struggle for California
Who shall win the souls?
Who invented this island
of golden hills
and savage Amazons?

In the northernmost part of the country
Vengeance is prepared
Dawn is the cry of war
Someone will never awaken again
Someone will remain sunk in a dream

— Translated by Mark Weiss

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Translators, editors, artist

Scott Bennett is a translator and literary scholar resident in Santa Barbara, California. He received his M.A. in Spanish from San Diego State University and is completing his doctorate in Hispanic languages and literatures at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is currently translating the Mexican novelist David Toscana’s collection of short stories Historias del lontananza (1997).

K.A. Eherenman is chair of the Department of Languages and Literature of the University of San Diego. Scholar, translator and poet. She has published translations of Alberto Blanco, among others, and numerous scholarly articles. Her current project is The Face of God in Latin American Poetry, a book-length study.

Joan Lindgren has lived on the border for over forty years; a former Fulbright Border Scholar, teaching cross-border translation workshops at UABC. Her essays, poems, stories and translations have been widely anthologized. She has translated three major poetry collections, Letters to an Owl, by Magda Santo- nostasio (1985), The Task of Telling, by Francisco Morales Santos (2000), and Un- thinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems of Juan Gelman (1997).

Harry Polkinhorn (B.A. English, UC-Berkeley; M.A. English, M.A. Studio Arts, San Diego State University; Ph.D. English, New York University; M.A. Counseling Psychology, Pacifica Graduate Institute) is a permanent visiting professor in the Ph.D. program in Semiotics and Communication of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil and Director of San Diego State University Press. He has published, as author and editor, over thirty books of visual poetry, poetry, fiction, translation, and scholarship. As a scholar his primary interests have been the international avant-garde and the culture of the U.S-Mexico border region. He has translated works from Italian, Portuguese, German, and Spanish.

Mark Weiss (B.A. English, Johns Hopkins; M.A. English, Columbia University; M.A. Social Work, Yeshiva University; Certificate in Family Therapy, The Ackerman Institute) is the publisher of Junction Press. He is currently editing the bilingual anthology The Revolution in Cuban Poetry: 1944 to the Present, and translating Stet, a bilingual selection of poems by Cuban poet José Kozer, both due in 2003. He is the author of five books of poems.

Hugo Crosthwaite (cover artist) (Tijuana, Baja California, 1971). Lifelong resident of Rosarito, Baja California. Studied graphic design at San Diego State University. Among his numerous solo exhibitions in Mexico and the United States have been ‘Tablas de una novena’ at Tijuana’s Centro Cultural and ‘Urbe Tenebrosa’ at Tijuana’s State Gallery. He recently participated in the collective show of Tijuana artists ‘Pintura Fresca,’ at California State University+Los Angeles, and in the major exhibition ‘The Perception of Appearances: A Decade of American Contemporary Figurative Drawing,’ at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

Photo of Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Photo by Kay Whitebook

Jacket 21 — February 2003  Contents page
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