Ballesteros Presents Bilingual Poetry

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The first VOICES Reading of the spring 2012 semester featured the poetic works of José Ballesteros, a St. Mary’s Associate Professor of Spanish.  A native of Quito, Ecuador, Ballesteros infused his poems with Ecuadorian and Latin cultural references and rich imagery, and dealt with themes such as youth, death, home life, and love.

Israel Ruiz, a colleague of Ballesteros in the International Languages and Cultures (ILC) Department, introduced Ballesteros as a “young poet with a strong voice.” Ballesteros, he said, was “raised by Amazons: loving, crazy, powerful women”  that shaped his poems’ handling of gender themes. “[Ballesteros] talks about masculinity with intelligence, humor, and mockery, but never disrespect,” Ruiz added.

Ballesteros began his reading by naming many people in the St. Mary’s writing community, such as Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser, as his poetic role models. Before reading his first poem, he joked “The theme [of my poems] is love. I’m pretty sure you all are experts on this by now.”

In “Any Given Name,” Ballesteros explored European imperialism in South America by describing slang used in Ecuador that is subtly different from the meaning of its English equivalent. His mother says he has the temper of a “chapa,” or “cop,” noting that the cops in Ecuador are more violent than most others.

The recklessness and vivacity of youth was described in other poems. “No amount of narcotics can quiet all the fuss-making,” Ballesteros said in reference to parents drowning their worries about their children with drugs, and mocked the tendencies for young men to “talk about other women” and use reverse psychology to attract a girl’s attention.

As a middle-aged man, Ballesteros turned his attention to family life in “Stay-at-home Mythology,”  in which he describes the lulling rhythm of home-sounds such as the “swishing washing machine” and the annoyance of having his young son mess up his perfectly folded laundry. The birth of said son was immortalized in “It’s a Boy,” a rhyming song-like poem which describes all of the chaos—including gunshots—that occurs but is ignored in favor of facing an impending birth.

Sexuality came into play during many of Ballesteros’ poems, such as in “Home Sounds,” which paints a beach scene where “horny waves fondle any godmother willing to get her hair wet,” and in “Work Trap,” about “women who beguile love if only at the bottom of a document,” which satirizes how women will contractualize relationships with lists and details of what men must do in order to keep their women.

Ballesteros ended the reading with “Lingua Profana,” which he read in both English and Spanish. The poem, whose title means “the tongue of the profane” in Latin, detailed in small words and phrases like “political phenomenon” and “heresy” the taboos of society that lead people to “lick the feet of the devil.”

During the question and answer session, Ballesteros explained the back story behind “Paint This, Guayasamín,” a reference to Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, who became famous for depicting social inequalities. Ballesteros said he “was very blessed to have grandparents who lived incredibly long lives,” and so he was unused to the deaths of loved ones.

When one of his grandparents’ best friends died unexpectedly, his full-grown 32-year-old self wept uncontrollably at the friend’s wake, despite not knowing the friend very well. For him, it was the beginning of his understanding the realities of life and death, and realizing that his long-living grandparents would soon join their friend.

After the wake, Ballesteros and his friends went to a tienda and became so intoxicated that his wife and the other women in his family yelled at him as if he were possessed by some demon. It was in that state that Ballesteros wrote his poem. The next morning, he “asked for forgiveness at the breakfast table” and passed the poem around for his family to add  on to it. In the poem, Ballesteros likens his new understanding of life to immigration: “Don’t forget the papers that let you in and out of your life.”

Cecilia Carino, a sophomore, said “I identified with the things [Ballesteros] was saying, because I’m Mexican and can understand his references to Latino culture. This is the first time I’ve attended a VOICES reading, and I’m glad it was this one.”

Julia Andrade-Rocha, a St. Mary’s ’11 alumna, agreed: “It was really awesome to see someone in the faculty grapple with bilingual poetry and dual identities like I have. It lets me know that I’m not the only one, and that even professors have these difficulties.”

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