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Houston educator Lupe Mendez named Texas Poet Laureate

Lupe Mendez traces her love of poetry back to Edgar Allan Poe and a thunderstorm.

His 7th grade English teacher staged a haunting scene on a rainy day in Galveston, placing candles in the classroom and playing Poe’s collected works through a boom box with the actor’s narration from beloved horror films Vincent Price.

This moment sparked a passion that led Mendez, now a 44-year-old teacher at the Houston Independent School District, to become an internationally published writer and an important figure in the Houston literary community. With a bilingual body of work focused on the experience of people of color, Mendez was announced in May as the 2022 Texas Poet Laureate.

“I feel like I am able to pay it off,” said Mendez, from Galveston. “Because the reality of my lineage is that I come from farming families. My grandfather is a bracero. My great-grandfather fought in the Mexican Revolution. And two or three generations later, I’m a poet.

Mendez will be Houston’s fourth Poet Laureate since the title was created in 1932. The one-year position – among several Texas state artist designations – is unpaid and does not include specific duties. The selected artists typically have a statewide, national, or international reputation and “reflect the diversity and high-quality artistic offerings of Texas,” according to the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Mendez was nominated last year and became one of 10 finalists for the position. A state artists committee, made up of members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, made the final decision.

His work has been featured in The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast Journal, the Texas Review, Poetry Magazine, and the Academy of American Poetry’s Poem-A-Day. Her latest collection, “Why I am Like Tequila,” won the 2019 John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry.

Much of his writing – including Aguacero, a poem about the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey – reflects both his own Tejano roots and the collective struggle of people fighting for equality.

“You could be a brown Mexican… or you could be a black Haitian and still understand family separation, forcible deportation, incarceration – all the things that affect one, affect all,” he said. “And the varying degrees at which this effect occurs, these are the shifting elements. So I’m looking to try to speak directly to the people, but definitely using my experience and understanding of the world. “

Mendez hopes his new honor will bolster his initiative to provide emerging Latin American writers with a platform to share their work through the Tintero Projects, a series of readings and workshops for bilingual writers in the Houston area. Galveston.

The project follows the tradition of Nuestra Palabra, started in 1998 by Houston writer and activist Tony Diaz with a similar goal of promoting Latin literature and literacy.

Diaz, the first Chicano to earn a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, was in the audience at St. Thomas University when Mendez delivered a poetry reading as a undergraduate student pursuing a bilingual education degree.

Diaz discovered Mendez’s talent. They formed a friendship that exposed Mendez to open mic parties and other literary events. Through Nuestra Palabra, Mendez gathered advice from successful national and international writers and learned about the business side of the arts. He quickly began to organize events such as artist showcases, book festivals and radio performances.

“He had a lot of talent to start with,” Diaz said. “But he also had a commitment to the community, and I think that’s the key to his work. He always gives back and he always builds others.

Diaz said Mendez’s poet laureate designation would raise awareness among Latin American voices.

“I think especially in the post-George Floyd era, there is more attention to the representation, but it is also becoming clear how the Latin voice has been erased,” he said.

Mendez received his honor less than a year after his mother died of COVID-19, which disproportionately impacted people of color across the United States.

“It would be amazing if my mom was there to see this happen,” he said. “But even then, I would still have to explain to my parents what a Poet Laureate is.”

He recalled a poem he wrote before his death, about teaching cumbia to his 2 year old daughter in La Suavecita.

His mother used the same song to teach him dance when he was a child.

“All the writings I do always honor my antepasados (ancestors), ”he said.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson