Here in Futures of Joy (On San Diego Community Poetics) 


In memory and rememory of Elaine Joy de la Cruz (1978–2003)

Perhaps we were already living these futures. Perhaps we were already living these possibilities. Perhaps, on that rainy and soft-hearted, Manila-like, humid summer afternoon in downtown Chicago, you and I were living a critical moment foretold. I like to believe so. I like to believe that ancestors broke open some sky that summer. I like to believe deeply in the ars poetica of our conversation. 

It was 2003, and by that summer we’d already become dear comrades and collaborators. In San Diego, we’d struggled side by side (along with our other dear comrades) for educational justice, for ethnic studies, for a living wage for campus janitors, for dignity and liberation at the onset of a brutal, imperialist War on Terror. We’d performed raw and materialist and urgent poems at both campus and citywide protests, at the Poetry Slam at Urban Grind, Poetic Brew at Claire de Lune’s, Pass the Peas at Galoka, on the Porter’s Pub stage, at Che Café, the UCSD Cross-Cultural Center, and in the middle of Price Center. We’d been inspired by the generous and unapologetic Chicago hip-hop radical realism of I Was Born with Two Tongues, the deeply Bay Area lyrical swagger of 8th Wonder, the anti-imperialist rap chant poetics of the Los Angeles-based Balagtasan Collective, and the bluesy, folksy spiritual medicine of the Michigan-based Long Hairz Collective. And of course, we’d learned about the critical poetics of geography and space-making genius right here in San Diego from the local and legendary Taco Shop Poets. We built solidarity with fellow poetry crews across the city like Elevated, Able Minded Poets, and Goat Song Conspiracy, shared stages across the state with crews like Zero 3, iLL-Literacy, and Proletariat Bronze. We, so young and inexperienced but so committed, had even been invited a few times to run spoken word workshops for local high school students. Those early years had been so intense, so formative, so future-making. How expansive the geographies of our literacies and literature! 

Now here we were in the summer of 2003, in downtown Chicago for the APIA Spoken Word Summit. I had braved the first day of the summit alone and was anxiously awaiting your arrival. When you arrived, everyone was all about you. Of course they were—you were an undeniably gifted,  gorgeous, and relentless force of lyric and litany, a living example of the poetics of liberation. Who wouldn’t have wanted to say that they knew you? Spoke to you? Witnessed you reading a poem? Dedicated and read a poem to you? That rainy and humid summer afternoon, you and I were eating sandwiches outside Subway. I was debriefing about the first day of the summit. I was inspired and impressed that so many of these poets had come up through or were now teaching and mentoring with literary arts nonprofits like Youth Speaks in their respective regions. “We need something like Youth Speaks in San Diego,” I said. And with all of your calming and confident wisdom you said, “Let’s just build one.” I didn’t then have the capacity to receive that invitation and push. I didn’t realize that this was the conversation that I would return to year after year. 

Two months later, you died in a car accident. To this day, we are still here, gathering and making sense and space for Joy. To this day, I speak to you in prayer. I have your signature tattooed on my forearm. I carry you with me—or rather, it’s you who carries me, isn’t it? I sometimes wonder what an alternative timeline might have presented, what a different relationship to poetry and poetics I might have had, what our collaborations might have been. To this day, I ask: What if we had built that poetry and liberation center in San Diego? What if we had grounded that space in experimentation, collaboration, and genuine solidarity? I wonder what worlds open up when we model a radical poetics of relation, when we reckon with our historical and literary entanglements and intimacies, when we develop a shared grammar of past, present, and future. I wonder what worlds open up, what clarity comes, when our poetics remain in the Undercommons—as fugitive, anti-disciplinary, insurgent knowledge from below. Yes, I stay principled, stay anti-imperialist, stay anti-capitalist, stay rough draft, stay ethnic studies, stay close to the ground, stay rooted, stay poetry for the people. And so many we’d met along the way have continued this vital work of community poetics. I often route myself through that seemingly quotidian summer conversation and I wonder if—even that early on—we already knew how to do this work. We were a future organizing for a future of futures. That small conversation opened up so many possibilities, opened up so many spaces to return to. 

Here in San Diego, here on occupied Kumeyaay land, here on the coast, here against the border, it feels like the poets and organizers are moving within and returning to these futures, possibilities, and spaces for return. It’s humbling and healing to witness this work, to reflect on it, and to have that same conversation with you over and over again. I know for sure, my dear kasama, that if you and I were to check in right now, as I hold this poet laureate post, as I continue to organize through poetry, you would remind me of how we came up, how poetry and community and solidarity and relationality and liberation have always been the same project; how we commit to this work in a way that shows it’s always people before poetry, always food before poetry, always the U.S. out of the Philippines before poetry, always abolish prisons and police before poetry, always LAND BACK before poetry, always PERMANENT CEASEFIRE NOW before poetry, always END THE OCCUPATION before poetry, always FREE PALESTINE before poetry.  

Jason Magabo Perez, poet laureate of San Diego, California, is the author of  I ask about what falls away, forthcoming in 2024; This is for the mostless (WordTech Editions, 2017); and Phenomenology of Superhero (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). In 2023, he was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Perez will launch a youth empowerment poetry project that includes youth mentorship and workshops on poetry, performance-making, filmmaking, and video art. The project will feature collaborations with local high school ethnic studies and English teachers and the development of open-access poetry curricula, grassroots publishing initiatives, and a culminating youth poetry summit in San Diego.