Poet speaks out for peace and tolerance

Julia Ferrell

Joaquin Zihuatanejo never expected to be a poet. But through family inspiration and public performance, he became one of the nationally recognized motivational speakers.

The Maintenance Shop will host a poetry slam, “I Slam; Therefore, I Am: A night of Chican@ Poetry” by Joaquin Zihuatanejo on Thursday night.

A former teacher from north Texas, Zihuatanejo has performed on “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry” in 2006, is a winner of the 2008 World Poetry Slam Championship and the 2009 European World Cup of Poetry Slam. He represented the United States at the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam Festival in South Africa and opened for poet Maya Angelou. He also has two self-published collections, “Barrio Songs” and “I of the Storm,” as well as a spoken-word CD. Though the artist has been writing poetry since elementary school, Zihuatanejo just recently began performing.

While grading research papers one night, Zihuatanejo stumbled across “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry,” a show on HBO, when a Dallas, Texas, native, Rock Baby, was performing. Zihuatanejo was instantly intrigued.

“He was hilarious; it was just what I needed after a night of grading papers,” Zihuatanejo said. “Who knew poets could be stars?”

After getting in touch with Baby, Zihuatanejo followed the poet to the Dallas Poetry Slam, entering himself into what he thought to be an open mic.

“I didn’t realize it was a competition and we would be judged … it was intimidating and I was terrified,” Zihuatanejo said. “The room was very dynamic, between those that were African American and those that were Caucasian and my poem that I was going to perform was in Spanglish … I chickened out.”

After trying the slam again the following week, Zihuatanejo won eight consecutive contests.

He was asked numerous times to perform his poetry across the nation, making it difficult to maintain his teaching career, and he eventually decided to take a hiatus from his class to focus on his performance.

Zihuatanejo said he now bases his shows on “the experiences of a youth that was plagued by gang violence, a heritage that steeped in sacrifice, and borders.”

“To me, the main reason [for performing] is a sake of desperation — a desperation to tell stories in the voices of guys I grew up with,” Zihuatanejo said. “Borders were crossed to make this country. Someone should not have to sacrifice their life to get into this country.”

Latino American culture is also a main focus in Zihuatanejo’s show, as well as his personal relationship with his grandfather, who raised him to develop a love for writing, he said.

“A man came up and said to me, ‘I haven’t thought about my grandfather for years and you made me think of him,” Zihuatanejo said, recalling one of his performances. “This is exactly what I want to do with my life. I want to help people remember feelings that they should.”

Although his message is peaceful and optimistic, Zihuatanejo has struggled with racism in the past. During one poetry competition, Zihuatanejo debated between reciting a comedic poem or one of his more serious pieces, titled “This is a Suit.” Zihuatanejo chose “Suit” and after his performance, he began to think he had won.

“Everyone was yelling for [a perfect score],” Zihuatanejo said. “Then I looked down and a man in front, one of the judges, actually ran his thumb across this throat.”

This one instance of racism, however, has not shaken the poet’s performance and he continues to stick by the motto, “the best poem never wins.”

Zihuatanejo said he attempts to unite his audiences with his poetry in an effort to extinguish racism and promote tolerance throughout the nation.

Though excluding that single performance, Zihuatanejo has found audiences to be welcoming of his show.

“I want people to realize that we are all the same, there is no distinction,” he said. “We all have the ability to feel, and dream and hurt and love and there’s something wonderful in that connection. There are these events that make us realize how connected we all are to one another and poetry is one of those things.”

Poetry Slam

When: 7 p.m. Thursday; doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Where: The Maintenance Shop

Cost: Free