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Adapting Zoe Leonard’s “I want a president” for Mexico’s Upcoming Election

Ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico, the poet Luis Felipe Fabre has adapted Leonard’s poem and a collective reading will take place in Mexico City on Saturday.

Luis Felipe Fabre, "Quiero un Presidente" (2018) (courtesy Luis Felipe Fabre)
Luis Felipe Fabre, “Quiero un Presidente” (2018) (courtesy Luis Felipe Fabre, Ruta del CASTOR)

MEXICO CITY — Zoe Leonard’s poem “I want a president,” written in 1992, ends with a message that leaves spaces for open-ended questions and political activations denouncing diverse issues that can be translated, appropriated, or readapted into specific contexts. The closing lines read: “I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown; always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.”

Zoe Leonard, "I want a president" (1992)
Zoe Leonard, “I want a president” (1992)

Leonard’s powerful criticism of the US government’s inaction regarding the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s was in part inspired by her friend and colleague Eileen Myles, a poet and activist who announced that she would enter the 1992 race for president as an independent candidate against Bush, Perot, and Clinton. As an openly feminist candidate, Myles confronted a tyrannical political class of white men that, up until today, continues to ignore and often exacerbate the struggles of the historically oppressed. Myles’s announcement triggered Leonard’s piece, which has continued to be an influential manifesto, circulating freely through pamphlets, photocopies, copies, re-printings, and reinterpretations.

“I want a president” has been adapted into countless political and artistic contexts; the text has been translated by writers and artists across the world, performed by feminist collectives, and presented in renowned museums and galleries. The many iterations of the piece have taken the form of public readings, postcards, posters, sound pieces, publications, and performances. Recently, for instance, Los Angeles-based writer Litia Perta created a piece titled “Xicanx (After Zoe Leonard)” as a response to Donald Trump’s presidency. Perta’s version of “I want a president” begins: “Yo quiero un Xicanx for president.” Maintaining the original poem’s raw sensibility and savvy use of slang and “anti-political” correctness, “Quiero un Presidente” is yet another adaptation and activation of Leonard’s poem timed to Mexico’s upcoming presidential election on July 1. Conceived by Mexican public art platform Ruta del CASTOR in collaboration with the Mexican poet Luis Felipe Fabre, Leonard’s words have been adapted by Fabre to address the country’s current political climate.

“First of all, I’m not a translator, so when they asked me to translate Leonard’s poem, I thought: I don’t even know if my English is good enough,” Fabre told Hyperallergic. “For Mexico these days, the translation of the sense of words is not enough, but rather the situations are what need to be translated. Not from sign to sign, but from symbol to symbol.”

Fabre’s poetry is in itself satirical and political. For instance, in his book Flores para los Muertos (“Flowers for the Dead”), published by the independent publisher John of the Thing, Fabre writes about zombies, ghosts, and Aztec mythology, layering the many complexities that contribute to some of Mexico’s idiosyncrasies. In this collection of poems, Fabre delineates the corruptness of the Mexican government and the authorities, the rate of disappeared bodies due to the ongoing drug war, and surviving with it as a Mexican in our everyday. See, for instance, this passage from one of his poems, translated by the Chilean poet Daniel Borzutzky:

Breaking news: almost eight individuals
demonstrating for zombie
rights
at the doors of the National Palace
were devoured by a horde of living
dead

without either the police or the army intervening on their
behalf.

On the eve of Mexico’s presidential elections, Leonard’s poem acts not only as a collective meditation on our socio-political moment, but also as a calling to civil action and poetic reaction.

“I was very thankful to the way it was already written, perhaps from my own writing I would not have been able to articulate the same things, but in a sense, the doors were already open and I synchronized with it,” Fabre said. “We don’t know today if we’re politically correct or incorrect, I’d say that we should be a-correct, like the spirit in the poem: a bit anarchic, a bit punk, and close to what we people feel in the streets towards politics; like when you feel it’s all a game and you don’t want to play it anymore, they’re telling you that you’re being represented, but in real terms, they don’t give a shit about you, and why not have someone who really knows what this is all about?”

The poem doesn’t speak from a place of “moral superiority, but from an emotional sanity, and because of this lucidity and closeness it can fit into many contexts,” Fabre added. Has anything really changed between 1992 and today regarding political and power oppression? “It’s crazy that we’re still operating from these structures, where we never see ourselves reflected in the political class,” Fabre said, “it is an usurpation rather than a representation, we’re under the regime of different political parties and symbols, that’s why the text is an important reminder, because it goes beyond our candidate of choice.”

Hemiciclo a Juárez in Mexico City, where "Quiero un Presidente" will be read on June 30. (photo by Jarekt, via Wikimedia Commons)
Hemiciclo a Juárez in Mexico City, where “Quiero un Presidente” will be read on June 30. (photo by Jarekt, via Wikimedia Commons)

Quiero un Presidente” will be read on Saturday, June 30, at 1pm at Hemiciclo a Juárez in Centro Histórico, the day before the presidential election. Andrea de la Torre and Sofia Casarin, the co-founders of Ruta del CASTOR, are inviting anyone who wishes to participate in the collective reading of the text to do so. The text will also be activated through a sound piece featuring recordings made by members of the LGBTQ community and transmitted through groups of cyclists coordinated by Bicitekas AC. “Quiero un Presidente” is Ruta del CASTOR’s first project, which “developed between two major events that affected us both; the recent earthquake in Mexico City and the coming presidential elections,” Casarin and de la Torre said. “From the beginning we wanted to remain distant from supporting any candidate or political party.”

Collectively reading Fabre’s adaptation of Leonard’s poem has the potential to be incredibly powerful and refreshing in the midst of all the advertisements, social media disputes, and political propaganda that have preceded this election.

“Honestly, I ask myself, ‘are we really going to fight over a politician?’” Fabre said. His take on Leonard’s poem asks us if we will keep defending and affiliating with parties and politicians when we’re not even part of their agenda, when we’re not even taken into account in their deals and interactions, their frauds, corruptions, and strategies. Fabre adds: “We’re just reproducing the same violence and dementias, distracting ourselves as a society.” By taking charge of these problems through collective actions like Saturday’s reading, we have the power to go beyond these political hallucinations.

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