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The Land of Enchantment is accustomed to coming in last. One of the final four states to join the union, New Mexico is also regularly ranked at or near the bottom for public education, poverty, and child well-being. But in late January, New Mexico gave new life to the idea of “better late than never” by becoming the 46th state to appoint an official poet or writer laureate.
The state’s selection of Levi Romero — a poet, architect, lowrider, and professor of Chicano studies who writes in Spanish, English, and Spanglish, with and without italics — doesn’t just embody the beguiling complexities of New Mexico. It also underscores the importance of literary representation in the state with the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents. Romero’s appointment comes amid a debate that was electrified last month by Oprah’s book club selection of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The novel, written by a self-identified white woman, has come under fire for its stereotypical portrayal of Mexican immigrants and hokey Spanish dialogue.
The 58-year-old Romero was once described by his fellow University of New Mexico professor Rudolfo Anaya as “a rebellious young man, not well understood in the classrooms where he turned in his poetry instead of book reviews, wore long hair, answered questions about Shakespeare in Spanish instead of the Queen’s English, stayed up late drawing instead of studying, and was lowriding by age 12.” Romero has published two collections of poetry: A Poetry of Remembrance: New and Rejected Works, and In the Gathering of Silence. He also co-authored the book Sagrado: A Photopoetics Across the Chicano Homeland with Spencer R. Herrera.
Romero first apprenticed as a draftsman and builder, then trained as an architect while taking UNM creative writing classes for fun. Amid Albuquerque’s burgeoning slam scene in the mid-1990s, he studied with Sandra Cisneros as well as Native American poets Luci Tapahonso and current US poet laureate Joy Harjo. His work reflects this simmering stew of cultural influences. In “Taos Nicho,” he writes:
the orphaned ones
whom Spain abandoned
Mexico did not adopt
and the U.S. never wanted
and i feel the sorrow of the Indio …
Santa Fe poet and educator Israel Francisco Haros Lopez calls Romero’s appointment “pure gold. It’s pure inspiration for our communities of color and for la raza in general. It’s a mirror, showing us the worth of American writing from American writers that identify as Chicano.”
Had he not read the work of Chicano poet-activists Raúl Salinas and José Montoya as an adolescent, Romero said he might not have become a poet himself. Growing up southeast of Taos in Dixon, New Mexico, Romero counted his relatives as part of the late-1960s and ’70s artistic movement known as the Embudo Renaissance. “I would read their self-published journals and newspapers and newsletters and things, and it was all in Spanish,” Romero told Hyperallergic. “I think because New Mexico is such a diverse state, and it is such a multilingual state, that it is important that the poet laureate understands the value of more than one language and appreciates the multiplicity of language that exists here.”
Still, Romero remembered, “As a young male Chicano, I couldn’t share my poetry because it wasn’t a safe thing to do. I got ridiculed for writing poems, and so I became a closet poet.” In his poem “High School English,” he describes realizing that not only could his poetry break certain loathsome rules of English, but that he might even be able to write in his own manito dialect of northern New Mexico.
hey, before then
I didn’t know
I could write
sound and make
the language of the page
seem like it was coming
from the tongue of my
deepest personal introverted
pero bien locote
Valerie Martínez, history and literary arts program director at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center, sat on the poet laureate selection committee. She said of Romero, “His life’s work, in addition to his poetry, has been really focused on New Mexico communities and plumbing them historically and in terms of land and people. He’s a really apt first New Mexico poet laureate because of that.”
In his three-year capacity as laureate, Romero will engage with schools and libraries across New Mexico. “I grew up cruising and lowriding,” he explained. He’s restoring a 1958 Chevrolet Impala that he hopes to take on a few of these trips. “I’m gonna go for a cruise around the state, and I’m gonna meet people. That’s what you do when you’re a cruiser. It’s all very organic. You might set out with an idea that you’re going somewhere and you’re going to meet somebody, but in fact, what really happens is what happens along the way.”
Romero will document his poet laureate travels through podcasts and “digital cuentos,” short slice-of-life videos that he has previously engaged UNM students in creating. “It’s gonna be cool, to find these voices in these remote places,” he said, speculating about the storytellers he might meet. “New Mexico is built on people’s stories. And poetry is the table on which people’s stories are served.”