Santa Cruz’s Writers of Color tell stories we might otherwise never hear

Writers of Color Santa Cruz County hosts an event featuring poetry and music at the Museum of Art & History Oct. 6.

Twenty-two local writers share their own shared, and distinct, experiences as the new group hosts an evening of poetry and music at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz on Oct. 6.

On one level, the term “people of color” is a way to categorize people simply by what they’re not (white). POC are, in fact, people that can have almost nothing in common with each other. A person of color, after all, could have family roots in Indonesia or Iran, Japan or Panama, South Africa or even South Carolina. Many are immigrants, but just as many are native-born. Many are bilingual, but many are not.

But on another level, at least in the U.S., the term binds people together who share one fundamental common experience, the experience of being “othered” — whether blatantly, subtly or, as is often the case, both — in a country still dominated by white people.

However we may wish it otherwise, there remains a gulf between the experiences of people who are white and people who are not. And as long as that remains the case, groups like Santa Cruz’s Writers of Color will be meaningful as vectors to tell the stories of those differences.

On Oct. 6, Writers of Color Santa Cruz County will host an evening of poetry and music at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, in an event co-presented by the MAH, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and Bad Animal. The evening will feature short-story writer Jaime Cortez reading from his collection “Gordo,” prominent Filipino/American poet and activist Shirley Anchetta (who is reportedly planning to perform on accordion), and Watsonville’s poet laureate, Bob Gomez, singing Mexican corridos.

The group, which consists of about 22 writers from all over the county, has been together less than two years. The group’s leader is artist and poet Vivian Vargas who, while living as a bookseller in Germany, started a writer’s group for English-speaking writers. In Santa Cruz, she wanted to do something similar, but with people of color.

She reached out to literary departments at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College and, through well-connected writers like Anchetta, began to gather interested writers to meet, read each other’s work, and support each other’s work.

The WOC group isa product of the pandemic shutdown. As a result of that, it has gotten used to meeting via Zoom. “The first part is exchanging information and talking about events,” said Vargas. “And in the second half of the meeting, one of our writers will lead a writing workshop. They’ll focus on a type of poetry and theme, and present that to the group, and then we’ll write based on that prompt.”

As if to illustrate what a group called Writers of Color must regularly face in today’s America, last fall the group had to hastily cancel an online event when it was “Zoom-bombed,” the practice of aggressively interrupting a Zoom meeting. More than a half dozen trolls logged into the Zoom meeting shouting and flashing lights, and they even began posting pornographic images.

“We tried to stop it,” said Vargas, “but it was like whack-a-mole. We just had to shut down the whole event.”

Since then, Vargas has learned to safeguard her events from racist Zoom-bombing, and the group has continued on.

Adela Najarro is a published poet with a new collection called “Volcanic Interruptions.” She’s also a teacher of English at Cabrillo College. Najarro heard about the WOC group through her fellow Cabrillo faculty colleague, Victoria Bañales, told her about it.

Cabrillo College teacher and poet Adela Najarro:
Cabrillo College teacher and poet Adela Najarro: ‘What do we all [writers of color] have in common? It could be imagining the homeland, or it could be writing in dual languages.’

Najarro writes much about her family’s story in Nicaragua, and though none of the other writers in the group are also from Nicaragua, they still share strands of commonality.

“Well, for example,” and Najarro, “We might have an Asian writer and a Filipino writer and a Nicaraguan-American writer. But what do we all have in common? It could be imagining the homeland, or it could be writing in dual languages. There’s a lot of issues that are really specific to being a person of color and how it affects your writing. So we get to talk about those things.”

Westside Santa Cruz resident Elbina Batala Rafizadeh is also a member of the Writers of Color group. She was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. with her family at the age of 7. At 65, she has spent most of her life in health care, as a public-health nurse and teacher. Only recently has she turned her creativity to spiritually themed poetry, much of it reflecting on her family heritage in the Philippines.

Rafizadeh said that she has been encouraged to go deeper into her creative wellspring from her involvement with the WOC group. “We have a shared experience somehow,” she said, “even though we don’t know each other. But where we come from, even if we’re born here, we all come from a place that is either migrant or a place where the family struggled in the United States. And it’s bonding in a way. And I think it’s a voice that needs to be spoken and needs to be heard. I feel very much at home with them.”

The Writers of Color event takes place Oct. 6 at the MAH, beginning at 6:30 p.m. It’s a free event, but registration is required.

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