Writers Levi Romero and Robert Arellano share a passion for culture and education, a deep-rooted connection to Northern New Mexico and a decades-long friendship.
Romero is from the Embudo Valley south of Taos, and now teaches at the University of New Mexico. Arellano, the youngest of seven in a family of Cuban immigrants, grew up on the East Coast and lived in Dixon, New Mexico, for seven years while he taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and UNM-Taos. He now lives and teaches in Oregon.
Today (Aug. 8) at 7 p.m., the two friends will be sharing the stage for a reading, previewed in last week’s Tempo, at Society of the Muse of the Southwest, 108 Civic Plaza Drive, Taos.
We spoke with both men about life, literature, their own writing and their admiration for each other’s work.
How has your work been informed by Northern New Mexico history and culture?
My work is an extension of my querencia. It expresses the culture, people and traditions of the manito people from Northern New Mexico.
Your writing exercise, “De donde yo soy” [“Where I’m from”], is now part of the curriculum for students around the world. Tell us about your experiences with it as an educator.
When I decided to make a transition from working in the architecture profession to teaching at UNM fulltime, I committed myself to helping students grow and develop themselves through their academic pursuits. I have never regretted my decision. The “De donde yo soy” writing exercise that I developed has had phenomenal success. I could never have imagined that it would be used so extensively. I’ve received poems based on the exercise from all over the world. I’ve walked into countless places, near and far, and have seen walls plastered with poems, posters, artwork and testimonios, in various languages, based on “De donde yo soy.”
People find it challenging to write about who they are. It’s easier to write about where one is from. And where one is from can tell a lot about who a person is. “Dime de donde eres y te dire quién eres” (”Tell me where you’re from and I’ll tell you who you are”). In Northern New Mexico, the first question asked of a person one meets is, “Where are you from?” If they are from a town one is at least somewhat familiar with, the second question is, “Who’s your family?”
What writers are you finding inspiring or noteworthy these days?
I haven’t been reading much lately, but I have been listening to people tell stories, share wisdom, celebrate, mourn, laugh, persevere. People don’t read enough. But they don’t listen to people tell stories either. The great storytellers of our time are in our presence. We don’t see them because we have our eyes focused on the iPhone and computer screens.
Anything you’d like to say about Mr. Arellano, who’ll be sharing the stage with you?
Bob “el Bobo” Arellano has a way of making a person feel as if they are the most interesting and important person in the world. It is how he made his vecinos in Dixon feel when he lived there. And it was how he made his students and colleagues feel when he taught at UNM-Taos. His writing evokes the same sense of inclusion through the stories that he tells. Stories that journey us into other worlds.
What are you working on currently?
I just co-taught an amazing five-week school class, Field Methods in Oral History and Archaeology, with Professor Severin Fowles from Barnard College and Columbia University. My students were from UNM. We discovered artifacts below ground and stories above ground in the old Plaza del Embudo and throughout the Embudo Valley. We feel that we are creating a new model in how the field of archaeology can incorporate actual living histories into the discipline. My co-edited anthology with Vanessa Fonseca and Spencer Herrera, “Querencia: Essays on the New Mexico Homeland,” will be published by UNM Press in 2020. The collection explores the ideas of place and home and how Chicanx and Indigenous writers address it in their work. And I’m always on the lookout for a poem. But as I tell my students – the last thing in poetry is the poem.
What are you looking forward to about this event?
I’m especially looking forward to sharing my evening with my good friend Bob Arellano. It will be interesting to see how our two voices come together as one. I am also looking forward to presenting my essay-poetry writing to the Taoseño audience. For some, it might turn out to be a new way of seeing something old. And for others, it might be an old way of seeing something new.
Your journey has encompassed both coasts of the United States, as well as a sojourn here in New Mexico and a very personal connection with Cuba. How have all of these very diverse experiences influenced your work?
Emigration from Cuba has been a one-way ticket since 1959, so Cuban Americans have to make our homes wherever we hang our hats, sometimes on our backs. Miami, New England, the Southwest and Pacific Northwest — all four corners of the lower 48 — are part of my story. The place I’ve felt most welcome is New Mexico. I showed up at the Embudo Valley Library in 2003, and when Elena Arellano gave me a card she mentioned my resemblance to her husband’s family. When I met Estevan Arellano (who passed away in 2014), he showed me five-century connections between Havana and “el Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.” You’ll hear a lot of New Mexico in my reading at SOMOS.
What are you looking forward to about returning to New Mexico?
I haven’t been back since moving to Oregon in 2010 to be closer to our kids’ grandmas. This will be my first chance to see old friends and neighbors, and a better-late-than-never book tour for my 2012 novel, “Curse the Names,” a New Mexico noir. In New Mexico, I’m often reminded of the Spanish term for magic realism — real maravilloso. I like that the sequence flip emphasizes the “real.” New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment — encantado, marvavilloso. I wasn’t as preoccupied with writing when I was in Dixon, because I was living this real maravilloso every day. The day-to-day magic of the acequia and how it impacts your relating with your neighbors, the roads, the beauty.
You’ve spent significant time in Cuba. Can you share some perspective on the current situation?
We need to get back the robust, person-to-person travel opportunities we had between 2015 and 2017, but Americans should know you can still get to Havana – a world-heritage capital celebrating its 500th birthday this winter – very easily. I tell friends just go and see for yourself. You’ll get a very warm welcome from highly thoughtful and articulate people — plus beautiful beaches — for a fraction of the price of other tropical vacations. In my first Cuban taxi ride almost 30 years ago, the driver told me, “The Cuban people love the American people, and we can’t wait until the day the embargo is over and we can all get together and have a tremenda pachanga (a big party).” We’re still waiting.
Any thoughts you’d like to share about Mr. Romero?
Besides his único poetry infused with exhilarating manito dialect, Levi Romero’s preservation and promotion of la cultura norteña is some of the most essential work I know of happening in Latinx studies today. I am thrilled that my family and I will have a chance to be with Levi for “One Last Cruise: Taos Plaza” (that’s a wink to a poem of Levi’s).
What are you working on at the moment?
“Purge at Oregon” will be an epic prose-poem that should be ready for next year’s 700th anniversary of Dante’s “La Divina Commedia.” I’m obsessed with his Purgatorio right now. That’s my work in progress — a contemporary take on purgatory, like the journey Virgil took Dante through.
Anything else you’d like Taos News readers to know?
I’m humbly grateful for the warm welcome home I’m getting from friends and neighbors from Taos to Dixon, and grateful for the chance to hear Levi read. It’s going to be a great night, as much about the community and camaraderie and companionship as the writing. May the SOMOS “Muse of the Southwest” be with us — if we build it, she may come.
For more information about the reading, call SOMOS at (575) 758-0081.