A Poet’s Struggle After Writing His Way Out Of The Barrio And Prison, WSU Professor Fights For His Very Existence

Hit hard by stomach cancer and chemotherapy, the bear of a man known as the grandfather of Chicano poetry has shrunk from 210 pounds to 160.

Gone are his eight silver rings and turquoise jewelry. Smells that once fueled his soul - the scent of a forest or a bakery or perfume - now turn his stomach.

Ricardo Sanchez has taken on Texas prison guards, shouted through his poetry for the dignity of Mexican-Americans and fought a mentality that said a Spanishspeaking kid could not be a poet.

Now the 53-year-old Washington State University professor faces his most personal fight yet - the fight for his own existence.

With his body laid low but his spirit intact, he is taking it in characteristic stride.

“I’m not going to condemn myself or cry about it,” he says. “I’m just going to find it as another challenge, another way of fighting, another cause.”

Such talk is only fitting coming from a man who longtime friend and poet Maya Angelou said was born to both shake up the establishment and inspire young people.

“Ricardo Sanchez is like any great poet,” Angelou said Monday from her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. “He’s at once a preacher, a teacher, a priest, a rabbi. He’s a guru, he’s a master. And because he is that he’s also a rebel. He’s a maverick. Every great teacher is a maverick.”

Raised in El Paso’s Barrio del Diablo - “the devil’s ward” - Sanchez decided in the third grade to be a writer but was put off by a teacher who said Mexicans don’t become writers. Janitors maybe, but not writers.

He dropped out of school, did a stint in the Army and began a series of robberies that landed him first in California’s Soledad prison, then Texas’ Ramsey Prison Farm No. 1.

The robberies were more a sign of his anger and defiance than his physical needs, he said.

“My hungers were never for possessions or things,” he said. “My hungers were for a dignity and a justice that I found lacking in society.”

He confronted his captors, he recalled, “hoping they would kill me because I didn’t feel life was meaningful.” But then he learned, “if I want life to be meaningful, I have to make it meaningful to myself.”

Armed with a background in prison literature that reads like a graduate-level syllabus, he wrote “Canto y grito mi liberacion” - “I sing and shout my liberation.” The fierce and lyrical volume helped establish him as a major artistic voice in the Chicano movement for recognition and identity.

He earned a doctorate from Union Graduate School in Ohio. He held a long series of academic appointments and was the only poet invited from the United States to the 1986 First Meeting of Poets of the Latin World in Mexico City.

Last July, he was commended by the Texas Legislature as an outstanding poet, role model and tireless professional.

During the ceremony, Sanchez said he told somebody, “Not too long ago, some of these same people would be condemning me. They’re the ones that hired the guards that were brutalizing me and applying electrical cables to parts of my body.”

Sanchez’s arrival at WSU in 1991 pushed the edge of the diversity envelope, making administrators squirm as they learned he had served nine years in prison. Two weeks ago, Provost Tom George promoted Sanchez, a dual appointment in English and Comparative American Cultures, to full professor with tenure.

The antithesis of the ivory tower bookworm, Sanchez has helped launch the Palousian Poets, a looseknit group that gathers for occasional readings around town.

“We don’t need another Whit man,” Sanchez said he likes to remind his students. “We need another you or you or you. Whoever is out there, whatever culture, language, ethnicity, race. Use that as a springboard.”

Here’s another message, one that he expressly asked to give. It came amidst talk that ranged freely from city life (“I miss the heartbeat of humanity - that’s what you get in a city”) to the “beautiful anger that demands justice and equality and dignity.” After talking nearly an hour in an interview, he said:

“Young people have to realize that we are mortal, all of us, and to realize that they have to get the most that they can out of their lives and to get the most that they can from their education, their development.”

Earlier this year, doctors expecting to remove 70 percent of Sanchez’s stomach found his cancer had spread to his liver and elsewhere. It was inoperable. With chemotherapy, they have given him six months to live.

The prognosis gave birth to a dream. In it, Sanchez was confronted by a group he calls “the cancer poets,” men and women of all races and languages. Among them was a John Wayne-like figure who called Sanchez a “damn Chicano poet” and threatened to beat him up.

Sanchez asked him to wait two weeks, to let his incision heal. Then he changed his mind.

“Forget two weeks,” he said. “Let’s get it on. Ill take all of you on.”

Today, Sanchez goes in for a “very aggressive” third round of chemotherapy.

The cancer poets have a fight on their hands.

there is no time

there is no time, no need of particularity caught in hopes,

wishes only speak of pain

and tomorrow is evanescent,

there is no time

within the loss,

mistakes simply exist

and promises

are vague at best

even when set in mental concrete,

there is no time

to take back any moment

nor to mope

within a flighty hope,

for yesterday has gone

and now is when I live,

now is tantamount

to seeing/being life anew …

From “Amerikan Journeys:: Jornadas Americanas” by Ricardo Sanchez (1994, Rob Lewis, Publisher; reprinted by permission of the author)

MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: BENEFIT READING At 7:30 p.m. on March 29, Sanchez’s birthday, the Palousian Poets will hold a benefit reading in his honor at the Combine Mall, E. 215 Main St., Pullman.

This is a sidebar which appeared with story: BENEFIT READING At 7:30 p.m. on March 29, Sanchez’s birthday, the Palousian Poets will hold a benefit reading in his honor at the Combine Mall, E. 215 Main St., Pullman.

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