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Catalina Gómez: Good morning! We are here at the Library of Congress recording poet Diana García from California for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. This session will become part of this archive and it is also going to be part of the series Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic writers, which is in collaboration between the Hispanic Division, The Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress, and Letras Latinas. Diana, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us this morning.

Diana García: Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m so honored I can hardly wait.

CG: We’re really, really excited. If you could begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your story, how did you become a poet?

DG: I was born in a farm labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley, we didn’t have many occasions to know about or read or hear poetry. It wasn’t until college at Fresno State that I tried to sign up for a class with Philip Levine and freaked out because it was all guys and one woman, the head of the African student union, and she scared me. So I dropped the class. It wasn’t until my thirties when one professor said I was a good writer and should take a creative writing class that it changed my life. I had been a personal manager for an electronics research manufacturing and development firm and was getting a degree in business psychology. And from one semester to the next, switched to creative writing, and that was how I became a writer.

CG: Wow, so you had a class with Philip Levine?

DG: No, I didn’t. I dropped it.

CG: The first time you attended the first session, and then you dropped it.

DG: I was eighteen years old, insecure, I didn’t know who I was. But in my thirties, I’d had more than enough experience. I had done enough in my life to know I could do whatever I wanted to do. And if it meant leaving my job and becoming a writer and taking a risk that I’d be able to find employment, I was ready to take that risk. And it was a phenomenal decision, the universe opened up its world for me. I was ready to step through.

CG: Well that’s great. You can go ahead and start reading. So if you can just again, say the title of the book you’re reading from and the title of each poem that would be great.

DG: All right. I’m reading from my collection titled “When Living was a Labor Camp” published by University of Arizona Press. And I’m going to read the title piece first, which was written in honor of my mother and her sisters and her sister’s cousins who worked in the labor camp called Montgomery back in the forties and the fifties. It was also a fig orchard where I picked figs.

DG: The women wanted so much to be feminine and pretty, but you can’t very well do that when you’re wearing your older brother’s old tattered denim shirts and levis, and sweating like mad.

  • Poet reads “When Living was a Labor Camp Called Montgomery” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: This next piece looks at what it was like to pick cotton in the summer and how we were at the mercy of the labor contractors who ran the crews working out in the fields. That remains true to this day, despite all the union efforts. There still remain large groups of major growers who do not have union labors working in the fields. This one is called “Cotton Rows, Cotton Blankets.”

  • Poet reads “Cotton Rows, Cotton Blankets” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: And the reality for me of growing up in the fifties meant that Polio, for example, measles, chicken pox, were very common illnesses. And in the labor camps, the children got polio and tuberculosis; the camps ran ripe with both. And one of our next door neighbors came down with Polio. And all we could see of him for an entire year was this reflection of a head in the iron lung that he was in the porch where they had outfitted it with electricity and a generator so that he could have a constant source of oxygen to his lungs. So this one is titled “An Orchard of Figs in the Fall.”

DG: And because of the drought affecting California, that very same fig orchard was just chopped down and all the dead trees where in a pile when I went back to visit a couple of months ago. A huge graveyard of giant, gray, elephantine like trunks.

  • Poet reads “An Orchard of Figs in the Fall- When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: If you grow up in the Chicano culture, you end up with nicknames, everyone has nicknames. And when I wrote this next poem, “Squaring the Names” I was reflecting back on what it was like to be called “the brain” and “four eyes”  because I was a bookworm and nobody read books on my side of town.

  • Poet reads “Squaring the Names” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: Many of the poems I wrote towards the middle of the process of putting the book together centered on what it was like to be part of the Chicano Movement of the late sixties and early seventies. I was very privileged to work in the La Raza Studies Department at Fresno State where we printed Luis Omar Salinas’s first book Crazy Gypsy. I was privileged to work in the largest CSO in the valley in Fresno and the Teatro Campesino had their headquarters in that same space. I was proud to picket and to carry signs for La Huelga during the organizing of the United Farm Workers in the valley. But at the very same time I was very much aware that men continued to hold a very privileged space in this huge movement and that we continued to be relegated to secondary positions.  So some of these are from a portion of the book called “Serpentine Voices” taken from a larger piece written by the Teatro Campesino. And this first one documents what it was like to be a young woman. It’s called “From Silence.”

  • Poet reads “From Silence” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)
  • Poet reads “The Farmworkers Daughters” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: And then this one from the “Serpentine Voices” series called “The Girlfriends” the reality that many of us including me got pregnant.

  • Poet reads “The Girlfriend’s” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: And continuing with the feminist direction that my life and my writing took as I progressed with this book, one of my mentors said, “What happened to those really pretty poems about the San Joaquin Valley?” and I said, “I thought we were supposed to write what we know. This is what I know.” This piece takes a look at the culture of marianismo, the concept that good women in Latino culture should only be virgins, wives, mothers, nuns or else they’re whores. Except that coming out of the sexual revolution, the Feminist movement, and at the end of the Chicano Movement we realized there was much more to this story, and we were all of those. So this one is called “Other Marias.”

  • Poet reads “Other Marias” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

CG: That was fantastic!

DG: Let’s see. And now I’m going to turn to what it was like to grown up dark skinned, curly-haired and short a “morenita” in a culture that privileged tall, fair skinned blonde haired blue-eyed women. And this takes a chronology from a child’s perspective to that of the adult in a sequence poem called “Las Rubias” which means the blondes.

  • Poet reads “Las Rubias” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: And this piece I wrote in memory of Yusef Hawkins, the young boy who was shot and killed in the Bensonhurst neighborhood because he was too black for that part of town.

  • Poet reads “It’s Not About Race” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: Family and friends are very important to me, and so I’ve written several poems towards the end documenting what it was like to be part of a larger group of women who like me had come out of the Chicano Movement. Many of them like me became single mothers on welfare and then like me struggled like mad to make their way out and become successful. And so this piece is called “San Diego Aged.”

  • Poet reads “San Diego Aged” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: And finally, hopefully, I can read this one without crying. It was written in honor of my mother’s oldest brother and his wife when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. And I wrote this poem to honor that occasion, and he died a year later of pancreatic cancer. I read the poem to him before he died, and then I was asked to read it at his funeral. And many of the aunts and uncles, and even some of the cousins I refer to, have since died. I’m going to pause for a drink of water. Alright, this poem is called “This Yearning Season.” And not only does it look at my life in the labor camps and those two generations before me, but it also documents one of my longtime passions, bird-watching, and also organic gardening.

  • Poet reads “The Yearning Season” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

CG: That’s beautiful!

DG: I’m still not used to the fact that my father died a year ago, and as I started reading it I remembered.

CG: Yes, it’s very beautiful!

DG: So, how are we doing on time Mike?

CG: It’s up to you; we can cut it a little short, if you want to read one more?

DG: I just want to read one more piece, my water piece.

CG: Perfect!

DG: And we’ll end there.

CG: Perfect. Take your time.

DG: I know. Between cancer and drug abuse I can’t believe how many of my cousins have died in the last two years.

DG: Okay, I’m ready again. This next piece, “Overture Terrain” follows up on one of my long held concerns about the issue of water management, and water policies and practices in California. In fact, I teach a course my students refer to as “The Water Course” and call it “The Great Thirst.”

  • Poet reads “Overture Terrain” - When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)

DG: Thank you.

CG: Diana, thank you so much. What a wonderful reading, thank you for being here.

DG: This has been such an honor. And I can’t tell you what it means to my son, and my grandson. And my mother, to my mother, who has been such a wonderful supporter this whole journey. And my wonderful husband who said, “We’ll do whatever we have to do.”

CG: Thank you so much, what an honor for us.

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U.S. Poetry at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC,

August 5, 2015

Approximately 39 minutes.

Recording Title: Diana García Reading From Her Work
Reading moderated by: Catalina Gómez

Introduction

1) Selections from When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)
- “When Living was a Labor Camp Called Montgomery” - (min. 2:25)
- “Cotton Rows, Cotton Blankets” - (min. 6:10)
- “An Orchard of Figs in the Fall” - (min. 7:50)
- “Squaring the Names” - (min. 10:01)
- “From Silence” - (min. 14:00)
- “The Farmworkers Daughters” - (min. 14:49)
- “The Girlfriends” - (min. 15:29)
- “Other Marias” - (min. 16:55)
- “Las Rubias” - (min. 19:10)
- “It’s Not About Race” - (min. 23:52)
- “San Diego Aged”  - (min. 26:01)
- “This Yearning Season” - (min. 28:24)
- “Overture Terrain” - (min. 33:27)

2) Concluding Commentary – (min 38:38)

End – (min. 39:05)

When Living Was a Labor Camp

LC Catalog record: https://lccn.loc.gov/99050792
Diana García, When Living Was a Labor Camp (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000)

Related Resources

Diana García

Diana Garcia

Diana García was born in the San Joaquin Valley, in 1950. She is the author of the poetry collection When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000), which won the 2001 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; and was the co-editor of Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing (2009). García’s work has been published in numerous anthologies such as Pieces of the Heart: New Chicano Fiction (1993), El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poets (1997), and Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California (2002). She taught for California Poets in the Schools and for Border Voice, based in San Diego, and is currently the director of the Creative Writing and Social Action Program at California State University at Monterey Bay, California. Photo credit: Michael McNew

Learn more about Diana García at The Poetry Foundation