One night some years ago, when the Horizons in Poetry series was in full swing at Alexander's, Trinidad "Trino" Sánchez Jr. stepped to the microphone. "Tell it from the panza, Trino," a member of the packed audience yelled out. He bowed graciously, smiled broadly and proceeded to do just as requested. He read from deep inside the gut, where his ruminations produced poetry that we, the devoted, ingested like the Chicano food he convinced us was hot and necessary.
But on July 30, 2006, more than a quarter century of Trino's poetry from the panza and political activism ended when he died of a stroke. He left behind his wife of nearly 14 years, Regina Chávez y Sánchez, and blood family, in addition to countless poets and friends, his other family among them, me, the requester of "panza poetry" that night at Alexander's. He also left behind Elena Herrada, who says, "As my oldest daughter's godfather, he was my compadre. Trino had a very particular theology, one that is rare: the concept of the absolute worth of all human beings."
Actually, Trino, an internationally known poet, who won awards for his slam poetry and activism including the Martin Luther King "Keep the Dream Alive Award" for his work with prisoners was everyone's compadre. He was the godfather to our muses and well able to convince us of the absolute worth of our poetic ruminations. Trino was more than capable of making poets face themselves by facing an audience, often an audience that he helped organize. That's certainly how I started out in the active Detroit poetry scene of the mid-'80s. I had been coaxed by Trino to read at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass Avenue with Leonard King on drums and a host of jazz musicians, including the young Regina Carter on violin and a young James Carter on saxophone. "Come on mija," Trino said, "You can do it." And I did for that performance and many others, with Trino.
Born June 15, 1943, in Pontiac, he became a key figure in the Detroit poetry scene during the 1980s and early 1990s. He performed his work in venues as varied as bars, universities and libraries, including the Bowen Branch Library, home of the Latino Poets Association, a southwest Detroit-based group of poets active in the '80s and '90s. Trino was best known here for co-hosting the Horizons in Poetry Series with Detroit-based poet and playwright Ron Allen, and for his work with the Latino Poets Association.
Trino left the Detroit area in 1992 to follow his muses, among them Regina, whom he married in 1993. He traveled to several points in the southwest United States, including Denver and San Antonio, his last home. His migration made sense because he was a widely anthologized Chicano poet who wrote in English and Spanish. Hence the title of one of his books of poetry, Authentic Chicano Food is Hot, in which he converts the pleasures of eating into a political statement about being Chicano; you are what you eat. Like the frijoles he taught me how to cook. "Cook them with beer, mija. Takes the gas out of the beans."
His themes included not only food, but hardcore political and social issues, tackling, in the words of former Detroiter Allen, "a compelling scenario of ideals and cultural activism." He's best known for his book of poetry, Why Am I So Brown?, now in its sixth printing, and he also had a sense of humor, exploring such tantalizing issues as "Why Do Men Wear Earrings on One Ear?" Sepa yo! he concluded. Who knows?
He co-authored his first book, Poems by the Son /Poesias del Padre, with his father.
By the time Trino reached his last book, it was clear to me that he was summing things up. As I read Jalapeño Blues in manuscript form in order to write a blurb for it, I discovered beautiful love poems to his wife, Regina, and an amazing collection of poems reflecting the history of Chicano and working-class struggles. His voice leaps off the pages, and I'm once again transported to the old readings, the panza moving about the stage, the smiles, the crinkly eyes and the passion.
Yes, our loss when he moved from Detroit in 1992 was a big gain for the southwest because he took with him not only years of poetry, but his 27 years of experience as a Jesuit brother and five years ministering to Latino prisoners where he fought to get them translators. He continued his work in the southwest, organizing, teaching and mentoring, occasionally returning to Michigan to read or conduct writing workshops.
He was a man for all people, all races, all colors, both genders and, according to his panza, all foods. Ron Allen says, "Trino gave me a significant understanding of how to love in terms of neighborhoods and cities. He was totally integral to the barrio experience in Detroit. His poetry had the capacity to uplift the soul, to engage oppression and manifest justice. And I loved him dearly."
We all do, still. All of us who heard his warm voice ooze poetry. He had a way of using his entire body when he performed. He smiled and laughed, raising his voice passionately when performing what has become one of his most politically powerful poems, "Let Us Stop This Madness." Whether presenting poems about jewelry or war, he was for real.
In "Considering My Mortality," one work in his latest collection, he reflects:
As a general rule, one does not speak of his
Mortality without mentioning life
His was a life worth more than a mention. Friends and poets, Detroiters, feel free to come and hear poetic remembrances, artists pouring straight from the panzas.
His publisher, Floricanto Press, says Trino performed more than 1,500 times. Now it is our turn to perform for him.
Event begins at 7 p.m., Aug. 24, at Cass Cafe, 4620 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-1400. Admission is free except to pass the hat for Trino's widow, Regina Chávez y Sánchez, to help defray medical expenses. His latest books will be for sale.Lolita Hernandez is a poet and fiction writer whose latest book, Autopsy of An Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, won a 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award. Send comments to