On a recent morning in front of Menlo Park's Cafe Zoë, East Palo Alto City Council member Antonio López, 27, sat down with The Almanac to talk about his new book of poetry, "Gentefication."
López grew up in East Palo Alto, where he attended elementary and middle school in the Ravenswood City School District before attending Menlo School, followed by Duke University, Rutgers University Newark and the University of Oxford. Now, he's returned to East Palo Alto where he's pursuing a doctoral degree at Stanford. Last year, he was elected to East Palo Alto's City Council.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me a little bit about your backstory.
East Palo Alto is one of the few affordable places in the Bay Area. Male migrant workers, they tend to come together, and then they bring their family shortly after. My dad came in the early 1980s and was sending letters to my mom. They got hitched, then went up to the Bay Area. In 1985, they bought the home that I still live in today, on Pulgas Avenue. My folks kept their heads down most of the time.
I don't come from a political family or anything like that. My dad worked in dishwashing for a very long time, then he became a waiter. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for many years. ... At that time, East Palo Alto was going through a lot of violence. The crack epidemic was in full boom. People were afraid of leaving their homes. We would keep our curtains down, our blinds drawn, it was that kind of environment.
I was young enough to experience the change of the recovery, of people coming together in community groups to make the streets safer. But I'm old enough to have remembered that violence and that shift.
How has your political work informed your poetry and vice versa?
I think East Palo Alto has always been fed this narrative, and we've internalized it, unfortunately, that we can only do a certain amount of things; that our community can only accomplish this amount because of income level. That we can't enter into certain jobs in Silicon Valley. And no question, right? At some point, it's a question of structural inequality, that the individual can only do so much.
However, if you look at our track record, there have been so many moments when you think, 'These guys aren't gonna make it,' and yet we've done it. ... When we look at the current gentrification we're facing, I think people of color and working class folks, or both, can't afford to be cynical. Optimism is a form of social justice, it's the lifeblood of being able to keep insisting on something better for your children and for your generation.
Poetry, in its most distilled fashion, teaches you to have honesty. ... It's about challenging the speaker and the reader to revisit an image, a topic, a person or ethnic group that they once dismissed. It's about suspending and staying. ... It teaches you to take a look at something and really meditate on its beauty, its shock, its aspects, and then presenting that to the reader.
... A poem, if it is successful, is not about being pretty, is not about hitting you in the gut. It's about transforming. It's about changing the world, changing yourself, and the world starts with yourself. ...
Poetry is a lens above all for me. And that allows me to look at the fruit and look at the beauty and look at the challenges in a way that is honest, but also expands our vision of what's possible.
Tell me about your book, Gentefication.
This book is about my own personal journey from coming from my Title I K-8 to higher education, the "academy" or ivory tower. I think black and brown kids, first-gen(eration) especially, are taught from an early age that education is success. It is the epitome of the American dream. It is the vehicle through which you access mobility, and not just for yourself but for your family.
So I've gone to these schools. I've gone to these prestigious institutions. My work tries to complicate that narrative and ask what are the underpinnings of that system? What are the effects of that on a student, on a first-gen kid, the kind of transgressions and microaggressions, and just violence in general of the academy? It also celebrates. There's a lot of love and humor. I'm just trying to complicate the story of a first-gen son of immigrants and his experience in higher education.
The book is designed like a course book. Gentrification is crossed out, because that's where we start. This is what the community is facing: gentrification. We know what it is; we know it's a pervasive force in our cities, including EPA.
But then, using language, using English, using poetry, to transform our sense of what we can do, now I turn it from gentrification to gentefication coming from gente meaning people. I'm trying to people-fy, trying to repopulate. That's on many levels, not just about the English canon itself, what people read and deem as literary as worthy of study, but also about gentrification, about changes in neighborhood and landscape.
Can you share some of the contents of the book?
If you grew up in EPA or cities like it, you'll feel this experience resonate with you, but if you haven't and you want to learn more, I hope that this book will allow people to immerse themselves to get a better understanding of the city; to go beyond stereotype and acknowledge that some of these statistics were true, but how do individuals and families and communities overcome those obstacles? It tries to paint a complicated picture.
What role did school and educators play in your decisions to pursue poetry and politics?
My family didn't have a college degree. But they saw the need of education. And they never questioned my desire to go to this camp, go to this program, this summer opportunity. My dad would drive me back and forth.
A handful of teachers took the time to invest in me to say, 'This kid has gaps in his education, he's going through some struggle, but I can see the potential in him and I'm going to take time out of my salary, out of my payroll to get this kid on track.'
Really, education does transform people. It really frickin' does. I'm an educator first and foremost. .... I'm trying to advocate and change my community and represent the people that raised me.
How did you become involved in writing poetry specifically?
The circumstances of my life compelled me to write. From K through eight, I went to the public school system, went to Edison Brentwood Academy. Then I went to Ronald Edison McNair. (Then) I applied to Menlo School because I was part of a summer program called Center for a New Generation that was spearheaded by Condeleezza Rice.
It was hosted in James Flood Magnet School here in Menlo Park. It was a lot of us EPA kids that were there. They took us on field trips to other schools. And you gotta imagine me, a wide-eyed 13-year-old kid, caught up in the culture of East Palo Alto, wearing these long white tees and sagging pants, looking like a little rebel troublemaker. I had never set foot in Atherton. My first time, I thought that Menlo School was the White House, because it was so big and I never seen mansions like that, at least not on TV.
Class inequality is everywhere, but there are few places where it is so in proximity with the lack thereof. People need to understand that when you're one freeway exit away from having a working class, being on WIC, being on food stamps, versus people who have literally the wealthiest zip code in the country, that's really gonna mess with your head. I call it a violence.
Here, class is so racialized. I understand that there are poor white people – I know that's a thing. But I hadn't met any white people until I was in high school. There were two or three teachers that we had that were in McNair for a little bit, but most of my life revolved around East Palo Alto and being a kid there. Black, brown, Polynesian kids, Latino kids. My encounter with whiteness was in a very wealthy space....
There were these things that would happen to me. I had no idea if they were slights against me, people being untoward to me, if they were being disrespectful. And so writing came at a time in my life where I needed to tell my story, because I felt like other people were telling it for me, or they didn't know my story. Or I just had these frustrations about all these issues.
The reason I'm so invested in advocacy is because at one point in time, I was a 14-year-old kid that thought no one was telling my story. No one was doing justice to what I was going through.
To this day, I'm still trying to make sense of the crazy stuff that I went through as a younger kid. In middle school, there was one point where we didn't go to school for like a month because we kept having bomb threats. As a kid, we didn't take it as scary or a violent thing that we're losing all that education. It was like, 'Yeah, we don't got school!'
I think there's a lot of these things where people, even people from EPA, don't grasp how short-handed we've been. I don't say that to be cynical, I'm saying it because, as Jay-Z says, "You can't deal what you don't reveal." I think we owe it to ourselves to understand.
So little of what we're going through has to do with our own individual merit. As a city, we don't have institutionalized resources or wealth. It's up to us to shape it. But that's going to be painful; you're gonna make mistakes.
So writing was a response to all these structural issues. ...Knowing that I bring something unique to the table, this experience, in a place where there's still such divides – the land of innovation here and the land of scarcity on the other side, it's really important that we understand how we can grapple with this as a community, that we're not just having the same people preaching to the choir who are getting fatigued. We have to have everybody involved. And that involves raising awareness, advocating, and writing. ...
People say I'm funny – it's because that's how I respond to trauma. I look at trauma, and I'm like, I don't want us to wallow in our misery. I want us to laugh.
In my poetry you'll see a lot of humor, you'll see a lot of those kinds of effed-up moments, but then you'll laugh. You gotta laugh as a human being.
So what are you working on now? Is it too early to ask if there are other books on the way?
So there's a couple things I'm working on. (I'm writing) about what it's like being councilman ... I want to give people a glimpse into that, but also make sense of all this shit that's happening.
I'm 27. These things I'm dealing with involve serious money and serious issues. And it's not easy. Like, on Tuesday, we had to talk about the homeless encampment on Beale Street, and I'm dealing with people's lives. ... Those are big things to hold.
There's all these contradictions throughout my life...And poetry allows me to like make sense of it all. It allows me to step back and say, is there beauty? Is there revelation? Is there insight that I can give to my community about myself? I think I'm slowly working toward ... writing a poetry book about what it's like running, what it's like now and what are the things that are frustrating me.
As a poet and politician, how are you juggling your responsibilities? What is your life like right now?
It's hella busy. I have to remind myself what it's for all the time. It's like a hill – there are moments when, going upslope, it's just really tough. I ask myself, have I given enough to the community? Have I voted on this thing? ... I have to really acknowledge and affirm the support I've had in my family. ... I'm so fulfilled – I'm so full, as a person, as a son, as a citizen, as a partner, as a brother, as a resident, as an elected. I'm advocating the best way I can.
Where can people find your book?