C?sar A. Cruz' Lyrical DEMOnstration
This spoken word CD contains twelve tracks that demonstrate the skills of a gifted performer and writer: César A. Cruz. Nine of the tracks are in English, three in Spanish, and his style of delivery falls within the slam genre. The production quality is somewhat uneven, particularly the accompaniment on tracks 4 (underwhelming percussion) and 7 (overwhelming guitar), but overall Cruz' performance shines through. He expresses himself confidently in these well-nuanced presentations of his poems.
As we learn in track 1, a Pacifica Radio Interview, Cruz was born in rural Mexico. It was only upon emigrating to the U.S. at age twelve that he finally "knew we had nothing." Fascinated by written expression, he mastered the English language and went on to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley.
It was while attending UCB that Cruz experienced a life-altering transformation: from a high-achieving but alcoholic teenager into a young man deeply immersed in the world of progressive political activism and ethnic pride. The theme of disillusionment with academia and the catchphrases of progressive politics saturate Cruz' spoken word collection.
Cruz is never guilty of committing the interminable poem. In fact, his pieces tend to be quite short -- possibly too short. He scratches the surface of important historical, social and political topics, offering only a cursory analysis where profound analysis is required. This simplistic approach is not very effective, unless you're preaching to the choir.
For example, three motifs are repeated throughout his work: "pledge of allegiance," "Lincoln freed the slaves," and "Columbus discovered America." If you're not already familiar with the progressive critique of these issues, you will not be enlightened upon hearing Cruz' poems. What a missed opportunity!
When he name-drops "Chavez" and "Mumia," Cruz merely identifies himself as part of the politically progressive in-crowd. It's particularly ironic, considering that his poem, Turning In Your Grace (excerpted on track 1), advocates honoring the immortal farmworkers' union organizer, César Chavez, with more than "just trophies, street names and crumbs." These complex personalities who devoted their lives to social change merit a better explanation of their significance than Cruz offers.
Sometimes Cruz' use of political catchphrases actually obscures the meaning of the piece, as in track 6, Can You Translate This? An otherwise clever poem structured by repeating variations of the writing process -- "translate," "how can you say," "correct spelling," "grammatical tense," and a final "translate" -- leaves us with too much ambiguity. Is it about the U.S.-Mexico border? Or Latin America dictatorships? Or the role of the U.S. media? The incidents of violence referenced in the poem float free of historical context that would anchor their meaning. It feels more like an oversight than a deliberate tactic of evocation.
Another example of falling short in this way is track 7, I am an Arab. Cruz crafts an impressive play on words with the phrase, "alavare, alavare a la verdad," (which means, "I'm going to worship, I worship only the truth") by emphasizing the first two syllables to sound like the Muslim term for God: "Allah." Nevertheless, he doesn't go any further in his analysis than tossing out the liberal cliché, "speak truth to power," which ultimately undermines the poem's content.
Cruz' intentions are admirable, but we would challenge him to put in the extra effort to reach and enlighten a wider audience. As a spoken word artist of such tremendous talent, he has a duty to maximize his impact. Like the cliché goes, "with great power comes great responsibility."
Cruz is a masterful performer, as deft in Spanish as he is in English. Yet it is in two of his three Spanish-language pieces on the CD that he finally achieves a poetic content that matches his writing craft and delivery skill.
The first part of track 9, Entre La Fiesta (Within the Party), successfully employs irony to contrast the Hispanic party culture with the screams of suffering individuals. The second part reflects Cruz' own transformation from a drinker to an activist, expressing a vision of Latinos who keep their culture, but to celebrate their successes as a people, rather than mindlessly perpetuating consumerism.
pero siguen en la conciencia de los luchadores
que mezclan la conciencia con una fe y una esperanza
que se ve mas alla de los clubs y los bars,
mas alla de las pachangas y las emborachadas,
mas alla de nuestro padrastro -- Anheuser-Busch
mas alla de la musica plastica,
mas alla del Top 40,
mas alla de la fiesta
it all continues in the conscience of the strong willed
those that keep the faith, and hope and perspective by their side
and see beyond the clubs and bars
see beyond the pachangas and emborachadas
see beyond our sponsor -- Anheuser-Busch
and see beyond the plastic music
beyond Top 40
beyond the partying]
Our favorite piece, without a doubt, is track 10, Suspiras (Sigh), which Cruz dedicated to his mother. Moving and thoughtful, it deserves to be read in its entirety.
Hora por hora,
Solo a llegar cansada,
A convertirte en recogedor
De quejas-de esto y a quello,
De que aseres y multiples mandados que cumplir
Que ni respiras
Y quien te cuida a ti?
Y quien se preocupa por ti?
Y quien llora por ti?
Pero pues dices, mi tristeza,
Dia tras dia
Noche tras noche
Todo pasa entre los techos
Que te haz acostumbrado
A llamarle Casa?
Y debes en cuando gritas,
Lloras y suspiras
Esperando por un dia mejor
As you work hour after hour
And come home from work
Only to turn into a receptacle
For our mundane, inconsequential complaints
And reminders of errands and chores
Who hardly ever takes time to breathe?
Who takes care of you?
Who worries about you?
Who cries for you?
Instead we find you saying,
"My sadness will pass"
Day after day
Night after night
Everything does pass
Under the roofs you've
Grown accustomed to call "home"
In which from time to time
You cry out loud, scream,
As you wait for a better day]
Suspiras offers us a glimpse of what Cruz' poetry could be, if he continues his growth as an artist -- heartfelt content that is well-crafted and charismatically delivered to a broad audience.
(Lyrical DEMOnstration: Spoken word by césar a. Cruz (teolol). Copyright 2003, END-dependence production/epicenter media, Berkeley. $ 10.00)
& Aire Celeste Norell