IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif. — The U.S. Department of Education in 2003 called the Imperial Valley the most illiterate county in California. Despite that bad rap, however, this desert valley next to Mexico is home to an artistically literate community of young and old poets who say this area gives them uniquely positive and negative inspirations.
“The negative is that the valley is boring, isolated and full of mean people,” said Mark Garcia, 42, a poet from Calexico, “while the positive is that it’s peaceful, slow-paced, and there are some nice people as well. This is what I call my desert of inspiration.”
Poet Sandra Hernandez, 38, of Calexico writes, “I had precious moments, I had terrible heart breaks, I had arrogance thrown at me… In this deserted paradise I call my home”. The valley people, rather than the vast, lonely desert inspire local poets. “People here are unique and sometimes weird in the choices they make,” Hernandez says.
The valley’s small, but close-knit poetry community often meets to share work during open mic nights at the Anazoa Café in Imperial and at the “Open Minds” poetry club at the Camarena Memorial Library in Calexico. And Calexico marks every April as poetry month with a festival that allows local writers to create an anthology that is sold in book form.
There are a lot of talented people in the valley, says Hernandez when asked about the issue of local literacy. The federal 2003 study found that 41 percent of the valley’s nearly 100,000 persons could not read or write at that time. That is an added challenge in teaching poetry, Imperial Valley College English instructor Roberta Bemis said. “When you’re literate you have a better time understanding the meaning, as well as the structure, and literature reference.”
Poet Elaina Martinez says, “I mean the kids here do act like they don’t know anything, but I bet deep inside they could learn anything they want. I think it’s part of the trend to be failing school and many kids are following it.”
That is a foreign concept to local poets who started writing poetry at a young age. “I was about 15 years old and I was going through my teenage rebel stage,” Garcia recalls. “At the time, it seemed writing poetry was the only way I could express my feelings and it caught on to me after all these years.”
When Martinez was about 10 years old, she wrote little poems but then she stopped writing for a couple of years. “Then I started writing again when I reached high school. I guess it was the only way I could express my feelings about others at the time.” Martinez said.
“Honestly, I don’t really remember, but I think I was around the age of 14,” said Sanchez. “I’ve been writing so much that I never looked back on it and now, I don’t recall any day when I’m not writing.”