Poet Laureate Blends Personal Experience With Observations
By Tim Meehan
As an undergraduate at UCSD, Jason Magabo Perez was a B-/C+ student in his English courses.
More comfortable with patterns and consistencies in math, he struggled with writing composition in particular. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
It wasn’t until he started reading stories that were directly relevant to him in graduate school that he began to find a comfort zone with the power and potential of the written word. There, he felt he could develop a language to express himself, that there was a place where he could discover a healthier relationship with words and sentences in order to share a feeling or depict an emotion.
Thankfully for thousands who have read his work or taken one of his courses, a career as a mathematician was not written in stone.
Magabo Perez, an associate professor and program director of ethnic studies at Cal State San Marcos, was recently named poet laureate of the city of San Diego.
For someone born in Detroit who also lived in Las Vegas and Redlands (he taught at Cal State San Bernardino), it’s an extra special honor because he considers San Diego – and CSUSM in particular – a home.
“I'm no doubt a visitor, a guest, a settler, on Native land," Perez said. “I, and I think all of us, have a responsibility to support Native communities in whatever way makes the most sense for those communities. I feel a deep affinity for peoples in the entire county. I'm the poet laureate of the city of San Diego, but I also feel a home and history in Oceanside. That happens to be our lived reality as migrant families. Wherever we set foot we try to be good relatives and be good neighbors, to listen, to learn, and to develop relationships with our local communities. And I think there's possibility for building those kinds of sincere relationships at Cal State San Marcos, which is still a growing university.”
His two-year appointment as poet laureate will include holding workshops, representing the city in civic cultural events, and writing poetry, like the powerful “We Draft Work Songs for This City” that he wrote and performed live at January’s State of the City Address (his introduction begins at 16:24).
That event was hosted by Mayor Todd Gloria, who is a second-generation Filipino American like Magabo Perez. The congruous nature of the sons of Filipino immigrants sharing the stage to celebrate the rich culture of migrants that has made this country a rich and vibrant one was not lost on Magabo Perez.
“We're out there,” said Perez of the great presence of migrant families in the region, particularly Filipinos. “The mayor's mama was a hotel worker. Pops, who is Native, was a gardener. I don't know the mayor, but I think that his presence and the presence of his staff from various backgrounds and historical experiences meant something for me at the State of the City event. We're here. Not just Filipinos, but folks of color, Native folks, are here doing work for our city, doing work for our people, our communities. We don't all agree on issues, but we're here, an undeniable presence.”
At the age of 10, Magabo Perez moved to Oceanside, where his parents still reside.
After the major shift in plans at UCSD, he pursued his passion for writing further in an MFA program at New College of California in San Francisco. His career as a professor then took him to Cal State San Bernardino, where he would commute to and from West Los Angeles.
He loved the work he was doing at CSUSB, but when the opportunity arose to come back to his adopted home of San Diego, he jumped at the chance.
“The opportunity arose to teach and to build ethnic studies in my hometown area, and I had to come back. It just felt right,” said Magabo Perez, who earned a dual Ph.D. in ethnic studies and communication from UCSD. “It felt right to be close to family, of course. But in terms of my work as an educator, as a community organizer, as an artist, as a poet, it made the most sense to come back to this particular area.”
Magabo Perez’s work is littered with references to his surroundings.
In “We Draft Work Songs for This City,” he writes of the smells that certain intersections in the city have. He uses the word work to describe the physical act of labor as well as the people, places and things that work together to give San Diego its tough but gentle personality.
He writes of the folks we often pass by every day but don’t see (“here sings the lettuce-picker here sings the strawberry-picker here sings the bellhop the postal worker the custodian the hotel maid grounds-keeper landscaper gardener construction worker nurse teacher waiter dishwasher bus driver grocer labor organizer mechanic therapist”).
“A big inspiration for that piece was just really to show love and give recognition to those communities that we see,” said Magabo Perez, who is also community arts fellow at Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies, associate editor at Ethnic Studies Review, and a core organizer of The Digital Sala. “And those are our communities. Those are our folks there. They make San Diego. I'm always really intentional with my writing and specifically who my audience is. And for this poem, I sort of was sitting with it a while and thinking, I just want to write to the folks who you pass by all the time. I want to see them in this poem. Part of my writing practice is very cinematic. I just like to see and sense things … not determine the experience of other folks with my lens or my description. But just to be like, here's a portrait. Those are folks. We love those folks.”
Magabo Perez possesses an amazing ability to weave stories based on the simple yet beautiful things that inspire all of us to live a life of love and understanding. To build neighborhoods of varying cultures and backgrounds that combine to form shared community.
His works include “Phenomenology of Superhero” (2013) and “This is for the mostless” (2017), both of which combine his unique combination of prose and poetry. His work has also been seen in many literary publications.
His new book “I ask about what falls away” is set to be released soon. It's a long book-length poem about grief during the time of the pandemic.
It’s no wonder CSUSM offered that combination of opportunity both professionally and emotionally.
“A lot of our communities are here at the university, for sure,” said Perez, who now lives in Clairemont. “And by our communities, I’m talking about our working-class communities. Our first-generation students. Their families. Those histories. They're all here. Being able to share a space with them in the classroom and to imagine what's possible is meaningful. It's profoundly beautiful to share space with students in the North County area. I look forward to partnering with CSUSM to explore possible literary arts and literacy initiatives to support our local communities.”
As program director of ethnic studies at CSUSM, he relishes the responsibility of providing that introduction of the subject to his undergraduate students as well as discussing the topic to anyone who wishes to dialogue.
“The work he does in and out of the classroom is critical for CSUSM’s shared vision of social mobility and student success,” said Liora Gubkin, dean of CSUSM’s College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences (CHABSS). “His research and knowledge in the ethnic studies arena are only matched by the level of care for his students. Being named poet laureate of the city is an amazing honor, and our university is enriched by Jason’s presence.”
For Magabo Perez, ethnic studies is about studying marginalized groups and how they’ve been treated in the past as well as how much, if any at all, that treatment has improved in current times.
It’s an academic field that has been around for more than 50 years at the college level. It just recently became a required class to take for all CSU students.
But for Magabo Perez, ethnic studies is as much about the future as it is about the past.
“It’s important to understand that both the history and the ways in which our communities have been studied and understood have been incredibly limited, or neglected and erased completely,” Magabo Perez said on a recent video call. “In order to really understand, in a place like San Marcos, in a place like North County, in a place like San Diego County, to really understand how our relationships came to be, or how our tensions and celebrations and joys came to be, we have to take into account a historical reality that’s too often and too easily ignored. So I think that even with all the backlash around things like ethnic studies, African-American studies, and Critical Race Theory, we still have a responsibility to study those erased histories.
“Ultimately, ethnic studies is about our dignity. Empowering communities who have been robbed of their dignity. Challenging and resisting traditional paradigms of education, pedagogy and knowledge production in order to think about something new and something bigger. That something new and something bigger just so happens to be humbly our humanity, which as we see in the current political crisis, the humanity of many of our neighbors, our families, is being denied on a daily basis. Ethnic studies is about not shying away from those tough conversations because we know those issues and instances are impacting our community every single day.”
We Draft Work Songs for This City
by Jason Magabo Perez
This poem was performed at San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s State of The City Address at the San Diego Civic Theatre on Jan. 11, 2023.
whenever we stretch grammars of worry past the Pacific
whenever another blackout gifts us much needed stillness
whenever the surrender of this quiet is typhoon enough we
draft work songs for this city mighty we of rough draft
futures mighty we in river-mouth of rush hour traffic we
of protest chant & scrapyard syntax we draft on the corner
of Black Mountain & Mira Mesa here on a sidewalk of torn
shoelaces & lost grocery lists we draft blueprints for survival
we survive on the smell of beef broth the smell of basil of
turmeric of cilantro of carne asada of freshly cooked rice
of steamed bok choy of freshwater fish of deep-fried rice
paper we work song at this bus stop for students we work
song at this bus stop for tech workers this bus stop for lolas
y abuelitas we work song in tin drum glottal syllables of
distant motherlands we draft litanies at every streetlight
altar we draft verse on napkins & reused plastic grocery
bags wherever there are elders playing chess & waxing
geographic outside the donut shop whenever much needed
stillness promises a new hour whenever the Pacific knows
to rupture the shoreline whenever typhoon is fractal hum in
chest we draft work songs for this city we raw material
literatures we distillation of afterdreams we swapmeet
philosophers we draft work songs on the corner of Genesee
& Clairemont Mesa we draft of gutters scattered with pink
boba straws & dried palm leaves we draft for mothers & children
hustling bouquets of carnations from the bicycle lane we draft
for parolees in orange vests selling local tribunes from the center
island we draft on Murray Ridge where a family sells roses &
chocolate from a white bucket whenever the small hour calls
collect whenever ruptures in the line set us free whenever hum
in chest arrives as ghost in throat we draft work songs we whose
hands wash sky we who grow gardens & gardens against worry
we whose mighty ache remakes history we draft work songs here
in the alley off University behind 49th we draft of a perfectly
reusable red plastic slide of a car full of birthday balloons of a
small hill of middle grade paperbacks a gold purse full of fresh
broccoli & rubber gloves a black tote bag stuffed with wet lettuce
& white surgical masks we draft at the backyard family parties
& block-wide barbecues we work song where it smells of fresh
tires & flour tortillas where dried lemon rinds stick to pavement
work song of cleaned chicken bone wrapped in foil work song of
rainsoaked boxsprings work song for the infamous hot cheetos
burrito brushfire fabulous work song work song on the graveyard
shift survivor song song of the parking lot nail salon work song
of the underfuture heavenly pho outside between two buildings
work song we draft as patrol cars cram the alley we draft as protest
medics cram the alley we draft as Muslim cabbies double-park their
Priuses outside the mosque outside the taqueria work song of a child
chasing mosquitos with a hammer wherever a community of uncles
gathers in the shared parking lot of the banh mi shop & Somali
restaurant wherever we feel that lived intensity of interior traffic here
sings the lettuce-picker here sings the strawberry-picker here sings
the bellhop the postal worker the custodian the hotel maid grounds-
keeper landscaper gardener construction worker nurse teacher waiter
dishwasher bus driver grocer labor organizer mechanic therapist here
sings the nanny here sings the refugee here sings the Native here sings
the migrant O, what work! O, what song! O, what city! when our utterance
is archive when there is historical reckoning when we demand nothing
short of collective joy & here we are on Native land we draft work songs for
this city we draft work songs for this city we draft work songs for this city
Courtesy of Jason Magabo Perez and San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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