Alejandro Murguía is soft spoken; his choice of words is deliberate as he teaches his introduction to Latina/o studies class at San Francisco State University.
“This class is designed to touch on the arts, sciences and history of the Latino community in the United States and in the San Francisco area,” he said. “If we don’t have a clear grasp of our roots—where we come from—then how can we be a voice of the community and incite change in our surroundings?”
Murguía, 62, is not only educating students, he is introducing the world to the city of San Francisco. He was announced as San Francisco poet laureate in July 2012 by Mayor Ed Lee. He is the first Latino to be poet laureate of San Francisco.
As many of Murguía’s contemporaries and those who have been able to get to know him can attest, educating the community and fostering a voice for the marginalized has been something that he has done all along.
Murguía traces his fondness for the written word to the tender age of five, and an experience he had reciting a poem about Christopher Columbus in kindergarten while living in Tijuana.
“I remember being in the third grade and proud that I had checked out over 30 books from the library and read them all. I still remember some of them to this day,” Murguía said. “Reading, which I emphasize with my students, is important for an intellectual and a writer. A lot of my trajectory is through reading.”
Murguía came to San Francisco from Los Angeles in the early 1970s and never left.
He published his first book soon after moving to The City by the Bay, partly because of admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby.”
“I’m in part inspired by Fitzgerald, who publishes his first book when he is about 24. So my first book, ‘Oracion a la Mano Poderosa,’ comes out when I’m 23 and a half,” Murguía said. “I organized other poets and writers so we can set up our own publishing house. You don’t have to ask permission from anyone, just go out and do it because you see a necessity in the community.”
According to Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Bay Area poet from the ‘70s, Murguía was key in creating a literary scene in San Francisco.
“Alejandro was an inspiration for me,” Cervantes said. “He opened the way for us Chicanos who wanted to get our work published. He was a doorstop and not a totem. He doesn’t block others from trying to achieve success and he will help you reach your writing potential.”
Murguía admits that his life as a writer and community organizer has ebbed and flowed in stages.
“It’s an uneven trajectory as a writer for me, there’s periods where I’m writing, there [are] other periods where I’m an activist and an organizer,” Murguía said. “There’s a period after being a community organizer and being one of the founders and directors of the Mission Cultural Center, that I ended up in a zone of conflict in Nicaragua, being a nationalist and fighting the civil war.”
When describing his writing style, Juan Felipe Herrera, the current California poet laureate and first Latino poet laureate, states that his writing is full of life and thrills.
“Alejandro’s style of writing is a lush, exotic tropicalism—characters, settings and plots that are full of magic, wonder and hyper-reality,” Herrera said. “He brings the plight of our people to a vivid reality and no one is better at capturing San Francisco and its people like Murguía.”
Jose Hector Cadena, a creative writing MFA student at SF State, said Murguía and his writing have left a deep impact on him.
“He made me take a different approach and injected energy to continue writing,” Cadena said. “He stirs up students to not just read and write for the sake of writing, but in order to move them into the community and through the community incite change.”
Despite his accolades in writing and teaching, Murguia wasn’t always studious. He states he was a failure in high school and he dropped out of college at the age of 19 returning to get his degrees later on in life.
“I’m about 38-years-old, when I return to college to finish my B.A. By then I had already published a book of poetry, two books of fiction, edited and published other writers, founded Tin Tan magazine, etc.,” he said. “But I have to finish college in a way go back to school so I could get the quote on quote degrees to get out of the more working-class thing because I was driving for Muni at that time. And in fact, when I go back to school, I’m still driving the trains and studying at the same time.”
Murguía said that his receiving of the new title doesn’t really validate his contributions to the Mission community. It is work that he has been doing since the start.
“I’m not deceived that this is an honor strictly for me, I understand and accept it as an honor for my community in the Mission District and the Latino community,” he said.
(This article was produced in partnership with Professor Katynka Martinez’s Latina/Latino Journalism class at SF State University.)
Story by: Juan De Anda