On an otherwise lazy summer day, about 25 Chicano youth are busy scribbling their thoughts in a journal exercise at Santa Ana's El Centro Cultural de México. They're aspiring Barrio Writers, guys and gals ranging in age between 13 and 21 who are dedicated to an intensive one-week program by the same name. All are motivated by a desire to find their voice in an essay, poem or story to be published in a future anthology.
Barrio Writers first began under author Sarah Rafael García in 2009 at El Centro Cultural de México with 30 students. After spreading to different states and college campuses, the program returned to its roots this summer with a solid group sure to produce the next Gary Soto or Ana Castillo! "Unfortunately, this past year we lost our space at Cal State Fullerton," García says. "It's back where it started, with el Centro more than willing to help out."
Students from the original gathering at the community center are also returning. Natalie Sanchez Valle, a recent UC Berkeley graduate, conducted an hour-long workshop focused on embodying words through movement. "Writing is my first love," she told the attendees. "I got the most that I possibly could out of Barrio Writers because I put myself out there."
Sanchez's passion for dance and acting also got the kids moving. They had to find a way to express themselves as day laborers, community, the moon and the sun during various exercises. Towards the end, they grabbed their journals, writing thoughts about a transformational time in life onto their blank, white pages.
Once the workshop wrapped up, the kids began working on bios to introduce themselves in the anthology to come. The writing assignment, García told them, will help in the future with job and college applications.
Judith Araziry Carrillo, a 17-year-old Segerstrom High School student in Santa Ana, started Barrio Writers as an incoming freshman. "I had been told, especially by administrators at school, that I didn't know how to write," says Carrillo. When she came to Barrio Writers, García told the youth that her writing said a lot about how she speaks. "That was the first time anyone gave me something positive about my writing."
Carrillo likes the poetry of local artist Iuri Lara and loves Irene Diaz's music. This time around, she's putting the finishing touches on song lyrics for the anthology.
"Reading some of the youth pieces, I feel like my 15-year-old self again," says Barrio Writers program director Marilynn Montaño. "I see myself in them." She remains committed to the writing class out of a deep sense of loyalty, having started herself in 2010.
Montaño has seen the Barrio Writers transform from coy to confident, pointing to the example of Christian Sida this week. Seated at a table across from Carrillo, Sida took a break from writing his bio. The 16-year-old Valley High School student tagged along to Barrio Writers with a friend on Tuesday. "To my surprise, I enjoyed being in the program," Sida says. The teen decided to stay and looks forward to being a published author with a hip-hop influenced piece. "If I have a voice, you can have a voice, too," he said.
But before the Barrio Writers anthology comes hot off the presses with an academic publisher all lined up, the youth need to finish their contributions to it. They'll get the full author experience on Saturday with a reading planned in Santa Ana. It all comes with a back to the basics approach.
"Sometimes we forget about just having a notebook and a pen," Montaño says. "It will help the youth express themselves more."
Barrio Writers 7th Annual Live Reading at Chapter One: The Modern Local, 227 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Free. All Ages.
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2