Jesus Cortez Finds Poetry in the Working Class Realities of West Anaheim

A is for Anaheim. Photo by Adrian Gonzalez

Coffee shops are familiar dens for poetry, but Jesus Cortez prefers Rainbow Donuts in West Anaheim to discuss his verses after a long day of work. The doughnut dive is a staple of the working-class with Lotto scratchers promising quick payouts hidden behind opaque inks, shelves with instant noodle lunches and pink boxes waiting to be filled with pastries. Cortez stirs a cup of coffee and picks at a blueberry muffin while describing the gritty intersection of Beach Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue that helped birth and continues to shape his poetry. 

“I always go to places where I always feel some sort of comfort,” he says. “It’s pretty symbolic of this side of town that has always been close to my heart.” The intersection is where subaltern Anaheim crosses paths on a daily basis from homeless folks to sex workers, hardworking immigrants and hustlers. It’s also where Cortez carries fond memories of being a youth scrounging up some money to spend on a Saturday night at the Tower Records store on Beach that’s long since transformed into a fenced-off sinking pile of undeveloped dirt. It’s there that he encountered his earliest inspirations for writing on hip-hop shelves that housed classic 90’s albums from 2Pac, Ice Cube and Nas. 

But as a teen bouncing around high schools in Anaheim, he turned towards the quiet retreat of written verses more than spitting bars in street cyphers. “The topics I wrote most about were death and the streets,” Cortez says. “Fools I grew up with, already by then, had been shot and killed.” His early poems weren’t pretentious existential musings about death but a spillage searching for meaning in the senseless violence that the city paid no mind to. He wondered if his life, too, would get clipped in the crossfire. “I’m not saying I was out doing work, but I was just a kid on the streets,” Cortez says. “How would my mom feel? Would anyone even remember me?” 

His writing changed later in life when finally granted the respite needed to reflect on it all. It’s around that time when a 20-year-old Cortez found Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA by Luis J. Rodriguez on the shelves of a used bookstore that popped up off of Beach for a few months. “Once I picked that up, I didn’t stop until I finished,” he says. “He wasn’t trying to romanticize anything.” From there, Cortez read works like Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets and poet Ricardo Sanchez’s Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion

“What remains of a warrior with no fight / with no enemies, just the anger / and the frustration of living / too long perhaps / too little perhaps / or never at all.” – A Warrior’s Death

In college, Cortez began reading his poetry to audiences every once in awhile during activist events supporting undocumented students. Ambitions to publish never crossed his mind until local author Sarah Rafael Garcia returned to SanTana from Austin in 2016. She saw a rare voice to help cultivate through her LibroMobile literary project and bookstore. “Jesus writes from his heart and echoes his mother’s determination,” she says. “I became curious to know if he’d consider submitting for publication. I offered to help him put together a manuscript through LibroMobile’s DIY MFA program and in less than a year Jesus submitted about 40 poems.” 

The task came at a turning point in life. “When Sarah approach me, my mom was hospitalized,” Cortez says. He asked for advice at his mother’s bedside. She told her son that if he said that he would do it, then he needed follow through and do it. “I had to let everything out, all my emotions that I was going through” he says. “I put my heart and soul into everything that I wrote. Almost everything that I sent to Sarah during that time, it was for my mom.” If she came home from the hospital, he planned to read her all his work. Sadly, the chance never came when Cortez’s mother passed away. 

“She wakes up before / the sun blesses the earth / She blesses her sacred stones / before the fire is ignited by her cold hands / she puts the comal on top of the sacred stones / works her magic on the masa / then calls her children to a warm breakfast of tortillas and beans.” – Sacred Stones

His forthcoming collection whispering to god and the city is searching for a publisher but already has drawn praise from other writers. “Cortez doesn’t pull words out of this air in some fanciful fashion to paint a simple picture,” Lupe Mendez, author of Why I Am Like Tequila, wrote in review. “No, Jesus does more – he elbows out the brick and mortar, he shapes the walls upon which this bold mural will be seen and never forgotten.” His work has already been published in literary magazines like The Acentos Review and Cortez is pairing up with SanTana poet (and former Weekly intern) Marilynn Montaño for a reading in celebration of National Poetry Month at LibroMobile this weekend. 

“With all the experiences that I’ve had with police, poverty and what I’ve seen in the streets growing up, it’s hard not to be affected by it,” Cortez says. “And it’s hard not to let it come out on paper.” He doesn’t just find poetry in the painful clicks of a cop’s handcuffs tightening around brown wrists; there’s beauty on his side of Anaheim, too. “We hated Disneyland because we knew we couldn’t afford it,” he says. Instead, the poet exalts Twila Reid Park where families gather on Sundays to watch youth soccer games. “For some people, that’s their happy place.” 

Just then, Rainbow Donuts’ door chime sounds as it has numerous times throughout the conversation. Weary-faced folks plop down on a bench to eat orange chicken from a nearby fast food Chinese restaurant. Cortez found a similar muse in B & B Donuts just down the street on Beach for a poem by the shop’s name. But what if doughnut shops didn’t just inspire poems but carried poetry as offerings to fuel the everyday lives and dreams of working-class people along with chocolate éclairs and Lotto scratchers? 

“I’m a working person, too, and we don’t take the time to realize how tragic or beautiful our lives are,” he says. “We don’t even see it because we’re going on day-to-day.” 

LibroMobile presents, Hymns & Verses: From the Streets y la Comunidad with Jesus Cortez and Marilynn Montaño, 202 E. Fourth St. Ste #107, Santa Ana. 6-8 p.m. Free.

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