How Dalí and RC Cola helped a poet laureate find his way in the US

The World

Alejandro Murguía, left, with his daughter and father in Southern California in the 1980s. 

Courtesy of Alejandro Murguía

It was in October, must have been 1955,” says Alejandro Murguía, San Francisco’s poet laureate, remembering his early years back in California. He was born in the United States, but moved with his family to Mexico when he was a toddler — first Mexico City, then Tijuana.

At age 6, he returned to Southern California with his family for economic reasons. It was a rough age to restart life in another country but, eventually, Murguía would author the Southern Front and This War Called Love. Both won the American Book Award.

Murguía, born in 1949, talked to us as part of our First Days series, when immigrants and refugees share their early memories of growing up in the US. Here, we’ve focused on his early school days as part of Global Nation’s education coverage.

Back in California, Murguía remembers being “the only non-white person in the school” during his early grades. “Totally white kids, and so there was a period when I was very silent. It’s through reading that I break out and find my place in school,” he says.

By third grade, he was a voracious reader. “I remember my library card having like 30 books checked out that semester,” he says.

“By the time I’m 15, I start scribbling in notebooks every night. Here’s what would happen. I’d go to the liquor store and buy a big bottle of RC Cola, not realizing the caffeine was going to keep me up all night. So I’m writing in this journal until I finally fall asleep at one o’clock, something like that. But then the next morning, I can’t get up to go to school, right? So it became this endless cycle. High school was a complete disaster for me.”

But Murguía credits his art teacher, Grace García, with noticing his passion. “I started showing her some of my work, and she gives me a lot of books to read, a lot of heavy stuff. I’m reading Sartre, ‘No Exit,’ for example, and ‘Nausea’ and ‘Candide’ by Voltaire. And she’s sending us to museums to look at Picasso, Van Gogh and Dalí. And we’re all in love with Dalí because he’s so far out and crazy and stuff. And that’s probably where I first started reading poetry.”

García also encouraged Murguía to take his SATs. “I scored really high,” he says. “And so she showed up one day during that summer and takes me to Los Angeles City College and enrolls me. If she had not done that, I had no idea of going to college. My dad always encouraged us to not work like he did. He was a laborer. So he encouraged us to be educated. But obviously he didn’t know how to go about the process. He insisted that we finish high school, which we did, but after that, he had no idea how to enroll somebody in college. He’d never been on a college campus. So it was kind of fortuitous that Grace García sent me to college.”

Listen to Alejandro Murguía read “O California.” See English translation below.


se fueron

por el camino real

ese largo y triste camino de eucaliptos

en carretas con burros

un montón de frijol y maíz

y llegaron en lowered down chewys

with gafas fileros

speaking about the low life

tomando botellas de tequila

que decían Made in Mexico

hablando tres palabras en inglés

apple pie y coffee


Vámonos a California

Vámonos a California

se iban

por el alambre

indios de calzón blanco y huarache

y aterrizaban

pochos pachucos perdidos

vatos locos con tatuajes mágicos

de vida y muerte

esperando en las esquinas el big hit

the 5 & 10 of caliente race track

that never came

cantando calladitos por las calles iban

Vámonos a California

Vámonos a California

they came

from New York

New York the big apple

to the big orange

Yorubas Jíbaros Borinquens

regando las calles de bacardí

piel color café oscuro

ojos de verde cocodrilo

y un tun-tun de tambores

de viejas selvas ancestrales

que alguna vez fueron

pero ahora con mil memorias

de viajes mal pagados

Vámonos a California

Vámonos a California

Vámonos a California

English translation:


they went

along the Camino Real

that long and sad road of eucalyptus

in carts with donkeys

an enormous heap of beans and corn

and arrived in lowered down chevys

with sunglasses switchblades

speaking about the low life

drinking bottles of tequila

that said Made in Mexico

speaking three words of English

apple pie and coffee


Let's go to California

Let's go to California

they went

through the barbed wire

Indians in white trousers and sandals

and landed

pochos pachucos lost

crazy guys with magical tattoos

of life and death

waiting on corners for the big hit

the 5 & 10 of Caliente Race Track

that never came

singing quietly they went along the streets

Let's go to California

Let's go to California

they came

from New York

New York the big apple

to the big orange

Yorubas Jíbaros Borinquens

watering the streets with Bacardi

skin the color of dark coffee

eyes of crocodile green

and a tun-tun of drums

of old ancestral jungles

that existed at one time

but now with a thousand memories

of voyages badly paid

Let's go to California

Let's go to California

Let's go to California

From Fiesta en Aztlán, Capra Press, 1982.

Facebook page about "The Other Barrio," a documentary about Murguía.

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