Sound & Vision: Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna on Her Personal Story and Influences

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

Claudia Castro Luna is Washington State's first immigrant and non-native English speaker to hold the position of poet laureate. When she was 14, her family fled the civil war in El Salvador. The themes of place and war reoccur in her poems and stories. Claudia Castro Luna spoke with Sound and Vision’s Emily Fox about her personal story and how it influences her work.

On emigrating from El Salvador:

My family left in January of 1981. 1980 was probably the worst year of the war in El Salvador. We were, in fact, in a de facto war, though it had not yet been called that officially. In 1980, Monseñor Romero, who was the archbishop of El Salvador and has been now canonized by the Catholic Church, was murdered. Three American nuns and a lay worker were murdered as well – they were working in El Salvador and coming from the airport and they were ambushed and murdered. The fact that these foreign American nuns were murdered and that the priest who occupied rank wise, the highest rank but also was beloved by the community, was murdered publicly while he was officiating mass was, to all of us, an indication that our lives really didn't matter. Because, if they could kill religious people, what about those of us who were just regular citizens? We lived in a reign of terror and it was impossible to have an everyday existence in El Salvador – there were military equipment helicopters flying overhead, there were tanks patrolling the city – not like a police car, but actual tanks. And so, it was a war. We were in a war zone. We were lucky that we were able to escape.

On the current political conversation surrounding asylum seekers coming to the United States:

I want to point out to my own experience and the experience of many immigrants I know from El Salvador, being my sister and my parents, my cousins, and friends I have – all of us occupied fruitfully in the economy, doing things as varied as being a poet – myself, being a social worker – my sister, working as janitors in the school, being doctors, being nurses. So, all of us are really embedded and are just part of the American fabric in every sense. We have families here. Our children are growing up American. More specifically to El Salvador and Central America, what pains me about what's happening is that the stories of these people, of these children, these families, these men and women are disconnected from the historical record. So, we portray them as they're coming up here on their own, they want to take over. And, in fact, the U.S. has a deep history of intervention in Central America and in Latin America. I mean, starting with the building of the [Panama] Canal – that was a huge disruptive force. Interventions in Nicaragua in the 1800s, in Guatemala in the 1950s, getting involved with devaluing democratically elected presidents there because the U.S. was in disagreement with the politics of that person. In El Salvador – long history of supporting and propping up military men who were atrocious. And, I don’t like the word evil, but they had no scruples and no moral bearings and did terrible things. There are villages where every single one person there were assassinated. That is the one thing that really bothers me, it is totally decontextualized. To me, all those people coming from El Salvador are the tail end of the war.

On writing her first poems:

My first poems were written in France. I was a French major in college and I traveled abroad for a year. I lived six months in Pau which is in the south of France. And, I lived six months in Paris and I was there on my own. I think I was the only immigrant kid in that cohort of students. I was in a cohort of maybe like 35 kids from UCLA who went to France and English was new to me, even then. But, here I was learning another language, and it just felt like I was an immigrant again in France. It was like being an immigrant twice at the same time. By then, the U.S. was our home. So, I was longing for my parents, for California, for Southern California, for the school that I went to. And it was that longing and the loneliness, of feeling not quite at home in French, not at home in France, sort of discovering this new world that prompted those first poems. And, the first poems that I ever wrote, some of them are were written in French, some of them were written in Spanish and some of them were in English. It was a mix of however I could capture my inner self.

On her poem, Seattle Poem:

That poem was the result of an argument that I read in a magazine about how far back do you go? Or, do you really belong here? Kind of this discussion which just seemed to me really a moot point because, when I consider Washington State is 129 years old, statehood is now 130, but there are trees in this territory older than that – much older than that. So, to me, that means that we really all could trace back our arrivals to Seattle and to the state. I mean, it's a lovely thing in a way, that Washingtonians do not go that far back, that they can trace the arrival of their ancestor here. Unless, they’re native people of course, who have been here for millennia. So, really, this is a territory to which we have all arrived – arrivals happen in the natural world. I mean pests show up and certainly take over, they have arrived, too. So, I think that is the nature of change of human evolution and to argue you belong here or not is like scooping ocean water with a spoon. It’s a moot argument. We're all here, we're contributing in ways – in many different ways. And this is how change happens. So, that's the argument there. 

While as Seattle Civic Poet, Claudia Castro Luna created the Seattle Poetic Grid. She’s started the Washington Poetic Routes as Washington’s Poet Laureate.  

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear stories like this in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

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