Is the pen really mightier than the sword? When it comes to inspiring social change, poet activist Odilia Galván Rodríguez is the person to ask. A former community and labor organizer, Galván Rodríguez worked for such organizations as the United Farm Workers of America and the AFL-CIO before becoming a poet, editor, and creative writing teacher. The Corpus Christi, Texas, resident has five volumes of published poetry under her belt. She also has her hand in many projects, from teaching workshops on the power of writing around the country and curating “Love and Prayers for Fukushima, Japan, World,” a literary blog she founded to bring attention to environmental and social justice issues, to editing Cloud Women’s Quarterly, a journal of women’s work from indigenous spiritual traditions around the world.
With a firmly global perspective—she’s lived in Cuba, Mexico, and Brazil—Galván Rodríguez threads all of her work together with the theme of empowerment. Her latest book is Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice (University of Arizona Press), an anthology she edited with the late Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón that shows the power of creative writing to engage people in social issues. Poetry of Resistance was named a finalist in the 2016 New Mexico–Arizona Book Awards in October and grew out of “Poets Responding to SB 1070,” a Facebook page that Alarcón created in response to the anti-Latino racial profiling legislation Arizona passed in 2010. The page, which Galván Rodríguez helps moderate, has become a place for poets to respond not only to racism and xenophobia but to many social justice issues, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.
HipLatina caught up with Galván Rodríguez in between her trips around the country to give readings from Poetry of Resistance. We chatted with the Chicago native about how she discovered the magic of writing as a young girl, why beauty and joy are necessary fuel for activism, and her conviction that the power of writing is for everybody.
HipLatina: A lot of people think creative writing is something that’s out of reach for them—that it’s inaccessible or not relevant to their lives. Isn’t a lot of your work about reversing that notion?
Odilia Galván Rodríguez: I don’t believe in elitism. My family were farm workers, and my dad, after he came back from Korea, was a steelworker, and even though I was the first person to graduate from university, I still know who I am and where I come from. And I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re excluded. One of the workshops I teach is called “Empowering People Through Creative Writing,” and I think that it does. So many of us have been shamed; so many of us who spoke a different language first and then had to learn English second feel that we’re not good writers. So when I start working with people who don’t have a background of writing or a formal education, I have them tell their stories and I write them down myself and then they see their stories in print. That empowers them to start doing their own writing.
I grew up in the projects on the South Side of Chicago, so I grew up with African Americans, I grew up with Native Americans, I grew up with Puerto Ricans, I grew up with everybody. I believe in solidarity and people working together and not letting the society divide us along color lines. We need to be unified, always, and we need to always be learning about each other and making family with each other. So I use my creative writing like I [did my organizing], to try to unite people—that’s my goal—and also to always bring along other writers.
HL: You discovered the power of writing as a child?
OGR: I’ve always been writing since I was really young—and reading. Reading saved my life. I grew up with a single parent, Mom had several jobs, had four children, worked very hard, and the way I got through the tension of that was by having my nose in a book. I always kept a journal, and I always wrote small vignettes about things that were going on around me.
HL: Your mother was also bipolar. It seems like the written word provided a safe space for you.
OGR: It’s hard to talk about this because my mom, at the same time that she was very ill, she was very responsible, she went to work every day, we always had an immaculate house, clean clothes, food on the table. But she was very abusive verbally and also physically. So I turned to books and to writing because I could go to different places and see different ways of life. And then I started thinking, you can change your own reality by writing your story in a different way. So I would write the story differently: “My mom is really nice . . .” Then sometimes for a couple of days she would be different. And I would think, wow, maybe my story became this magical spell and she’s being really nice! Wow!
HL: You’ve been both a community organizer and a creative writer. Is poetry as powerful a tool for social change as organizing is?
OGR: Poetry can be an organizing tool. It doesn’t take the place of organizing, but you can do them concurrently. I used to work for an organization in Oakland called the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts, and the philosophy was training artists as activists. I think that you become a much stronger activist when you’re joyful, and art and photography and music and dancing and drumming and poetry, all those things bring you joy. The United Farm Workers is a really good example of that. We always sang, we had Teatro Campesino, we had a lot of visual art that made the movement a lot stronger and more colorful and more beautiful. Beauty is really important.
I think poetry is a way of being seen and being heard. And I highly encourage people to engage in a lot of creative writing. I think writing is powerful. I don’t know any other way to put it.