Published in TexasHighways.com
The poet Lupe Mendez is an animated storyteller. He’ll change the tone of his voice, switching between English and Spanish as he speaks softer and then louder. It’s a delivery he honed over 17 years teaching high school English in Houston. Mendez still works for the Houston Independent School District, but now he’s a curriculum writer and teaching coach.
To get the full picture of Mendez’s storytelling, it’s best to see him onstage reciting poetry about his Texas roots, discovering other writers of color, and discussing why he chose to teach. He moves his hands as he talks, adding urgency, and sometimes incorporates the audience, asking them to repeat certain phrases to emphasize his spoken words.
To say Mendez knows what he’s doing would be an understatement. He’s been sharing his poetry across Texas and the nation for almost 20 years, while also working with the grassroots Tintero Project to help emerging writers of color amplify their voices. In 2019, he released an award-winning poetry collection, Why I Am Like Tequila. And last year, the state Legislature named Mendez the Texas poet laureate for 2022.
TH: How did you celebrate being named the 2022 Texas poet laureate?
LM: I posted it on Twitter and then went out for ice cream with my wife and daughter. That was the biggest thing at that point. I did have a moment when I wept a tear and thought if my mom was here to see this, she’d be entirely stoked. But then I giggled because I knew I had to explain to Dad what this means. I literally spent a little bit of time trying to figure out what’s the best way to describe to my old man what this actually is. Because, typical familia, “Te van a pagar?” [Will you get paid?] No, there’s no money. “O pos, pa’ que?” [Then why?] All of that also gave me cheer—I get this honor, and I can’t explain it to my old man because that’s the way life works.
TH: What does the state poet laureate do during the year they serve?
LM: According to the state of Texas, nothing. They don’t have to do anything. It’s the honor. My intention though, I want to be able to figure out a way to highlight the voices of educators of color. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that’s going to look like. But, I want to be able to figure out a way to provide educators of color a platform to speak about their experiences in the classroom in an age and state where we’re constantly dealing with the conversations and the politics of gun rights, the conversations and the politics of gender identity, the conversations and politics of racism, education itself, and now, most importantly, the history of people of color.
TH: When did you figure out you’re a poet?
LM: There are like 45 grandkids in the Mendez family. Of the 45 grandkids, we’re split pretty evenly—those in the United States and those in Mexico. Only about four of us have college degrees; two of us stateside and two of us in Mexico. And so, we never communicated through letter-writing. We were storytellers. There was always a story in front of a lumbre [fire], or drinking cafecito at night, or in the car. So, we were always hearing these stories. I knew by the time I was in fifth grade that storytelling was part of what I was doing. It was like, “Oh, I can hear these things, I can write about them, and I can create things from them.”
TH: You come from farming families and grew up in Galveston to parents of Mexican ethnicity. How did that shape you as a poet?
LM: It gave me this cool ability to have feet in different spots. Growing up in Galveston, it’s an island culture—we call it salt life. You’re always at the beach; there’s always a hurricane potentially popping in. But it also allowed me to see the breadth and width of the Texas Gulf Coast—from Galveston to Brownsville and San Benito, getting to see South Padre, getting to see Port Isabel, getting to see Port Lavaca, getting to see what all those island communities look like. And then, because of my father, we were traveling to Mexico by car. Seeing the terrain change from flat spaces in the Gulf Coast area to rugged mountainous regions and valleys along the Sierra Madre Occidental, heading toward Jalisco. We’d drive for 24 hours—that was such a change of place. So I grew up with one foot on sand and the other in mountains. The amount of language, and ability, and story, and story-making kind of started with that.
TH: Your book, Why I Am Like Tequila, has some poems in Spanish and some about the troubled history of Mexicans in Texas. Do you feel a responsibility to write this style of poetry?
LM: What’s the motto? Pos así es mijo, si Dios nos da licencia [That’s how it is son, only if God gives us license]. That sensibility has always run through every Mexican’s DNA, if you’re from a space that’s impoverished. These amazingly, almost historically impossible moments that you could write full epic tales of normal everyday living about—they’re part of this massive story and history and legacy. When I figured out where I was going, and the road I was taking, in terms of storytelling and poetry, I realized early on that nobody in my family is doing this. And so, I have to do this correctly. There’s no way I can fake any of this.
TH: It’s been two years since you published your poetry book. What are you working on now?
LM: I’m currently wrapping up a second manuscript on the counter-history of what is known as the Houston huelga [strike] schools. Desegregation in the city of Houston occurred in August of 1970. The book I’m writing is based on interviews, diary entries, site visits—ethnographic work—looking at the history of what these huelga schools were. When the very district that I work for was run by lots of white men, they orchestrated a desegregation plan that was unconstitutional. They paired Black schools with “white schools” that weren’t white. They were Mexican students who were labeled as white. It caused lots of Black and brown students to drop out because it did not provide support for these kids as they shifted them around campuses to fulfill federal law. And so, as a response, Mexican families in Houston boycotted the school district and created their own system of schools, the huelga schools.
TH: How do you feel about the distinction of being Texas poet laureate?
LM: The interesting thing is that this is fleeting. I can be the Texas poet laureate for 2022, and the one person in my life who would have been ecstatic about it would have been my mother. But I lost her to COVID in 2020. And so, I’m able to talk to my father and describe to him, “Hey ’apa, me dieron este honor, soy el laureado del estado” [I received this honor, and I’m now the laureate of the state]. And my dad is like, “Pues que es eso?” [Well, what’s that?] And I had to explain it to him because his understanding of the world doesn’t include the arts. He understands painting, music, singing, movies. But the literary world, he doesn’t get. And the reason? He doesn’t read or write. My father’s illiterate. The irony does not fall short on me. I can be poet laureate, but he’ll never be able to read a single one of my poems. I take that for what it is, and I move forward knowing that it’s a blessing because of where my family has been and where I’m going. I carry all of that with me to help me be a better writer.