A Poet Goes Political
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “making it” shouldn’t be surprising.
By Eugene S. Robinson
- Marshall scholar and award-winning poet Antonio López got out of the hood courtesy of an unlikely ally: Condoleezza Rice.
- The 26-year-old edged out his opponents for the East Palo Alto City Council by 68 votes.
To call East Palo Alto a “bedroom community” of Palo Alto would be a hard sell. What had been lush agricultural land populated by Japanese families saw much of its farm acreage plowed under and replaced by inexpensive housing when those families were hauled off in the midst of World War II insanity. Combined with redlining and skirmishes with more-successful neighboring communities, it created the perfect storm of 1991–92.
It was a few years into this hotbed of expected, and some unexpected, outcomes that Antonio López was born to parents who had emigrated from Mexico to California as farm laborers. Some of López’s memories from early childhood remain vivid. “Mostly the gunshots,” the 26-year-old says. “We could never sleep near the windows.”
Antonio showed up with a background of activism, and he was astute, engaged, outspoken and, most of all, unafraid.
Rigoberto González, director of Rutgers’ creative writing MFA program
Beset by a crack epidemic, drug-fueled crime and a pervasive sense of hopelessness, by 1992, East Palo Alto had earned the unfortunate designation as “murder capital” of the U.S. Hollywood came running, and a couple of years after that bloody annus horribilis, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds showed that all you needed to solve the problems of Black and Latino teenagers was a white lady.
Sadly, Michelle Pfeiffer did not show up. However, Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, did. Rice had co-founded the Center for a New Generation (CNG) in East Palo Alto, and it bussed López and about 100 other kids out of town for field trips.
“East Palo Alto is about 2 and a half miles across,” López says. Other than the occasional trip south to Mountain View or north to a barrio in Redwood City, López hadn’t left the city. One of the CNG trips, though, brought the kids to a tony high school, Menlo School. “I thought it was the White House,” he says.
Field trips aside, nothing was changing in the neighborhood, and the pressure to join a gang, just for a sense of belonging, was significant. But there was a program piggybacked off CNG that saw some of the smarter kids like López gain admission to Menlo School, with the $35,000 annual tuition waived. “I didn’t know that there were schools like this,” says López. “With bathrooms that were clean.” And teachers who didn’t quit midyear.
After that, López’s story is pure Horatio Alger: from Menlo to Duke University, a conversion to Islam, then Rutgers and eventually Oxford, where one expects to find Marshall or Rhodes scholars — he applied for both, won the first — and then back to East Palo Alto for a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford.
Still, something nagged at López. While the neighborhood he had grown up in was vastly changed — Facebook had moved in, along with Amazon, Ikea and luxury hotels — and some of those “inexpensive” houses were now selling in excess of $1 million, it still didn’t feel right.
With the pandemic shutdown in full force, and López shuttling between his parents’ house and Stanford, he started noticing that the dramatic changes were affecting his community differently than the surrounding communities. Something that once noticed could not be unnoticed.
“People were losing their homes, or being forced to move because they couldn’t pay rent because they couldn’t work, or they were getting sick from working,” says López. Then? The boogeyman in communities bordered by multimillion-dollar real estate. “And … gentrification.” For years, Facebook reportedly offered a $10,000 stipend to employees willing to move to East Palo Alto or other areas close to its headquarters.
It was a call to action, and Antonio López, winner of the 2019 Four Way Books Levis Prize in poetry for his debut collection, Gentefication, decided to do something most poets don’t do: run for office (apologies to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Václav Havel). A seat on the city council offered the chance to rescue his community in macro but also in micro so that East Palo Alto teenagers would be able to do what he had done — starting with the message that someone cared about teenagers in East Palo Alto.
“You know how many Marshall scholars we’ve had here?” asks Rigoberto González, director of Rutgers’ creative writing MFA program. “Very few. Like two or three. But Antonio showed up with a background of activism, and he was astute, engaged, outspoken and, most of all, unafraid. Necessary characteristics for being a good politician.”
In the lead-up to the November election, with no prior political experience, López was going door to door not only distributing handbills but also talking to people. It would be great if they voted for him, but it was about being organized and available and signaling that young people were engaged and voting too.
In all of the flickering of the last dithering flames of the Trump administration, the drama was no less intense in this city of fewer than 30,000 people where three city council seats were open and heavily contested.
In the end it took 13 days of counting, and when the dust had cleared, López got the third seat by a razor-thin 68 votes. He calls to share the news with a sigh of relief. “You know, leadership doesn’t have an age, gender or racial component,” he says. When asked about larger political aspirations, he turns deadly earnest: “I’ll go where I can make a difference.”
Which makes us wonder aloud if politics will make him a worse poet in the long run, a musing that makes González laugh. “Well, in Latin America we have a rich tradition, if you think of people like Neruda, where we can do both.” And then: “Besides, the argument of whether poetry can be political is an argument that died years ago. And the civic role for the poet should be nurtured.”