Courtesy Poetry Foundation
Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcon walked on at the age of 61.

Code Switching’s Loss: Chicano Poet Francisco X. Alarcón Walks On

Steve Russell

I’ve received the compliment of being accused of felony poetry, but my efforts are in my opinion only misdemeanors on my best days. I am reminded of my poetic shortcomings when I’m forced to contemplate the passing of Francisco X. Alarcón in only his 61st year. He walked on as a man who committed too many felonies in verse to count and took the staple of Indian poetry we call code switching to a whole other level.

One of Alarcón’s most serious felonies comes from his indigenous attitude that the lines drawn across America del Norte were put there by men to advantage themselves and not by God(s).


in despair

many deserts

full of hope



their empty

fists of sorrow




a bitter night

of shovels

and nails

When not code-switching interlineations and metaphors, Alarcón will translate and juxtapose, as he did with Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón’s poem from 1629, written in the language of the murdered Aztec Empire, Nahualtocaitl Nictoca in Centeotl (Invocation for Planting Corn):

tla xihualhuian



ye momacpalco




escuchame, Tlateuctli

Madre Tierra


en la palma de tu mano

estoy poniendo

a hermana mayor


Hear me, Tlateuctli

Mother Earth


on your open hand

I am setting down

my elder sister

Francisco Alarcón had birthright citizenship in the U.S., as did his mother, but his family moved back to Mexico when he was a small child. His family claimed he knew he wanted to be a poet when he was 13.

Returning to the U.S. at 17, Alarcón first found work as a migrant laborer and then on a manufacturing line. While supporting himself, he made his way from East L.A. College to Cal State at Long Beach and finally Stanford University.

His first poetry book, Tattoos, was published in 1985. He would publish 20 books in English and Spanish, many for children. He was also fluent in Nahuatl, Portuguese, and French.

In 1992, he won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation, based partially on the Nahuatl/Spanish transcriptions made by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, a priest who watched the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition (1570-1622 in Mexico) inflicted on Mexican Indians.

Francisco Alarcón cut his literary teeth on the outsider’s role. As a student at Stanford, he was thrown into that role as an innocent murder suspect, but he already knew the story for somebody Mexican, somebody gay:

“you’re nothing

you’re shit

your home’s


Here on the U.S. side of the Rio Bravo del Norte, there are many people who have no indigenous blood. That is much less so where the colonists were Spanish or Portuguese, because of the differing settlement patterns. When most people have indigenous blood, they will still hide it when raised in a racial caste system.

Alarcón was far from the only poet identified with the Chicano Movement in the U.S. to embrace the indigenous identity the Spanish worked so hard and so long to destroy, but he was one of few to take the embrace into indigenous languages. He had no patience for inferiority ascribed to brown people even if it was other brown people doing it.

Francisco Alarcón was not the only poet identified with the Chicano Movement in the U.S. to embrace the indigenous identity the Spanish worked so hard and so long to destroy.

He had a message for those abused by the criminal justice system or dehumanized by the imaginary borders drawn across the Americas. The colonists can claim the power to divide families but never the right:


will speak

for you



will flesh

your bones


green again

among ashes

after a long fire


started in

a fantasy island

some time ago




into aliens

All of the unattributed lines in this remembrance come from Alarcón’s poem, To Those Who Have Lost Everything. Francisco X. Alarcón is survived by his partner of over two decades, Javier Pinzón, who he was only allowed to marry during the California legal window for gay marriage in 2008, as well as his mother, two sisters, four brothers, nine nieces and nephews and the many students fortunate enough to have his classes at the Santa Cruz and Davis campuses of the University of California.

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