This website focuses on 7 representative Carmen Tafolla poems, providing video and textual resources to help readers better understand them. For teachers, there are also curricular aids. The goal of this website is to spread awareness of this remarkable poet, as well as of the rich culture and history of San Antonio.

Click an image to see a video captured during one of Carmen Tafolla's public presentations. The "Say Si" performance is broken into three parts and they are best viewed in order.
Click an image to view a short video with comments about Carmen Tafolla.

Community-created Book Trailers

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Rebozos Press Release
Curandera press release
That's not fair press release

Press Releases

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Rebozos Press Release
Curandera press release
Holy Tortilla press release
That's not fair press release
Tamales press release

Poeta de la Gente:
A Few Biographical
Notes on Carmen Tafolla

by Bryce Milligan

Carmen Mary Tafolla was born on July 29, 1951, at Santa Rosa Hospital in downtown San Antonio, Texas. She grew up in a small house at 3535 San Fernando Street, in the westside neighborhood known as Barrio de la Tripa. Her Tafolla grandparents lived not far away at 2014 Buena Vista Street, in the area called Prospect Hill. The Tafolla family had lived in San Antonio since the 1850s, but other family connections relate Carmen to the very beginnings of San Antonio. One of Carmen’s forebears — actually her great-great-great-great-great grandfather — was Domingo Flores de Abrego, a soldier who helped build the original presidio over a decade before the “first” 55 civilian settlers from the Canary Islands arrived in San Antonio on March 9, 1731. It is likely that Domingo Flores de Abrego arrived in 1717-1718, when the Presidio was founded. In 1719, Domingo and his wife, Manuela Treviño, had a child, Pedro Flores de Abrego, one of the very first Spanish-Mexican children to be born in what would soon become San Antonio de Béxar. In May of 1738, Domingo Flores de Abrego — by then retired from the military and described at that time as “one of the earliest settlers of this place” — was granted a house site on the south side of the Plaza de Armas.

The history of the Tafolla family in the Americas goes even further back. The first Tafolla born on this side of the Atlantic was Juan de Tafoya Altamirano (b. 1640). His great grandson, General Phelipe Tafoya was the Alcalde of Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 1770s. Phelipe’s great grandson was Santiago Tafolla Sr., born in 1837, who brought the family name to San Antonio when he moved here in the 1850s. Santiago Sr. was a writer, and his memoir of his life as a scout, Indian fighter, Confederate soldier and Methodist minister, and as a victim of racism, is one of the most important documents of its era. One of Santiago’s sons, Santiago Jr. — Carmen’s great uncle — was an early activist, and was among the founders of the School Improvement League, the Cruz Azul Mexicano, and other Mexican American organizations in the 1920s and ’30s.

Visitors to San Antonio in the nineteenth century routinely praised the city for its charm and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, almost all of whom were mestizos (a blend of Spanish and Mexican Indian), mixed with the indigenous Coahuiltecan Indians as well as Spaniards (mostly isleños from the Canary Islands), and the American, Irish, and German immigrants who began arriving in the 1820s. By 1854, the city was, as New York journalist and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted wrote, a “jumble of races, costumes, and languages.” By the early twentieth century, there were large and thriving black and Chinese communities as well.

Like many other American cities, San Antonio was also in a century-long process of geographically separating races and classes. By the time Carmen Tafolla was growing up in the 1950s, the westside barrios of San Antonio were exclusively Mexican American. Many streets were unpaved, there were no public libraries, schools were under-funded and over-crowded, and drainage and many other city services were poorly maintained or lacking altogether. Mexican Americans were definitely second-class citizens. A long struggle for equality under the law was just beginning in America, and Carmen Tafolla and her poetry would be a part of that struggle.

EDUCATION

Growing up on the westside of San Antonio in the 1950s and ’60s was not easy for a young Chicana, but apparently Carmen’s commitment to community improvement began early. We find a photograph of Carmen on the front page of the San Antonio Light newspaper — at the tender age of four years old — measuring the depth of a pothole with a yardstick! At Ivanhoe elementary school, Carmen recalls that there were “no contests, no library, no opportunities.” In middle school, she took advantage of the few opportunities that were offered, and she won the school spelling bee two years in a row, although the chief skill she learned was probably survival. Rhodes Middle School was reputedly the “roughest school on the westside” and she memorialized it in her poem, “When I Dream Dreams.”

By an odd coincidence, her future husband, Dr. Ernesto M. Bernal, was at that time the young assistant principal of Keystone School, a private school for gifted students on the other side of town. Dr. Bernal was instrumental in getting Keystone to expand its diversity by offering full scholarships to students selected from testing done among the top students at San Antonio’s “disadvantaged schools.” Dr. Bernal went on to become a specialist in educational testing, especially as it related to the Latino population. Carmen Tafolla was one of the recipients of Keystone’s largesse (that scholarship program only lasted a few years). It was difficult, and she was definitely “a fish out of water,” but she excelled, and was awarded scholarships from Texas Lutheran College in Seguin and Austin College in Sherman, Texas, where she earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees. In 1979, Carmen married Ernesto Bernal, some 15 years after they first met. Tafolla received her Ph.D. in Bilingual and Foreign Language Education from the University of Texas in 1982.

WRITING AND CAREER

In 1973, Carmen became the first Chicana faculty member to direct a Chicano Studies Center in the United States, at Texas Lutheran College in Seguin. She was also the head writer for “Sonrisas,” a pioneering bilingual television show for children. By the mid 1970s, the movimiento Chicano was in full flower, and Carmen was publishing poetry in Chicano literary magazines like Caracól. Her first book was published in 1976. Get Your Tortillas Together was a collaboration with two other South Texas poets, Reyes Cardenas and Cecilio García-Camarillo. A photograph of the three poets included in the book was taken by César Martínez, later to become one of the most recognized Chicano painters in the country.

During this time Carmen began to develop her talents for dramatic readings, and she presented her poems at the important Chicano literary gatherings called Floricantos. The Chicano movement in the 1970s was still male dominated, and women had difficulty not only being published, but even being included in readings and programs. M&A Editions, a Texas Chicano/a micro-press run by poet Angela De Hoyos and her husband, Moises Sandoval, helped to break down the gender divide by publishing writers like Inés Hernández, Evangelina Vigíl, Carmen Tafolla, and De Hoyos herself. As Carmen said later, “I wanted to focus on la pachuquita, la viejita, la madre, la curandera, la rebelde, on full, living breathing females.” Carmen’s first full length collection of poetry, Curandera, did just that. It came out in 1983 from M&A Editions.

Curandera filled a cultural and linguistic void. The author applied a poet’s eye and a scholar’s mind to employing the natural Spanish and English code-switching of her westside San Antonio barrio as a literary language, not unlike great poets of the past — Dante and Chaucer, among them — who shaped their own languages through innovative multilingual poetics. Carmen has long been regarded as one of the masters of this type of poetic code-switching and Curandera is considered by scholars to be a core document in this regard. Curandera was re-published in 1987 and 1993 by Lalo Press/Santa Monica College, and a 30th Anniversary Edition was published by Wings Press in 2012, with an introduction by Dr. Norma E. Cantú, along with historical photographs. It is still cherished by many readers. The fact that it was banned in 2012 in Arizona, along with many other fine multicultural books, is a testament to its enduring significance. As a result, the now-famous Librotraficante caravan “smuggled” hundreds of copies of Curandera into Tucson, where it was given away to students and teachers.

The year after Curandera was published, Carmen’s first nonfiction book appeared, To Split a Human: Mitos, Machos, y la Mujer Chicana (San Antonio, Mexican American Cultural Center, 1984), one of the earliest Chicana books to address directly the racism-sexism dynamic.

Many other books followed Curandera and To Split a Human. Books of poetry, collections of short fiction, books for young children and young adults. But poetry has always been at the center of Carmen’s writing. Her Sonnets to Human Beings & Other Selected Works (Lalo Press/ Santa Monica College, 1992; McGraw-Hill, 1995; Wings Press, 2000) included not only the title selection (winner of the University of California at Irvine’s 1989 National Chicano Literature Contest) and other poems and short stories, but also several essays on Tafolla and her work. It is thought to be the first “critical edition” published on any Chicano/a writer. Sonnets and Salsa (Wings Press, 2004) is a widely-praised collection of poetry that is the basis of Tafolla’s one-woman show, “My Heart Speaks a Different Language” (also performed as “Las Voces de mi Gente” and “Las Voces de San Antonio”). Tafolla has developed a new performance derived from her newest collection of poems, Rebozos (Wings Press, 2012).

Tafolla is also the author of several award-winning books for children and young adults, including The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans: A Feast of Short Fiction, That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia (written with Sharyll Teneyuca), Baby Coyote and the Old Woman / El Coyotito y la Viejita, (all published by Wings Press) and Fiesta Babies, What Can You DO With A Rebozo? and What Can You DO With A Paleta? (all published by Tricycle Press). Her children’s and young adult titles have earned her such prestigious awards as the Americas Award, two Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Awards, two International Latino Book awards, and inclusion in the Top Ten Books for Babies list (2010).

The author of Roots, Alex Haley, called Tafolla “a world class writer.” Ana Castillo called her a “pioneer of Chicana literature.” Dr. Tafolla has been featured — along with other important Latino politicians, musicians, educators, filmmakers, writers and artists — in the HBO series, “Habla Texas,” in director Manuel Medrano’s documentary series, “Los del Valle,” and other video documentaries.

Tafolla has held a variety of faculty and administrative posts at universities throughout the Southwest, including Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at California State University at Fresno, and Special Assistant to the President for Cultural Diversity / Visiting Professor of Honors Literature at Northern Arizona University. She has been a freelance educational consultant on bilingual education, writing and creativity, and cultural diversity issues for almost four decades. She even founded and directed a short-lived school for gifted children. Currently she is the Writer-in-Residence for Children’s, Youth & Transformative Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Among the most anthologized of all Latina writers — and thus among the most often taught and studied — Carmen Tafolla has performed her poetry all over the world, and her literary honors are numerous. Perhaps the two honors she values most were both given to her in her hometown of San Antonio. In 1999, St. Mary’s University presented her with its “Art of Peace Award” for writings that contribute to “peace, justice, and human understanding.” In April 2012, Tafolla was honored to be named the first ever poet laureate of San Antonio.

ut wherever she has gone, Carmen has always called San Antonio home, and her poetry and stories have always celebrated the city, its river, its people, its barrios, and its cultura. In the 1990s she returned to San Antonio for good. Today she lives here with her husband, Dr. Ernesto M. Bernal, her daughter, her 95-year-old mother, several pets and, as she says, “two computers, one typewriter, a house full of books, a yard full of hierbitas, many dreams, some remedios, and a molcajete.”

One of her most well-known poems is “This River Here.” Referring to the San Antonio River, she wrote, “This river here / is part of you and me.” The words of Carmen Tafolla have become a part of us all as well.

Note: The major collection of Carmen Tafolla’s papers are held in the Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.

Curriculum Guides based on
Poems by Carmen Tafolla

The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for English Language Arts and Reading (ELAR) specifies that poetry be taught to grades 6 to 12 for two distinct purposes. All 4(A) and 3(A) TEKS address the comprehension of a poetic literary text: “Students understand, make inferences and draw conclusions about the structure and elements of poetry and provide evidence from texts to support their understanding.” All 15(B) and 14(B) TEKS require students to actually write poetry, using specific elements common to most poetry.

This brief guide (PDF) will relate, grade-by-grade, the TEKS to the “Creative Writing Exercises Based on the Poetry of Carmen Tafolla” provided on this website. All seven poems presented on the Tafolla website can be used at every level, with the exception of Poem VII, “La Malinche,” which should be reserved for upper grades.

By using the exercises provided, students can accomplish both the comprehension and the writing goals specified by TEKS. Perhaps more importantly, these are poems that use language and images that students throughout the Southwest can readily identify with. But this is hardly Tafolla’s only audience. Tafolla’s poems have successfully generated a global audience. Her work has been the subject of Ph.D. dissertations from Germany to Spain, Argentina to Canada. Her poems are powerful evocations of what it is to live in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural world.

Creative Writing Prompts based on
Poems by Carmen Tafolla

Click the large PDF icon for all exercises and the small icons for exercises for individual poems.

This River Here

Exercise I.1

Consider these things as you read “This River Here”

Think of a physical element—water, fire, sand, rock... something along those lines—and use it to connect several moments in a person’s life—yours or an imaginary one, if you prefer. You might recreate scenes, where the element appears, as the poet has done in this poem. Or you might do something different. Experiment with using hyperbole to emphasize an idea or image. At the end, do you think you have a poem? What makes it a poem?

—Exercise provided by Sofia Starnes, Poet Laureate of Virginia, author of Fully Into Ashes.

Exercise I.2

A simple but powerful exercise is simply to find a place you really love, as Carmen sings of this river that means so much to her. “This river here,” she says more than once, and “Right here” begins most of the stanzas. The reader feels like he or she is standing beside the poet, being shown something very special. Think of a phrase you like that refers to that place, or invokes it. Repeat and chant your phrase throughout the poem as a thread; include history or personal memory, or imagined memory, or descriptive elements of the place, and see what happens! As you write the poem, listen to see how the repeated phrase comes alive and takes on different meanings.

— Exercise provided by Naomi Shihab Nye, poet, novelist, anthologist

Exercise I.3

“This river here” has many universal elements because, for most people who live close to the land, rivers are important sources and markers. Yet this poem is also about a very specific place, significant to the life of the poet and to her family.

Choose a natural setting where you have felt comfortable in the past, or a place you imag- ine that you would find peaceful–a park, your backyard, even an image only seen in a photograph. If you can only get to this place in your head, try to find an appropriate place to write that will be consistent with the place-based poem you will be writing. The poem does not have to describe the setting, but the feeling you get from that setting. Let your senses drift, and let the setting influence the flow of the writing process.

—Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Exercise I.4

There is an implied metaphor throughout this poem—that time is a river. Tafolla never says this, but the historical moments that she describes all seem to “flow” with the river itself. Identify the various types of history involved in the poem, “This River Here.” Personal history and public history, ethnic, cultural and religious history, linguistic history, are some examples. Notice that there are different levels of diction that help to differentiate these. These are historical “lenses” through which the poet examines a single place. How and why they are important parts of the poem? Think about your own life and write a poem that describes an event using different historical lenses.

— Exercise provided by Dave Oliphant, publisher of Prickly Pear Press,
poet and translator, historian of jazz

Right in One Language

Exercise II.1

“Right in one language” contains an implicit question: “How do you choose the language in which you write a line of poetry?” This poem expresses the poet’s perspective on language, contrasting it to “agents” and “critics” and those who want her to “Think Shaker room” when she writes a “garden growing wild.”

Tafolla also engages here in the code-switching—using English and Spanish, as well as regional TexMex-Spanglish—a technique which throughout Chicana/o literature transforms the our everyday vernacular speech into an effective literary language. Tafolla even code-switches ideas and cultural backgrounds when she calls Chaucer (another code-switching poet) an “old Pachuco playing his TexMex onto the page...”

This poem is aesthetically complex and intellectually exciting; but it also has a message to convey. Map the geography of this poem that takes us through several pages from “glares hairy brows over foreign words” to the “two tongues inside this kiss.” Find yourself in this geography and write a poem from that perspective.

Visually, this poem is “all over the page”—fitting with the topic; however, the lines have a visual rhythm, leaping across the page at intervals like tongues of wildfire creeping out, horizontally across dry grassland. How does the spacing on the page reflect the meaning of the words?

This poem takes a stand on an issue of importance to the poet. What issues are important to you? Choose an issue that is important to you, and phrase it as a question to yourself. Write a poem that answers that question in more than one way. If you know more than one language, experiment by using both. Experiment with creating or enhancing meaning by the appearance of the lines on the page.

— Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Exercise II.2

Background: What it means to be bilingüe/bilingual is a recurring theme in all genres of Chicano/a literature. Living “across borders” and in-between languages is a way of life for all immigrants and their descendants, a condition their present families know—and their ancestors knew—intimately. Bilingualism is the way of life for increasing numbers of Americans. The trauma of losing or retiring one’s mother tongue is an American story, and a global story. The empowerment of saving and deploying one’s native language is also part of that story. Tafolla’s poem, “Right in One Language,” grapples with that story and its implications.

Language is a person’s cultural keystone. Language choice implicates the speaker politically, socially, economically, emotionally, artistically—in almost every aspect of living. Power struggles surround language choice at the street-level, and also in the realm of the imagination. This poem asks, How does it feel to have to choose when, where and with whom to speak one’s language(s)? How must it feel to be forced to favor a second language over your preferred or mother tongue?

Writing that alternates between different languages called “code switching,” a term that be- came more well known with the rise of Chicano/a Literature in the 1960s and 1970s. While “Right in One Language” takes a challenging stance on the bilingualism debate, its overall tone is playful, beginning with the title. Though the poet disagrees with the “gringos” who insist her words should “Match-Match,” she flaunts her “Mix-Mix” without bitterness. She gleefully evokes a father of the English canon, Geoffrey Chaucer, in defense of her polyglot poem. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are written in middle English liberally larded with French, a style that Tafolla subtly suggests Chaucer’s readers were quite used to. This literary allusion to Chaucer helps make her point that to be bilingual is not a problem. To make use of all vocabularies that make up our “hybrid wealth” is not only fun but natural–is, in fact, sensible. The poem (and the reader) can take it. The poem and the reader know that “There is room/here/for two/tongues/inside this/ kiss.”

Discussion Questions and Exercises:

1. A language warm-up suggested by Ben Johnson, a blogger at Edutopia: Engage students in the ancient wisdom of metaphors and sayings, that is, dichos.

“To get students thinking and using the Spanish language, I print a dicho (saying) such as, “En boca cerrada no entra mosca!” (in a closed mouth, flies don’t enter ) on the board and asked them to decipher the Spanish and then the true meaning. Once we get beyond the literal interpretations, then students can derive approximate meanings. Some dichos just stumped them: “En casa del herrero, cuchillo de palo” (in the house of the blacksmith, a wooden knife). The key is not to give the students the answers. Stu- dents begin to see the deeper messages in the dichos and are able to transfer that skill to see deeper messages in Spanish humor and literature.
(Adapted from Edutopia, Ben Johnson’s Blog, post on “Teacher Leadership and teach- ing abstract thinking.” January 13, 2012)

2. Tafolla’s “Right in One Language” is meant to be performed as well as read from the page. Have students listen to or watch the poet recite the poem, without handing out copies yet. After the performance, ask the class to respond to these questions:

3. Pass out copies of the poem: have the class read stanza 7, the Chaucer stanza. Talk about the suggestions the poet makes about her choices re language and Chaucer’s use of languages. Perhaps bring a sample from The Canterbury Tales for the class to read and look at.

4. Write some Spanish lines and “Mix-Mix” lines from the poem on the board. Ask students to offer sample approximate meanings, in the spirit that Ben Johnson describes. The goal is to get students to think abstractly and figuratively.

—Exercise provided by JoAnn Balingit, Poet Laureate of Delaware,
author of Forage.

Marked

Exercise III.1

Wonderful poems and prose poems can be written about what our parents, teachers, and other authority figures tell us not to do and to do. (Remember the famous line, “Do as I say, not as I do”?) “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, is one of my favorite examples: it’s one long paragraph of all the instructions a mother gives a girl in order to ensure that she will grow up decent and good. Cecilia Rodrígues Milanés wrote her own takeoff, based on the Kincaid piece, “Muchacha,” from the point of view of a Latina mother. Another favorite is the opening paragraph of Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir, The Woman Warrior: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.”

What we are told not to do or to say is often a closed door that writers must open in order to get past the censors that keep us from telling our stories.

“Marked,” by Carmen Tafolla is a poem in which the mother tells the daughter both what not to do and what to do. It accomplishes so much in its 22 short lines. I admire its wonderful economy. Note for instance, how it’s only via the “refrain” of m’ija (my daughter) that we know that it is a mother speaking. Her big picture advice (“Make your mark proud/ and open,/ brave...”) is grounded in specific details that bring it home (“like a piece of turquoise/ marked”). Through simple but vivid details the mother covers a lot of ground: outlining the diversity of ways in which the daughter can make her mark in the world: from writing (with ink) to fertility from growing berries or babies, to activism, spilling her blood when necessary.

By making her marks on paper, the poet-daughter has ensured that her mother’s voice will not be lost, erased. In other words, the mother’s advice has been followed.

Students can brainstorm, as a group or individually, on all the do’s and don’t’s they’ve been given. These prescriptions and proscriptions should be as detailed and specific as possible. Think of something your mother or father, your teachers, an older brother or sister or friend has told you not to do, or to do. Think of specific ways in which you might follow this advice, or not. Begin by writing down the advice itself in the voice of the person who gave it to you. See where it takes you, where you might end up.

Sharing this exercise aloud with a class can be hilarious!

— Exercise provided by Julia Alvarez, bestselling novelist,
author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

Exercise III.2

On the surface, “Marked” asks us to pay attention to the tools with which we write, but the poet is also creating metaphors for different attitudes toward life. Does Tafolla’s characterization of those who write with pencils resonate for you? What images arise from the tools for writing names in the last stanza? A person who prefers the ability to erase their words could be tentative–or they could be a perfectionist. What do you think Tafolla means?

Is your writing utensil something you think about when you write? Do you consider where you write—the size and quality of the surface you write upon? Do you consider the envi- ronment in which you write? How does writing by hand differ from writing on a computer? Do these considerations matter differently for you in conjunction with certain kinds of writing? All these factors can contribute to the character of our poetry, and observing how they work for you will make you a more self-aware poet.

The idea of “making a mark” in life is played against the idea of being “marked” through- out the poem. A gang member might “tag” a building, marking territory. Tattoos can be seen as simultaneously making a mark and being marked. What other ideas play against each other in this poem?

Write a journal entry to express your responses to these questions and to this poem that draws our attention to what we write with. Consider what tools you use best to make your mark on life. Turn the journal entry into poetry.

— Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Voyage

Exercise IV.1

Read “Voyage” aloud. Listen for the several repeating aspects of the poem. Think about the sig- nificance of the repeating line, in terms of the content and sense of the poem, and in the formal structure. Tafolla asserts that she is the “fourth ship.” She is using a metaphor to say that she is like a sailing ship in some way, but also that she is an unknown quantity, capable of new and unexpected actions.

Create a single-phrase metaphor for yourself. Carry it around in your mind for several days. Try repeating it in time with your walking. Keep notes of the phrases that come up naturally to go along with it. Gather the phrases that accumulate and write a poem that says who you really are.

— Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Exercise IV.2

“Voyage” has been around for over 30 years, and it is indeed a well-traveled poem, having been republished in nearly a dozen textbooks, and made into a popular poster. Originally includ- ed in Tafolla’s 1983 collection, Curandera, the poem created an enduring metaphor that mingles personal aspirations for a life of unencumbered creativity with a social critique of conformist life- styles and incorporates an implied historical-political commentary on the Spanish invasion of the Americas. On the surface, “Voyage” is one of Tafolla’s simplest poems—a celebration of imagina- tion and personal freedom; in reality, it is one of her more complex and powerful poems.

Examine the poem’s extended metaphor—the repeated assertion that the poet was the “fourth ship” trailing behind Columbus’s famous trio. Obviously she is on a different voyage—she is “lost at sea,” sailing without a map an imagined sea empowered by “moonbreezes.” She is vowed to her voyage, not to any particular discovery, and yet her voyage is all about discovery. The sea she sails is poetry itself, and each poem is a new discovery.

Note that this poem, which celebrates unbounded creativity and imagination, is written in a regular form: three five-line stanzas, each beginning with the same line, each ending with a variation of the same idea. Do you find the “form” of the poem restrictive? Why not?

Note how the metaphor works. She is not simply “like” this imaged fourth ship. She says that she was that fourth ship. As with all true metaphors, this is an impossible statement that must involve the reader’s imagination in order for it to be understood. The poet doubles the power, so to speak, by using a “reverse personification”—not giving a voice to an inanimate object, but by becoming that object.

What are you committed to? Create a metaphor that stands for something to which you are truly committed. Whatever it is that you choose to compare yourself to, make a list of things associated with it. Repeat the metaphor, expand it by using the details from your list. Mean what you write.

— Exercise provided by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press;
author of Lost and Certain of It

The Magic

Exercise V.1

“The Magic” responds to a photograph with a poem that uses a formal structure. Identify the formal aspects of the poem and think about how they work in conjunction with the content. Identify how Tafolla has modified the traditional structure to make it her own. (Tafolla calls this poem an “almost sonnet.”) How does the fact that Tafolla dedicates the poem to the child in a photo resonate with the formal structure of the poem? How is a photograph like death (referred to in the last line)?

Does it matter that you cannot see the particular photograph that Tafolla refers to? Does it matter that she does not give us a source we can track down? Do you think the photograph is imagined or real?

Do you respond differently to various forms of poetry? What do “rules” do for a poem? You can make up the rules that govern a poem. They can be simple or complex. They can specify things like alliteration or rhyme, the number of lines in a stanza, how many syllables are in a line, etc. Try making up your own rules for a poem so that other readers will recognize that it has rules?

Poems inspired by other works of art are called ekphrastic. Write an ekphrastic poem in response to a photograph, a painting or drawing, a musical piece, a dance performance; choose a form—or create your own form—that will help your poem to correspond (in your judgement) to the origin of your inspiration.

— Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Mujeres del Rebozo Rojo

Exercise VI.1

“Mujeres del Rebozo Rojo” could be described as an infinite exclamation, a sunrise anthropomorphized, a brilliant visual image with resonating audible alliteration, rhyme and rhythm—or, it could be a very specific cultural statement about a group of women who wear a particular color of shawl. How would you describe this poem? Does it speak more clearly to women than men? Does it matter if the reader is a bilingual person? Would an artist appreciate this poem better or more fully than a non-artist?

Freewrite a response for ten to fifteen minutes, but focus on one physical thing—an article of clothing, a walking stick, a tool, anything that you associate closely with a particular person. Then, look over what you have written, and analyze the feelings and observations the poem aroused. Choose one aspect of what you have produced and craft your own poem.

— Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Exercise VI.2

“Mujeres del Rebozo Rojo” begins by asking the question “Who are we?” The same ques- tion is asked again in the beginning of the second stanza. At the end of the poem, the same words are reversed to make a statement about “who we really are.” Poets often use this kind of word play to end a poem because it “feels” final in some way. Can you think of another poem that works this way?

Write a poem that asks a specific question, and then answers it, using similar language in both the question and the final answer.

— Exercise provided by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press;
author of Lost and Certain of It

La Malinche

Exercise VII.1

Carmen Tafolla’s poems refer to historical characters in ways not always found in our history books. In “La Malinche” we see how one can interpret certain actions and motivations in different ways so that one person’s hero can be another person’s traitor. We meet a young Indian girl whom some see as a traitor to her people and others see as the mother of a new race; we meet an Emperor whom some see as a doomed and tragic hero and others see as vain, bloodthirsty and foolish. We meet a invading soldier whom some see as a bringer of civilization and others see as vain, bloodthirsty and greedy. Choose one of these persons and imagine meeting him/her today. Then write a dialog you might have with that person. Choose some other controversial historical figure and do the same thing.

— Exercise provided by Margaret Randall, human rights activist and author

Exercise VII.2

Like “Voyage,” Carmen Tafolla’s “La Malinche” rewrites a familiar story from Spain’s encuentro with the Americas from a perspective that is often unheard. Arguably, the most promi- nent woman of that encuentro narrates “La Malinche.” How is this narrator’s identity important to building the poem? What names do others give her? How have the meanings of these names changed since the poem was written (in the late 1970s)? What names does she give herself? Over- all, how do languages (at least three) and naming figure in this poem?

Write a poem that sees history (long ago, not-so-long ago, yesterday) from the margins, from a perspective not likely to be found in a history book or newspaper. Find and use words from languages that represent those perspectives.

— Exercise provided by Kamala Platt, author of On the Line

Click a poem to see a discussion of that poem. To see Carmen Tafolla reading her poetry, please visit The 7 Poems Performed.
Click a poem to see a video reading by Carmen Tafolla. To see scholarly discussions about these poems, please visit The 7 Poems Discussed.
This website focuses on seven Carmen Tafolla poems, providing video and textual resources to help readers better understand them. For teachers, there are also curricular aids. The goal is to spread awareness of this remarkable poet and of the rich culture and history of San Antonio.
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