By Olga Sanchez Saltveit, El Hispanic News
“I was looking for community”, wrote Ana Consuelo Matiella, who produces fotonovelas for bilingual health education around the country. “I had just moved from New Mexico where you don’t have to look so hard for Latino-focused creative support.” Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas added, “I wanted to be part of a movement that can inspire the spark of writers/poets in the Northwest.” A trilingual (Spanish-Mixtec-English) spoken-word poet who works with Oregon State University students, he wanted “to provide the voice of an indigenous writer to the pool of local talents.”
Both Ana Consuelo and Octaviano have found what they were seeking in the company of a dozen writers who call themselves Los Porteños. Although Porteños—which can also be translated loosely as “The Portlanders”—is an affectionate nickname for the people of Buenos Aires, none of the members is from Argentina (yet!). The name is derived from Los Norteños, the Seattle Latino writers group that has been going strong for two decades. When three Norteñas, playwright Joann Farias, poet-dramatist Cindy Williams Gutierrez and writer Olga Sanchez moved to Portland, they found creative opportunities at Milagro (the Northwest’s premier arts and culture organization) but they longed for the literary focus, support and camaraderie of Los Norteños. In 2006, they met Finance Director and novelist Emma Oliver, and agreed it was time to start a new group.
“Writing in English is a little frustrating,” said Emma. “There are words I grew up with in Mexico that just don’t translate.” Emma prefers to keep these untranslatable words and phrases intact in her writing, but then finds it difficult to receive helpful feedback. “When I was in an English-only critique group,” she tells, “I had to explain meanings and translate expressions.” Fellow writer, dance ethnologist and choreographer Catherine Evleshin also wanted to receive informed responses to her work, which includes Latino characters, settings, and issues. “Los Porteños offers its members the opportunity for critique and feedback by a group who understands and feels the Latino experience,” says Ivonne Saed, a fiction writer and graphic designer. Catherine agrees, “I rely on the responses of Los Porteños to validate my ideas and my writing.”
The group began by meeting regularly at Milagro to share their work, receive constructive criticism, and learn more about the professional world of writing. It seems to be working; several of the writers have had their work published and now offer writing workshops for youth and adults. The group has expanded its public presence as well. Every year they produce at least two literary readings including the very popular Día de Muertos reading at Milagro, and more recently the Stafford Birthday Readings, in collaboration with Friends of William Stafford. “The group has become very active in the creative scene in Oregon,” says Merecias-Cuevas. “It has formed new partners and created a vision of change and innovation in what we call creative writing.”
Indeed, it is through collaborations with diverse community partners that Los Porteños is enjoying its most fruitful season yet. In January, the group reprised its NOCHE DE NERUDA program to a standing-room-only crowd at Literary Arts; Ivonne Saed created a stylish logo for the organization to match its new position as a fiscal entity that can now receive grants; and in July, the group collaborated with Congregation Ahavath Achim and the Oregon Jewish Museum to present a dramatic reading of MARRANO JUSTICE, a play that explores Ladino/Sephardic history. This coming September, Los Porteños will produce its most ambitious project to date, WORDS THAT BURN, created by Cindy Williams Gutierrez, a dramatization of the World War II experiences of William Stafford, Lawson Inada, and Guy Gabaldón, in their own words. With support from the Oregon Heritage Society and the Regional Arts & Culture Council, Los Porteños is hiring a professional director, actors, and a videographer to realize this staged reading during Milagro’s Luna Nueva festival.
“I think we are today at an interesting moment: we are engaging in more elaborate productions beyond literary readings,” writes Saed, “and we are partnering with other institutions in a way that positions ourselves as an important link in the Portland cultural chain.” Cindy concurs, “I think our biggest accomplishment is the bridge-building among communities through WORDS THAT BURN and MARRANO JUSTICE.”
What can the future hold for this unique group? Ana Consuelo Matiello envisions, “More writing in Spanish so we can reach out to the monolingual Spanish speaker, so we can honor the beauty of the Spanish language. I would love to see an event to mentor young Latino writers.” Cindy Williams Gutierrez’ vision for the group is “To continue to raise our voices throughout Oregon, build bridges with other communities and to bring major Latino writers to Portland to share with the community and to guide us in our development as writers”.
The success of Los Porteños is a success for the whole community. “As the public presence of Los Porteños grows in the Northwest, so does the awareness of literary contributions in the Spanish-speaking world,” states Evleshin. Merecias-Cuevas adds, “The Porteños are the much-needed voice that explores and represents the life and culture of Latina/os living in Oregon.”
No matter how big the group grows it will continue providing a haven for Latino literary talent. “It is so valuable for me to spend time with Latinos who love to read and write”, says Emma Oliver. “When we get together on Sundays we critique our work and talk about books, everything from Shakespeare to Cervantes, Steinbeck to Fuentes. I can’t think of anywhere else where I can find a combination such as this. Los Porteños understand what I am saying. My stories are in English, but when I use expressions in Spanish such as a lo que te truje Chencha or como panza de burro, Los Porteños all go, yep, we get it. I love saying I’m in a Latino writers group. It gives me a sense of pride and belonging.”
Los Porteños’ upcoming performance, WORDS THAT BURN will be presented for one week only, Thursday through Sunday, September 25-28, at Milagro. For more information visit www.milagro.org or call 503-236-7253. Los Porteños can also be found on Facebook.