Spanglish Spoken Here: Josiah Luis Alderete and “the great American language”

“I love listening to the kids on Muni after school and hearing Spanglish being spoken,” said poet Josiah Luis Alderete.

“I love listening to the kids on Muni after school and hearing Spanglish being spoken,” said poet Josiah Luis Alderete. “It’s the great American language.”

Evicted from the Valencia Street corridor during the first wave of the dot boom, Alderete’s return to the neighborhood comes in the face of massive devastation to the Latino communities, its literary traditions and ways of living. And yet, as a spoken word performer; a curator for the upcoming Flor y Canto Festival and the monthly reading series, Speaking Axolotl, and now as an event producer, Alderete is driven to keep Spanish, and Spanglish, alive in the Mission District.

“We did a reading at Laney College at the Latinx program and I did my Mission poems,” he said. “A student commented, ‘I went to the Mission yesterday and didn’t hear Spanish being spoken for a half hour or 40 minutes.’ Despite that, our legacy as writers and poets is still here.”

Alderete has been gone from the local poetry scene for nearly 20 years; while he was away, he owned and operated a taco shop in the very white western Marin. With plenty of opportunity to hear Spanish used and abused, he continued to develop his own work, including pieces like Symbol For Mi Culture which takes on stereotypes and flips them on their cabeza. Other poems, like Galería de la Raza Blues, came through more recently, as when the Galería, the epicenter for Latinx/Chicanx art here, lost its spot after nearly five decades (it’s is in the process of relocating).

“So many of us are citizens of the Mission even though we’ve been pushed out,” said Alderete.

“I’m here more than when I lived here,” or as one of his poems puts it, he’s Holding Space Inside a Colonized Space.

In the ‘60s, Alderete’s mother met his father at La Sinaloa the North Beach supper club where his tía Lucha sang professionally as La Norteñita. These days Alderete’s day job as a bookseller at City Lights situates him just a block away from where his San Francisco life began. It is no coincidence that we met at Caffe Trieste, North Beach’s original espresso house and living room of poets through the ages, to discuss the Mission District of another era.

“I remember thinking in it can’t get any worse. But it has,” said Alderete of his Valencia Street, redolent with places like La Rondalla, the Mexican restaurant where it was Christmas every day of the year.

“It had he last pay phone that took callbacks in the Mission,” he said.

Across the street, Modern Times Bookstore Collective, where he first heard Dagoberto Gilb read.

“It was a story about a Latino gardener losing his Pendleton shirt,” he said. “Aside from never looking at my Pendletons the same way again, I was like holy shit, there we are.”

Inspired him to write about his own life as an American born son of a Mexican immigrant mother, he joined the politically motivated troupe of poets, Molotov Mouths, and started to read at Modern Times and other spots throughout The City.

“I walk by there now and there’s no trace of these places. Sometimes it’s hard to trust my own memoria. Was this all really here?” he asked out loud. Though there is one a stretch of the “old” Mission that remains alive with spirit for him.

“You know how you go in the hiking in the woods and there are certain magic spots, bubbling brooks and springs? Sixteenth between Mission and South Van Ness is one of those magic spots in The City,” he said. “Even though everything around us has changed, I go there and get my empanada and sit and look at the Victoria Theatre. That view is still the same.”

The Victoria has held down the corner of 16th and Capp since 1908. San Francisco’s oldest theater has been owned by Robert Correa since 1978, hosting productions, concerts and events by entertainers from Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Bill Irwin to the Sun Ra Arkestra. Its Dolby sound system has made it a choice spot for our renowned film festivals and drag revues.

Alderete met Correa at a recent event there, a benefit for families separated at the border.

“He seemed very dynamic and energetic and I thought we could put something together,” said Correa.

Alderete, with his cohort of poets and performers from the Latino Cultural District and the Mission diaspora are putting on a show, Esta Noche en la Mission, to call its sons and daughters home.

“I describe it as Siempre en Domingo meets Tourettes Without Regrets at a huelga,” he said of the live musical variety show featuring spoken word, drag performance and a point of view. Borrowing the name Esta Noche from the 16th Street bar that closed in 2014, the evening’s concept is best tied up by one of Alderete’s own titles: Holding Space Inside a Colonized Space.

“Creating our own space, our own venue, sure that’s part of it. It’s a funny thing, it does make people uncomfortable,” he said of his use of Spanglish in performance.

“People will come up to me after a reading, and ease in with the compliments before they say, ‘I really wish I could’ve understood you more.’ That’s really not what it’s about I tell them. You did understand it. I saw your face when I was reading.”

That the Victoria is a Latino-owned business makes the event that much more simpatico for Alderete’s purposes.

“Specifically with the Mission turning what it’s turning into, people are looking at Latinx culture as a commodity,” Alderete explained. “Doing the show, we’re tapping that vein and saying, “Aqui estamos. We’re still here.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan

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