Luis Omar Salinas
Luis Omar Salinas (1937-2008) was a leading Chicano poet. He has been called
"one of the founding fathers of Chicano poetry in America," whose poems have
been "canonized in U.S. Hispanic literature."
Zyskander Jaimot has penned the following introduction to the work of Luis Omar Salinas:
"I don't say he's a great man ... Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person." (From
"Death of A Salesman" by Arthur Miller, Act 1, part 8, page 40.) Yes,
attention must be paid to Luis Omar Salinas. His credits and awards would take
several pages to print out and can be found on the web, in volumes of his own
poems, and in various interviews, including one I particularly enjoyed and found
edifying, by Christopher Buckley in Quarterly West. His contributions to
poetry and to literature go beyond simplistic characterizations of Senor
Salinas as a Chicano or Latino poet. Among Salinas' poetic works I have enjoyed
and can recall immediately are Greatest Hits (published by Pudding
House), Sometimes Mysteriously (winner of the Salmon Run Poetry
Press national contest), and My Father Is A Simple Man. His rendition of
his persona as "Crazy Gypsy" has never failed to move
me, no matter how many times I return to the beauty of his images. Yes, attention should be paid to Luis Omar Salinas.
Attention paid, to a fine poet.
We thank Karen Harlow for her generous spirit in providing much of the
biography material that follows, and for gently and patiently working with us to
polish it to a shine, befitting its subject:
Luis Omar Salinas is one of the founding fathers of Chicano poetry in America, and a poet of both national and international
repute, as evidenced by his work being studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Bamburg, and a number of United States universities.
At The City University of New York, his poem "My Father Is A Simple Man"
has appeared in courseware with poems by Shakespeare and Sappho.
Salinas was born in Robstown, Texas, and his Tex-Mex bordertown roots are vital
to the man and the poet he was to become. As a teenager he moved with his family
to California. After receiving a high school diploma from Bakersfield High
School, he attended Bakersfield City College, where he earned an Associate of Arts degree in
History. After attending California State University at Los Angeles, where he studied under Henri
Coulette, he transferred to California State University Fresno (then called Fresno State College),
where he studied under Philip Levine, Robert Mezey, and Peter Everwine. As a
student at Fresno State College he published his first book, Crazy Gypsy, which sold 4,000 copies in a few
months and earned him recognition both as a Chicano poet and as one of the leaders of the "Fresno School" of poets, which
included Gary Soto, Ernesto Trejo, Leonard Adame and others, in the early 1970s. He
eventually dropped out of college, taking several odd jobs to support himself while writing, but later in life he returned to
teach poetry at California State University Fresno. In 1987
Salinas was invited to read before the Library of Congress.
Christopher Buckley, the chair of the creative
writing department at the University of California Irvine, and also a poet, has called
Salinas one of the two or three most important Chicano poets
writing today. Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez, Director of the Roberto Hernandez Center for U.S. Latino Studies
at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, lists Crazy Gypsy as one of the
"Historical Landmarks in Chicano Literature." The Julian Samora
Research Institute lists Crazy Gypsy under "A Rich Tradition
Continues." Salinas recently had his biography published in American Writers, A Collection
of Literary Biographies, Supplement XIII, edited by Jay Parini and compiled and written by Christopher
Buckley. American Writers is available in fine libraries across the nation.
Luis Omar Salinas is a poet of note, not just in Chicano literature, not just in American
literature, but in world literature: period,
Luis Omar Salinas, Portrait by Karen J. Harlow
to Karen Jeanne Harlow
As the wind razzles the leaves
On the mulberry, and the morning
peers into my heart, I appear
clean shaven from my house and look
outward like a mariner, listening
to the billeting surf, the blue-
eyed sky . . .
If the wind
were a woman, I'd fall in love
every day, sing and call out
like the surf, the ocean's roar
crashing against the craggy rocks.
I would bring this heart closer
to you with these rustic eyes
of melancholy, waiting for the candle-
end of night to turn into a bright morning
with the sunlight of your hair and the sea,
or with the sweetness of a plum falling
at nightfall onto the summer grass.
What gifts do you desire? A rose, a cloud,
an impetuous lover chasing stars, limping . . .
Sometimes in the evening when love
tunes its harp and the crickets
celebrate life, I am like a troubadour
in search of friends, loved ones,
anyone who will share with me
a bit of conversation. My loneliness
arrives ghostlike and pretentious,
it seeks my soul, it is ravenous
and hurting. I admire my father
who always has advice in these matters,
but a game of chess won't do, or
the frivolity of religion.
I want to find a solution, so I
write letters, poems, and sometimes
I touch solitude on the shoulder
and surrender to a great tranquility.
I understand I need courage
and sometimes, mysteriously,
I feel whole.
I am Omar
the crazy gypsy
I write poems
I talk to shadows
and go away
I meet fearless girls
who tell me
bottled up in their
I am Omar
the crazy gypsy
I write songs
to my dead mother
at fat policemen
and walk on sea weed
in my dreams
I walk away from despair
like a horse walks away
from his master
end up in jail
eating powdered eggs
My spine shakes
to the songs
I am heartless and lonely
and I whistle a tune
out of one of my dreams
where the world
babbles out loud
and Mexican hat check girls
do the Salinas Shuffle
a dance composed
by me on one
of my nightmares
for a bottle
I am Omar
the crazy gypsy
I waltz through avenues
to the song
I am Omar
the Mexican gypsy
I speak of love
whimsical and aloof
naked and cruel
I speak of death
as something inhabiting
awkward and removed
I speak of hate
nibbling my ear
Let's Begin The Day
"The day has just begun, put on your coat."
If I can't be a saint
I'll be a mirror in your room
where you can see yourself.
I'll be a man on the street
selling chrysanthemums to passersby.
Come to me,
for if I can't be saint
the music will start again
and I'll be suffering badly.
Let me touch you
for I feel blind.
Let me cover your face with kisses
for it is necessary to begin the day
with enthusiasm and the bravado
of the bullfighter.
There is nothing wrong,
just the crazy boredom
which follows us into the night
like a sad creature from the sea.
I Salute the Dead
In this drunken town
bitten by the whores
of Texas, I pause with
a beer to salute the dead.
Someone's in my house
— the dead child of Texas
haunts the woodwork
and the child is everywhere
tonight waiting for the dawn,
tomorrow maybe playing
in the mud.
My nephew asks if the black
children he sees on TV
are the poor, and I reply,
"We are the poor."
He cannot understand,
and I know this house
is as poor as this drunken
and I drink my beer and
hiccup into song.
My Father Is a Simple Man
I walk to town with my father
to buy a newspaper. He walks slower
than I do so I must slow up.
The street is filled with children.
We argue about the price
of pomegranates. I convince
him it is the fruit of scholars.
He has taken me on this journey
and it's been lifelong.
He's sure I'll be healthy
so long as I eat more oranges,
and tells me the orange
has seeds and so is perpetual;
and we too will come back
like the orange trees.
I ask him what he thinks
about death and he says
he will gladly face it when
it comes but won't jump
out in front of a car.
I'd gladly give my life
for this man with a sixth
grade education, whose kindness
and patience are true. . .
The truth of it is, he's the scholar,
and when the bitter-hard reality
comes at me like a punishing
evil stranger, I can always
remember that here was a man
who was a worker and provider,
who learned the simple facts
in life and lived by them,
who held no pretense,
And when he leaves without
benefit of fanfare or applause
I shall have learned what little
there is about greatness.
I Go Dreaming Roads in My Youth
I'm not interested in the poverty
of ignorance and its songs,
to be generous to myself is my song;
I will give my shirt to no one
even though I talk too much and
give my words to the ungrateful
they will not find a home in my thoughts.
I put on my hat, stride forward,
act, dream, love; I take a drink
and let fame touch me, yet in the end
I'll place it to rest.
When I raise my arm to the populace
I raise it with sincerity
and pride in my monstrous vitality.
When the world clubs me
I shall fight back, if it loves me
I will love back, if it steps in my
shadow's fortune, I will give thanks
to God and those who surround me.
I have many stories, a haughty dramatist
weaving scenes of optimism, of alegria,
of romance. The world is too tired
and little concerned with pathos or
the consequences of tragedy.
What is important is the eloquence
of a river and a boy pushing a boat
into the water, a white dove gently
from the hands of his mother and
a clumsy serenade dreaming the afternoon.
Today, I like this world, and
if your life is worth nothing, don't sing,
don't come to my door with broken hearts
and complaints. Today, I go dreaming
roads in my youth.
Salinas Is On His Way
Go, friends, quickly to your tasks and wives.
This night I have to discover the clouds—
talk to the galaxies.
My parents are old
and the road is a serpent full of ambitions.
And what remains of me after sleep
is sunlight entering
like a nun into church.
After dreams get through with me
I shall devour books, sing arias,
walk on snow,
have arguments with darkness,
and crawl into the corner of the sea
listening to the tingle of bells.
What remains of me after sleep
may be a corpse.
So send out word:
Salinas is on his way—
quoting verses from the Bible,
making a mad dash through the night,
making sure everything is secure.