Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo is part of the month-long El Día de los Muertos celebrations held in Petaluma, California, in October-November

History of Poesía del Recuerdo/Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading

In 1997, local poet and Spanish teacher Jabez Churchill invited me to a gathering at his home in Sonoma to celebrate El Día de los Muertos. Jabez’s courtyard was decorated with an altar, luminaria, papel picado, marigolds, and sugar skulls. The evening included a pot-luck dinner, traditional Mexican foods, pan muerto, orchata, and the sharing of songs, stories, and poems in memory of those who had passed from our lives.

I was so moved by this experience, my first Day of the Dead celebration, that I immediately wanted to bring this kind of event to Santa Rosa Junior College, where both Jabez and I taught. The next year, I worked with the Arts & Lectures Committee to bring guest poets, musicians, and members of the college and Petaluma community to the first Poesía del Recuerdo/Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading, held at Mahoney Library at the SRJC Petaluma Campus. For the next six years, SRJC hosted this community event, eventually moving from the auspices of the Arts and Lectures Committee to the Latino student community, with more of an emphasis on traditional dance, music, and altars.

In 2004, Margie Helm and the Petaluma Día de los Muertos Committee offered to bring the event into the community and to help sponsor bilingual poetry writing workshops and the Poesía del Recuerdo/Poetry of Remembrance evening event. This was my first year as Sonoma County Poet Laureate, and one of my PL projects was to create more links between our Spanish speaking and English speaking literary communities. Copperfield’s Books hosted the workshop and reading, and in the years that followed, we had other venues including the Petaluma Public Library, the Petaluma Historical Library, and the Petaluma Art Center. The Art Center’s annual display of Day of the Dead altars and art provided an extraordinary backdrop for the readings. The evening event grew to include a ritual opening, a sit-down pot-luck dinner with homemade tamales, leche flan, Mexican hot chocolate, and favorite foods of those whose memory we were honoring. Every year people from the community came to light candles on our community altar, and to share their poems and remembrances, and a core committee worked to make each year’s event special.

Jabez was always part of each year’s event, leading the opening ritual, saluting the four directions at sunset, and leading us in singing “La Llarona” and other traditional songs as part of our closing. Other featured poets included Beatrice Lagos, Armando Garcia-Dàvila, Joaquin Lopez de San Ramon, Geri Digiorno, Lin Marie de Vincent, Juanita Martin, and Francisco X. Alarcon. Phyllis Meshulam brought young poets from the California Poets in the School Program, and Gloria Deblasio brought her students from SRJC’s Puente Program. We even had two community choirs join us one year.

In 2018, the Poesía del Recuerdo/Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading moved back to its original home on the SRJC Petaluma Campus, organized by John Johnson, and reaching out to include traditions for honoring the dead from many cultures.

This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, we’re unable to celebrate this annual tradition with an in-person gathering and sharing of poems. But John Johnson has created this website where we can share our poems in video and written form. — Terry Ehret

Jabez Churchill leading the opening ritual

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