Rutgers University–Newark prides itself on being not just in, but of, Newark. The university is deeply embedded in the lives, culture, and infrastructure of the local community, and vice versa. City and university are perpetually intertwined. They need each other.
In much the same way, Antonio de Jesús Lopez GSN’18 is “in and of” his hometown of East Palo Alto, California.
A first-generation college student, Lopez now holds degrees from Duke University, Rutgers–Newark (where he earned his master of fine arts in creative writing), and the University of Oxford. He is pursuing a doctorate in modern thought and literature at Stanford University. But throughout his academic pursuits—which began on what he calls “the proverbial other side of the tracks” and led him cross-country and “across the pond”—Lopez has remained deeply connected to his roots. So connected, in fact, that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to run for office in his hometown.
Now the newest and youngest councilmember for the City of East Palo Alto, where he concentrates on fighting gentrification, Lopez balances burgeoning careers as both a politician and a poet. His written work has appeared or is forthcoming in PEN America, The New Republic, Tin House, Palette Poetry, and more. And his debut poetry collection, Gentefication (Four Way Books, 2021), won the 2019 Levis Prize in Poetry.
Here, Lopez talks about the intersectionality of art and activism—and how these twin passions are helping him highlight the mythology of the people who share his zip code.
As you’ve embarked on your role as a councilmember, what have you learned about the intersections between creativity, art, and politics?
I would say that art is one way to imagining what’s unimaginable. So much of what the moment demands is precisely that. The status quo is impossible. To me, if there’s anything that we get out of COVID that is not abysmal and that is actually helpful, it’s that lesson of: we have to pivot, we have to adapt.
Whether it’s sea-level rise, gentrification, wealth inequality, the delta variant—all these things will, frankly, tidal wave us out if we don’t respond to them. We have to adapt, and I think what art can do is allow us to imagine that future without us being scared or without us being overprotective, and allow us to embrace it and beautify it and make it look familiar.
Art is the first step that allows us to move better—more lovingly, more humanely—and to imagine dignity for those who aren’t assigned it through structures of power. Art is indispensable, in my opinion, to political activism and political change.
Did the link between art and activism inspire you to become a writer?
My parents are immigrants. They came to this country in the ’80s. My dad’s a dishwasher and a server; my mom has worked at a paint department for 20-some years. They work hard. Education, for my community, was the vehicle of mobility, the vehicle of empowerment, the vehicle for all of us to get out of poverty and subsistence living week after week. Living in a place like the Silicon Valley, with so many disparities in wealth and resources, it was really important that I got an education.
If I hadn’t had the upbringing that I had, I probably wouldn’t have become a writer, because I probably wouldn’t have needed to tell my story or tell my community’s story. So much of what I do today emanates not from ambition per se, but from [the fact that] there’s a gap in the narrative, a gap in the broader society about who immigrants are, who Latinos are, who working-class people are. The flip side of that is there’s so many beautiful experiences about what it means to be a first-gen kid or a Latino kid or a kid from the Bay Area. It was important for me to capture those and to tell our story.
It was such an affirmation to go to Rutgers–Newark, because it was for me, at a young age, owning the fact that I want to be a writer and I want to do this work, regardless of where it takes me. How much money it makes—it’s not about that. It’s about, I’m going to commit my life in part to a career in letters, because it’s my way of broadening our community’s sense of imagination and self and humanizing the stories of people and communities that too often get caricatured and belittled.
Now, in a career in politics, it’s the same thing. There’s something I see on the street, in the community, and it’s not being told. I’m uniquely positioned—because of the experiences I’ve had, because of the career I have in writing—to really do justice to what’s going on in ways that I think people don’t hear about through privilege, through ignorance, through both. What is the weight of my degrees if they don’t translate into something like this?
You’ve recently published a book of poetry, Gentefication. What inspired this collection?
Gentefication is taking the echo of gentrification—this political-economic force of displacement—and engaging with the term. First of all, theoretically, to reimagine what this term can mean: not just a negative displacement but a reimagining of community.
But also it’s a very personal and individual book. It’s also the journey of me, the speaker, going through different worlds—traversing different classes, different income brackets, different universities—and also the effect on one’s self psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, politically.
Gentefication means “people-fy,” so you’re people-fying a canon, you’re people-fying a neighborhood, but also yourself. Again, the word is hollowed out from “gentrification.” So it’s always a reminder of the wound. But it’s trying to make beautiful that process in yourself as well. Part of gentrification is beautification, right? Beautification of a neighborhood. And I think “gentefication” is the same thing. It’s a beautification of populations that I know and love.
What was the creative process like for you as you drafted this collection?
The poems came piece by piece. It wasn’t really this holistic vision that I had until late in the game. One of the earliest poems is called “Gentefication.” It was this poem that talked about going back and seeing how the community has changed—so it had this sense of lament.
I started to bite-size this idea into individual episodes. I also started to involve my father and his migration journey and my own personal spiritual journey. Also, me just growing up and maturing and not looking at the topic [of gentrification] in this one-dimensional way.
One of the pieces of feedback that was so helpful and restorative for me at Rutgers is something along the lines of, “You spend so much time talking about other people; when are you going to talk about yourself?” Not just being this soapbox in your poems, but peeling the layers. Poetry’s so good at that: showing us the marvel and mystery beneath these ostensibly structural moments.
You write a lot about navigating different worlds. How does this practice show up in your daily life?
That is why I’m able to be a councilmember, because I’m gonna talk to the neighborhood people, but then I’ll also go across the tracks to Palo Alto and have dinner with this funder from so-and-so organization—the diplomacy that the university taught me how to do.
In my position, you just have to negotiate and compromise. Being an actor of the state mandates it on a local level. Whether it’s police department contracts, whether it’s development—these projects that are being proposed for the community, we can’t think about them in binary terms. This is a city in 2021 in the middle of a pandemic that historically has not had money or coffers to its name, that is desperately trying to get more revenue. So you tell me how we go about getting those funds. I think that is a longer conversation.
It’s been very sobering and fruitful to be in the position I am, because it’s really teaching me the terms that I used to think about as a kid are really more complicated than I used to think. The best you can do is understand the ramifications of what you do, and do enough good so you can sleep at night. And do it again tomorrow, and try again, and push the boulder.
In the midst of all your political efforts, how do you cultivate creativity? Or do you find that you even need to cultivate creativity? Does it just naturally arise out of your civic engagement?
My girlfriend jokes around: “You need poetry like people need water, like a flower needs water.” And I think that’s true. There’s a certain point when I start going a little crazy if I don’t read something that feeds me in that way. I see it or I hear it. It may not be a poem; it may be something I’ve heard.
Mexican culture has these beautiful aphorisms and metaphors and analogies and songs, so just from my own immediate background, I really try to listen to what’s happening. I want to be an observer. It helps me listen to people and makes people know I’m hearing them out as they give their grievances. So I’m able to pick up on people’s idiosyncrasies.
It’s not the big stuff that makes people; it’s the little mini things: the way they button their shirt, the way they use their hands, the little pick-up in their throat when they speak. Those things kind of compel me. A line comes at me. To me, that’s writing: You find a thread, and it’s just dangling there, and then you start suddenly seeing the piece unravel.
It’s like the poetics of my life. Why’d I run for office? Because of COVID. I didn’t map out being a politician, but I am one because there was this impulse that happened in my life that said, “Run this way.” On the page, the poetics is: There is this intangible urge I have that I’m wrestling with.
What creative projects are you working on?
For this YA [young adult] novel that I’m working on, I’m trying to honor the kids I grew up with. There’s this void that I’m trying to fill, of the beauty of who they are and were at that time and valuing retroactively how awesome it was to be in that place.
I re-read The Odyssey last year, and I’m re-reading The Iliad because I’m obsessed with myth-making and the idea of mythmaking, which is: We all know that it’s not true in a very limited sense. But that never stops us from having whole seminars and symposiums about it, because it tells us something timeless about the human condition.
My thesis of life right now is, “Are we not too the stuff of myth?” The kids I grew up with, the communities I grew up with—I want to import those people into that sense of myth. I want people to think of us as grand, to think of us as these giants, these marvels, these superpowers. I have an impulse to do that precisely because the people I grew up with are often seen as little; they’re seen as nothing; they’re seen as, “Why are we even talking about it?” It’s those kinds of psychological things that writing helps you figure out.
Hear more from Lopez during the previously recorded Author Talks series, part of Rutgers–Newark’s ongoing 75th anniversary celebrations.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.