The words of Martin Luther King Jr. are inscribed in floor-to-ceiling glass in the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” This room is treated with the kind of reverence usually reserved for a chapel. It’s a reverence you can see in the faces and bodies of the people who pass through on this Monday morning, when Leslie Garcia and I sit knee to knee at the round table in the center of the room, an homage to the lunch counter.
It was her idea to come here. From time to time throughout our conversation, she returns to the presence of the room—the leaders it honors, the hope that it represents.
“Diane Nash, John Lewis,” Garcia says during one of these moments. “They were young people and people my age. Their voices led these movements.”
Considering the words of MLK, the key to hope seems to be figuring out where to look. If you want to feel good about the state of the world, look to the next generation—they are incredible. Garcia is a twenty-year-old Salvadoran-American spoken word and page poet, a college senior studying English and Law, Justice, and Society at Lipscomb University, a mentor for Southern Word, a counselor at the Vanderbilt Summer Academy, and a volunteer English teacher at the women’s prison. At the time of this interview, she had recently performed at the Lit Party hosted by NATIVE and Third Man Books, where she floored the crowd with accessible, pointed verse.
When Garcia performs, her voice is round and deep, a crackle in her throat, burning at the edges. When she speaks now, sitting in this quietly holy room, her voice is hushed, a bit songlike. She’s quick to laugh and cry, even quicker to assume the accent of her mother and grandmother. I wish you could hear her voice, how it lifts up with something like pride, maybe even a little haughtiness, when taking on the spirit of these women.
To tell the story of Garcia’s coming to poetry is to tell the stories of these women as well as the rest of her family. Those who have seen Garcia perform have heard about her mother’s entry into America in the back of a pickup truck and have heard Garcia speak in the plural “we,” as a representative of undocumented, displaced, or home-searching Salvadorans. From her performance at TEDxNashville, for example: “We’re aliens to the aliens. We’re wetbacks after crossing rivers, yet your reflection shows your ancestors crossed oceans of history.”
Garcia is the daughter of two immigrants who both fled to New York City to escape El Salvador’s civil war. Her mother was one of eleven children, and after the murder of Garcia’s grandfather, her grandmother began sending the children to the States. Who killed him? I ask.
“Whenever I hear the history of El Salvador, it’s always a ‘they.’ The ‘they’ is not identified,” Garcia says. “The monsters were the people you walked by in the village every day, but the police wouldn’t do anything about it. It was better to say ‘they’ than [to say] a family friend killed your father. Where there’s poverty, there’s violence.”
Some of Garcia’s mother’s siblings arrived as refugees, but at fourteen years old, her mother slipped across the border and was able to receive protection as a refugee some years later. Ten years after her children made it to the United States, Garcia’s grandmother was able to join them.
As a teenager, Garcia’s father was kidnapped by guerrilla warriors and held for ransom; after his release, his mother sent him to the States for his own safety. Garcia’s mother and father met in their twenties, and after their later separation, Garcia was raised by her mother and grandmother.
“Praise God, it was thirty years later, but they’re citizens now,” Garcia says, though she explains that many in her family are still undocumented. “They have made a home out of this country, and they love this country so much, but this country has not always loved them back . . . There’s a phrase I’ve heard [regarding] immigrants, I don’t know what the correct phrasing is, but: You’re so grateful for what you have that you forget you deserve better.” She pauses, then proceeds very slowly: “I want my people to feel better in this place . . . Home is, You want a tortilla? Home is, Can I listen to what you have to say?”
From the time Garcia was five years old until she was fourteen, she, her mother, grandmother, and younger brother lived in Kansas. There, her mother worked in a meatpacking plant, and Garcia’s days were filled with telenovelas and the stories shared by her grandmother.
“Because of the history that my family has experienced, I have uncles who can only sign their name. That’s all they know how to write,” Garcia says. “I think my story begins with [my family] and begins with the fact that my grandmother carries these stories that she shares with us orally, but may never be able to write or leave proof of. My mom does the same. As their [child], it’s my gift and my honor to document those stories, and that’s what poetry is for me.”
Garcia claims a family of two hundred people, some in New York and California, but a small subdivision in Gallatin, Tennessee, has become their “Little El Salvador.” “We kind of migrate together,” Garcia says with a laugh, describing how her family bought eight houses in the neighborhood. “My grandma hops houses!” she says. “When she gets tired of one house, she goes to the house of [another], and she does that eight times and then she comes back.”
The family moved to Gallatin after her mother lost her job at the meatpacking plant. It was also around this time that Garcia’s long and difficult history with depression and self-harm culminated in her dismissal from school. She describes struggling with depression since age nine; at fourteen, after therapy, antidepressants, and antipsychotics had made no difference, she attempted suicide after her first day of school. During that year, as she was in and out of hospitals and therapeutic programs, the act of writing became a balm. And when Southern Word hosted a workshop at her high school in Tennessee, she was hooked.
“After a lifetime of seeing the people I love go unheard and feeling like I couldn’t articulate the traumas that I had experienced—even to the people I loved, so I internalized them—that was the first time I felt, Wow, I’m heard,” she says. After competing in Southern Word’s open mic, Garcia was approached by executive director Benjamin Smith with an offer to become a mentor, which she has been for nearly four years. She says the role has allowed her to have grace for herself. “I see the way that [kids] continue growing . . . It’s reminded me of the importance of young people having a voice.”
That’s a key word here: grace. Along with the stories of her family, Garcia’s poems are filled with her faith. And much like writing, this faith has been an ongoing practice. At fourteen, Garcia believed that the refuge found in God could heal her of depression. But this year, she says, has been one of the worst in terms of depression. “[The question became,] is my faith not enough? . . . Grace is realizing that sometimes my faith isn’t going to be enough, and my words aren’t going to be enough, and sometimes, I’m not going to be the best mentor. But the children are going to mentor me by reminding me that that’s okay, and I have something to say, and they have something to say. Even if nobody else listens to it, we’re listening to each other, and that’s what’s needed right now.”
The death of a family member, heartbreak, some natural disaster—it’s grace that gets you through. But what about when it’s the most unfair, when it’s a person who knows exactly what they’re doing, who understands the way their actions and words have the power to diminish you? Garcia’s best friends are DACA recipients, and she, like so many Latinos and descendants of Spanish-speaking families, felt the full weight of the president’s “bad hombre” speech and his recent comments comparing immigrants to animals. How do you begin to have grace in these moments?
“I try to pray every night, ‘Lord, allow me the eyes to see your people the way that you see them,’” Garcia says. “If someone is judgmental or doesn’t love me, I know God loves them, and I’m called to love them.”
Is this naïveté? Or is this what hope sounds like? Perhaps the answer lies in Garcia’s poems, in their mix of the personal and the collective. If you look closely, there is plenty of Garcia, the young woman, in her work. But the prevalence of “my people” and this commitment to seeing others through the lens of love imbue her poetry with a sense of unity that demands personal investment by the reader or listener. In her poem “How to Forget Your Roots,” Garcia writes, “Listen to the voice that whispers: / Better them than me / Better their than mine / . . . Play pretend justice / Tell death to wait on a visa / Place the American Dream in a lock box and swallow the key.”
The listener or reader’s response to Garcia’s poems—that’s something they’ll reckon with in their own time. Right now, all Garcia is in charge of is her own power and how she continues to enter into this conversation.
“When I was younger, I would’ve said [I’m giving] voice to the voiceless,” Garcia says. “Now that I’m older . . . I would love to create platforms for people to use their voices for themselves. On behalf of, and always with permission of, those that I love and those that I care for, I love and would love to produce work that highlights the voice of us, the voice of my people . . . I want these images in my head and these moments that I experienced or that my family members have experienced to be heard and to be remembered.”
To learn more about Leslie Garcia and other Nashville poets, visit southernword.org.