Through family histories, immigrant musings, and grieving, Gustavo Hernandez’s poetry draws a map of Santa Ana. His debut collection, Flower Grand First, gives direction to what it means to be from the Golden City. First Street is the thoroughfare that intersects with both Flower Street and Grand Avenue. More importantly, it’s also off of where his parents made a home and raised a family after immigrating from San Isidrio, a rancho in Jalisco, Mexico.
“That is my Santa Ana,” says Hernandez, a burly-armed, mustachioed bard. “It just felt fitting to have those intersections of the city as the title of my book.”
A young Hernandez arrived to the United States when his mother and father made the trek to el Norte in 1985. He recounts his earliest memory of Orange County in “Noviembre,” when an uncle in Mission Viejo tried to explain Halloween, but Almond Joys made a quicker and tastier impression.
As a Lincoln Elementary student in Santa Ana, Hernandez started playing around with words. “My first paid gig as a poet was in third or fourth grade,” he says, with a chuckle. “Some of my classmates would pay me to write poems for their little girlfriends. They’d pay me with ninja turtle stickers.”
Later on, Hernandez picked up a guitar in high school and turned his expressive focus towards music. Inspired by '90s alternative, he performed shows at Koo’s Café in Santa Ana and other venues around the southland. But the doldrums that followed the Great Recession quieted the scene.
“If I wasn’t writing music, how was I going to express myself?” Hernandez wondered. “I’ve always had that urge to say how I feel.”
Enrolling in a creative writing class at Santiago Canyon College provided the answer. Poetry became his second act. Even as a wordsmith, he still cites Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Kurt Cobain and Fiona Apple among his principle creative influences as well as evidence of the immigrant experience.
“We don’t just materialize here. There’s a whole road that has been traveled by our parents, our ancestors.”
“We’re a mashup,” says Hernandez. “It’s okay to not only accept that, but enjoy it. And to speak out with your own particular vibrant, funny, complex voice.”
And as Hernandez turned to verses, his voice shifted. Gone were the navel gazing love songs in favor of a broader palette of expression.
“When I started writing, I knew that my family had to be front and center,” he says. “Initially, I thought this poetry collection was going to be more of the same, this was going to be about my experiences as an immigrant and as a gay man.”
As Hernandez grew older, he became more appreciative of time spent in his parents’ front yard listening to them recount memories of Mexico.
“They lived in a completely different time,” he says. “Being in Santa Ana always felt like half the story.”
Some of the richest poetry in Flower Grand First comes by way of Jalisco. In “Baudelia” the quiet resilience of his ailing aunt is pronounced when she seeks to hold him as a baby. “Give him to me, Lupe,” Hernandez writes in the voice of Baudelia. “I can hold him. I won’t drop him. I won’t get sick.”
Another poem harking back to Jalisco gives a poignant metaphor for migration, itself. “Think of a stem growing north and a bloom spreading,” Hernandez writes.
“To tell my story, I needed to listen to
what my parents were saying and give it the importance that it deserved,” he says. “We don’t just materialize here. There’s a whole road that has been traveled by our parents, our ancestors.”
As Hernandez began writing poems with a manuscript in mind, his father became an ancestor after passing in 2017. A former bracero, Hernandez’s father supported his son’s poetic endeavors, especially when winning writing contests at Santiago Canyon College. Grand Avenue belongs to his memory as the street he traveled to visit family in Mission Viejo.
In “Marte,” Hernandez and his older sister retrace the skyline with an astronomer’s gaze.
He points to Mars, but is searching for something else, too.
“I tell her the planet has been floating there for weeks,” Hernandez writes, “and I really mean to say, we must try to hold on to everything we can still recognize, even the need to look for our fathers in the sky.”
He remembers his father as a hardworking man, rarely in a bad mood; a saint of Santa Ana.
“This book was a very valuable tool for me in the grieving process,” says Hernandez. “I can’t even tell you how much I cried writing this collection. Sometimes I would write a poem and just sit there for half an hour. But it was good crying, it was liberating.”
Returning back to First Street, the poet strikes another resonate chord in breathing life into the landscape. “I want to keep it a song whose words come from still-glowing signs of the bakeries and the swap malls,” he writes, “of the buildings that once fed us & once clothed us & maybe once let us dance inside them.”
Santa Ana molded Hernandez; he hopes his poems will help reshape the city and its residents. As a junior high student, Hernandez devoured books at the library but never saw himself in any of them. Maybe Flower Grand First will be that book for someone else along the way.
“I hope that it inspires people to tell their own story,” says Hernandez. “This is one family’s story. I hope that it shows my fellow SanTaneros and SanTaneras that your story is important, too.”
Flower Grand First by Gustavo Hernandez, published February 03, 2021, Moon Tide Press, 112 pages. $15 (paperback)
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.