1977, San Francisco. Community Theatre Arts Workshop Flyer by Jane Norling. Latin American Influences in San Francisco Theatre
Believe it or not, in the 1970s public media like KQED-TV was federally mandated to give public access to community groups. Seeing artist Jane Norling’s flyer for my bilingual acting workshops from the 1970’s evoked my memories of Latin American influences in San Francisco theatre local art scene. It was a time of great opportunity for community and minority artists to find training and performing around the Bay Area. KQED, our local public television station, broadcast the performances that our workshops created.
Jane Norling worked for the Neighborhood Arts Program, part of the San Francisco City Arts Commission. The city hired talented artists like Jane Norling and Joe Ramos among others, to help community arts groups reach larger audiences. In those days before the internet, flyers and posters were our major outreach tool. Xerox copying had just become widely available and we could print as many as 100 or 5000 flyers depending on our budgets.
My Latino focus came with me in my role as Artistic Director and Chief Administrator of Community Theater Arts Workshop, a non-profit always scrambling for small grants. The workshop announced in this flyer taught theater techniques popular in the people’s theater movement in Latin America. I had learned them working with two Latin American theatre artists: Cuban Huberto LLamas and Argentine Humberto Martinez, whose works deeply influenced and inspired me. I was eager to use them to mobilize people for change and help awaken to the world around them.
1973, San Francisco, California. Nina Serrano on the phone.
I first learned some of these techniques in Cuba in 1974-75 working with Huberto Llamas in rural theater. We trained peasants and dairy workers to use theater to solve their concrete daily problems by creating and acting in theaters productions for the local community. Working with Llamas among the cows, cowboys, and milkmaids was not so different theatrically from my earlier experience in San Francisco before and after the Summer of Love (1967-1968). I was developing and directing an agitprop truck theatre that roamed the streets performing musical skits for peace during the Viet Nam War from the back of a pickup truck. We had to gather an audience on the sidewalk, get our message out fast, using a sound generator for the music and signs for the dialog and then, take off pronto before the police showed up.
In Cuba, where we did not have to run from the police, I joined Llamas in leading group discussions that included a community social worker to pin point the issues. We used improvisation, movement exercises, and theater games to explore the problems and to build the actor’s craft. Slowly a storyline with themes would emerge and we would create a play. The larger community would support our work building beautiful outdoor stages bedecked with palm fronds and greenery. I was always amazed at their great enthusiasm and skills. The beautiful Caribbean sky was the backdrop.
Nina Serrano and Humberto Martinez, 1979. Screen shot from KQED performance of La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique.
When I returned to San Francisco, I met Argentine political refugee and theater artist Humberto Martinez. He came from Argentina during the years of the dirty war (1976-83) because of his association with the outlawed leftist Monteneros group. He was forced to flee to San Francisco after he had produced the Chilean miner’s strike story “La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” in Argentina performed by a group of workers. We met through my association with a trio of impoverished Argentine refugees. They were avant-garde theater performers who I fed and housed briefly. They introduced me to Humberto while he was recreating La Cantata again here in the Bay Area. This time he was working with a group of local Chicano and Chilean immigrant cannery workers in a church in San Jose. Unlike Llamas who created his scripts from the community to help solve their problems, Martinez worked from the recording of Quilapayún’s “La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” to create the physical movements for the cannery workers performing La Cantata. In my work with Llamas and Martinez, the theatre proved to an effective way to mobilize people for change and help awaken them to the world around them.
Jane Norling’s flyer announced a series of long ago classes that I remember with great satisfaction. In the days before the digital revolution, Latin American theater influences traveled with me in stacks of flyers I carried to post at cafes, laundromats, and other places where the flood of Latin American immigrants gathered as I went through my days. Those cluttered billboards kept me in tune with the local arts scene and helped recruit students and actors to appear on our KQED Open Studio productions by Community Theater Arts. They helped create today’s rich multicultural arts community here in the San Francisco Bay Area that is a lively part of the resistance movement and makes San Francisco a sanctuary city.
Jane Norling’s Balmy Alley Mural depicting the 1980s Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign.
About Nina Serrano: Nina is a well-known, international prize-winning inspirational author and poet. With a focus on Latino history and culture, she is also a playwright, filmmaker, KPFA talk show host, a former Alameda County Arts Commissioner, and a co-founder of the San Francisco Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Oakland Magazine’s “best local poet” in 2010, she is a former director of the San Francisco Poetry in the Schools program and the Bay Area’s Storytellers in the Schools program. A Latina activist for social justice, women’s rights, and the arts, Nina Serrano at 82 remains vitally engaged in inspiring change and exploring her abundant creativity. For more information go to ninaserrano.comor contact her publisher at estuarypress.com. For more detailed information about Nina see About Nina on her website.
About Estuary Press: Estuary Press is the publisher of Nicaragua Way. It is also the home of the Harvey Richards Media Archive, a repository of photography and video documentaries of various social change and political movements during the 1960s and 1970s. Contact Paul Richards (510) 967 5577, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit estuarypress.com for more details.
MEDIA – For photos & interviews: Paul Richards (510) 967 5577; email@example.com
My youthful college experiences in Wisconsin were inspired by the civil rights movement and my friendship with Jim and Anne McWilliams. Then in 1961, I moved to San Francisco where I lept into the post beatnik whirl of the Bay Area’s international multi-lingual immigrant communities among the parents of today’s Dreamers.
Our place, they said, was in the home
My friend Anne and I would never have imagined that a half a century later young immigrants like her brought to the US as babies and children would openly and militantly fight for their right to education in a movement called the “Dreamers.” As women in those years, our fight went on quietly as we struggled to raise our children and pursue our own education. It was hard to get called on in class, or have our voices heard at a meeting, or to endure the whispers that went on behind our backs for breaking the norms. Social conventions, university officials, and even professors didn’t approve of mothers going back to school in those years. Our place, they said, was in the home. We met with a wall of disapproval. It wasn’t until decades later that adult women were welcomed into classrooms as returning students. What a contrast to today’s young women loudly taking their case before Congress demanding their civil and human rights.
As a young bohemian, I felt very alone in the mid western Madison mainstream culture, with its cheerleaders, and mostly white student body peppered with a sprinkling of foreign students. I was so lonely until I met Anne. We joined forces and formed a parent childcare coop with other mothers so we could attend classes.
In 1961, when I settled in the barrio in the Mission District of San Francisco, I reconnected with my Latino roots that I had left behind in New York City where I lived until age 19. Madison, Wisconsin was a culture shock for me after the multi-cultural environment of NYC, Spanish Harlem, Greenwich Village, and my pursuit of professional theater training.
The fight for justice and civil rights burst into the open in San Francisco
The fight for justice and civil rights burst into the open in San Francisco, when, in 1968, a broad coalition of San Francisco State students organized in the Third World Liberation Front and struck for expanding enrollment to include minority students and the creation of Ethnic Studies programs. I jumped from the anti-Vietnam war truck theater I had been directing back into the struggle for civil rights and justice in defense of Los Siete de la Raza, a group of seven Central American youths falsely accused of murdering a San Francisco policeman. I covered the Los Siete trials as a reporter for the San Francisco alternative press, the San Francisco Good Times. I joined the San Francisco poetry scene through readings at Basta Ya, the coffee house run by the Los Siete Defense Committee, as a venue to raise funds and consciousness. There, through my fellow poets, I joined the Latino publishing collective Editorial Pocho Che. Once again, I found myself immersed in a romantic political milieu. This time, the romance went beyond personal romantic love to poetic immersion in the international struggle against the Vietnam war and anti imperialist struggles in Latin America. This is the setting of my novel, Nicaragua Way, inside an international community fighting for justice at home and for liberation in Nicaragua.
These communities of resistance have intergrated themselves into the life of our cities and set the stage for today’s Dreamers. The inspiration I felt as a participant in the resistance movement for Nicaragua in the 1970s gave rise to my novel where I portrayed that world for today’s readers to share and deepen their historical understanding.
Women’s voices were becoming louder
During this period, women’s voices were becoming louder. Around the corner from my San Francisco home, a women’s consciousness raising group met weekly in my dear friend Judith Knoop’s house. A single mother of three, Judith was a leader and spokesperson for welfare mothers demanding their rights. As a result of these meetings, Judith returned to school in the San Francisco State University nursing program, graduating with honors. The women’s liberation movement was making space for women’s voices in everything. As a registered nurse, Judith focused on women’s health care and set up the first San Francisco women’s health center in a store front in the Mission barrio providing services for immigrant women. Later her program was integrated into the San Francisco General Hospital’s women’s health and birthing programs. From efforts like these, women’s health issues were forced into our national consciousness. Judith passed away a few years ago and was honored for her work in a memorial meeting of over 200 people. More women and mothers today are enrolled in schools, including growing numbers of immigrants. These gains for women’s health and education have now come under attack from the Trump administration.
The “Dreamers” are valiantly fighting for their right to an education. Women are among the leadership of this movement. They are called Dreamers after a law that has yet to be passed called “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.” These young students today are threatened with mass deportations and the break up of their families as well as being excluded from our schools and jobs. The Dreamers demand their education and their right to stay in our country as part of their human rights. It is a new phase of the struggle that began in the movement to end segregation. It expands the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for equality and justice for all.
Keep the dream alive
By Faviana Rodriguez
Today, my friendship with Jim, and Anne is still strong. We are now all over 80, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and still are laughing over Jim’s jokes. We try to keep the dream alive by re-enforcing the resistance against the policies and ideology of this current hate-filled administration. Anne works on administrating and singing with a freedom song chorus that performs at protest events. Jim works as an advocate for mental health patients and often recites Dr King’s words and narrates civil rights history. As a poet, author, film maker and radio producer, I continue working to keep the dream alive.
Today, as a woman writer, I look back on my civil rights movement activism and understand its role so many decades later in creating my first novel, Nicaragua Way, a story about a woman in the resistance movement.
As a young woman, I heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on radio during the March on Washington in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. called our constitution “a promissory note . . . a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In those days, we all assumed that “men” meant “human being.” Although literally it did not specifically include women. In the same way that “people” in our constitution really meant white men and usually only property owners. But today with end of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and its threat of massive deportations (see part 2) as well as the “Me too” movement revealing the widespread assaults on women, the word “men” can no longer be assumed to include women. We must revise our language to revise our consciousness. But, back then we activist women accommodated and continued holding up half the sky while working to make that “promissory note” pay up.
Remembering my own path to hearing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic moment takes me back sixty years. It was a sunny spring day in 1958, five years before his speech, when my best friend Anne and I were sitting in the Student Cafeteria as students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We were two mothers of young children enjoying each other’s company in stolen moments from childcare, housework, classes and homework. We were daughters of immigrant families. Anne had arrived as an infant with her family from Russia. I was born here but my father was born in Colombia. In those University years, we were trying to fit in, to find our way as best we could, as young people all do.
I was a pregnant 23 year old mother of a toddler and Anne had two little girls. We were soon joined at our table by a tall handsome man who introduced himself as Jim McWilliams. He was a black activist law student in the civil rights movement who came from Alabama. He was charming, funny and made us laugh. It turned out all three of us supported Martin Luther King, Jr. and his principals of equality. Dr. King’s name and ideas were just emerging on our campus after the news of the Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955 and ’56. We were inspired by the southern Black movement to end legal racial segregation and followed the events in the south closely. Those moments in the student union cafeteria, when Jim and Anne were bitten by the love bug while we were all full of ardor for civil rights burned into my memory and laid the foundation for the stories of women in resistance that I wrote in Nicaragua Way. Love added spark to our friendships and the electric energy of our soon-to-be realized collective efforts.
Dr King’s organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC) organized Black churches to demand civil rights, focusing on desegregation and voting rights. SCLC followed the Gandhian principles of nonviolence that helped gain India its independence back in 1947. In 1955, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a segregated public bus and the Birmingham, Alabama bus boycott began. We were excited by that and discussed it.
Not long after our 1960 conversations, southern Black students staged a non-violent sit-in at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They refused to leave the white-only lunch counter, demanding an end to segregation. We immediately organized sympathetic picket lines at the off-campus local downtown Woolworths. After the Woolworths campaign, the southern Black students organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”.)
Within weeks we led a march of thousands to the State Capital Building in Madison to support the southern civil rights movement. We brought southern activist Black students from the Woolworths campaign to speak at our campus along with prominent SCLC leaders. I will never forget two thousand students singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, in the Madison campus Student Union Theater. Jim soon became the president of a student civil rights organization with a student government budget. We then recruited people to go south to participate in the dangerous 1960 Freedom Bus Rides to integrate inter-state busses.
I left the University for San Francisco with my husband and two children in 1961. Jim and Anne went on to bring major black intellectual figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Malcom X to the campus to lecture and interact with the student body. We stayed connected and I enjoyed Anne’s letters telling how she cooked delicious dinners for these prestigious visitors. Anne and Jim’s relationship deepened. The campus group went on to organize support for the 1964 Mississippi Summer to work on voter registration. Men and women risked their lives to end injustice and expand the rights of all of us to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These early experiences where romance and political activism were intertwined inspired me to recreate them in my novel about other solidarity work later that also helped change the world.
My updated website holds many products of my life’s work in supporting world peace, civil and human rights as both an artist and organizer. Traveling this road led me to encourage the growth of Latino/USA culture and political rights with my artistic and community work, locally and globally.
My poetry, writings, plays, films, and radio programs helped break the blockade of ideas about the Cuban revolution and the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution. I created works in film, radio, theater, art exhibits, and poetry to support the fight against the Chilean coup. For many years, I worked to end violence against women here and internationally. Since 1968 I have been involved in popularizing the poetry of Roque Dalton, El Salvador’s national poet, and my friend and co-author. Also I work towards restorative justice for him and his family. All along this road of struggle for social justice.
Storytelling evolved in me as an outgrowth of work with and for children in creative drama, poetry, theatre, film and radio. The birth of my grandchildren propelled me into this oral performance tradition.
Storytelling: Nina as the Fairy Godmother, with grand daughter Mali, Fairyland, Oakland, 1996
My earliest performances began at street fairs and malls. I adopted a storytelling persona “The Fairy Godmother” to work regularly at Children’s Fairyland (Oakland).
After touring my musical play for children, The Story of the Chicken Made of Rags, for which my brother, Philip Serrano, composed the music, the time came for this popular Serrano Caribbean folk tale to be recorded. My son, 5-time Grammy Award nominee Greg Landau, assembled a group of prominent musicians including singer Holly Near, the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast band Soul Vibrations, John Santos, and Barbara Dane, and produced the CD available through this web site. (Click here to preview and/or buy).
In the 1990’s I served as storytelling director for Stagebridge, a senior theatre company developing storytelling in the schools programs. I taught classes for storytellers, trained teachers and worked in the schools and senior centers.
Signal Mountain, Tennessee classroom: Nina Serrano with brother Phil Serrano on guitar. Photo: Elizabeth Serrano
In the 21st century I began Stagebridge bilingual storytelling programs at senior residences and centers. In 2002 I wrote my Master’s thesis on “The Storytelling Movement And The Need For New Myths” (Naropa University). I wrote the Stagebridge manual PASS IT ON! How to Start Your Own Storytelling Program in the School.
I began writing in 1968 at age 36, when I wrote a video drama with Roque Dalton for Cuban TV. Dalton was an exiled Salvadoran writer living in Havana. My concern for his safety inspired my first poem in 1969, as he prepared to join the Salvadoran revolutionaries to liberate his country from the military dictatorship. At the time of the poem’s publication in an alternative SF newspaper, Express, I could only use his initials in the title and refer to El Salvador as “unknown terrain.”
TO ROQUE DALTON BEFORE LEAVING TO FIGHT IN EL SALVADOR
Mass media I adore you.
With a whisper in the microphone
I touch the mass belly against mine
like on a rush hour bus
but with no sweat and no embarrassment.
“Don’t die,” I whispered, in person.
Only the air and revolutionary slogans hung
“When I die I’ll wear a big smile.”
And with his finger painted a clown’s smile
on his Indian face
“Don’t die!” the whisper beneath the call to battle.
My love of man in conflict
with my love for this man.
Women die too.
They let go their tight grip on breath and sigh,
and sigh to die.
They say that Tania died before Che.
I saw her die in a Hollywood movie.
Her blood floated in the river.
I stand in the street in Havana.
There are puddles here
but few consumer goods to float in them.
Here the blood is stirred by the sacrifice of smiles
to armed struggle.
A phrase and an act.
They leave one day and they are dead.
“Death to the known order. Birth to the unknown.”
Blood. Blood. Blood.
The warmth of it between the thighs
soothes the channel
the baby fights and tears.
I stand by a puddle in Havana
a woman full of blood
not yet spilled.
Can I spill blood by my own volition?
Now it flows from me by a call of the moon;
The moon …
a woman mopping her balcony
spills water from her bucket
on my hair, my breasts
and into the puddle.
The question is answered.
* Roque Dalton: Leading Salvadorian writer, killed in 1975
“Nina Serrano’s poems center on the great adventure of being a woman. From youthful visionary to ultimate wise woman, Nina’s poems and drawings take you through the intricate passages of life’s mysteries. This intimate journey of the mind and heart is a book to cherish. One thinks of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Che Guevara giving it their blessing. This is an adventure book of life itself, a woman’s life transcribed in strong, courageous, heartfelt poems.”
Program of Economic Reactivation for the Benefit of the People, 1980 by the Ministry of Planning
Translated in 1982. Published in 2017 bilingually.
“The 1980 Program was published as a pamphlet in Spanish by the Center of Publications of the National Secretary of Political Propaganda and Education of the FSLN. Ten thousand copies were printed. One of the
copies came home to San Francisco, California, with Nina Serrano after a visit to Nicaragua in 1980. With her future husband, Paul Richards, she put together a team of English language translators and translated it in 1982.”
from Heart Strong, Selected Poems 2000-2012
Advent of the Winter Solstice
Click on cover to buy now. $5.99 ebook, $15.99 Paperback
.My Dear, What shall we do through the longest night
when the moon and the star remain in sight
and dawn hovers in the wings
waiting for its interminable cue?
My Dear, we will be posted at our computers
catching the hem of the skirt
of every passing muse
in the dust of time
in this longest moonshine
brewing an elixir of memory and metaphor
Our fingers will capture it
letter by space bar
Verses sent off by electrical force we don’t understand
Our words bumping into other’s words
flying through cyber space
will create a universe of poetry in cyber clouds
of ever expanding immensity
of ever expanding immensity
becoming finite in the print-out of pages.
Jack Foley, literary critic and KPFA reviewer, said of Heart Strong:
“Nina Serrano’s poems in Heart Strong swirl in different directions. Her words and images tell the tale of a woman existing in the midst history – in an age in which, strangely enough, it seems absolutely necessary to affirm that one can feel love. How in the murderous twentieth/twenty-first century…can love exist at all? Heart Strong tells how it can exist, and flourish, and even – in the midst of horror both personal and historical– heal. A strong heart (a strong heart is the very basis of poetry) can be a weapon.”
Acclaimed poet and poetry editor & educator, Andrena Zawinsky said:
“Nina Serrano’s Heart Strong…moves us through a range of poems where some dream, others ponder life’s mysteries, still others read like indigenous parables; and in some we stare head-on with her and unflinchingly into the face of death. Many of the poems are narrative, others lyrical, sometimes meditative, still other inventive in form. We are often rooted in place as a stage for serious struggle for global social justice; and yet Serrano can delight as she “throws a ring around the moon” or “conjures a chorus of birds…quetzals of glory.” The poet cherishes life’s small moments, elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary, as any real poet must.…”
Nina Serrano describes how the Sandinista movement impacted her protagonist, Lorna Almendros: “Lorna remembers the songs and the portrait of Sandino that her grandfather had showed her and sung to her and told her about. When the Sandinistas came along, it was something very soulful, deep in her emotional life and very attractive and easy to become part of.”
Nicaragua Way tells the story of Lorna Almendros, a San Francisco Nicaraguan-American poet, passionately engaged in supporting revolutionary struggles in Latin America and the Sandinista solidarity movement in the U.S. Nicaragua Way follows Lorna, a single mother, searching for her roots, raising a daughter, falling in love, while facing deaths, griefs, intrigues, and her fears of menopause, empty nest blues, and aging. Through it all, she writes poems.
Set in San Francisco and Managua between 1975 and 1989, the novel portrays a rich cast of characters, including Rini, Lorna’s daughter; Eddie, an organizer and revolutionary guerrilla fighter; Helen, her best friend, and a city politician; and Maria Rosa, a Nicaraguan-exiled immigrant. They move between San Francisco’s activist-arts community and Nicaragua, building support for change in the shadow of the U.S. undeclared wars in Central America.