News : The poet's poet

Some writers and artists view their work as the exclusive province of an intellectual elite, something that only a select few are qualified to make or understand. Trinidad Sánchez Jr. viewed his poetry as a gift, a humble offering to his friends, neighbors, and aspiring young writers. It was not merely a way of documenting his life and bringing sense to his world, but a way of letting people know how much they meant to him, and of offering the message that they could express themselves, too. In the same way that Pete Seeger was as important for teaching folk music to generations of kids as for his own artistic abilities, Sánchez was as much a mentor and a teacher as a gifted poet.

Sánchez passed away at Methodist Hospital on the afternoon of Sunday, July 30, 12 days after suffering a major and minor stroke. He was 63. His death came after days of encouraging signs that he might overcome insurmountable odds and make at least a partial recovery.

In a July 28 phone message meant to update friends about his condition, Sánchez's wife, Regina Chávez y Sánchez, expressed optimism about her husband's condition. "He's trying to speak, he is totally powerful on his left side, which I can attest to by how he's hurting my hands," she said. She added that Sánchez was able to shake and nod his head, but was frustrated because his attempts to speak could not be understood by others.

The frustration must have been particularly acute for a man whose life centered on his powers of communication. Not merely a writer, Sánchez was a commanding performer of his writings who would tirelessly speak at schools, poetry readings, and backyard events.

"I hired him to perform at my mother's house," says Arturo Almeida, art specialist for UTSA's office of the president. "I bought 40 books from him, invited all my family, and gave books to them. I just wanted my family to see how incredible he was. I've never seen a poet that would bring the audience with him like that."

Sánchez was born in Pontiac, Michigan, the ninth of 10 children to poet Trinidad Sánchez and Sofia Sánchez. Much of his work focused on the childhood anguish of growing up Chicano in 1950s America. His most famous work, "Why Am I So Brown," seemed designed to provide spiritual sustenance for future generations of Chicanos: "Brown is not a color ... it is: a state of being/a very human texture/ alive and full of song, celebrating - dancing to the new world/which is for everyone."

"It's honest and so real," Almeida says of Sánchez's work. "Like he's putting his life experiences in there. I love the title 'Why Am I So Brown.' That says a lot. He always wrote poems for people and it would just come naturally to him. He wrote a poem for my mother, he wrote a poem for me, and he shaped the poem into an 'A.'"

Before his death, Sánchez was working with Almeida and UTSA president Ricardo Romo on a book project focusing on Chicano food poems. Almeida says the book will be published in the near future.

This weekend, two local events will celebrate Sánchez's life and assist his family with medical expenses for the poet, who did not have health insurance. On August 4, Gemini Ink will host a First Friday Reading co-sponsored by the Society of Latino and Hispanic Writers. On Sunday, August 6, Ruta Maya Riverwalk Coffeehouse celebrates his memory with readings and stories from friends and admirers. Bihl Haus is planning an event in mid-August, and Gemini Ink has created a web page specifically for events honoring the poet:

"He involved everybody," Almeida says. "You'd see him everywhere at poetry venues. He would always say, 'You should get this guy. He's real, real good. He's young and energetic.' He always promoted young students and encouraged the youth to go out there and do their poetry. I really admired this man."