SAN ANTONIO – When she first saw Nephtali De Leon’s poetic tribute to the late Dr. Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, a respected Chicano writer, Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson thought, “Oh, no, this isn’t going to be good.”
De Leon’s predecessor as the city’s poet laureate said she saw that De Leon had used two racial slurs, one about whites and the other about African-Americans.
Sanderson said the poem De Leon had posted on his Facebook page caused “a visceral and a gut reaction, and for some people, that may have been triggering.”
After seeing comments, mostly by Latinos, objecting to the term and no African-Americans, Sanderson said, “Let me be the first because I love him.”
Sanderson said she asked that he apologize and that he edit the poem.
Although De Leon tried to explain the origin of the word before it became a slur — and that it is open to interpretation — he responded by saying, “To police our language too closely, is to stifle our spontaneity and to dampen our creativity.”
He also gave what he said was a “blanket apology to anyone that may be offended.”
Still, Sanderson said as the city’s poet laureates, they are “ambassadors of the literary arts.”
“We have to be above reproach with our words. They have power in every context. Our words have power,” she said.
As a result, Sanderson said she agrees with the city’s decision to terminate its three-year contract with De Leon after only four months.
Yet there was reason to celebrate during De Leon’s investiture as poet laureate last April.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said of De Leon, “As a Chicano writer, artist and activist, Mr. De Leon has worked to expand his storyline, our storyline, making it more inclusive and holistic.”
De Leon spoke about terms such as Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, and LatinX.
He said, “Let us embrace each other and love each other and respect each other — whatever we call ourselves.”
Yet, for now, De Leon said he’s not prepared to talk about the reason he is no longer the city’s newest poet laureate.
Sanderson and four other poets laureate of San Antonio sent the following statement to KSAT regarding the controversy:
Words have power. Words have impact and consequence. They can open doors, visualize paths, motivate progress, destroy dreams, build up or tear down relationships. We, as City Poets Laureate of San Antonio and State Poets Laureate of Texas seek to inspire young people to share their ideas, inspire folks to stand in another’s shoes, to celebrate our commonalities as well as our differences–and to document it all. We advocate for the hard work of openness, for the creation of safe spaces where ALL people can explore, without fear, and share their truths in an effort for a more just and loving experience, not just in this city, but on this planet.
We stand with the City of San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture in requiring that every SA City Poet Laureate model the sensitivity and appropriate behavior that opposes all forms of oppression in both word and action. Any language that reflects: racism, sexism, classism, ageism has no place in a Poet Laureate’s written speech or literature while serving in the role. Poets Laureate have a responsibility to use words to empower, inspire, connect, and unify a community.
Each of us has faced some forms of oppression(s), and to that end, the work we do in this post is directly in resistance to those experiences; this defines who we are as poets, as advocates, as educators, as citizens of San Antonio. And it reinforces the city’s clear stance against discrimination. The unfortunate events that have occurred with the most recent poet laureate of San Antonio (named April 10, 2023; terminated August 14, 2023) will not tarnish what we, together with this city and its beautiful community of richly diverse cultures, have built.
Out of respect for the people of this great city, we ask that our focus and our energy turn away from examples of inappropriate language and behavior, and instead place our full spirit, imagination, and effort on positive, inspiring language and action to fill the many urgent needs our world and our community have, and that we do it with love, respect for all individuals, and a commitment to compassion and equity.
Dr. Carmen Tafolla, 1st City Poet Laureate of San Antonio (and State Poet Laureate of Texas 2015)
Ms. Laurie Ann Guerrero, 2nd City Poet Laureate of San Antonio (and State Poet Laureate of Texas 2016)
Ms. Jenny Browne, 3rd City Poet Laureate of San Antonio (and State Poet Laureate of Texas 2017)
Dr. Octavio Quintanilla, 4th City Poet Laureate of San Antonio.
Ms. Andrea Vocab Sanderson, 5th City Poet Laureate of San Antonio