Poet for the People Watsonville's first poet laureate wants to spread spoken word art to community


By Olga Rosales Salinas
Twitter @olgitarosales

How do townships assign a poet laureate? It happens when one person asks the right question. For Victoria M. Bañales, the question was, Why doesn’t Watsonville have a poet laureate? She approached then-mayor Rebecca García, who pointed her to the board of the Watsonville Library. 

It just so happened that Bañales was already a sitting member of the library’s board. “I wanted to create equitable opportunities for folx in our Latinx community that has so much creative talent,” she said. “The first thing I did was approach the board and library director Alicia Martínez. The entire board supported (naming a poet laureate) unanimously, after which Alicia and I developed an application process and formed a selection committee and the rest is history!” 

The next goal? 

“Youth Poet Laureate,” Bañales said. 

After an application process, the committee selected Bob Gómez to serve as Watsonville’s first poet laureate for a two-year term. I interviewed Gómez to discuss his background and future plans for his tenure. 

Gómez marched in Washington D.C. at age 8 with his parents. He hung out in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district in the 1960s and joined the United Farm Workers union and Cesar Chavez for the Delano marches between 1973 and 1974. With this rich history of activism, it is no wonder he continually finds ways to serve the Watsonville community. We talked about the influence of his parents, his 26-year teaching career for Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the power of the spoken word and stage performance.

At one point in this interview, which took place via Zoom, he took his guitar and began to sing an original parody based on Mexican folk hero Pablo del Monte. He sang as if he were in a room full of people — and to me, that felt like poetry. We discussed his plans for the literary arts as he begins his two-years stint. 

Gómez describes himself as a Chicano songwriter, singer, sometimes recording artist, sometimes translator, father of two 30-somethings, grandson of immigrants, retired migrant and bilingual resource teacher, satirist, amateur carpenter, daily gardener, mystic, advocate for bilingualism, anti-racist, anti-homophobe, Japanophile, member of JACL and NAACP, native San Franciscan, SFSU Gator, Harvard M.A., volunteer docent at the Castro Adobe, and husband of 42 years to his  bride Denise. 

(Shameless plug: Gómez will be performing at a fundraiser for my scholarships program, the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship Workshop and Poetry Reading on March 26th at the Pajaro Valley Arts Gallery.)

The following interview has been lightly edited:

Olga Rosales Salinas: First, let me say congratulations on becoming Watsonville’s first poet laureate. Can you start by telling us about your family? 

Bob Gomez: My father was a migrant worker in San Bernardino and was not a man of strong opinions. My mother was the one with strong opinions. She was from the Arizona area and an ex-Mormon. Together they were very liberal and active in several political movements. I was able to shake Robert F. Kennedy’s hand as a kid because of my parents’ political views. It was their influence that encouraged me to continue being in service. 

ORS: Do you feel your work as an activist is closely related to your writing? Do you think that poetry is political? Or that it should be?

BG: Poetry doesn’t have to be political — I am equally steeped into the objectivist movement. The poetry of the Romantics — William Blake, Dickenson, Thoreau, and mystic writers — have always inspired me. Poetry speaks to my apolitical and universalist side. I am a chameleon. There are so many different interests and ways to engage creatively that poetry can be an avenue with many sides. I also perform parodies at parties. 

ORS: You’ve mastered the Spanish language as a career. When did you know that it was an important language for you?

BG: I knew I cared about Spanish in the San Francisco elementary school I attended. I was in third grade and took Spanish as a second language. I loved it for 45 minutes a day. I watched all of the videos and filled all of the workbooks. In fourth grade, the class changed to an hour of teaching French. Parents advocated for me to continue studying Spanish. I was the only kid in the class working in the Spanish workbook. All through junior high, high school, college,  and even in graduate school at Harvard. It was there that I studied (Don Quixote) in the original Spanish. 

Also, in 1976 I traveled to Mexico City, for my junior year abroad. When I returned, I was fascinated by expressing myself in Spanish when speaking with my paternal grandparents.

ORS: You raised two children here in Watsonville. Did they write, learn Spanish, or take an interest in literature

BG: Yes, I raised both of my children, now in their 30s, with the availability to become bilingual kids. They were surrounded by neighbors and colleagues who spoke Spanish. They are both interested in literature.

ORS: What was it like teaching in the same place for over 25 years?

BG: I taught at Radcliff and Watsonville High school and supervised the after-school bilingual programs. My wife Denise was also a teacher alongside me. She also taught for 26 years in this community. Watsonville and PVUSD feel like part of my family. I feel lucky to have raised my children here. 

ORS: We chatted briefly by email, where you mentioned loving music, singing, and performance. Has music always been closely tied to prose for you?

BG: Music moves us in a way that no other form can. For me, prose and poetry are part of music — they are closely related. 

(Note: At this point during the interview, Gomez pulled out his guitar and began his performance. The lyrics to the song, Pablo del monte, follow the Q&A, both for the original song and Gómez’s parody.)

ORS: Thank you so much for singing! 

BG: Any time. I’ll be performing at the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship Workshop and Poetry Reading on March 26th at the Pajaro Valley Arts Gallery. Join us there!

ORS: Will you be performing this exact parody? Because that was amazing!

BG: ¡Claro que sí!

ORS: In my mind, page poetry does a very different thing than spoken word or stage poetry. Do you feel that way as well?

BG:  The rise of stage poetry aligns with the rise of hip hop, and thus the definition of poetry has expanded. Poetry connects to all the other art forms. In Mexico City, at the Pablo Picasso Museum, there is an art installation of a French poem with Picasso’s art surrounding it. Painting and poetry at the same time. I’ve always thought that connecting all art forms is a fantastic feat. I’m also a big fan of opera. It encapsulates everything. It’s big. Acting, poetry, singing. It reaches every form; for me, it is eternal. This love of opera particularly extends to the libretto, mainly because I’m a big fan of expressive and dramatic reading. 

This form of reading and expression has a long tradition in Mexico and Spain. For me, they are two tones in the voice of the (practice of) spoken literature or public readings. Without overemoting — I want to have that power. When I read or recite, I want my words to come alive. (Native American author) Stan Rushworth said once, “Poets should whisper when they need to whisper and shout when they need to shout.” 

Dylan Thomas had complete command of his voice. He intellectually arrived at that way of reading poetry — what a genius. The full dramatic potential of poetry is expressed in Dylan Thomas. I would love to be able to teach that power somehow. 

ORS: Tell us about the community of Writers of Color, Santa Cruz, and about how you heard about the new Poet Laureate position. 

BG: Vivian Vargas invited me to join Writers of Color in March 2021. She also sent out the link to the Watsonville Poet Laureate application on the Watsonville Library website. Victoria Bañales chairs the Watsonville Library Board and she also chaired the Poet Laureate Selection Committee. Victoria is the one who announced my appointment to the position during our November Writers of Color meeting, and I was confirmed at the Watsonville City Council meeting on Jan. 11, 2022, for a two-year term. Everyone there already knew that I had won. It was quite a moment.

ORS: For the next two years, you’ll be leading the community in poetry and prose. Do you think you’ll teach? What are some of the goals you have planned?

BG: I will continue working with Writers of Colors and, of course, to add more colors to that community. We want to add the Filipino and Mixtec languages to the stage and page. We need to hear all of those languages. Another goal of mine is to be involved with the youth poet laureate. The county office has a Poetry Out Loud program involving state, local, and high school programs. I would love to help with that. I would love to coach kids on performance art and verse in general. I would love to teach them how to recite. 

ORS: Thank you so much for your time today, Bob! We are looking forward to seeing your performance of music, poetry and parody at the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship, Workshop and Poetry. 


Pablo del Monte
Humberto “Fito” Galindo, México, 1942-2021

Esto es el corrido de Pablo el que siembra
De Pablo el que sueña, de Pablo del monte
Esto es el corrido de Pablo el que sufre
Porque apenas con cruces escribe su nombre

Sus padres murieron peleando en la raya
Entre la metralla de los federales
Querían que sus hijos tuvieran parcela
Un pedazo de tierra pa’ hacer sus jacales

Los años pasaron y Pablo del monte
Aún no tiene donde vivir ni sembrar
Son aún del amo la yunta y la siembra
El agua y la tierra y también el jacal

Vuela pensamiento a Parral, Chihuahua
Allí está enterrada la Revolución
Dile a Pancho Villa que Pablo del monte
Aún sigue descalzo al pie de un patrón
Dile a Pancho Villa que Pablo del monte
Aún sigue descalzo al pie de un patrón
Dile a Pancho Villa que vuelva y termine
Que vuelva y termine su Revolución

El corrido de Bob
Basado en “Pablo del monte” de Humberto “Fito” Galindo

Esto es el corrido de Bob el artista
De Bob guitarrista, de Bob de los Gómez
Esto es es corrido de Bob jardinero
De Bob carpintero, Latinx señores

Ya viejo el chicano, el sanfranciscano,
Por cuarenta años casado y con hijos
Aplicó sus afanes por rimas bilingües
En que se distingue este burguesito 

Recién fue laudado el Bob laureado
Por su pueblo amado ahí por Santa Cruz
Gracias a cafeína, cerveza y tortillas
Sembrando semillas salió en el news 

Watsonville famoso por sus ricas fresas
De Bob el poeta lugar predilecto
Tierra y sol de las naciones Aptos y Ohlones
De conquistadores, surfistas y obreros

Sus cantos pa´ niños con humor y cariño
Son reconocidos en casa y salón
Esto fue el corrido de Bob de los Gómez
Poeta de amores y revolución 

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About Olga Rosales Salinas

Olga Rosales Salinas is a content writer and freelancer who produces poetry, short stories, and essays. Her debut collection of poetry and prose, "La Llorona," was published by Birch Bench Press and is available now on Amazon. Proceeds from the publication benefit The Rosales Sisters' Scholarship; the scholarship is being awarded to students on the Central Coast.