For John Partida (1978 – 2007)It's Nov. 7, 1996, in a large dining hall of a Mexican restaurant in Riverside. Between orders of enchiladas and tongue tacos, a group of poets throws down: bilingual couplets by mostly 20-something bards. A Tijuanense poet in his late 40s starts it off in dada style, reading through the “ch” section of a Spanish-language dictionary. It's like a camera flashbulb going off, with words like chiflado, cholo and charro punctuating the picture-taking.
The group's youngest poet is John Partida, an 18-year-old Mexican-American kid from National City who can barely speak Spanish. He started reading with us, the Taco Shop Poets, when he was 15. His art teacher at Sweetwater High School pushed him to put his thoughts, however dark, down on paper.
John's idols are Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain. In the group, he learned about Jose Montoya and others in the Chicano poetry canon. John likes to hold the poetry microphone as if he's fronting a punk-rock band. For this Riverside performance, he's brought an old record player.
He puts on a jazz LP. After the initial bass line, he begins dancing with another 18-year-old poet. She's no Ginger Rogers, and he's far from being Fred Astaire. But there's emotion in the dance—happiness to be 18, sadness to be 18.The other members of the group were waiting for something different from John—something similar to his poem “Bong Fire” (both of John's poems reprinted on this page have been left as he wrote them—creative spellings and typos included):Lets work in revearseThe fire ligtenAnd I'm still stuck with the curseSo enjoy the show becauseI can't breathI have blood on shoesAnd on my sleavesAnd I'm happy to goLike dry dead leavesSo enjoy the showLets dance naked in cold snowDo you like my verseWould you like a chorusDo you want it to rymePerhaps 2/4 timeWell that's to badI hope your madBecause people n' things make me sadBut I'll make an exceptionJust this timeImage n' rythmAn abstract rymeAnd the waters warmSo the people swarmAnd I countinue to write wordsThe record ends. This is the first time we've seen John do this dance-performance; we wonder if that's it—if that's his poem. The needle plays the last, continuous groove on the record. The scratches provide a beat. He takes that rhythm and begins reciting a beautiful stream-of-consciousness poem. The poem's content is lost to me, but my awe at the ingenuity and simplicity of his idea are a permanent memory.
John Partida died this past Labor Day weekend of a methamphetamine overdose. He was 28 years old.
John, like most of us who came together roughly 14 years ago, were Chicano oddballs and outcasts of some sort, not fitting into the neighborhoods where we grew up. That Tijuanense poet at the Riverside restaurant studied at UCLA in 1968 when Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was there. A San Ysidro poet in the group was influenced by the anarchist movement in San Diego and his family members who founded experimental theater companies in Tijuana. I grew up in National City but attended Kate Sessions Elementary School, Pacific Beach Junior High and Mission Bay High. My mother cleaned houses in those upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
John was never much of a political activist, but he knew what it was like to be caught with one foot in a growing chasm between Mexican culture and mainstream U.S. culture. National City isn't a good place for youth who ask a lot of questions. And it's not a good place for kids with trouble at home.
In August 1996, John threw down against the Republicans--in town for their national convention--at the Alternative Media Center in the old Carnation Building. Under a banner that read, “The Other Side of the Story,” John read a version of the poem “Pizzo”:Classes meet--BOREDBlood is spent--PAIDOn daily breadThe owrd of god--eaten by IndiansAMERICA'S NO RUNSNA DRIPS WITH BLOOKOn inhaled fix--BLACK VICTORIntakes n' marks land--RELEASEResetTime is blind--CEASEThis is not the placeJohn started to lose it the year after the Riverside reading. We had a three-gig trip to Northern New Mexico in April. Ten of us, poets and musicians, piled into a rented van outside my Golden Hill house for the 12-hour ride to Albuquerque. I told John not to bring any drugs.
On the I-8, before we hit the Imperial County line, he started to trip hard. I pulled over. “I told you not to bring any drugs!” I yelled. “I didn't bring any drugs, he did!” John pointed at one of the other poets. Drive back, or keep going? I wondered.
We reached Albuquerque just as the sun was pulling itself up the ridge of the Sandia Mountains. At a taco shop reading in Albuquerque, he prefaced his poem this way: “My name is John Partida and I'm down for social change. I'm doing this performance so that people can roll their r's. Can you roll your r's?”
Outside, in the cultural center's main hall, we did our performance. The dozen or so people in the audience hadn't seen anything like this. We brought the unhealed wounds of the border.
John's record player was in a corner, ready. He never used it. He spent the last reading of that trip high in the broom closet of the Oñate Center near Española. It's all on videotape. His stream of consciousness in that closet became a river that had breached its banks. He made verbal leaps between poetry, song and political rant. After that trip, we told him he couldn't perform with us anymore.
In the following years, he organized punk-rock shows, served in the Navy during the Persian Gulf War, got married, got divorced and spent time in jail. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic, on medication, who kept taking hard drugs. And he kept looking for poetry. He'd wander occasionally into Voz Alta, the Taco Shop Poets-founded arts space in downtown San Diego.
There are others in the poetry group and among our circle of downtown arts friends who tried much more than I did to be fathers and mothers to him. It was all in vain.
We're going to throw down some poetry for John on Saturday at a taco shop. We're putting a call out to the taco shop tribe. Whether it's to remember the good Johnny, the bad Johnny or to ponder our own mortality, I don't know. We all realize, though, that we have to do it.
On Sept. 3, paramedics found John unconscious on National Avenue. Initially, I heard that it was on Market Street that they found John, and I was reminded of one of our first taco shop readings, held in 1994 at Los Panchos on the corner of Market and Ninth streets. The taco shop's been Godzilla-stomped into the underground by a condo high-rise. But we won't let the same happen to John's words and memory. The tribute to John Partida will be held on Saturday, Oct. 20, from 6 to 9 p.m. at El Comal, 3946 Illinois St. in North Park, 619-294-8292.Adolfo Guzman-Lopez co-founded the Taco Shop Poets in 1994. He's currently a radio news reporter in Los Angeles.