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Alhambra Unified schools hold first ever 'tri-city' poetry slam

The West San Gabriel Valley may be witnessing the start of its own literary movement. Last Thursday, students from Alhambra High, San Gabriel High, and Mark Keppel High came together to hold the first ever "tri-city" poetry slam contest.

The contest, held inside Mark Keppel's auditorium, consisted of six rounds in which poets recited two poemsa poem penned by an established poet, and a poem written by the student. The students were judged on a number of criteria that included delivery and precision. Judges were handed hard copies of the poems to keep track of accuracy.

The event was not just touted as a competition, however. It was also an open forum in which students related their fears and aspirations, their memories of the past, and their expectations for the future. They described their experiences as sons, daughters, and being a minority in community of minorities. 

"The second I open my mouth. You can hear an accent. The moment the syllables escape my vocal cords, fear catches my tongue," said San Gabriel High student Cuiting Yu, who recounted an instance in which an Asian-American peer had mocked her accent. She talked about her struggles to become more "American," and how that desire had led to self-loathing. "I tried to hide fear under my Americanized name. I tried to hide fear in my American Eagle t-Shirts." 

Alexander Beaumont of Mark Keppel wrote a poem that touched on similar issues of feeling ostracized by both dominant and minority communities. He talked about constantly being reminded of his mixed ethnicity. "You realize you're really white for someone who's half white," said Beaumont.

One recurring theme was the students' complex relationships with their parents. The students talked about their parents' strengths and shortcomings, and coming to accept their mothers and fathers for who they were. "Mom you won fights, lost fights, and never finished a few. But you always finished a conversation," said Alhambra High student Sania Luna. "So let me finish this one. Pretty is easy. Pretty is Goldilocks. But you are beautiful."

Some poets also experimented with form. San Gabriel High students Carolina Garcia, Azucena Pacheco, and Justine Salazar recited poems as a group. Sometimes they intoned stanzas in unison. Other times they traded lines back and forth as if playing a game of verbal ping-pong. They recited "The Bare Arms Of Trees" by American poet John Tagliabue. The poem—a meditation on distance and the act of walking— was tied into the trio's own poem, which described the untimely death of a friend who was gunned down in the street. "He was only walking home," the three poets cried in unison.

The judges' scores were tallied up at the end of the event. Mark Keppel High's team, coached by English teacher Dottie Burkhart, emerged as the winner of the contest. 

Alhambra High English teacher Joshua Moreno told the Source that the event is about closing the gaps between disparate groups. "When these students share their stories, in the form of poetry, they have tremendous potential to build bridges within these communities," Moreno explained in an email.

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