An LA High School Poet Finds Her Voice In An Age Of Uncertainty

By Esmeralda Bermudez
Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In the last six years, English teacher Laurie Kurnick has turned Cleveland Charter High School’s poetry program into one of the most respected in the city. Her team draws from the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Pat Mora and Kendrick Lamar to create poems about their own lives. They are intimate portraits, some funny, some painful, about puberty, absent fathers, love, police abuse, racism.

LOS ANGELES

At 4 feet 11, Vanessa Tahay is what you might call a chaparrita.

Her skin is dark, her accent is thick, and if you ask her, she will tell you these are the things she’s proudest of.

Tahay is a poet, and at 18 she’s considered among the best in the city. The high school senior has performed and competed not just in Los Angeles but in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

When she is onstage, audiences often go silent. They also laugh, holler, cringe and cry.

She shuts her eyes and the words flow, raw with emotion, in English, Spanish, Spanglish and K’iche’.

She will tell you about the white classmate who asked her to speak in English and how she told him: “No … hell no.”

“It took courage for my tongue to speak, and it will speak whatever and however it wants to.”

She will tell you about her mother, who wakes at 5 a.m. for work and sways her wide hips to the sound of cumbia. About her tias who invite you to coffee, sit you down at their table and ask a million questions about your novio.

About her grandmother, who likes to visit Los Angeles but will never leave Guatemala, because in this country, in the morning nothing smells like wet dirt.

Back in Nimasac, Tahay was known as “Chata” because of her little nose. She had a fat, lazy cat named Garfield and she was always late to school, though it was just feet from her cinder-block house.

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