Shine the light

Luz Maria Gama

Photo By Larry Dalton

Mexican poet Luz Maria Gama arrived in Sacramento when she was 5 years old and has lived here ever since. Gama, whose first name means “light” in Spanish, has worked tirelessly to illuminate a path for others through her writing and teaching. Whether she is reading on stage at La Raza Galeria Posada or writing with patients at Shriners Hospitals for Children, Gama’s light rays are always shining on those in her community.

You came to Sacramento from Mexico as a child?

My mom and my uncle jumped a train with me when I was a baby. That’s how we came to the border. For several years, my mother and he worked in the border towns: Tijuana, Mexicali. She would come to Sacramento sometimes. Initially, we were tossed back and forth because we were here without the legal paperwork. Eventually, my mother married a man whose family lived in Sacramento. Then, she was able to live in Sacramento with me. I’ve lived here since I was 5.

What was Sacramento like to you as a 5-year-old?

I went to Lincoln School, which is now torn down. It was a beautiful school—old, brick, huge. It was at Fifth and Q streets. My family moved to a nice big house on Fourth and T, and I was able to walk to school. From first to fourth grade, I went to Lincoln School. Every language was spoken on the playground: Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, English. It was very ethnically rich—the neighborhood and the school. I felt very happy there.

When did you begin writing poetry?

I began writing in 1988. I had had what I would call a painful life. I was looking into getting some healing for that, and I was told to journal. I did every night, a lot. I was doing that one night, and something happened with the writing. It was different, and I couldn’t stop it. It went on and on. I didn’t know where it was going. When I was done, I looked at the pages. I thought, “I don’t know what this is. These are not sentences. These are not paragraphs. They are just pieces of lines.” I had never written poetry, but I thought maybe this could be poetry.

That sounds like channeling.

I think primarily it is channeled. When I sit down to write something, it’s done. I rarely go back and change anything. I belong to Los Escritores [del Nuevo Sol], and with them, I have assignments to focus and write about something. I can do that, but it doesn’t have the same power that the other poetry has that comes spontaneously. I carry paper and pen everywhere I go. When I don’t, I feel like I’m missing pieces of me.

I went to Los Escritores because I couldn’t write in Spanish, and that’s my first language. I sent a prayer out that I needed to meet people who wrote in Spanish. A month later, I heard they were forming, and I thought it was a direct answer to my prayer. My very first Spanish poem I wrote as I was driving on the freeway by Old Sac. I began to get words, and I began to cry, and I couldn’t drive and write and cry, so I pulled over on the freeway to write it. That’s how I write. It takes over, and I let it. I think it’s channeled, so, really, it’s not mine, huh?

What is Los Escritores del Nuevo Sol?

It’s a group that encourages bilingual poetry. Anybody can go, but there is Spanish poetry read as well as English. We also get into community stuff, activist stuff. Each person in the group has a different thing that pushes them, and they bring that. We have poetry readings twice a month now. We try to get outside people to come and read. We also do fund-raising or host poets who are traveling and need someone to host them.

Everyone brings what pushes them. What pushes you?

I don’t bring what pushes me. I listen. I go to learn. What pushes me—well, I teach preschool for a living. I am a parent, an educator, a grandmother, a mother, a daughter, and I strongly believe that we can heal ourselves. I believe in improving myself every day: What can I do today that is better than yesterday? All of that pushes me, and maybe I fly sometimes. But I don’t bring that there. I bring positive energy there. And poetry.

You teach poetry through California Poets in the Schools and VSA Arts?

I’ve worked at MatrixArts, too, with kids, and I also go to the Shriners Hospitals. When I come to a classroom, I don’t teach; I facilitate. I come to say, "You know what? You have ability, and we’re going to do that here." I’m a teacher of little people, by trade. I know what they can do. Because poetry came to me like it did, I know it can come to them the same way or more powerfully. The Shriners Hospital is amazing. When all else is gone, the power of the human spirit is still there, and it blows me away. I’m the one that’s receiving the gifts. I just keep showing up.