Guadalupe Mendez remembers the freak thunderstorm in Galveston that kept him and his classmates stuck in their seventh grade class. With no power, his teacher had to continue his lesson on Edgar Allen Poe, and did so by popping a cassette into a battery-powered boombox.
To support the mood of the macabre stories, candles were placed around the classroom as thunder boomed and lightning flashed. Vincent Price’s voice echoed from the boombox, as he kept narrating Poe’s scary stories.
On that day, Mendez, Texas’s 2022 Poet Laureate, fell in love with storytelling.
Born to a native Mexican father and a Tejana mother, he grew up in Galveston, where his parents met, and often writes poems relating to being part of an immigrant family. “I can share my poetry with the public because of who I am and my background,” he said. He particularly likes weaving stories about the “idea of a border and two places and how we move in the world.”
Though Mendez often writes about his upbringing, he is unable to really share these pieces with his parents.
His mother, a nurse whose family roots were in the Rio Grande Valley, sadly passed away in October of 2020 due to COVID-19, leaving his father a widower.
One of ten children, Mendez’s father emigrated from Jalisco to the United States, but left school in the 2nd grade and learned early to provide for himself. He cannot read or write in either English or Spanish, making it hard for him to understand the poetry he deeply influenced. To get by, he learned English from radio, television, and other entertainment, but also leaned on his wife who has now been gone for almost two years.
“It never dawned on me how much my dad relied so much on both my mother and I to translate the world for him. It never dawned on me that his conscious knowledge, of what was like entertainment (or accessible), was related to how things were relayed back to him,” said Mendez.
Yet Mendez recalls many moments during his childhood when both of his parents told him stories about their lives, and the struggles they endured to provide for their family.
His father has often talked about how he “came to the states illegally, undocumented, and stayed in a house with 14 other men in the east end of Galveston,” Mendez said. The homeowners, a Mexican couple, rented rooms and helped workers, including his father, find jobs to make money to send home. The bighearted pair would also translate letters from the men’s families in Mexico and then transcribed and sent their responses.
Mendez has gained more inspiration and collected more material from more than 20 years as a schoolteacher at the Houston Independent School District. “I get to build understanding and community with all these little people … these different minds and worlds. I get to communicate with them [students] about how they exist and I get peeks into their own family situations,” he said. “I am able to take those concepts and readjust them in the work that I write.”
After his first decade of teaching, Mendez returned to school. In 2015, he got his MFA through an online program in Creative Writing from The University of Texas at El Paso. Today, Mendez still works for the school district, but now serves as a curriculum writer and teaching coach.
Being Texas’s poet laureate has allowed for Mendez to “write every kind of poem there is [and] dabble in nonfiction. I can venture and do all these different things.”
As a poet, his life spans much of Texas. He embraces his roots in the Rio Grande Valley and in the Mexican state of Jalisco, while reflecting on his time in Galveston, and his current home of Houston.
In his journey as a poet, Mendez has explored Texas and its diverse communities. Working alongside poets of color, he tries to reflect that highly varied image of his home state in his writing. Alongside his determination to increase awareness of those communities, he tries to represent his own Mexican-American identity too.
As part of becoming a poet, Mendez decided to help others achieve the same goal. He founded Tintero Projects, which aims to give Latin-American and other writers of color a platform. Based in Houston, this organization scouts the Gulf Coast Region for talented writers to give them an opportunity to showcase their work.
Over the years, he had his work published locally by The Bayou Review, and the Houston Free Press, and elsewhere bythe Academy of American Poets and The Texas Review
His latest collection of poems, Why I am Like Tequila won the 2019 John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry.
As poet laureate, Mendez continues to work on his own writing, visit schools and community centers, and host workshops. His work is honorary and unpaid.
“It’s not even a position, it’s just the title, and they stipulate that the title is based on your life—everything you’ve done,” he said. “We don’t actually have to do anything with it for the year that we’re Texas poet laureate. There’s no money behind it. … I’m choosing to work on a project because I want to.”