Meet East Palo Alto’s Poet-Turned-Councilmember, Antonio López

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27-year-old poet and East Palo Alto City Councilmember Antonio Lopez published a debut book that reflects on growing up in the shadow of Silicon Valley's power and privilege.  (Briana Chazaro)

“Poetry teaches you to have radical honesty; politics teaches you how to survive,” says Antonio de Jesús López. “But I never thought I’d be a politician.”

He’s not speaking figuratively: López, whose parents immigrated to the San Francisco Peninsula from Mexico, currently serves as East Palo Alto’s youngest city councilmember, and the second youngest in the city’s history. The 27-year-old also happens to be an ascending poet.

Born and raised in East Palo Alto—a working-class community of less than 30,000 residents that was known as the “Murder Capital of the United States” in the ’90s—Lopez fearlessly explores the relationship between home, safety, faith, injustice, education and, of course, the politics of community in his poems.

'Gentefication' by Antonio de Jesús López.

Awarded the 2019 Larry Levis Prize from Four Way Books, López’ 2021 debut poetry collection, Gentefication, takes readers on a journey of the speaker’s social and professional journey while navigating the complicated dynamics of a violently precarious, economically starved and constantly gentrifying environment. (López celebrates the book release with a reading and panel discussion on Sept. 23 at Alley Cat Books moderated by this reporter.)

López is a true factotum: part interior poet, part public servant; part Mexican, part American; part tender, part rugged; part academic, part street. You can feel his multidimensional selves in the alternating frequencies of his work, in which he interchanges tongues from fluent pocho’s Spanglish to professorial historian, and talks in ways that could reach audiences in places as disparate as San Quentin and Stanford.

In both his politics and poetry, López attempts to combine his myriad influences in order to reimagine our modern, fragmented Bay Area. In doing so, he brings attention to the vastly warped landscape of Silicon Valley and those who are trampled by its inequities. He believes Silicon Valley and East Palo Alto can mutually—and ethically—benefit one another.

“There is so much money in the Silicon Valley, how is this happening?” he asks during our interview. “We have a hood right in the middle of it all, and people treat us like just another freeway exit. But if you drive five minutes over, you’re at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, with so much white opulence that never looked like us.”

It’s a topic that many Bay Area residents, particularly those with deep roots, have been grappling with for decades. Yet few have attempted to dismantle inequality on such disparate fronts, from East Palo Alto City Hall to the written page.

Antonio de Jesus Lopez. (Courtesy of the artist. )

Modeled after a university syllabus, López’ sequence of poems mimics the idea of being “schooled” on various subjects. He investigates how some of us—namely young people of color—often code switch between multiple worlds, mastering the rules of each one in order to survive. The book simultaneously functions as an academic coursebook, a geographical map, a sociological study, a form of high art and a personal manifesto. At its core, the poet relies on the heart and soul of East Palo Alto to convey a narrative about his own attempt to redefine institutional biases by becoming a part of the institution himself.

Poems like “Course Description” provide a historically lensed look at racial demographics in neighboring zip codes, for example, and feature a literal map of the area’s ethnic composition to illustrate the segregation of his upbringing. “Students will flee the fenced discourses / of gentrification, which cage the conversation to strictly geographic / terms,” he writes. He then leaves the literal map and crosses into the “cultural and psychosomatic Sonoras of English / exile, into a space Chicana feminists coined ‘The Borderlands’,” summoning the legacy of Chicanx resistance from the 1970s as a model for what he considers sacred to his people’s survival.

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López’ inventive language explores the tension between impersonal judicial systems and the brown body. “Misdebeaner” and “Magical Forrealism” delve into these brutalities in unexpectedly playful ways. Then, he surprises you with a piece like “After I take my Shahada,” which looks at his Muslim faith—an unorthodox conversion which he explores in the book, too.

Throughout it all, there’s a sense of deep responsibility, wholeness and genuine reflection in how López envisions himself, his city and the future “[his] people deserve.” Readers are relentlessly invited into a tapestry of the speaker’s nuanced perspectives. He reflects on immigrant women selling tortillas and vapor rub on street corners, and ruminates on why his father left Mexico. He processes the invisible traumas of elementary school, where white teachers exerted harsh discipline as a form of control over Black and brown students.

“We became guarded about everything, about how we built relationships with others,” López says. “It taught us how to hustle and how to give back to our own people, but also kept us on our toes. Just being in those classrooms, in the neighborhood, you saw it all. Your friends would get locked up and didn’t show up for basketball practice. You’re 13, 14, so you didn’t understand the world yet.”

In writing about it all, López is taking responsibility for his past—and his future—by deconstructing the psychic freezes and social punishments he witnessed throughout his life. As a young man, he “lacked the vocabulary” to speak out, he says. Now, years later, López has reached a point where he can not only talk about it, but can leverage his experience to uplift those around him, so that the next generation doesn’t have to endure the same brokenness he felt.

López attended Duke University for undergrad, and later studied abroad as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge in England for his Masters in Fine Arts. Now, he’s attending Stanford University for his PhD in Modern Thought and Literature. It’s important for him, he says, because Stanford is a place where you might see a Latino from EPA “mowing the lawn or serving food in the cafeteria” but rarely, if ever, enrolled in doctorate courses.

Meanwhile, López is simultaneously serving a four-year term as an East Palo Alto councilmember from December 2020 to 2024. He wants to make tangible change for his city, not only in his writing.

And he’s doing what he can to make that a reality. Most recently, he’s advocated for a new library and spoken out against rent increases for residents of a mobile home park. However, there’s been pushback on some of his initiatives. In an early attempt to replace the city attorney, he was met with resistance from the mayor and vice mayor. But López says he was only acting out of concern for his city’s betterment.

Ultimately, López knows that his work relies on collaboration with his community and key allies in Silicon Valley, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which donated $100,000 towards East Palo Alto’s summer youth programs. For his part, Gentefication is merely an opening stanza to his larger vision.

“It’s a gradual transformation and reimagination of health, prosperity, safety and allowing us to advocate in ways we couldn’t dream of because we were so locked into the carceral imagination, to a violent system which locked up my classmates and community in more ways than one,” he says.

He says he owes it to his city and family to make progress, but makes it clear that he does not want to be portrayed as a martyr or “success story.” There is danger in those individualistic narratives: brown kid from the hood makes it out. Instead, he wants to create a sustainable path through his work so that he isn’t a token, but “one out of many” placed in positions to socially thrive.

“I have an insatiable desire for knowledge but also community stability. Writing gave me the opportunity to humanize myself when I was a statistic,” he says. “This is for the people who gave me a bed to sleep in, who got to know me in church, who voted for me. I owe it to them to keep persevering. I’m starting this but others will finish it. I might make headlines today for my city, but what about tomorrow? Who will those people be? This book is for them.”

Antonio López is the featured reader at Alley Cat Bookstore and Gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District on Thursday, Sept. 23rd. Alan Chazaro moderates a conversation between him and other Latinx poets (Leticia Hernández-Linares, Janel Pineda and Kevin Madrigal) about how their poetry intersects with their communities.

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