Growing up in the barrio of East Dallas, Texas, Zihuatanejo said he tries to capture the essence of the Chicano culture and barrio life in his work. His passion brought him to travel across the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe visiting various universities, conferences and poetry slams.
“I got interested in poetry when I was very, very young,” Zihuatanejo said. “My grandfather raised me when my mother could not and my father would not.”
His grandfather was a treasure hunter who taught Zihuatanejo that the written word is more valuable than most other treasures.
“He would call me to read out loud to him. He said you have to breathe life into the character,” he said. “I feel in love with words not long after that.”
Entering college, Zihuatanejo was a journalism student but quickly changed his major to English. He described this as, “the best decision of my life.”
“For me, the ultimate goal of poetry is to tell an awful truth in a beautiful way,” Zihuatanejo said. “If you can do that, I think you’ve done something significant.”
According to Zihuatanejo, poetry doesn’t cross borders — it shatters them because it is based on the awful truth.
One of Zihuatanejo’s favorite poems is one he covered which was originally written by Jonathan “GNO” White. The opening line of the poem is: “I am a street poet and I write about bad things.” Because of this, Zihuatanejo said when people ask him what he does for a living, he simply says, “I am a street poet.”
According to Zihuatanejo, there’s nothing like performing in front of an audience.
“I feel more alive than I ever, ever do,” Zihuatanejo said. “It’s magical. It’s extraordinary. I feel very lucky and humbled and in a way, blessed, to have the job that I do.”
Zihuatanejo also had some advice for young poets.
“If you can follow three simple rules, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a very effective poet,” Zihuatanejo said. Those rules are: write about what you know, make it odd and twisted and always read more than you write.
ATOG coordinator Megan McIntyre said she is excited for Zihuatanejo to bring his knowledge as well as his poetry to campus.
“He is an exceptional slam poet (whose) words can change every person who stops to listen,” she said. “He’s a really talented poet and mainly speaks about issues in Chicano cultures.”
Psychology junior Blake Williams said Cal Poly does a great job in bringing well-known talented poets such as Zihuatanejo to the poetry venue.
“Most of the poets are down to earth, and most are there to talk after,” Williams said.
Williams said he thinks Zihuatanejo fits into this description.
“I think (Zihuatanejo) is great,” Williams said. “He’s really dynamic as far as a performer. It’s a great opportunity to experience some diversity, a different culture — a different art culture.”
Although some students might be put off by spoken word, art and design sophomore Allie Rogge said it is not just someone reading poetry, it’s someone performing a very intricate piece of verbal art.
“I love going to ATOG and listening to the guest performers,” Rogge said. “They are all very different and have different styles, so it’s interesting to hear them perform. I’ve laughed so hard at some and cried literal buckets at others.”
This is exactly what appeals to Zihuatanejo.
“If you can make an audience cry and at the same time laugh all in one show, I think it makes for an extraordinary event,” Zihuatanejo said.
McIntyre encourages students to come and share their own poems at the open mic or to listen to Zihuatanejo, the featured poet.
“He is the sort of person who made me dream of being a slam poet,” said McIntyre. “He is both inspiring and encouraging.”
ATOG is a spoken-word poetry event put on by the MCC that often hosts feature poets. ATOG started in 2000 when it was created through Cal Poly’s MCC and Student Life & Leadership.
ATOG is in Chumash Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1. There will also be an open mic before and after Zihuatanejo performs.