The smell of incense filled the room as the crowd rose and turned to face the four walls of the building Saturday night during “RAZA Speaks: Flor y Canto,” an open mic night sponsored by Cal Polyís Multicultural Center. The audience was participating in a traditional Native American custom of thanking the four directions, which kicked off a night of Native and Hispanic song and poetry at the Steynberg Gallery in downtown San Luis Obispo.
The event, a part of the university-wide Latino Heritage Month, was hosted by the Multicultural Club and professor Gloria Velasquez. It marked the first time that one of Velasquez’s frequent “Flor y Canto” events was held in San Luis Obispo.
Velasquez hosts “RAZA Speaks” events each quarter, some of which also serve as open mic nights. However, she had never put on an open mic night in San Luis Obispo. Last year, several of Velasquezís students approached her with the idea of bringing an open mic night to the city.
Bery Gonzalez, one of Velasquez’s students and Multicultural Center volunteer said that she and the other members of the center. “I wanted to bring new ideas and events to the students. It was something students here would like,” she said, “I wanted it to symbolize different types of Latinos and the native side of our heritage.”
“‘Flor y Canto’ symbolizes ties to the earth, harmony and the importance of flower and song,” Velasquez said as she introduced the event, which was designed to give well-known Latin and Native American poets a chance to recite their poetry, as well as allow for audience members to share their own work.
The evening’s performances began with a presentation by local Aztecan dancers, including Cal Poly alumnus Rudy Gutiérrez and Cuahtli Galindo, who was adorned in traditional native dress.
Accompanied by indigenous instruments, the dances portrayed the way that native peoples have traditionally used music to subvert the ideas of their oppressors, Gutiérrez said.
After the dances, the two performers sang several traditional bird songs. The songs symbolized the close relationship that indigenous people have with the land, Galindo said. They were written by the indigenous people as they “described the landscape as they traveled south,” he said.
After the initial presentation, the open mic portion of the evening began and guests were invited to share with the audience.
Among the eight open-mic performers were students, professors, community members and out-of-town guests, many of whom performed in both Spanish and in English. Some had long-prepared for the event, while others took a more extemporaneous approach.
Velasquez started things off by playing a song by one of her favorite Mexican songwriters. Later, she was followed by Miguel Harris, a Cal Poly alumnus and musician, who adapted one of Velasquez’s poems to be played on the banjo.
The performers prefaced their performances by explaining why he or she decided to participate in the event.
Teresa Moreno, a local poet and Cal Poly alumna, said she participated because she had “always wanted a chance to share my poetry, and this was the perfect type of event because it represents multiculturalism.” A writer since she was a young child, she said that poetry helped her express how “society makes (her) feel.”
Singer/songwriter Haley Maynard was the last performer of the evening.
Maynard originally performed in one of Velasquez’s Spanish classes. The final assignment of the quarter was to perform an original composition for the class. Maynard’s song “Paz y Amor” impressed Velasquez so much that she invited her to be a part of the “Raza Speaks” events.
“I wrote a poem for the class and I just put it to music because that’s what is easiest for me,” Maynard said.
Maynard sang songs off her new album, “Tentatively at Ten,” which was also released on Saturday on Itunes. All of the proceeds will be donated to the Surfrider foundation, which focuses on ocean protection.