The UC Davis Cross Cultural Center shuddered on a recent Thursday night with the anguished cries and soulful rants of a dozen young poets.
More than 100 students laughed, teared up, snapped their fingers in affirmation and nodded at beats and musings of love, heartbreak and misunderstanding.
Muslim American women in hijabs poured out their truths alongside a Latina mother of two, black and white poets of both genders and bards of Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Hmong, Mien and Cambodian extraction.
The SickSpits Poetry Collective's event was deftly hosted by Fong "Batman" Tran, a 24-year-old UC Berkeley grad in a bomber jacket, jeans and Batman T-shirt.
Tran mentors and inspires hundreds of teens with his poems that bridge cultures and generations.
"If we don't validate each other, we will lose our history," he said. "Call me Father Fong. If you're having fun, say 'Word!' "
Halfway through SickSpits' first poetry slam of the year, Tran, sporting a black "faux hawk" haircut, recited his own verse, "Reclaim History/Reclaim Self," about his Vietnamese mother, Hoa Tran:
"Once upon a Vietnam War, single mother of three left rice paddies for dream escapes to land of golden arches with babies on her back .
"In Stockton CA she was shipwrecked in a one-room apartment cramped with another family of seven, her 3 kids, her 80 dollars and her 1 hope would be just enough for her to make it these new alien lands ... ."
Tran was born a year after his mother's arrival in California in 1987, followed by his sister Vivi, 19. He was in third grade when his dad left.
Then Tran's mom badly burned herself in a cooking fire, crippling her right hand. Tran had to recycle aluminum cans to help make ends meet.
Extending his palms, Tran spoke truth to all the immigrant youths in the crowd with parents whose love is never words, just actions:
"Its funny that a woman taught me how to be a real man when no other man was to be found,
She never loved with sugar-coated kisses she was there for me love unconditional, no pre-existing ."
Hoa Tran, a statuesque woman in a red velvet jumpsuit and salt-and-pepper hair, now mostly stays in the southeast Sacramento home she shares with her daughter.
She had Fong and Vivi with a landscaper she met in Stockton. They moved to Sacramento. When he left, she launched her own gardening business and told her kids to concentrate on school.
"When their father left I cried," she said, "but Tran told me, 'Mom, don't worry, I'll help you!' "
In seventh grade, Tran began calling himself Batman, "because he's a superhero without super powers, a normal guy fighting for justice," Tran said.
He started working with kids, the elderly, and volunteering at the Sacramento Food Bank. From Florin High, he went to UC Berkeley, where he found his voice in "Poetry From the People."
"I wanted an easy A," he said. Writing about his mom liberated him from the pain of his father's abandonment.
He has since performed all over the region, from the Women's Civic Improvement Club in Oak Park to Friday's United Iu-Mien Youth Conference at UC Davis, where he does community outreach for the School of Education.
He also has mentored youths for Asian Resources, a Sacramento nonprofit.
"Fong's an amazing character," said executive director Stephanie Nguyen. "He doesn't tell them what to do his idea is we should listen and learn from them."
Tran and several friends drove about 20 high school kids on a tour of Bay Area colleges last weekend. He uses spoken word and social media to connect with his mentees, many of whom relate to his mom's struggle to keep his family afloat.
About 20 percent of Sacramento County's Vietnamese families are headed by single mothers, most of whom hold jobs to support their families.
Tran's poem calls his mother "a warrior without armor," an apt metaphor, said Kieu-Linh Valverde, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, who teaches a class on Vietnamese women.
Vietnamese women have been warriors, Valverde said, since the Trung sisters, Trac and Nhi, led their cavalry to victory against the Chinese in A.D. 42. In the United States, they often eclipse their men because they're willing to take any jobs, work their way up and become breadwinners and leaders, Valverde said.
She called Tran's poetry a touching, accurate portrayal of "normalized suffering they put on a show of strength. They're sometimes victims of domestic violence or have health issues, but don't feel they have the right to bring those things up to their kids or burden their family, because they are expected to be that way."
The poetry slam was won by sophomore Ben Trinh, who apologized to his Cambodian-Chinese mom for trying to hide her from his American friends: "I was embarrassed about you, I'm ashamed. ... The woman who never takes a break, you need one. Although I'm not perfect, you raised me perfectly."
Tran grinned, "Let's give it up for all the mama's boys out there!"
His paean to his mom ended with a flourish:
"Every time I write a love poem for a girl, it just becomes a simile, a metaphor about my mama
like as if no other woman could compare her
my strength, my sacrifice, my love, my mama."
MORE FONG TRAN POETRY: To read more of Fong Tran's poetry, visit his blog, www.fongtranpoetry.tumblr.com