Francisco X. Alarcón was a poet and university instructor who was as comfortable surrounded by children during readings at Sacramento’s Fairytale Town as he was in academic circles, recalled friends and fellow poets.
Alarcón, a lecturer in the UC Davis Department of Spanish and Portuguese, died Friday, just a few weeks after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, said longtime friend and poet JoAnn Anglin. He was 61.
Nancy Aidé Gonzalez, a member of the Sacramento Poetry Center’s board of directors, said friends and fellow writers joined Alarcón a couple of weeks before he died at one of his favorite San Francisco restaurants to celebrate his life. It was typical of his life, friends said, a mixing of the serious, the joyful and the spiritual.
Alarcón was born in Wilmington in Los Angeles County on Feb. 21, 1954. His family moved to Mexico when he was 6 years old and he returned to the United States when he was 18. Alarcón became interested in writing as a teenager when he transcribed his grandmother’s songs.
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He graduated from California State University, Long Beach, and earned his master’s degree in Latin American literature from Stanford University. He came to UC Davis in 1992 to direct the Native Speakers Program. One of the first in the UC system, the program grew under his leadership, said Cecilia Colombi, chairwoman of the Spanish and Portuguese Department. He also taught Spanish creative writing classes.
“He lived his poetry every day,” Colombi said in a statement released by the university. “He has a big impact on all of us. Francisco was a big man, and his love was immense.”
Alarcón’s poems were characterized by short lines and stanzas, and explored mestizo culture and identity, American identity, sexuality, Mesoamerican history and mythology. He was an early, openly gay Chicano poet. He published a dozen collections of poetry for adults, including “Body in Flames/Cuerpo en llamas,” “Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation,” “From the Other Side of Night/Del otro lado de la noche” and “Deep Song/Canto hondo,” as well as several children’s books.
“His poetry was both very sophisticated and very accessible. Anyone would get it,” said Bob Stanley, a Sacramento Poetry Center board member.
He wrote about social issues and was a strong voice for the Chicano community, Stanley said. While he was passionate about fighting injustice and righting wrongs, Alarcón also approached the world with a mystical sense of wonder.
His poetry was both very sophisticated and very accessible.
Bob Stanley, board member, Sacramento Poetry Center
Alarcón typically published his poems in three languages – English, Spanish and Nahuatl, an Aztec language, Anglin said.
She met Alarcón 24 years ago through a Sacramento-area writers group, Escritores del Nuevo Sol, or Writers of the New Sun, that he co-founded.
“He was much loved by the literary community and by children,” Anglin said.
His children’s books were written in verse and beautifully illustrated by artists, she noted. He often gave readings for youngsters at area venues, including Fairytale Town.
His appeal transcended cultures. Alarcón had many fans in Ireland and some of his works were translated into Gaelic, Anglin said.
“He understood the idea of being colonized country,” she said. “Like the Irish, he also respected folklore as a source of inspiration.”
Gonzalez said she met Alarcón about six years ago through Escritores del Nuevo Sol. She said he encouraged her as a writer and also helped her develop as a leader.
One of her poems will be appear in an anthology that is a response to Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigration legislation, SB 1070. Inspired by a group of students who chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol in April 2010, Alarcón wrote “For the Capitol Nine” and posted it to his Facebook page.
“He was very politically aware,” Anglin said, “but he never got cynical.”
Funeral services and a celebration of Alarcón’s life will be held at 6 p.m. Friday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Long Beach, with a mass at 10:30 a.m. followed by graveside services at All Souls Cemetery in Long Beach.
UC Davis officials said a memorial service will take place on the campus later this year, and plans are being made to create a scholarship in Alarcón’s honor.