Power to the Poet
San Diego’s poet laureate reflects on a lifetime of community activism.
In his first act as poet laureate for the city of San Diego, Jason Magabo Perez ’03, MA ’13, PhD ’16, called out to the streetcorner flower sellers, cabbies, hotel bellhops, lettuce-pickers and others who make up the multicultural backbone of our community. The reading of his poem, “We Draft Work Songs for This City,” during Mayor Todd Gloria’s State of the City address in January 2023, was a powerful acknowledgment of some of the most overlooked and uncelebrated residents. It was also a clear statement about how — and whom — Perez intends to serve during his two-year term as poet laureate.
“For me, poetry and activism are never separate,” he says.
The child of Filipino immigrants and the youngest of three sons, Perez was born in the wake of a devastating family trauma. Three years earlier, his mother and another nurse were convicted of poisoning patients under their care in the case U.S. v Narciso and Perez. The judge later dismissed all charges, citing prosecutorial misconduct and “overwhelming prejudice to the defendants.” Perez’s family didn’t speak much about the case during his childhood, but to this day, he continues to unravel the lasting effects of racial trauma.
As a political science major at UC San Diego, Perez learned how the post-Vietnam War climate, white supremacy, anti-immigration, racism and racial scapegoating played out in his mother’s trial and conviction, as well as its aftermath. Perez also joined Kaibigang Pilipino (KP), a large Filipino student organization, and Kamalayan Collective, both of which helped to nurture his understanding of what it is to be Filipino and to foster a deeper sense of pride in his identity. He and his compatriots also spent many late nights at the Cross-Cultural Center at UC San Diego engaging with people from other student-of-color organizations.
“At first, my involvement with these organizations was social,” he says, “but it became political very fast.”
Poetry and activism became intertwined for him during this time. He co-founded a pan-racial group of student writers who called themselves Freedom Writers Spoken Word Collective. They wrote together, supported one another and performed at open mics, protest rallies and political events. They attended anti-imperialism protests against the reopening of military bases in the Philippines, rallied on behalf of Filipino airport screeners losing their jobs in the wake of 9/11, and worked with a statewide coalition to pressure the UC Regents to repeal anti-affirmative action policies. The way Perez sees it, these extracurricular activities were crucial components of his education.
“My political science classes taught me about laws and court cases, governmental structures and the legislative process,” he says. “But these kinds of experiences outside the classroom helped to sharpen what I believed and figure out how I could contribute to my community.”
For some poets, the love of poetry precedes all, yet this was not the case for Perez. “I fell in love with communities first, communities fighting for liberation and dignity,” he says. “Poetry happened to be the language that accompanied that love, and helped me articulate and reflect on it.”
Love would prove to be at the center of his work when, after graduating from UC San Diego with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, he returned eight years later to pursue a second masters degree in ethnic studies (he received his first, a Master of Fine Arts in writing and consciousness, from the New College of California in 2006) and a dual doctorate in communication and ethnic studies. In his dissertation, Critical Race Poetics and the Ghostly Matter of U.S. v Narciso and Perez, he examines the motivations behind his own storytelling and performance practice and writes, “I have studied, restudied, written, rewritten, performed, recorded, invented, and reinvented poems, fictions, performances, videos, films — all in an attempt to grasp some aspect of my mother’s (and Narciso’s) past.”
Indeed, he has produced an impressive body of work, including three books of poetry and a number of multimedia performance works to explore Filipino American histories, colonialism and memory as well as interpret his own lived experience.
Today, Perez is an associate professor and director of the ethnic studies program at Cal State San Marcos, where he encourages his students to think about their personal stories. He was appointed the poet laureate of the city of San Diego for 2023-24. And in July, he received a laureate fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.
“Being affirmed for my work and recognized for that is important, but it’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about using the position to start building some momentum for and with San Diego’s youth.”
Perez will collaborate with San Diego-based nonprofit organizations, city offices and schools to launch a program that bridges ethnic studies and poetry and cultivates a rich youth writing culture in San Diego. “Poetry is grounded in bigger questions of community building and empowerment to articulate ourselves, our desires and our visions,” says Perez. And he’s taking every opportunity to demystify poetry and encourage its use as a tool for individual and collective agency.
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