Look at the way the vein in his neck strains as he talks, heated and strong. It is not a warning of imminent violence; maybe that’s the story that’s been imposed on someone who looks like Jozer Guerrero — young, male, brown-skinned — but that is not the role he chooses to play. An activist, actor, and slam poet, the bulging vein is not anger but passion. His fists he uses only to gesture, as power flows from his mouth.
Twenty-four years old, Jozer first got his start in slam poetry at seventeen. He went to a Cafe Cultura event and there learned about Minor Disturbance, an independent literary arts organization that strives to help Denver youth find their voice through performance and poetry.
Founded in 2006, the group hosts a monthly youth slam and open mic, a monthly workshop series, and outreach in the Denver Public Schools. Minor Disturbance is competitive, fielding a team every year for the annual Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam Festival. Yet when I spoke with Jozer, his fellow alumnus Franklin Cruz, and current participant Emery Vela, it was crystal clear that “the points [awarded in competition] are not the point.” As Emery says, they are “a team first and foremost, and then it’s about the poetry, and then it’s about the competition.”
The first time Franklin Cruz took the stage was at a Minor Disturbance poetry slam, and he was shocked when audience members approached him after the performance to tell him how much his work had resonated with them. “Never had anyone been this moved by anything I had ever done.”
In the summer of 2011, Franklin competed with Minor Disturbance at that year’s Brave New Voices festival.
Spartan warlords were the first to harness the power of love. They had a way of splitting battles into love affairs, encouraging the soldier to make love with his comrade.
The experience opened his eyes to “the power of youth.”
Shut up, faggot.
We. Are not faggots. We. Are Sparta.
Despite identifying as shy and quiet, Franklin found himself on a stage flanked by teammates, spitting about how a queer culture had been nurtured in the Spartan army. This, he tells me, was “a means to empower young queer individuals who feel powerless about their lives.”
Become the warrior of your potential. Brothers. Sisters. Collect your courage. Together, we are an army unstoppable.
This. Is Sparta.
Emery Vela, 16-year-old member of the 2016 BNV team, tells me that for him, it is the experience of practicing and performing poetry that makes him feel powerful.
“I was reclaiming my voice. I am a trans and Latinx poet, and so often in media and art in general, these two facets of my identity are either misrepresented or not discussed at all.” Emery, too, acknowledges the incredible power, not just in poetry, but in the community that surrounds it. For him, dedicated coaches “uphold the sacredness it takes to write and perform poetry.”
Jozer has come to discover not just personal satisfaction in his work, but the political power in poetry. When he was 18, Jozer performed a poem outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. I could hear the pride in his voice when he related the story of a woman who had told him that his performance had given her detained husband the strength to keep going. But even in the seemingly apolitical environment of an open mic night or a youth festival, Jozer points out how the power of poetry has political weight. “People of color are always told that their stories don’t matter,” he tells me. “It’s the idea that your story matters just as much as anyone else’s.”
This discovery does not come for free but is earned by writing and rehearsing, by asking loud questions — ‘If the sounds of stomachs rumbling reminded you of bullets, would you be afraid of hunger? If your children cried for food, would you steal a piece of bread for them?’ — and unflinchingly speaking the answers they find: ‘Then why would you blame anybody for coming to America?’
We all live, I believe, in houses built of narrative. A blond girl from the suburbs is nice and an easy target. A black teenager in a white tank top is a threat. For better or for worse, most of us live out the stories we’re born into. What the Minor Disturbance poets are doing is rare and powerful. They are grabbing hold of the scripts that bind their lives. And rewriting them.
Minor Disturbance holds monthly workshops, youth slams, and open mics for all ages on the second Sunday of the month at the Mercury Cafe.