Artist Interview: Denise Benavides

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Your work often deals with the themes of institutional racism and violence that are being featured in this year’s Day of the Dead exhibition. Why do you feel it’s important for artists to address these issues?

I think that I have one, maybe two, poems that directly address institutional racism. I think that my work indirectly speaks to those issues. I feel like my presence alone as an artist directly speaks into institutional racism. I don’t think my work actually does that, I think that it does so on a subconscious level. I definitely address violence. Violence against the body, against the mind, against who I am as a person, as a queer woman of color. It’s incredibly imperative for artists to do this because I think the number one role of an artist, first and foremost, is to document. To archive the lens through which we are viewing the world (present times). I feel like I have a sense of responsibility to do so.

I enter poetry through trauma, that is my angle. I’ve experienced trauma I write through it in order to produce something that has a positive, uplifting, way of navigating out of it. Not to say that my poetry does that, there isn’t a happy ending in my poetry. It’s more so just saying ‘Hey I’ve experienced this, I’ve written it down, you’re not alone’. It’s documenting the human existence in order for others to not feel  alone in their struggle.

You’re a San Diego native who grew up at odds with your community. What drew you to the Bay Area and how do you feel connected to the community here?

I grew up in east San Diego and it’s definitely not the one that’s shown in postcards. If you’re familiar with San Diego at all, if you’ve ever visited, it’s a gorgeous place, it’s beautiful but it’s heavily segregated and it’s incredibly conservative. Historically it’s a military town and it has that mentality and that state of mind. It’s so close to the border and I’m a first generation child in America, I come from two immigrant parents and their the only family in the US so I was consistently crossing the border at least three to four times a week and there’s a difference between say, growing up Latino and there’s a difference saying ‘I live in Mexico this where I grew up this is what I know.’ So where I grew up specifically is heavily steeped in white supremacy and my family was the only Latino and the only family of color out of like five, no exaggeration. Growing up in that mentality you’re not surrounded by people that look like you, you’re not surrounded by books, by literature, by art that reflects who you are as a person, even if you’re still trying to navigate what that means. Reading books, reading stories with all these personalities and characters and not seeing someone that looks like you in your teachers, in your leadership I think it does something to you deep down in your personality and who you become after that and the way that affects who you think you can be and what you can become.

So coming up to the Bay Area, I was about 20 yrs old and, I immediately had a sense of I had no idea who I am, however, whoever would become would be accepted here. I think the Bay Area was tender enough to allow me to kind of express myself in all these shapes and manners. I found myself in the realm of being surrounded by like minded people and allowing my voice to come through. I think that was huge for me. A lot of latinos in the art scene here, seeing myself in others, it was so beautiful to surround myself with joy and laughter especially as an artist, I definitely found community here. One I was desperately seeking and lacking in San Diego.

There is such a strong rhythmic quality that comes through in both your performance and written work. What do you get from performing that is different than writing?

I started writing in maybe 2010/2011 out of sheer desperation and a need to get everything off my chest. It was definitely my safe haven, and words and language became my solace. My first introduction to poetry was deaf poetry in the 90s. So I would watch a ton of youtube videos and I would see what they were doing and their styles, and how I could hear a poem and be a witness to a poem but I wasn’t just experiencing a poem, I was experiencing the poet. It’s very different, if you read my work. If you pick up a book you have it with you, you have a chance to sit down with it, you’re reading it and you kind of find parts and traits of it that resemble your own. Then when you see a performance it’s kind of like you’re seeing that person so there’s a different dialogue there, and that’s special to me. I’ve also been very critical that if I’m performing it then that means that it’s perfect on the page too. Both, you can’t have a wonderful performance and have it be shit on the page. So craft wise it’s always been really important for me to be able to perform my work simultaneously. Both have hierarchy for me, both are on the same level for me, I can’t just be a page poet and I can’t just be a performance poet. It’s very integral for me. It’s not a show. Yes, I’m a performance poet in the sense that it’s imperative for me to be proud of my work on the page. I do my performance because I feel like it’s a disservice not to, to the poem on the page

What does it mean to you to host an event like Today is the Shadow of Tomorrow: Día de los Muertos?

That’s a really layered question for me, especially recently. I lost my godfather because of depression— he took his own life. So first and foremost, that day I will be celebrating his life and the goodness that he brought with him when he walked through the door. Personally, I will be celebrating his life, and who he was for me, and the great man that he was.

On a cultural level I think it’s absolutely beautiful that I can be hosting such a night. It’s such a huge celebration in Mexico and it has such a strong indigenous tradition that it allows me to feel that much closer to my heritage, to something that is so deeply important to my race that I haven’t really experienced in my life. I come from blue collar parents and yes we were Mexican, yes we were Latinos in the US, but if we celebrated or were not assimilating, anything that had to do with our culture was shunned and ostracized where we grew up in San Diego. To be able to celebrate it openly with friends and community is huge for me! It’s also a huge honor for me to be asked by Rene who is the godfather of the fucking mission for Christs sakes. It’s beautiful to be sharing space, sharing heart, sharing such a beautiful night of celebration with so many beautiful artists. And the reasoning behind it, I think that we must carry on these traditions and we must carry on the importance of that for future generations. It’s an acknowledgement of our ancestors.
I told you about my godfather and how I lost him this year. It’s really important for me to address that in my poems and in my writing because it is a mental illness, and it is a disease, and it does affect so many of us. That’s what I hope that my work does as well is showcasing my own mental illness in a manner that helps heal other people.


The exhibition:  Today is the Shadow of Tomorrow: Día de los Muertos is opening October 9th and on view from October 9th – November 7th, 2015.

About the Author:
Alexandra Fulks is a senior at California College of the Arts and a Communications and Community Engagement Intern at SOMArts Cultural Center.


Photo courtesy of Dan Fenstermacher and video shot by Dan Fenstermacher, editing by Evan Karp