David Hernandez -- R.I.P.

Puerto Rican poet, band leader, and pioneer of the country's cutting edge in poetry performance, David Hernandez passed away on Monday, February 25, 2013 in the city he loved, Chicago, due to a heart attack. He was 66.

I met David thirty years ago exactly, 1983, during a fundraiser for mayoral candidate Harold Washington, who went on to become the city's most beloved mayor. I then moved to Chicago in 1985 and worked with David in various configurations of the poetry and art scene in that vibrant city until I left in 2000.

David Hernandez and Street Sounds were the performers to bring to any occasion. Combining David's humor, poignancy, and rhythms with words, the group took poetry to new heights. According to the Chicago Tribune, David once performed to a million people in Chicago's Grant Park and was commissioned to write a poem for the city's 150th anniversary. He worked with troubled youth in lockups and prisons, with the homeless, with the most forgotten and pushed aside. He carried the soul of his Puerto Rican heritage through words and music. At the same time he reached out and embraced all peoples, all colors, all of Chicago's amazing cultures, languages, and voices.

He was my friend and a poetry partner, helping me also create Tia Chucha Press in 1989 and in establishing the Guild Complex Literary Center. Along with books by Michael Warr, Patricia Smith, and Rohan Preston, David's 1991 poetry collection "Rooftop Piper" helped launched this press to national status. At one point he was declared the city's "unofficial poet laureate."

David also knew about drink, drugs, and the street life--in this respect we related, even as we got clean, worked hard to help others, and tried to tear away from the most debilitating prisons of the mind and spirit.

David was one of the sweetest person I ever knew; he always embraced me, treating me like a brother. The last time I saw David, Tia Chucha Press was doing a reading at Jak's Tavern and Restaurant near Greektown as an offsite reading for the American Writing Programs Conference in February of 2012 -- celebrating 23 years of existence. Also on the bill were veteran TCP poets Mary Hawley, Warr and Smith, among others, and new ones such as Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Luivette Resto, and Melinda Palacio. I recalled his big smile, as if he was enjoying not only colleagues but his children continuing to break through all boundaries as we revolutionize the world with words, ideas, and song.

David's legacy can be found in all that we do.

His spirit is now in Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore, which I helped bring to the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles in 2001 with a strong influence from Chicago's cultural cafes, theaters, art galleries, and studios.

Hermano, compay, te doy abrazotes fuertes -- que en paz descances.


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