In Memory of José Antonio Burciaga

Revolutionary Worker #889, January 12, 1997

The RW recently learned the sad news of the death of Chicano poet José Antonio Burciaga. Travis Morales, a member of La Resistencia and a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was a friend and comrade-in-arms of Burciaga. He sent the RW the following correspondence:


Readers of the Revolutionary Worker,

José Antonio Burciaga, called Tony by family and friends, passed away on October 7, after a 22-month battle with cancer. He was 56 years old. As an artist, poet and muralist, he was a dear friend of the people. The proletariat and oppressed have lost a true compañero who brought passion, inspiration and much humor to the people's struggle for liberation.

Being born and raised in El Paso, Texas, the border heavily influenced his work. His poems were oftentimes bilingual, in caló, the Chicano dialect. He fought to legitimize, through his poetry, the use of caló. For 20 years he utilized his many artistic talents to ridicule and denounce the U.S. for its oppression of Chicanos and Latino people within and outside the United States. We will remember his poems like "Green Nightmares" (about La Migra) and paintings like "Undocumented Love," condemning the brutality committed against our sisters and brothers from other countries.

In 1987 I first met Tony, when I asked him to speak at the bi-national Conferencia Rompamos la Frontera/Breakdown the Border Conference in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. Immediately, he said yes. Over the years, he consistently supported La Resistencia with his ideas, his thoughts, and his art.

More recently, he was deeply angered by the escalating attacks on immigrants. Even in illness, his work continued to reflect his compassion for the people and his outrage at the injustices committed against them. Not that long before he died, he called me while seeing a healer in Chimayo, New Mexico, to talk about the need to organize exposure of the violations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo by the United States government on the 150th anniversary of the treaty.

In a "Commentary" published in the Los Angeles Times, seven months before his death, he wrote:

"Whoa! Did I hear somebody take my name in vain again? Pat Buchanan, in front of Dios y todos, said, "José, we ain't gonna let you in again!"

"Buchanan has consistently, and with disrespect, used the name José as a catchword for all Mexicans.

"Well! Señor Booshanan, as my father-in-law calls you, I want to clarify a few things.

"Numero uno, as we say en español: Aquí estamos y no nos vamos (we're here and we ain't leaving).

This humorous defiance, along with a bitter hatred of oppression, characterized his work. He was a founding member of the comedy group Culture Clash. In the 1975 poem "Gobble, Gobble," (Gaba, Gaba), written about Ben Franklin's proposal that the turkey be the national bird of the United States, he wrote, "United States of America! You are a turkey!"

In 1981 he sent a poem entitled, "Letter to the General" (Carta al General), to then Secretary of State General Alexander Haig, to protest U.S. involvement in El Salvador. In response, he received a form letter from Haig. Throughout the 1980s, Burciaga wrote biting and passionate poems against U.S. intervention in Central America. "Generic Poem for U.S. Military Interventions," originally written for the Grenada invasion, was rewritten and retitled for the U.S. war against Iraq.

Perhaps his most famous poem was "Stammered Dreams" (Sueños tartamudos), which dealt with the difficulty many Chicanos feel in communicating in either language. His published books include, Spilling the Beans, Drink Cultura Refrescants, Undocumented Love, Weedee Peepo, and Restless Serpents. Undocumented Love won the Before Columbus American Book Award for poetry in 1981.

Over the years, Tony and the great Chicano poet Ricardo Sánchez, had a stormy relationship. In one month's time, both were diagnosed with cancer. This followed several years of a very public and acrimonious falling out. After the diagnoses, Ricardo received a call from Tony and in Ricardo's words, "We kissed and made up." Ricardo Sánchez died in September 1995.

We will greatly miss Tony. But his life and work will remain an inspiration for the people's struggle.

In La Resistencia,
Travis Morales

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online

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