By Anya Shukla
Denisse Aguilar Sarmiento steps onto a dimly lit stage, takes a deep breath, and begins speaking, voice shaking.
“Dear people who say immigrants take everything away from us, / meet my dad. / He didn’t finish college / because his mom died. / He came to the United States / hoping that he could find a job to support his family. / And yes, / just like you read in some history textbooks, / he worked in the fields, / in a vineyard.”
Over the next five minutes, Aguilar Sarmiento performs her original spoken word poem, "Dear People," which describes her experience as a Mexican-American. Her voice grows in intensity as she describes her family, her neighborhood, and the internal conflict she feels as a child of immigrants. When she finishes, the room stays hushed for a moment, then explodes with applause. She receives a standing ovation.
Aguilar Sarmiento, a Latina poet who writes about social justice, first discovered poetry in elementary school. She participates in Rainier Scholars, a Seattle organization that supports hard-working, low-income students of color. Through that program, in fourth grade, she was first introduced to performance through a mandatory oratory, where students recite a short passage from a book.
Then, in eighth grade, she memorized and performed Shane Koyczan's “To This Day,” a six-minute poem about bullying. After her performance, audience members told Aguilar Sarmiento that her words made them cry. “That was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, words really are powerful,’” she said. “I thought they were exaggerating, but I really did see them leave the place crying.”
But for Aguilar Sarmiento, middle school was not easy. "I wanted to write about my experience, but I couldn't," she said. She was one of two Latinx people in her entire school, and her white peers prevented her from speaking up about racial injustice. "There were always these people picking at me and saying 'you can't do that; that's racist."
“Dear white girls at my middle school, / who told me that the program I was in was racist / against white people / because they only accepted people of color, / I am sorry that you didn’t know what white privilege was.”
Once she joined Lakeside, however, she discovered a stronger community of color and became more confident in her work. After she performed “Dear People,” for her friends, they urged her to participate in the school talent show.
After her successful performance, students and faculty congratulated Aguilar Sarmiento for weeks, and Lakeside invited her to speak at two further events: the T.J. Vassar Diversity Celebration and the Day of Remembrance event, which commemorates the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. She wrote a new poem for each event.
Aguilar Sarmiento’s writing method is an organic one: she doesn’t usually sit down to write her poems. Instead, she scribbles down words or phrases throughout the day and adds them to her piece. This fluid creation process allows her to create poetry that feels authentic. “This is my story,” she said, laughing, “And I know it’s my story because I came up with the words while I was doing random things.”
When Aguilar Sarmiento feels a poem is ready, she shares it with her family, who serve as her sounding board. “They keep me grounded, but they also influence me,” she noted. For example, in the first draft of “Dear People,” she briefly mentioned a shooting near her house, but her mom asked her to elaborate on the incident. Now, Aguilar Sarmiento’s memory serves as a powerful moment in the piece.
“When I heard the gunshots, I stood / in the living room paralyzed / as my mom pushed me and my brothers to the ground and told me to not / get up.”
That ability to share such personal experiences with others is what draws Aguilar Sarmiento to poetry. For her, spoken word is a way to perform, but as herself. “I don’t have to change who I am. I don’t have to become someone else,” she said. She dabbled with theater in her freshman and sophomore years but struggled to embody another individual when acting. But with spoken word, it was different. “With spoken word—it’s your story. You wrote it. You know how it’s going to be performed,” she said. “I could tell my own stories the way I wanted to.”
However, she doesn’t see much representation in spoken word: when doing research for the talent show, googling “spoken word poetry” turned up pages of videos of white artists. When Aguilar Sarmiento tried searching “spoken word poetry Latinx” instead, she could only find 10 videos. “The only time I’ve seen representation is in those big competitions,” she said. Right now, she feels her presence in the arts serves as a statistic, a sign that there are more Latinx people entering the arts. “But I don’t to be another statistic,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Because she has seen the lack of diversity in spoken word firsthand, Aguilar Sarmiento hopes her work will help increase racial equity in the arts. “I want to inspire people. I want to inspire young Latinx men and women to get into poetry,” she said. “If it’s your school talent show… do it. Because sometimes you don’t realize it’s something you need in your life until you actually step up to the plate.” She paused, then added: “It’s definitely something I needed in my life from the very beginning.”