Keeping It Real

This poem was previously published in the 2014 edition of Huizache and in the collection Shattering and Bricolage.

During the 80s I lived in the projects,
Section 8 housing, a block of apartments
Facing the Pharr Community Center.
Dad had abandoned us. I was sixteen,
Sleeping on pallets with Matthew and Thom
(Beds were a luxury mom couldn’t afford).
Grandpa eventually took pity on us,
But I remember that floor and those roaches,
Shouts not quite muffled by paper-thin walls,
Exiting early each weekday morning to
Catch a school bus with roundabout routes,
Arriving in time for a meager breakfast, then
Classes with teachers who didn’t pick up on my
Situation, who assumed the güero was fine.
Stuffing my face with government lunch, I’d
Steal to the library, hide there for hours,
Buried in different, preferable worlds.

Determined not to piss off the gangsters, I
Tried to stay out of their way.
Long-haired rocker that I was—
Mostly white, with tattered jeans—
Conflict was certain, near preordained.
Locker doors and I became close friends,
Wanksters kicked and tripped and named me
Joto, pendejo, güero cacahuatero.
Finally, they followed me home to the “hood,”
Knocked books from my hands, laughed as I ran.
That was all. I think they pitied me.

Weeks later, crashing glass from downstairs.
Mom blocked the door, locking us in.
Next morning, a curtain fluttered unhindered
Signaling peace between shards of glass.
Bloody and stark, impressed in the windshield
Of our neighbor’s Chevy Nova was the
Shape of some poor bastard’s face.
Baby-daddy’d come home and found Sancho busy.

Later that same year, my little brother
Found a dead body in the grass by the
Canal near Ridge Road and Jackson—
A teacher with AIDS, whose lovers had killed him.
“Screw this,” I finally spat at the cosmos.
“I’m out of this jungle, this ghetto, this hood.”
Scraping and learning and working my ass off,
Leaning on others, like the woman I married,
Slowly I clawed my way out of hell.

How do I keep it real, little homies?
My past makes me humble, it keeps me honest,
But I won’t retain much more than these memories.
Squalor, betrayal, violence and hunger:
I refuse to believe that these are virtues.
Reality is what we build for ourselves,
Hand-in-hand with our loved ones and friends.
That’s the identity to which I am true,
Finding poor souls who are somewhat like me,
Helping them fashion a different world.


  1. David, El Phoenix, forged out of fire, like hardend steele. Your essence noble and pure. You are the better man. Proud to know you. Would like to see you on the middle and high school circuit, reading this poem as a motivational speaker. Maybe your next calling, friend.

    • Richard, thanks! I do around 10 school visits a year (using my vacation days, heh), but I usually focus on legends. Your suggestion is a great one, and I might just do that!

  2. David, I loved this poem. You achieved emotional intensity in every line. I could relate to your personal account of your childhood years and I have written several poems of similar feelings, but submitted them only to certain publications. I admire your honesty and the
    amazing manner in which you not only survived but became such a caring individual plus achieving great success as an author. It’s good to know that a poet and a reader can realize that unpleasant events of our lives can bring pain yet be able to see the poem objectively as time goes by. Thank you for sharing it! Olga

    • Olga, thanks for these kind words! I am so pleased that the emotions came across well enough to move you. Poetry is a great way to work through this stuff, isn’t it?

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