Survival Poet

— 'I'm totally lyric," says Erika Lara, a woman in her early 30s who sits on a metal folding chair on the marble landing before Tijuana's municipal government building. "A lyric poet. Uneducated. I barely finished elementary school." The bureaucrats come and go. They know Lara by name. Juggling briefcases and cell phones, they stop to shake her hand. They ask how well her book is selling.

"Would you like to buy my book? A book of poems?" she asks a chubby young father on his way to register some complaint with the city. He holds the hand of a three-year-old girl in a blue polka-dot dress. The child wears white socks and black patent-leather shoes. She has a lazy left eye. She sucks her thumb, studies Lara. The father studies the book, Poemas Que Nacen del Corazón, "Poems Born of the Heart."

"Fifty pesos," Lara says, brushing her long hair from her face.

"Is that you?" the father asks, pointing to the picture on the book's cover showing a young girl beside a nun.

"Well, yes," Lara says, waving a hand in the air. "Many years ago."

The father digs into his pocket and hands Lara a $5 bill.

"Thank you, thank you," she says.

The father gives the book to his lazy-eyed daughter, and the two walk away with one of the almost 3000 copies of Poemas Que Nacen del Corazón Lara has sold since last August.

Barely 8000 Americans subscribe to Poetry magazine. American book publishers are so shy about poetry sales that they don't often give figures. Industry analysts say American publishers print fewer than 3000 copies of a poet's first book. Lara paid a printer in Puebla to publish her poems. She saved up what she could from selling cosmetics door to door. "Avon. Revlon. Ay, there were so many. It was hard work.

"I came to Tijuana when I was 12 years old. Destiny brought me here."

Of the 134 poems in Lara's book, many are about romantic love:

I want to go

Where you go

I want to breathe

The air you breathe

I want to think

What you think

I want to see the blue sky

In which you see infinity

I want to be yours

For life

but most are addressed to Madre, "Mother," or to Madre Antonia.

"When I was 2 years old," Lara explains, "my father was accused of a crime he didn't commit, and he was sent to jail. After that, my mother abandoned me and my five brothers and sisters. This happened in Guanajuato, where I was born. I had an aunt who took care of me. We had very little money. No one knew where my mother was. I still don't know where she is. When I was 12 my aunt gave me money to take a bus to Tijuana to find work. That's how I came here. I wasn't really afraid. I was too young to be afraid, to know about the dangers a young girl might encounter in a big city.

"In this life, it's possible to make mistakes. You do what you have to do to survive. I was lucky. Mother Antonia saved me. She saved my life. A friend told me about her, that Mother Antonia had a place called Casa de Eudes, for young girls who needed help. Mother Antonia also has places for the elderly, for cancer patients. She goes and cares for women in the penitentiary. There were about 40 of us girls at Casa de Eudes. We worked there. We helped Mother Antonia at the houses for the elderly and cancer patients. She gave me my life.

"One day when I was at Casa de Eudes, it was Mother Antonia's birthday. I didn't have any money to buy her a gift, and I wanted so badly to give her something, to show her how much I loved her, to thank her for everything that she'd done for me. All of I sudden, I got an inspiration. An inspiration to sit down and write a poem for her. I don't know where I got the idea of writing a poem. Certainly no one in my family had ever written poetry. The inspiration must have come from God.

"I was very embarrassed when I stood up to read my poem for her. I was blushing. It felt like my whole body was burning. But Mother Anthony was so happy that I'd written a poem for her. And so, after that, I started writing poems. And songs. I've also written around 100 songs.

"I worked at Casa de Eudes for a number of years, and then I started selling cosmetics door-to-door. I tried studying computers for a while. I was taking classes. To try and better my life. To get a better job. But I was making so little money that I couldn't afford to continue the computer classes. So I kept on working. About a year and a half ago I decided that I was going to be serious about my poetry, that I was going to take myself seriously as a poet. It seemed to me that if a poet is truly a poet, then she should work as a poet. So, I stopped selling cosmetics. I gathered up my poems, and I found a printer in Puebla who was willing to print them as a book. He wanted $1000 to print 1000 copies. I'd saved up around $300, and Mother Antonia gave me $200. The printer in Puebla was willing to take my $500 as a down payment. He printed the books and sent them to me, and I immediately went out and started to sell them. As soon as I'd made $300, I sent it to him. That's how's it's been.

"I've gone to just about all the universities in Tijuana, and many of the high schools and elementary schools. I stand or sit out front and sell my book. I sold out my first printing by winter of last year. I've already sold all the second printing and have sold almost all of the third. I started coming to the municipal government building a couple of months ago. I thought it would be a good place because so many people come here all day long. By now, most of the people who work here know me. Many of the important people in city government have bought my book."

Lara's love poems speak often of betrayal, disillusion, and mistrust ("I can't believe how much I loved you..." "I don't need any more false loves, deceptions..."). She says she now has a good boyfriend, "someone decent," and that she's considering marriage. "Perhaps by this summer, I'll decide." She says she is more concerned with publishing her second book, Poems Born of the Heart, Volume Two.

"My plan is to just keep going, selling my poetry. Maybe someday I'll get a little recognition, and I'll be able to start selling my songs. But the future, who knows? I think that you just have to have faith in life. My past was very difficult, but it's the past. I've never been one to complain about things. Since I was a little girl I've understood that you just have to put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. You can't let the past prevent you from moving forward. You make mistakes. You fall. You get up. You try again. You have to be brave. I'll be here at the municipal government building for six more weeks. After that, I don't know. I'll find somewhere else. If I don't sell my poetry, I don't eat."

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