Voices Of The Past: Questions For Poet Renato Rosaldo As a kid in Tucson in the 1950s, anthropologist and poet Renato Rosaldo ran with a crew called the Chasers. 50 years later, he interviewed them at a reunion and created prose poems in their voices.
NPR logo Voices Of The Past: Questions For Poet Renato Rosaldo

Voices Of The Past: Questions For Poet Renato Rosaldo

Most said we'd turn out badly. Our name signified wild guy, partier, fighter. We thrived on reputation. Whether they admired or hated us, everyone knew who we were, our jackets, our spot in the stairwell.

A Chicano teenager in 1950s Tucson had two options: "You could do okay or become a juvenile delinquent," writes anthropologist and poet Renato Rosaldo in his new book of poetry, The Chasers. But Rosaldo and his crew chose a third path. They became the Chasers.

"Their jackets made them visible at Tucson High, 1956–1959," Rosaldo writes of the guys he used to run with. Those jackets, emblazoned with a champagne-filled martini glass, a big crimson CHASERS above and TUCSON below, were the uniform for their gang of drink-chasers, girl-chasers, and truth-chasers.

Ten years ago, Rosaldo — known to the group as Chico — attended his 50th high school reunion, where he applied the skills he developed as an anthropologist to interviewing each of the surviving Chasers. In Rosaldo's anthropological work, he's mined the relationship between scholar and subject, and the ways studying your own place in the world can help you understand others'. In fact, it was in high school that he first learned to study the world. So he thought the Chasers' stories might be worth telling — originally as an ethnographic film, but ultimately he decided to turn the interviews into poetry.

YouTube

Rosaldo tells me the poems clunked at first, until he realized that he needed to speak in the Chasers' own language — a taboo in anthropology. "[It's] a caution about projection, that I'd be speaking entirely from my point of view, my language and perceptions, and not those of my subjects, but I found that aiming for the point of view of my subjects deepened my writing," he says. So they became prose poems.

He also wrote some of those poems in his own voice, and he says they were the hardest to write. "Because a lot of them were about things I was embarrassed about. I was embarrassed that I'd forgotten Spanish. I was embarrassed that I had grown up in Madison, Wisconsin 'til I started junior high school in Tucson. I was embarrassed that I didn't know how to be Mexican American," he says. "So, the 'me' poems — I was really working hard to write them, and they're the last ones I wrote. I had the interviews with all the other guys, but I hadn't interviewed myself."

In the prelude, you call this an "auto-ethnography." Tell me about that.

I think [in] school and the Chasers, I was trying to listen as hard as I could ... What really mattered to them? What did they really want to say about their lives, and about their experiences in high school and what had happened to them later? What was most on their minds? Then I think that in doing that kind of academic work, the most important thing is just listening as hard as you can and trying to see: What matters? What hurts? What do they take pride in? What delights them?

Being part of the Chasers formed me as an anthropologist, so that when I got to college and took an anthropology course, and then did summer field work in highland Ecuador, I found it almost second nature to do what you had to do in anthropology: To observe, to notice ... This is how people do a meal, and they pray before they eat. Do they wait until the father has sat down before they eat? What is the division of labor? So I was used to making that kind of observation, and thinking it really, really mattered. ... It almost seemed like I'd had an intensive course in field research, in doing ethnography, when I was in high school and was a Chaser.

At one point, Angie — your high school girlfriend, and the Chasers' one female friend — wonders "whether in high school we separated from Anglos or they segregated us?" How did the Chasers help you survive in a divided city?

We felt like we had a support group. No matter what happened, we could bring it to the support group, and they'd start hard-assing us, teasing, the joking would start: "So, you think that's bad?" Then they'd start to joke about it, and the idea is we were toughening each other up, was what we believed. And I think what we were getting was a kind of survival toolkit from the joking, from the banter, from the hard-assing.

I think we later realized how exceptional the group actually was, and by standard measures of success. There were two lawyers. There were two medical doctors, one of whom became a psychiatrist. There was me, a professor. There was an elementary school principal. When we had our 50th reunion, and people realized what the Chasers had done with their lives, they were amazed. You know, they thought we were on the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Chasers grappled with questions so many young Latinos grapple with now, especially in a time when our identity has become very politicized nationally. Has thinking about your youth given you perspective on the present?

Trumpism is drawing on a long tradition of seeing Latinos as a menace. And I think what you see here is the value of what I would call el trato, the way you treat people — what it is that Latinos would bring to the table as models of friendship, camaraderie, joy, and being social. And the value of that in producing what supposedly the dominant society values: becoming lawyers, doctors, you know, professional success. They're not at odds at all.

What do you wish you had known about yourself and the Chasers as a young man?

I had the sense that I wasn't quite up to snuff as a Chaser. And I was kind of embarrassed about my good grades. I didn't realize until our gathering at our 50th reunion, [when] some of the Chasers said to me, when we had an assembly with honors for people who'd gotten a good grade point average or whatever, and they announced that I had a scholarship to Harvard ... I didn't realize that the Chasers were proud. I thought I had embarrassed them by being announced in that way at the assembly.

Richard Rocha said, "I was really proud when they announced that," and I said, "Oh, so now you tell me, 50 years after the fact?"

I guess I wish I'd had a more accurate sense of how I was valued.

Stefanie Fernández is a Cuban American journalist in Washington, D.C., where she is a producer at The Atlantic and co-curates NPR Music's Alt.Latino playlist.