An Interview with Gabriel Cortez—Ecology Center Poet-in-Resident

Gabriel Cortez is a unique Bay Area transplant—raised in Maryland, Virginia, and Los Angeles and of Afro-Panamanian descent, his childhood trained him in navigating the contradictions between his Panamanian and United States cultures. But when you are young and don’t yet have the words to express the daily challenges you face, you just deal with it or, like Gabriel, you become a poet.

Gabriel is the inaugural poet-in-residence at the Ecology Center, where the art of spoken word and the themes of food sovereignty and climate justice come together to create art that is both beautiful and powerful.

1) Where do you draw inspiration for your poetry? And what propels you to keep writing and performing poetry?

Community has always been an essential part of my work. Free workshops, open mics, poetry slams, summer programs, talks, teach-ins, and meeting after meeting after meeting — this is where I learned to do most of what I do now. It was within these community art spaces in the Bay that I learned to understand the work of the poet as culture worker, shaping our stories and the ways we as humans understand the world and ourselves within it at the level of language and sound, word, line, and syllable.

Berkeley Farmers’ Market poetry performance with Zara Jamshed

For the last 15 years, some of my most important work has involved helping to create pathways for others to join and uplift this beloved community so they too might learn to access their voice as a tool to help bring about a more fun, just, caring, and sustainable world. This is what has always propelled me as a poet, educator, and organizer, and I am excited to continue that work within my new role as the Ecology Center’s inaugural poet-in-residence.

2) As the Ecology Center poet-in-residence, you are exploring the topics of climate justice and food sovereignty? What is your connection to these topics? What do they represent for you personally?

The first time I wrote about food sovereignty was through a collaboration with the Ecology Center and The Bigger Picture Project in 2013. I was part of a cohort of young Latinx poets who drew upon our personal experiences with type 2 diabetes and sugar-sweetened beverages to write poems in support of the Berkeley soda tax. My poem, “Perfect Soldiers,” is an example of the kinds of stories we knew were important to tell at that time: stories that shifted that conversation from blaming individuals for their health outcomes to scrutinizing the systems that made it so Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Pacific Islanders were disproportionately impacted.

My personal involvement in the historic victory of that campaign is a big part of why I am so excited to deepen my collaboration with the Ecology Center now. As poet-in-residence, I see an opportunity to build on the successes of our past narrative strategies so they reflect the exciting developments that have happened in the last decade around environmental justice, food sovereignty, and land sovereignty.

3) In your poem “Perfect Soldiers,” you make very pointed observations. For example, you write: “It’s how you learn to drink growing up in a country where Coca Cola is cheaper than clean water.” Another example, “…we never learned to pull maize from the soil, but we did learn to pull the tab from a coke can…” These perfect soldiers are equally occupied by military and commercial forces. How did you come to realize this? And what is your response to it?

When originally researching this poem, I learned that Panama was one of the first locations Coca-Cola was produced and sold outside the United States. After US soldiers arrived in Panama, US industries soon followed, as well as the particularly US racial apartheid system known as Jim Crow. So US involvement in the creation of the Panama Canal transformed not just the natural ecology of Panama but also the culture and relationships of the people that worked and lived there, who were suddenly subject to new forms of structural violence like Black and white racial segregation.

What was clear to me that I wanted to make sure came through in this poem is how military and economic colonization are intertwined and how, together, they mediate the colonial subject’s understanding of our bodies, our relationship to food and land and survival, and what we think is possible.

4) Your poems draw on specific details of time, place, and personal experience. In the poem “November 16th, 2018,” you write about California wildfires and four boys playing basketball. What is the corollary between these two events, and why is it important?

I wrote this poem after the Camp Fire, which is currently the deadliest wildfire in California history. I was teaching at an Oakland High School at the time and got to witness first hand the ways anti-Blackness and neglect mediate our response to catastrophe and determine what we even consider a catastrophe at all. I will never forget how schools stayed open, how students like Kioni, Daezon, and Azad were allowed to stay outside and play basketball, even as the toxic fumes of burned houses was so thick between us, you could see students disappear into the smoke just a few feet from you.

It is important to name that this is an everyday reality for Black communities in the Bay who, because of redlining, segregation, “urban renewal,” and a host of other disastrous policies perpetuating racial apartheid, live in neighborhoods that were intentionally placed closer to freeways, power plants, and other sources with disproportionately high levels of pollution.

5) In your poem “November 16th, 2018,” the circumstances for Jeremiah, Azad, Kioni, Chris, and Daezon seem inescapable: the air poisons them, and though they are mere boys, they seem accustomed to living with uncertainty. Is that how you see the circumstances for you and your contemporaries in the face of climate change?

All of the systemic conditions I point to in my work are human-made and, because of that, we have the power and responsibility to change them. We see the state’s response to climate change and how it often reinforces our current social reality, where some communities become more wealthy at another’s expense. We see it, for example, in the ways we choose to prioritize creating huge infrastructure for electric vehicles in California, while longstanding calls for reparations, abolition, and wealth redistribution that would help fundamentally shift the conditions at the root of racial apartheid are often ignored.

The kind of freedom I am interested in doesn’t live on basketball courts but it might begin there, in the spaces where we gather and find each other and create small moments of meaning and joy with each other, despite everything. What is important is that those circles turn towards the conditions impacting our communities and find ways to gather and move power in ways that have our needs at the center of them.

6) You are now working with a lot of local youth through your role as Ecology Center’s poet-in-residence. What are some of the major concerns and aspirations of the youth you encounter? And how do you see them coping with them?

I hope youth participants walk away from our time together feeling more connected, more possible, and more inspired to act up. To be alive today is to be intimately familiar with the existential threats posed by climate change and the further peril it promises to bring to our relationship to the land, to our food, and to each other — unless we do something about it. We recognize that we have to uproot the colonialism and capitalism that got us here and also how impossibly large that task can feel.

In Berkeley and the broader Bay Area, we come from a long lineage of young artists and activists that show us how to invent new worlds. I want local young folks to feel a deep sense of connection with that lineage, to feel in conversation with it, and to ultimately help push it forward in ways we cannot yet imagine without them.

The challenge is huge but the Bay is also the place where free breakfast was invented, and ethnic studies, and the first ever national poetry slam took place. It is where Alicia Garza, the first person to utter, “Black Lives Matter,” was born. What grows here has the potential to heal the world.

7) Are we going to have an opportunity this year to see you perform live in the Bay Area? Can you share any details on what you are planning?

Yes! I will be performing at the following public events this semester:
Saturday, May 25, 1–2pm: Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market
Sunday, June 2, 3:45–4:45pm: Bay Area Book Festival
Tuesday, June 18, 2:30–3:30pm: South Berkeley Farmers Market

Gabriel Cortez performs for the Berkeley High School Freshman Class

As more events come up, I will post about them on Instagram at @gabrielmcortez. If anyone reading this is interested in collaborating on a show, speaking engagement, writing workshop or more, I would love to hear from you at

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