Photo by Mark Rabine.

Sipping a coffee at L’s Cafe on 24th Street, San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguía declares proudly: “Twenty-fourth Street is the bellybutton of the universe.”

It’s a line from one of his poems—one that actually landed in the legislation to demarcate 24th Street as a Latino Cultural Corridor. For Murguía, such a designation as a cultural hub preceded any formal recognition from the city.

“Very organically, 24th Street has become this great literary scene….I’m surprised by all the reading series that happen along this stretch,” said Murguía, citing frequent readings at Adobe Books, Modern Times, and La Movida as well as Galería de la Raza’s La Lunada. “The city needs to acknowledge all the good that’s here.”

To further the street’s identity as a destination for literary culture, Murguía has helped organize the International Flor y Canto Poetry Festival. Starting this week, the festival will bring a collection of more than 40 local and international poets to venues along 24th Street to share their work over the course of three days.

Drawing inspiration from Meso-American traditional gatherings, Murguía says the Flor y Canto fests are about the solidifying of friendship and metaphorical examination of life’s most profound questions. He says that while the tradition has seen a revitalization since the Chicano Movement of 1960s and 1970s, 24th Street’s 2015 event is unique for its international roster of poets.

A reading by the revolutionary Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal culminates the event Saturday night at the Brava Theater. Often mentioned when the Nobel Prize in Literature comes up, Cardenal is one of the towering figures of Latin American letters. The poet also has a uniquely Mission connection, as he was on hand in 1977 to offer a poetic mass for the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts’ opening day.

“He is one of the greatest living poets,” said Murguía of Cardenal, who was also part of the Sandinista movement in the 1970s and was named Minister of Culture  in 1979 after the Sandinistas ousted General Anastasio Somoza. “His books changed the consciousness of a generation.”

The festival kicks off with an inaugural ceremony on Thursday night at Cafe La Boheme. That night, readings by numerous local poets fill six different venues along 24th Street—a paseo poético, or poetic stroll, in Murguía’s words. One event features the release of the first ever anthology of poetry by writers working in Mapuche, a language of Chilean indigenous people.

A reading on Friday, dubbed “Four Corners, Five Directions,” furthers the international flavor of the event. Murguía is joined at the Mission Cultural Center by an impressive roster of poets. Internationally renowned Nicaraguan poet Daisy Zamora, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles Luis Rodriguez, Chicana poets Demetria Martinez and Lorna Dee Cervantes, and “Honorary Mission District Poet Laureate” Roberto Vargas will all share their work.

“We have East, West, North, and South, but in the indigenous world view, there’s the fifth direction, which is the center,” said Murguía of the event’s name. “When we come together we are the fifth direction.”

That coming together is crucial to the mission of the Flor y Canto Festival. With the exception of Ernesto Cardenal’s reading, all events are free and open to the public, which also includes a full day of interactive workshops and readings on Saturday.

“One of the reasons we’ve made so many events free is because we we want to encourage as many people as possible to come,” said Murguía. “This a statement that we are still here—artists and poets coming together to say we are here and we are firm, to drive us out will be hard. Poetry itself is an act of solidarity.”

The Flor y Canto International Poetry Festival begins Thursday, May 14, with events on Friday, May 15, and readings and poetry workshops on Saturday, May 16. Almost all events are free. You can find more information here. Tickets for an Evening with Ernesto Cardenal at the Brava Theater on Saturday, May 16, are $12-$20. Click here for tickets and information.

Cardenal reads below with a translator:

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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