Through Poetry, Luya Bridges Gaps and Diasporas in Chicago

alt text By Alex Y. Ding, Arts and Culture Reporter, The Real Chi

In a red, brick building in Pilsen, about 75 attendees squeezed into ISA Studios, a multidisciplinary arts and community space where roughly twenty storytellers took the stage to deliver their stories in the form of spoken word, music, and performances.

The event’s founder and organizer, Chris Aldana — a Filipina poet and Ho Chi Minh city transplant — served as the emcee. Against a backdrop of art, books and a trailer draped in sparkling Christmas lights, Aldana kicked off the ninth night of Luya Poetry, the monthly open mic for people of color, with a poem from queer Samoan poet Terisa Siagatonu to introduce the night’s theme: Lessons.

Aldana founded Luya Poetry in 2018 with a group of young multidisciplinary artists from the Chicago Filipinx diaspora as a way to address — through art and activism — what she saw as a gap in the creative scene in Chicago.

“There’s such a huge diversity to Asian American stories,” Aldana said. “But in the wider media, it gets flattened.”

“When we create Pan-Asian spaces, we don’t highlight cultures other than East Asian culture a lot of the time,” Aldana added.

Together, they've fomented a vibrant landscape in which more Asian diasporic and people of color artists have the tools to create, to take risks, to build community and to uplift underrepresented stories.

Indian American writer Jessica Mascarenhas delighted the audience with a poem about her unibrow as a metaphor for the bloody legacy of the Partition of India.

“Luya is the place I tell those stories I’m too scared to tell at other places,” Mascarenhas said. “Everybody is listening. It feels intimate, even though there’s 90 people in the room. That kind of community is not easy to find.”

Members from other diasporic communities were also welcomed into the fold to tell their stories, including Northern California born-and-bred Saaji Mahal, a Black queer poet, who headlined the event.

What Aldana has learned from four years of living in Chicago is that Chicago’s cultural and poetry landscape has undergone significant growth. This new generation of diverse artists operates in both grassroots DIY scenes and in long-standing Chicago institutions, including Young Chicago Authors, where Mascarenhas, Aldana, Mahal and the night’s inaugural performer Sammy Ali Ortega have all made stops.

“As artists, we get inspiration from each other. People are down to collaborative, create new things, which I love,” Aldana said. “We’re beginning to see more spaces than when I moved that don’t follow the same formats. ”

Towards the end of the night, Filipina organizer Hannah Doruelo performed a poem entitled “Filipino Time,” a tribute to an elder community organizer in the Filipino community who had recently passed.

Doruelo recalled a story from the third grade — where she lined a table with “crispy lumpia rolls and hand-embroidered handkerchiefs” for her school’s predominantly white cultural fair — that morphed into a meditation on the sadness that lingers when cultural imperialism persists, and a desire to belong and know one’s place in history.

Doruelo asked the audience to silently reflect and to take a collective moment to sit on that history.

“Honor all the memories, stories, people archived within you,” Doruelo said. “And all the people and places we come from.”

As people sat in a crowded room, honoring the past and ruminating on its lessons, the room buzzed with a quiet but powerful sense of rootedness, connection, and potential — a new generation of diasporic artists growing into their power.