Multilingual students embrace poetry  
Arizona Daily Star
March  22, 2009


By Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


Laxmi Dahal and Hari Adhikari read in Nepali.

Shukuru Kalunga's words flowed in French.

Anastasia Gorskova and Roman Tuareyev recited in Russian.

Phillip Brenfleck Jr. waxed in Chinese. Lisset Mayagoitia did the same in English.

And Ernesto Barraza, Jennifer Colmenero and Eliza Weeks delivered their words in Spanish.

These high school students participated in the International Languages Poetry Celebration last weekend, reading their original works in their adopted and native languages.

While thousands of Tucsonans converged at the University of Arizona for the Festival of Books that day, a small audience, mainly supportive family members, sat in the Tucson High Magnet School auditorium to hear the students bravely read their endearing words.

The poetry reading was a success by the measure of the students' inspiration and creativity.

Barraza, Colmenero, Weeks and Kalunga were awarded scholarships for their poetry.

In all, 63 multilingual students in the Tucson Unified School District submitted poems in 12 languages in the first-ever event sponsored by the Educational Enrichment Foundation with support from the Marshall Foundation, Helen S. Schaefer and the Lucille E. Williams Foundation.

The poems were about family, school, history, nature and the desert, home, prom night, and, of course, love.

It was an afternoon when Tucson displayed its youthful diversity and growing strength. Foreign-born students read in their native languages and English, and native-born students expressed themselves in English and a foreign language.

While Tucson's streets have always been filled with multilingual voices, those voices were mainly European in origin. Today's newer voices come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It's Tucson's changing face.

For Dahal and Kalunga, both students at Catalina High Magnet School, the poetry celebration was another opportunity for them to engage in what they enjoy: writing.

"I feel more comfortable writing. I express what I have inside. The only way to speak is to use my pen," said Kalunga, an 18-year-old senior, a political refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Dahal, 16 and a sophomore, is a political refugee born in Bhutan, a small landlocked South Asian country. Like his classmate, he embraces the written word. He writes for 110, an afterschool magazine project run by Voices: Community Stories Past and Present Inc.

While the two have not lived in this country long Dahal arrived seven months ago from a Nepal refugee camp and Kalunga came 14 months ago from Uganda they have quickly adopted English and work hard to master the language.

Both students took to writing early in their lives. Kalunga said he began writing poetry when he was 10. Dahal was in the third grade when he joined a writing club.

In the power and gracefulness of their writing, both intend to use their personal experiences of displacement. Their writing will speak truth to power about their lives as refugees in Tucson.

Kalunga is writing a play. Dahal writes essays.

They appreciate the opportunities they and their families have to begin new lives in a safe and promising community. They clearly know their native lands could not have afforded them the education and potential that Tucson offers them.

But they prefer to write in their native languages: Nepali for Dahal, and French and Swahili for Kalunga, along with several other languages spoken in his native central African country.

It is not rejection but acceptance. It is not a slap at Tucson but a self-embrace.

"My language represents who I am and my country," Kalunga said. He added that he hopes to return to his country, where political forces threatened his family, and work for peace.

Dahal said by continuing to write in his native language while living in his adopted country, he will maintain a nurturing connection to Bhutan and his culture.

"I can't change my identity," he said. "I'm still Bhutanese."

Reporter Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. has deep roots here. His maternal grandparents came to Tucson in 1931. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Argentine-born Onofre Navarro, lived in Tucson beginning in the 1860s. Portillo can be contacted at 807-8414 or

Did You Know

More than 80 foreign languages are spoken by students in the Tucson Unified School District.

If You Go

The Tucson Poetry Festival will celebrate its 27th anniversary April 2-5 at Tucson High Magnet School, at East Sixth Street and North Euclid Avenue. Visit for more information.


The Tears Flowed by Shukuru Kalunga

Sonnet by Jennifer Colmenero

Between the Wolf and the Serpent by Ernesto Barraza

1930 Obscurity by Eliza Weeks