Social Justice in Center Stage

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Paul S. Flores chronicles the narratives of the Latino community.

He began writing at the age of nine. Now he is a nationally produced playwright, award-winning published poet and acclaimed spoken-word artist. UC San Diego alumnus Paul S. Flores, ’95, has made his name opening up discourse on the intersection of urban culture, hip-hop and transnational identity within the Latino community through raw, inventive and impactful ways.

The Artistic Catalyst

Flores attended UC San Diego from 1993 to 1995 as a literature/writing major, first arriving to the university while still playing baseball for the Chicago Cubs organization. As a Chula Vista, Calif. native, Flores was thrilled at the opportunity to be at a major university. His second year at UC San Diego, he decided to quit baseball in order to invest himself in writing. This life-changing decision was greatly influenced by former professor Quincy Troupe, lecturer Melvyn Frielicher, as well as then-visiting professor Victor Hernandez-Cruz.

“I always knew Paul was a talented poet, even right when I first met him,” says Troupe. “The most important piece of advice I give to my students is to stay true to where you’re from, drawing on your own experiences and ultimately developing your own language. And from what I’ve seen, Paul does that very well.”

PaulSFlores“1994 became a defining year that would change my direction and my purpose in life,” Flores says. One day while walking to class, he saw an on-campus rally against Proposition 187, a bill aimed at excluding illegal immigrants from California state services. The rally was led by Harry Simon, ’95, M.A. ’09, at the time a member of the political organization Union Del Barrio and editor of the UC San Diego Chicano-oriented and student-run publication Voz Fronteriza.

Flores witnessed Simon passionately speaking on the problems Prop 187 would bring about for Latino immigrants: racism, economic scapegoating, deportation, segregation and oppression. “I felt immediately emotional, angry and I wanted to get active,” Flores says.

That’s exactly what he did.

Flores took action, joining other university students as well as Latino community activists to hold demonstrations at the San Ysidro Border against migrant deaths. From then on, his passion for social activism erupted, coupled with his first spoken-word performance on campus. “I became a spoken word poet, an artist and Latino community leader while at UCSD. Twenty years later, this is who I am today—in San Francisco and all over the world.”

From the Margins, to the Spotlight

“I was so proud of my alma mater. I felt like the school cared about its alumni in the arts.”

PLACAS_CleanFlores has produced a handful of dynamic plays, most recently “PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo.” Titled after barrio slang for “body tattoos,” “PLACAS” addresses the dangers of gangs and the obstacles that arise as one man disaffiliates from a gang to reunite his family after many hardships, including the civil war in El Salvador, immigration, deportation, prison and street violence. Flores interviewed more than 100 gang members throughout the script-writing process.

Earlier this year, Flores was joined by Alex Sanchez, executive director of the non-profit organization Homies Unidos and an inspiration for “PLACAS,” at the university’s Cesar Chavez Celebration to perform a reading of the play. “Bringing my play ‘PLACAS’ to UCSD 20 years after I graduated was such a joy, and a little surreal,” Flores says. “When Professor Elana Zilberg was able to secure funding to sponsor and present three events around ‘PLACAS’ at UCSD, I was so proud of my alma mater. I felt like the school cared about its alumni in the arts. I felt like the stories I told about Latinos struggling to thrive in the U.S. were validated at a different level.”

Every audience member that commented on the reading told Flores how grateful they were that a piece about Salvadorian culture has finally been written. Flores plans on presenting “PLACAS” in California from January through March of 2016.

Word is Born

In addition to his theater arts, Flores has written and performed myriad successful poems. His powerful spoken word poem “Brown Dreams” from the former series Def Poetry on HBO tells the story of Francisco, a Mexican immigrant who was searching for his dream in the “land of the free,” but was doomed to a very different American reality. The spoken word has been viewed on YouTube more than 100,000 times, and continues to create critical conversation about military and race among U.S. youth.

Exposing the youth to the arts is important to Flores; according to him, this millennial generation holds more power than people think. Flores cofounded Youth Speaks in 1996 with a mission to create safe spaces for the uncensored and unadulterated presentation of youth voices. Since then, he has introduced the art of spoken word to youth nationwide. Flores helped develop “Brave New Voices” program within the Youth Speaks’ National Youth Poetry Slam, which takes place in a different city each year. In the Bay Area, Flores currently manages the Unity Council’s Latino Men & Boys Program, which provides young Latino males with the support to thrive academically, build healthier lives, find jobs as well as reduce violence.

Though he now resides in Northern California, Flores dreams of coming back to UC San Diego, to inspire others as he was likewise inspired. “After all those hours in writing workshops, looking out at Black’s Beach from the top floor windows of Warren College, listening to my accomplished professors talk about writing and art movements, I was determined to make meaningful work and bring it back to San Diego, full circle.”

Upcoming Appearances: