Elizabeth Acevedo takes the stage with a somber smile and launches into a gripping tale of love and loss. She runs her fingers through her long, frizzy curls or throws her arms up to the sky as she commands her audience with a rhythm that’s distinctly Latina, distinctly feminine and distinctly her own.
Acevedo’s gift for the spoken and written word has given this humble, well-spoken junior an outlet to perform her slam poetry and elevated her to the national performance poetry scene.
Acevedo was recently featured in a public service announcement for BET and she performed one of her own poems at The Renaissance Hotel for the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
“I just remember watching one day and I hear my voice and I just turned and thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ It was this moment of realization that this might just happen – this might just work,” she said in an interview.
The 5’6″ New York native thrives on her performance poetry. Her use of the English language, powerful voice and ability to express her personal experiences as a woman and as a Latina leaves audiences hanging on her every word.
Acevedo has performed in venues across D.C. and New York and with on-campus organizations such as Capital Funk. She performed in last year’s Capital Funk Showcase at Lisner Auditorium where she presented one of her poems in front of an audience of 900 students and was the only woman and only poet who got a standing ovation.
“To go up there and be like ‘I’m a poet’ and match the intensity of the dancing showed me a lot about myself and about what I bring, I knew I was going the right way,” she said.
With a reserved smile, she recalled the show as one of her favorite college experiences. She remembers thinking: “This is it. This is what I’m doing.”
Acevedo makes a point to perform her own written works unless paying tribute to another author, and her body of work reflects her own life experiences.
“Both of my parents are from the Dominican Republic. I’m first-generation college and first-generation to leave home. A lot of my work grapples with always being in between worlds,” she said. “It’s about trying to use the talent that I have to give a message, but it’s all about art.”
One piece called “Language Lessons” was inspired by her experiences at GW. It focuses on the differences between standard English and nonstandard English and being a first-generation Latina and a woman of color.
Her experiences at GW and in D.C. shaped the poem. “It’s a culture shock walking into a classroom and being the only person of color there,” she said. “Using poetry in a standard way to express that was empowering.”
Acevedo said when she first came to GW she was astonished by the segregation on campus and in the District.
“I was really surprised by all the staff that you see and the professors and the students and the cultures that they all represent and why at times it can seem very segregated,” she said.
But in her three years here, she said she has seen a positive shift in the school’s efforts to promote interaction between different cultural groups.
“There has been a really big change and a feeling that people are more open and more willing to work with each other and go out to events that maybe aren’t part of their culture,” she said.
Acevedo is pursuing her own major in performance art: a combination of theater, creative writing, anthropology, sociology and dance.
Although she is no stranger to the limelight, she admits that performance did not always come easy and was something she had to work at. She wrote her first poem in first grade and started performing at age 12.
“I was always really nervous getting up or standing up,” she said with a hint of nostalgia. “It would take twenty minutes of coaxing to say a two-minute poem.”
It wasn’t until age 14, when she joined a slam poetry group in New York City, that she really began to develop a passion for the craft.
“That was the first time I caught the bug,” said Acevedo, who performed on Saturday night at an Organization of Latin American Students event. She will perform in the 2009 Capitol Funk Showcase on April 26.
“It’s not a class, it’s not a grade,” she said. “At the end of the day, you write because you have something to say.”
“Language Lessons” by Elizabeth Acevedo
I stand in between worlds
attempting to curve my tongue accordingly.
It is difficult to reconcile languages and hypocrisies
to pick and choose phrases
so as not to misinterpret or misrepresent.
I was not raised reading Whitman,
indeed, I was lucky to have been raised reading.
I do not speak in classroom vernacular in the streets
both because it is pompous,
and reason for exclusion.
I find now I am language-less
unable to speak to my community
because my diction is not recognized
puts me in the box of the “educated”,
Unable to speak to you
because my “ghetto” accent
creatively laces itself between exchanges,
and you cannot see past my hoodness
to this meaning.
Code switching is tricky business,
a no-man’s land of slang-lish.
Caught in between impress and express
train of thought translations lost.
I do not know what they have stolen,
both by learning and remembering.
I only know I am mute by default.
Hypocrite by nurture;
firstly, because of the language I use
to write this poem.
Secondly, because the streets where I grew up
will never read it,
the school that I attend will never hear it.
It is difficult to reconcile languages and hypocrisies
when you’re the product of Shakespeare