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At Muddy Waters Coffee House on Nov. 29, powerhouse spoken word performer Mayda Del Valle took to the small, carpeted stage with some heat, passion and South Side Chicago attitude in an event put on by the MultiCultural Center.
When it comes to performance art, Del Valle is no newbie. Smithsonian Magazine picked her as one of “America’s Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences,” Oprah’s O Magazine chose her as one of the 20 women for the first “O Power List,” and she was even invited to perform at The White House for the Obamas in 2009. Described by the Chicago Sun Times as a “wild spirit, defiant and determined and thrilling,” Del Valle lived up to the hype at her Muddy Waters performance.
The dim venue was small and crowded, with just a couple of overhead laser beams that changed colors every few seconds. There were skeletons and Dia de los Muertos configurations layered on the walls, along with Arabic-inspired tiling. Red velvet couches covered with a fantastic array of pillows served as seats for some of the spectators; the other sixty or so sat in fold up chairs or stood leaning against the bar. The packed venue might have verged on claustrophobic for some, but the closeness of people added to the intimacy of the show. DJ Tempest filled up the space in between poems with funky jazz beats, adding to the enjoyable atmosphere.
The night began with the opening work of UCSB students Demi Anter, Ryan Yamamoto and Jessica Lopez. Anter did a familiar favorite, “Half,” featuring fast-paced one-liners like “You know when listening to the president talk on NPR makes you cry? You know when finding out Ira Glass is married makes you cry?” Anter performed with a quirky speaking style, annunciating at the right time while still hammering her poem out like a young writer filled with millions of thoughts would.
Yamamoto performed two poems. “Wide Awake” was about coming alive in the nighttime and ended with the vow to continue being creative: “I have no intentions of sleeping because I’m going to live this dream.” “Pride” gave light to the absurdity of the notion that real men aren’t supposed to cry. Like a seasoned rapper, Yamamoto’s mouthful of words flew through the space. His audience barely had enough time to put together his thoughts but still caught all the jokes, especially the references to comic book heroes.
A graduate student of UCSB, Lopez presented a sense of maturity and poise. Walking her way up the stage with a stack of papers, she mournfully announced, “I’m gonna read you part of my dissertation. Haha, just kidding.” Lopez spoke on lost boyfriends and cheap imitations in “Prepping Canvas” and admitted the kind of love she desires and craves in “I Want a Love Like.” She paced herself with timely pauses and allowed the audience to absorb all of her thoughts, especially when sighing, “I want a Tapatio kind of love. Red hot and spicy, one that burns your eyes.”
Following a jazzy five-minute break filled by DJ Tempest’s tunes, Mayda Del Valle prowled to the stage. The first words the poet spoke were, “Damn those lights are as bright as the sun! Is there any way we can turn them down? I can’t see shit.” She then went on to describe her Christmas plans (“I’ll be drinking lots of rum and eating lots of pork. ‘Cause I’m Puerto Rican.”), the stress of the last two days (“I was in Ohio and then took a Red Eye and flew back yesterday, had to teach a class, then had no sleep, then finally got some sleep, and then the ex-boyfriend wants to argue this afternoon and I’m like WHY today I just got my period motherfucker.”), and vented about how people from LA always think she is half Asian.
As the banter continued, it was clear why Del Valle is so well liked as a performer. She is HILARIOUS. She stomped around on the small stage grunting about “fineee” Dominican brothers who disgraced her language, crazy Catholic Latina mothers and boys who stole her heart and then disappeared (whom she refers to as “ninjas”). Del Valle changed her speaking style for all eight of her poems, showing Muddy Waters exactly how multifaceted performance poetry can be.
Born in the 1980’s, Del Valle is a child of the hip-hop generation. She and her friends did lots of crazy things and gave their parents many gray hairs, from slinking into underground tunnels to buying cheap liquor with fake I.D.s. One of her pieces acted as her love letter to her independent, boom box-infused childhood: “We were the kings and queens of Chicago’s south side planet.” Del Valle described her teenage love for Swedish Fish, Cool Ranch Doritos, watching Star Wars on an old TV set and the culture that gave her the space to rebel against her parent’s blue-collar dreams. Most of all, she was blessed with the cockiness and certainty that allowed her to believe she ran the city. Del Valle spoke with a fierce longing, allowing spectators to grasp her appreciation for a time that didn’t involve the pains of being an adult. She reminded Muddy Waters that life is too short and childhood is a precious place with the soundtrack of hip-hop.
A more serious poem that resonated deeply with the audience was devoted to her grandmother. Although she passed away before Del Valle was born, the performer still feels a deep connection with the woman who is her reason for existence. Throughout the poem she thanked her grandmother for life and asked how she prayed. With a soft tone Del Valle spoke of her realization that everything in the world is miraculous. This piece presented a more serious side of Del Valle, one that is not to be overlooked because of her sailor mouth and enthusiasm.
Another woman who is a potent force in Del Valle’s life is her “crazy Catholic Latina mother,” Carmen. Two poems were performed in honor of Carmen. One was about Del Valle’s stress of answering the terrifying mom question, “Why haven’t you gotten your period?” The other was about her mom’s cooking. It takes Carmen all day but she always makes her food from scratch. For special occasions she will make coconut cakes; this requires her to gather coconuts, hammer them, screwdriver them, blend the milk into a pulp and finally squeeze all of the coconut meat by hand, complaining about her arthritis the whole time.
Del Valle gave her homemaker mother a sparkling identity in her poem “Mami’s Making Mambo.” With the twangy voice of a radio announcer, Del Valle announced that the kitchen is Carmen’s Culinary Queendom where everything is fresh. “POOF: rice cooks itself instantly at her command. POOF: beans fall into bubbling pots saying ‘please master cook me cook me please!’” As a daughter who was clearly proud of her mother’s cooking (“If you don’t have a mom who can cook, make friends with someone who does.”), Del Valle enthusiastically reveled about the hissing pans, bubbling pots, freshly cut cilantro, tasting and testing and the dance-like shuffle from sink to stove.
During the poem Del Valle’s small stature took over the stage with bouncy body movements and a loud, proud voice. She exclaimed that she dances the way her mother cooks. “Slow, sultry, spicy, sabroso, natural, instinctive, dripping sweet sweat like summertime south side heat.”
Throughout her entire performance, Del Valle displayed incredible honesty. She spoke words that were true to her life and her soul, and she was not afraid to share her intimate experiences with Muddy Waters. Her honesty, robust character, and booming voice made her sensational. Mayda Del Valle is a master of mambo, hip-hop and language.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of January 10, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.