Nationally acclaimed poet and public speaker Yosimar Reyes is no stranger to San Jose’s spotlight. Born in Guerrero, Mexico, and raised in Eastside San Jose, Reyes draws much of his inspiration from his experiences as an undocumented immigrant and member of the LGBTQ+ community. Between his rich, illustrative language, sharp wit, and thought-provoking messages, Reyes leaves a lasting impression as he navigates subjects like migration, sexuality, and socio-economic struggle.
As a performer, Reyes has a playful, charismatic personality combined with a dynamic stage presence; he performs with exuberance, drawing in the audience with the steady rhythm of his spoken word style and clever use of Spanglish. The stories he shares are full of vibrancy and dimension at their core, celebrating the resilience of marginalized communities.
Now Reyes finds himself starting a new chapter as MACLA’s first-ever Performance Artist in Residency (PAIR). With this new role, Reyes will curate performance programs, workshop material, and showcase featured artists—actively shaping the San Jose art scene while cultivating an inclusive creative space designed for Chicanx/Latinx narratives. But most importantly, it’s a “full-circle moment” for both him and his artform.
Reyes himself started performing poetry at MACLA when he was just 16 years old. Back then, his work was rooted in survival. “I grew up in this rich community with all these immigrants that would just hustle,” he shares. “I started writing poetry because I [needed] to make money to help my family, and it so happened that people found out [about it] and it took off.”
In school, Reyes was a self-proclaimed nerd who excelled academically, in part because of his love for books and reading, but also to compensate for the insecurity he felt as a closeted gay teen. With some encouragement from his teacher, Reyes started using poetry as an outlet, then dove into doing live performances with institutions like MACLA and San Francisco’s Youth Speaks nonprofits.
When the May Day marches took San Jose by storm in 2006 as the largest political demonstration in the city’s history, Reyes saw it all firsthand. “A lot was happening in the country,” he says, recounting his high school years. “This [was] the beginning [of when] a lot of people were coming out as undocumented…they [would] go on TV, tell their stories, then they get pixelated, or they alter their voices.” He was particularly compelled by the younger people galvanizing the movement, coming together to amplify their stories in solidarity.
Reyes’s first collection of poetry, For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly, published in 2009 with the support of musical legend Carlos Santana, serves as an archive of this emotionally charged period in Reyes’s life. And while he admits the collection would be received differently now due to its outdated language, publishing it ultimately convinced him to pursue his passion as a storyteller.
In the beginning, Reyes didn’t mind being called an “undocumented writer,” but as he got older, he felt the need for distinction. “My work, yes, deals with that theme but it’s more about a human element,” he states. “I always tell people, I’m a writer that happens to be undocumented. That informs the work, but it does not define how I view myself.”
When Reyes was confronted with the pandemic, he chose to pivot from his career in LA and move back home to San Jose to be with his grandmother. Among his many projects since then, Reyes takes extra pride in the creation of the Yosi Book Club in 2020, promoting a variety of Latinx authors and the premiere of his renowned one-man show Prieto in 2022—an adaptation of Reyes’s own coming-of-age story in the Bay. For him, the writing process for all his work, including Prieto, is intimate and cathartic. “What I’m living is what I’m writing,” he says. “It forces me to be a little more honest and confront things that I don’t want to.”
When he leads his creative writing workshops, it can be especially nuanced for Reyes. “I work with a lot of college engagement, first generation college students. Most of the students have left their families [so] I think that’s why we connect,” Reyes explains. He recognizes a familiar resilience in his students—a desire for economic stability that could potentially trickle down and help their family, which Reyes knows all too well. “They know this [part’s] temporary and it’s gonna pay off in the long run. We want to thrive, we don’t want to [just] survive.”
Wherever Reyes is involved, it is guaranteed that he will be outspoken and authentic, willing to share the spotlight with anyone with a story to tell. Undoubtedly, Reyes will bring this and more as he sets the stage as MACLA’s newest addition. He additionally anticipates Prieto on tour this fall, premiering in Chicago and Miami.