.Reading For Flood Victims

Pajaro benefit highlights local literary talent

Local literary heavyweights are coming together for Pajaro Rising, a fundraiser that puts the spotlight on those still dealing with the aftermath of the Pajaro floods. The event will take place  Nov. 30 at the Cowell Hay Barn on the UCSC campus and all proceeds will go to Community Bridges, one of the main nonprofits helping with relief and recovery.

It has been eight months since the floods devastated the South County region and as the community rebuilds these writers are hoping to draw attention to the ongoing problems.

The all-star panel features essayist and climate activist Rebecca Solnit; renowned author Ingrid Rojas Contreras and KQED’s Voice of the Bay Alexis Madrigal. Also participating are the Watsonville short story writer Jaime Cortez and Pajaro’s own up and coming poet, Claudia Ramirez Flores. The panelists will read selected works at the event, with some works inspired by the reality of people in the Pajaro area.

Pajaro Rising will not only draw attention to the tribulations of flood victims, but will also highlight the literary talent that has risen out of an often neglected community.

Jaime Cortez’s breakthrough 2021 short story collection “Gordo” breathes life into the experience of growing up in a Watsonville migrant camp in the 1970’s. The tender coming of age tales give an emotive backdrop to the geography of the area. The characters were molded out of the many farmworker families that still make up the demographic of Pajaro. The book has garnered wide acclaim and Cortez is an ascending voice in the California literary tradition.

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Soon after the Pajaro floods, Rebecca Solnit—who runs a writer’s group with Cortez— floated the idea of a fundraiser for the victims and they got to work. Solnit has written extensively about climate disasters and the event will underline long-term effects of the Pajaro floods.

“We hope that it helps to build compassion for the fact that disasters have long tails and there’s a long recuperation period after a disaster,” Cortez says.

Cortez hopes that the event will help reach a new audience that may not know about the situation in Pajaro but will come to it through a rich literary experience.While searching for a selection to read at Pajaro Rising, Cortez stumbled upon a forgotten, unpublished story he wrote years ago set in Pajaro.

The story follows the journey of a religious figurine from its birth in a Chinese factory, through Mexico, and all the way to Watsonville where it gets swept away when the Pajaro River floods. The uncanny parallel between the story and the topic of the upcoming event struck Cortez.

“It was remarkable that I had actually written about that years before the flood happened,” Cortez says.

Like Cortez, Claudia Ramirez Flores takes inspiration from the working-class, predominantly Mexican immigrant community of Pajaro. She grew up in the area and her poetry is inspired by experiences of immigrant farmworkers and the heartache of being separated from loved ones by the southern border. Her work has been published in Xinachtli Journal—also known as Journal X— a bilingual literary journal focusing on social justice issues.

After getting her BA in political science from UC Berkeley as a transfer student from Cabrillo College, Ramirez Flores rediscovered her love of creative writing. She applied for a spot at the prestigious Yale Writer’s Workshop and got in. It was there that she was encouraged to find her voice through bilingual/spanglish poetry.

Ramirez Flores works with Writers of Color Santa Cruz County and through that group she met Cortez. When the Pajaro Rising event began to take shape, Cortez invited her to participate. Encouraged by one of her college mentors, Ramirez Flores made the leap.

“I just thought that this was a really life changing and important opportunity for me to be in the event,” Ramirez Flores says.

When the Pajaro River flooded, her family was evacuated and had to go to a local shelter. In the midst of the fear and confusion, Ramirez Flores says she witnessed acts of kindness that inspired her poetry. For Pajaro Rising, she will be reading a poem titled “Mi Querido Abuelito Chepe”, a bittersweet work remembering her beloved grandfather who passed away while waiting to return to the United States.

When asked how she feels sharing the stage with the likes of Ingrid Rojas Contreras—whom she’s a fan of—her voice rises with excitement.

“I feel like sharing the stage with them is mind blowing and I feel really empowered.”

For attendees, the event will offer one of a kind commemorative screen printings made on-site. Tickets range from $50-$100 and include signed copies of the authors’ works provided by Bookshop Santa Cruz. For large donors, a $5,000 donation will get them a private reading by Solnit and Cortez, while a $10,000 donation gets them a catered event with multiple authors at their home

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