Nicole Henares

In Search of Duende In San Francisco, California



Nicole Henares (Aurelia Lorca) is a poet, storyteller, and teacher who lives in San Francisco California.  She has her BA in English from UC Davis, her MFA in Writing and Consciousness from California Institute of Integral Studies, and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nation Writing Workshops.  Her work has appeared throughout the small press.  She is interested in how Lorca’s duende, the duende of Andalusia and flamenco, is a cross cultural spirit.


            When I’m not obsessing over Federico Garcia Lorca, I am a high school teacher in San Francisco. 

            My students all laughed when I told them how I was thinking of getting the word “duende” tattooed on my right wrist.

             “Ms. Henares,” they said.  “Why would you want to get the word ‘dwarf’ tattooed on your body?”

             “No,” I said. “Duende is a spirit that inhabits art.”

             “Ms. Henares,” they argued.  “Duende means dwarf or goblin.”

             “Same thing,” I said.  “Lorca says.”

             “Who is Lorca?” they asked.  “His name sounds like loco.”

            This is exactly what my grandfather always said, I told them.


            As a poet, I call myself “Aurelia Lorca” and have claimed Lorca as my patron saint.   My poetics is influenced by diversity and the universality of duende.    I see this as totally appropriate as Andalusia is one of the most diverse places on earth:  I am carnation.  Hybrid.  Flower. Andalusia, shares a coast with, is a cross-mix of Jew, Gypsy, Moor.  There is onyx along the curve of my petals.    Like Lorca, I am a citizen of the world and sister to all, and wonder about a world, “shameless and cruel enough to divide people when in fact color was the sign of God’s artistic genius.”

            I am still trying to understand what Lorca’s duende meant for him, and what it means for me in San Francisco.    Traci Brimhall, one of my favorite poets, has the word tattooed on her wrist.  There is a club in Oakland called “Duende" that hosts flamenco shows.  When I finally went there last fall, one of my flamenca friends rolled her eyes how duende” is such an over-used word, like blues.  In some circles perhaps.


             For me, duende is a dark spirit, not good, not evil, but certainly mischievous.  It comes from a place of forgetting as a way to remember.  It comes from the wind, which we can not see, but feel. It comes from the consistency of the moon which is an ever changing series of illusions.  It comes from sorrow, certainly, but it is not always melancholy.  Rather it embraces the potential for sadness, diabolically so- See that hummingbird?  The fiercest of all birds, the swiftest of wing? The duende is to wonder- where do hummingbirds go to die?   For artists, Lorca says connecting to the duende is a way to connect to God, or the divine, without the intervention of saints.   

            Last spring, the duende was  at the opening of the Flor Y Canto Poetry Festival.  For all the celebration and poetry, it was a part of the Mission District that was rapidly disappearing.   The nearly moonless night oozed with duende

            SF poet laureate Alejandro Murgia opened the night's events with an invocation of Latin American poets and writers that included Lorca.  I felt saturated and invigorated by wound and wind and yet groggy in too much thought.  I had a coffee that launched me into a sleepless and feverish pondering about the nuances of duende, the goblin spirit, whose name also allegedly stems from the word “home.”       

            As Lorca says, the duende is not the same thing as the muse.  It is a diabolical and irrational spirit.  It  is a spirit of melancholy but with a dark sense of humor. It lives in all things.  It is a spirit of persistence that surpasses mere survival.

            California is rife with duende.  California has co-existences, friendships that have created cultures unto itself.  California is the state with a made up name, and she is vast, she contains multitudes.

            However, where is the world going?  We have become Lorca’s industrialized nightmare. History has become sterilized, or vanished without a trace.   Communities have disappeared. The Cannery Row of my grandparents has now become a resort hotel, and a fancy Aquarium.  In San Francisco’s Mission District only the old buildings  seem to catch fire.  Families are being evicted, long time businesses are losing their leases.  An off duty security guard eating a burrito is confused for being a gang member because he has a taser and is wearing a forty-niners jacket.  He is shot by police over fifty seven times.  A homeless immigrant is shot by police within twenty seconds for brandishing a paintbrush.  An unarmed twenty seven year old pregnant woman is shot and killed on a dead end street for being in a suspected stolen car.  In a city with a shrinking brown and black population, the jail is filled with all brown and black people.  All police murders are of black and brown people.  Maybe it is the same in all cities, but it is never an excuse.

            There are always those who fight back.  Attorney and community organizer Ben Barac Sierra says,  “For us, we can believe. It is a hard thing to hold faith, to believe in the invisible, the spirit of humans in their finest form. Believe we can. For with nothing except our amor and action, we won the battle. With nothing but shouts on the streets, we beat the batons and guns. With the faith of locura, total illogic, we proved our genius over their books and intellectual or economic equations.”


            There is a Spanish tapas restaurants in the Mission District called Picaros, that has been on Valencia street since 1986, thirty years. (An endangered business, for the ever gentrifying Mission District.)  They have $2.50 glasses of sangria, and the tapas menu doesn’t exceed $6.  Picadors has Spanish artwork on the walls, and plays flamenco over the stereo.  However, the restaurant is crowded with tables, and the live music is not flamenco, but a mariachi band, blue violin and all.  This makes perfect sense to me. Picaros is one of the most Mission District of restaurants that is left.  I hope it never goes away.

            The air on Valencia street tingles in grief, while the city is blinded in a crazy unison of light. The clouds and the roses did not care. Only the earth exists, in illusory doors of forever, leading us all to the shame of fruit. 

            Often I do know if I am hungry, or thirsty, or lonely. There is no language for this.

It is a grief that transcends hunger and turns into starvation. It is a grief that burns in my stomach, and keeps everything awake. 

            Sometimes little red dots of love ferment appear on my tongue and the words stumble out of my mouth.

            Last summer, on one of nights I met my comadres at Picaro’s for our writing workshop, I saw Maria Cristina Gutierrez of the Frisco Five who went on a seventeen day hunger strike to protest police brutality.  She gave my hand a squeeze and told me Lorca is one of her favorite poets.  Like Lorca, she has said she will always be on the side of those who have nothing and are not allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace. 

            We had marched with The Frisco Five because they were starving themselves for the lost, the living the murdered have left behind. Their stomaches spoke without words.   They were starving off violence. They were starving off pain.   Their souls had turned orange colored. Their hearts were a mourning of green. Spring and her evenings had returned with silence and the purity of the nightingale amid seasons of indifference.

            We walked in solidarity with bodies, in solidarity with the starved. 

            Redness had inflamed the city landscape, bulged into slick cafes with hard edged chairs that comforted the yoga taut asses who enjoyed artisan cheese and chocolate.

Five people were starving, while acerbic politicians syncopated bile and C# on the half note, sipped Pinot Grigio, and devoured quail egg salad in between troubled time signatures  and melancholic tunes from next door.

            Regardless, I still love San Francisco, its absurdity, its heartbreaks, and its people.  It is a city of ache and downcast dreams.  It is a cold-faced river with no guides,  only the twisting neon star on top of a luxury hotel  where a man begs across the street  holding out a torn apart shoe in his callused hands.   I don’t give a fuck about the tourists with their striped shopping bags.  I must shut out my screams to walk downtown.   The streets are in a grid.  I find balance by weaving wantonly on greasy sidewalks.   Sometimes the fog blesses me, and I remember the darkness can become a friendly thing, and I navigate in polka dot dresses, and a red carnation in my hair.  Sometimes the mist enters my soul and washes the loathing and sour heartache into words like tears.

            I find Lorca’s duende most in Union Square.  Upon first glance there is little that is concave in Union Square.  All around are convex edges and sharp surfaces- metallic benches, concrete boxes, shapes that are un-natural, unwelcoming. The statue of Victory Pillar has curvatures, but it they are high above, out of reach.  The patch of grass- the handkerchief of the Lord- that once curved loping strands in the middle of the park is now gone, replaced by connected squares of concrete that are artificial, man-made, and stern. It is a place of squares upon squares upon squares, and little that is concave,  welcoming, or spherical.  The homeless are who no-one wants to see.

            I found Lorca’s duende most in Union Square, with him.  He died in Union Square.  I have put together the pieces and know that he woke early from his squat on Hyde Street and walked down the hill wearing two t-shirts and shorts with his white socks pulled up to his knees, punk style.  He went into the Tenderloin and knocked on the door of a friend.  He wanted to hang out, but his friend was sick, and said no.  I can’t place what happened in the hours between morning and night.  I just know he went into the Cheesecake Factory in Macy’s at what must have been before closing time to get high in the bathroom.  He was found at 1am presumedly by the clean up crew.  Holy Thursday, April 2nd was the official time of his death. 

            My friend that works at Macy’s said no one knew.  It was not the kind of thing that was ever talked about.  When a junkie on the street dies, sometimes people never find out. 

            I found out on Good Friday, the day before the blood moon.  It was in the evening around sunset and the words I will always remember- A man with a gentle voice left a voice-mail saying, “This is an emergency phone call.  I have some very sad news...."  It was the SF Medical Examiner’s office.  He had my name listed in his medical records as a contact.  He said they were looking for the next of kin, and was I the next of kin?  I’m still waiting for someone to say April Fool’s.

            I found Lorca’s duende most in him, there in Union Square.  He wrote poems as prayers to Santa Muerte asking for a peaceful death. I will always remember his hands- beautiful and brown and scarred  from burn marks of a five hundred degree oven  and six hundred dinners a night  for eight hundred dollar a month rent in a city indifferent.

            I was very drunk the first night he kissed me, and told me over and over again that he loved me, but it would never work.

            “Clown magic,” I said.

            His hands were holy, swollen from skin popping, dreams of cypress trees  and headless butterflies. When I first saw him in there Union Square he had his head down as he begged strangers for change.  He looked up and saw that it was me, not a stranger, he laughed and said how this was what he was going to do.

            I found Lorca’s duende most in him, there in Union Square. He drew ex-votifs as prayers to Santa Muerte asking for a peaceful death. 



©The Acentos Review 2017