David Hernandez the “unofficial” poet laureate of Chicago, as he was famously known, died on Monday, February 25th at age 66. He leaves behind his wife Batya and his daughter Matea. David wrote poetry for over fifty years since the age of 11 and is founder of Street Sounds, the musical group that accompanied his poetry for 40 years.
David Hernandez was born in Cidra, Puerto Rico on May 1st 1946. He came to Chicago in 1955, as a young boy with his family. They settled in the Lake View neighborhood around Wrigleyville, when it was home to many Puerto Rican families. David taught poetry workshops in prisons, community centers and the Chicago Public Schools to thousands of Students. In 1971, he cofounded Street Sounds with musician Dean Karabatsos. Street Sounds is a diverse band that accompanied David’s poetry with a plethora of music including Latin-jazz.
David was also author of several books including: Despertando (Waking Up, 1971), Roof Top Piper (1991), Satin City Lullaby (1985) and The Urban Poems (2004). In addition to being noted for reading the poem for Chicago’s 150th Anniversary, he also read the inaugural poem for Mayor Harold Washington, as well as, a poem when the former Mayor died. David enjoyed humor and used it proudly insisting on a laugh whenever he got up to speak in front of people. He was always introducing himself as, “Hi I’m David Hernandez and I’m a famous Poet.” No one could resist giggling at the notion. All jokes aside, he was always encouraging and mentoring young poets including myself. David Hernandez was the first poet I every saw or met. I first saw David in 1987, I was a sophomore at Clemente High School and part of the Clemente Steel Band. We were invited to play at one of Chicago’s sesquicentennial celebration in Navy Pier. There I saw from far away David Hernandez on stage in front of Hundreds of people reading his Chicago poem for which he had been commissioned to write. A couple of years later, I saw him again in my classroom at Clemente. He had been invited to recite poetry to the students in the Youth Guidance program.
But I still didn’t have a desire to be a poet until a couple of years after in 1991, I was walking west on Division Street, towards Damen Avenue when I came across a café called Random Worlds. There I saw through the window, a tiny-plump Puerto Rican man reciting his poetry with enormous confidence and humor. I stepped in and took a seat to listed. When the program was over, I introduced myself and told him that I had written a couple of poems. He invited me to bring the poems the following week to read. As fate would have it, I returned to the Café the following week and after reading my first poem, I instantly knew I was going to be a poet for the rest of my life. Over 20 years later, I still rely on the dedication he wrote to me when he signed a copy of his book Roof Top Piper in 1993.
He wrote, “For Eduardo the poet I always wanted to be and finally became…sigue con las palabras and your quality life! Love David.” Thank you David Hernandez, for helping me and many others become real poets.
by Eduardo Arocho