Poetry had long played a role in the life of Juan Fernandez Rua. When he worked as a banker. As a drug counselor. And most especially when he was homeless, or "living out in the open," as he prefers to call it.
But it was the poetry that always kept him going. He studied it as a young man in New York City and has written about 500 poems, by his own estimation.
For Fernandez, or "J" as he is known by friends and acquaintances, life took an entirely new turn on Oct. 17 when he returned to New York from his current home in Oakland to read one of his recent poems, "A Real Poem," at the United Nations.
"I wasn't expecting it -- it was a big surprise for me," said Fernandez, 61. "I had been writing for 40 years, and all of a sudden I was invited to read a poem that I had written a year earlier. I had read my poems at universities, cafes and even bars in my life, but never at the United Nations, so it was exciting."
Fernandez received his invitation to read "A Real Poem" at the U.N. from the Fourth World Movement, an international antipoverty organization, to coincide with the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year). Fernandez's poem came to the attention of the Fourth World Movement after it was published in Street Spirit, a Bay Area newspaper dedicated to the issues of poverty, homelessness and human rights.
Fernandez's days "living out in the open" influenced the writing
"When you live on the street as I did for five to six years, you meet people who are sharing that experience with you," he said. "You meet some good people, you meet some kind people, people who were kind to me, people who were like brothers to me."
Juan Gonzalez, the poem's main character, who dies while sleeping outside on a bench, is fictional. Still, he is every bit one of Fernandez's "brothers."
"I also knew people who died on the street," Fernandez said. "Juan Gonzalez represents that person who died on the street."
Thanks to help received from Oakland's St. Mary's Center, Fernandez now lives in a federally subsided apartment.
"They helped me advocate for myself," Fernandez said of the staff at St. Mary's. "They helped me get medical care; they had information I didn't have before."
Originally from Puerto Rico, Fernandez moved from the island to Brooklyn at age 5, published his first poem at 17 and did some readings in his early 20s.
It wasn't exactly a lucrative career.
"The most I ever made was about $5,000 in one year," he said.
But Fernandez never could shake the writing bug. While still in New York, he studied under celebrated Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor and the less-celebrated but still greatly respected American poet Frank Lima.
Reality set in, though, as Fernandez moved to California at age 27 to work for many years as a banker and then a drug counselor. Then a different reality hit Fernandez.
"I had a middle-class existence; then one day, I just couldn't get out of bed," Fernandez said. "I ended up on the street because I suffered from depression all my life -- although I didn't know I suffered from depression. When you come from a working-class background, as I do, you don't talk about this."
Fernandez first heard about the St. Mary's Center while living on the street. At first, he resisted going there. Eventually, he realized that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by seeking help at St. Mary's.
"I was so fed up with shelters; some of them are more dangerous than being out on the street," Fernandez said. "And the people here really did help me quite a bit."
Fernandez still goes to the center three times a week for treatment. He also tries to help others in situations similar to what he once faced.
"But I try not to be too pushy," he said.
The St. Mary's Center, 925 Brockhurst St., at the corner of San Pablo Avenue, has helped -- and continues to help -- many people like Fernandez.
"We offer an emergency senior shelter," executive director Carol Johnson said. "Hunger and food are also major concerns. A lot of the people who come here have been abused in a variety of ways."
Johnson said that the center has taken these concerns up with the Legislature, Alameda County Board of Supervisors and Oakland City Council. Aside from advocacy and addressing physical needs, the St. Mary's Center also offers moral support.
"People come here talking about their experiences and make recommendations (about how to best address needs)," Johnson said. "If people can find their voices, they can reclaim their dignity and make a contribution to the larger community."
As Fernandez did.
Johnson accompanied Fernandez to New York for the reading.
"I have such a longtime passion for the ideals of the United Nations," Johnson said. "It was thrilling just to accompany J and to meet our partners who are bringing attention to the lack of human rights."
After reading his poem, Fernandez achieved a kind of rock-star status -- at least temporarily.
"I was a celebrity for about 10 minutes," he said. "(After the poem reading), it seemed that everyone wanted a copy of it, which is something that had never happened to me before. I met a lot of people there."
Ultimately, though, the poem called attention to the issues of poverty and living on the street.
"I've met doctors and lawyers who were on the streets," Fernandez said. "Anyone can end up there. Even people who were previously successful."
As Fernandez well knows.
for more information
To find out more about St. Mary's Center or the poems of Juan Fernandez, call the center at 510-923-9600.