at the end of the video, by the bowl of steaming cauliflower, she takes the lid off the pot of rice—

This is from the memorial website about Jeff, with posts by writers who knew him better than I did, such as Alan Chong Lau:

A Conversation About Tofu

I first met Jeff and Shirley when I returned to the states after over 5 years abroad.

After the chaotic student years of the San Francisco State strike, I left to be at the wedding of my sister and her Thai husband-to-be who met as workers at the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. Cashing in a life insurance policy my parents had put in my name, I left that city and just keep traveling until I arrived in Japan penniless. A Japanese friend got me a job teaching English conversation for Kyoto UNESCO at 7:00 am in the morning to salary workers on their way to work. It’s here where I met my future wife Kazuko.

When Kazuko applied to Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, and was accepted, we returned to the states. I was suffering from cultural jet lag and would often look at the wrong side of the road when crossing the street almost getting hit by cars. So it was lucky for me at least that the mellow environs of the coastal towns along the Santa Cruz coast provided a soft landing.

At first unemployed, I tagged along with Kazuko as she attended a class on Asian American history taught by local historian Sandy Lydon. It was in this class that we were to meet some of our first friends: the late Sharon Lew from Sacramento, Ernie Kuwahara from L.A., and a cute young Filipino American couple by the name of Jeff and Shirley. I’m not sure how we got to talking, but I know the conversation centered on fresh tofu and where we could get it. Jeff and Shirley not only told us about a small store in Watsonville that got fresh tofu delivered from the tofu maker in San Jose once a week but volunteered to take us there. We were overjoyed and appreciative of the generous spirit of our new friends.

From there, we got to know each other better as Sharon organized meetings and tried to get an Asian American student union set up on campus. When I found out that Jeff and Shirley were aspiring writers, I perked up. Poet and English instructor, Morton Marcus, raved about a short story Jeff had written about a Chicano low-rider. When I read it, I could see the talent, the way he inhabited the character and made him come alive with authentic speech patterns and persona.

I’ll have to admit that the cultural subversive in me came out, and I not so subtly thrust in their surprised faces one day, a tattered copy of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers and, later, a cassette of a live reading from members of the Kearny Street Workshop I had taped off a KPFA radio broadcast. Then I got them involved in a college journal we called Rising Waters. When I heard from Jeff that he had an old letter sent to his mom from this writer by the name of Carlos Bulosan, I was stunned. Could it be the one and only author of America Is in the Heart? Sure enough, it was. We put that letter on the back cover of Rising Waters and included poems by all of us. I still remember our book party at Jenny’s Used Bookstore in Watsonville. About five people showed up and they were all mostly contributors. I did notice one Asian American guy I didn’t recognize there, but Shirley later told me it was just her brother.

Jeff had a sweet soulfulness about him, a dry sense of humor as well and a big, big heart. You could see this in his poetry that came from a life of work in the valley and a lived-in experience, not easily fabricated from mere fiction. I remember the lines he penned for his mother in the poem, “Now It Is Broccoli” and how it haunts me to this day.

It wasn’t the concern
of the forklift driver who searched
between the chopped heads of cabbage
thinking the finger could be sewn back.
No, it was the face
she longed for, that serene
face she lost years ago.

Or see how it humanizes what papers would deem just another statistic in “Tobera,” a poem about the first Filipino worker killed in what would later be called “The Watsonville Riot.”

This is how I return
to bed each night
with a smile on my face
because I know what awaits me.
Here comes the buzzing
of the bullet
which bears my name.
It’s a bee looking
for the hive of my neck
and I must lay still
for its sweet entrance.
Time moves on.

But then there is always Jeff’s sense of humor and how he etched with a deep compassion, the flaws and warts of all our lives. From “Mussel Rock/Lowtide – Santa Cruz, California 1959″ comes this:

After everyone crowds around the steaming pots
to eat, somebody’s wife makes a joke
about the mussel’s orange vulva lips and black
pubic cilia. The giggle spreads among the women,
the husbands slurping soup, the timid bachelor
who blushes and the children asking, ‘What what?’

His book, October Light will go down in history as one of the classics of Filipino American literature, and what I treasure about it is that it is one of the first books that documents the history and lives of the rural Filipino and gives them a real voice. In his sweet soulfulness, compassion, and his sense of human justice, I am reminded of another poet, oceans and decades away, the Spanish civil war poet, Miguel Hernandez. From a dedication of his book to the poet Vicente Aleixandre, Hernandez writes:

Vicente: To us, who of all men have been born poets, whom life has made poets among men. We come from the spring of the guitars welcomed by the people, and each poet who dies leaves in the hands of another, like an inheritance, an instrument that comes rolling from the eternity of nothingness to our scattered heart. Under the shade of two poets, we rose we two, and under ours two others will rise tomorrow. Our foundation will be always the same: the earth. Our destiny is to end up in the hands of the people.

(translated and edited by Ted Genoways from The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernandez, University of Chicago Press)

Goodbye, friend! I will see you down the road.

Alan Chong Lau
Seattle, Washington
June 26. 2012

Jeff’s memorial website is at

Shirley Ancheta and Jeff Tagami (photo by Barbara Jane Reyes)

KUSP 88.9 “Poetry Show” podcast Tribute to Jeff Tagami:

Hosted by Dennis Morton, with Shirley Ancheta, Patrice Vecchione, Ken Weisner, and Joe Stroud

photo by Shirley Ancheta

Cabrillo instructor, poet Jeff Tagami dies: Poems brought Asian Americans out of the shadows

Posted:   06/27/2012

SANTA CRUZ — “I heard his voice speaking over fields of asparagus, intoning great love and bringing the lives of so many others into spirited words.

“I looked at the dark skies over Eugene, felt their deep purples and greys shift to a patch of blue and sunbreaks shining on a shower of rain dancing across my eyes.

“There was an echo — Jeff’s voice in my memory somehow.”

Jeff Tagami viewed the world through the eyes of a poet, and so, too, did the community of poets from around the country on learning of his death.

The above passage, included in a note from Eugene, Ore., resident Garrett Hongo, was among many heartfelt condolences sent to his widow, Cabrillo instructor Shirley Ancheta, as news of Tagami’s death continued to spread. He died Saturday in Santa Cruz from pancreatic cancer. He was 57.

Tagami was born July 4, 1954, in Watsonville, to parents of Philippine origin who emigrated to California via Hawaii. After graduating from Watsonville High School in 1972, he enrolled at Cabrillo, where his interest in poetry was first sparked. As a first-year student, he enrolled in a history class, taught by Cabrillo lecturer and local historian Sandy Lydon, that focused on Asian American immigrants and their contributions to the Pajaro Valley.

A story that especially resonated with Tagami, Lydon said, was a four-day race riot in Watsonville in 1930, culminating in the murder of 22-year-old Filipino laborer Fermin Tobera.

“I told that story, and over the years, (Jeff) ran off with it,” Lydon recalled, adding it “hit something within him which produced some pretty remarkable poetry … That story and that context gave him the basis for an awful lot of stuff that he wrote later on.”

In 1977, Tagami transferred to what was then known as San Francisco State College and joined an Asian American artist and writers collaborative, publishing short stories and poems that focused on factory and field workers, while holding down a variety of odd jobs.

“He wanted to write about their backgrounds and things that weren’t in print then,” said Ancheta, who met her husband in the fourth grade. “It was hard to find even one or two writers of color in an anthology, so he sought to break that mold” and make Asian Americans the focal point, rather than marginalized characters.

His writing eventually gained national attention, appearing in numerous magazines and anthologies, and in 1995, he appeared in the PBS documentary, “The US of Poetry.” It featured his poem, “Song of Pajaro,” which describes a day in the life of Pajaro Valley farmers.

Tagami also authored a collection of poetry, “October Light,” and helped edit four anthologies, including “Without Names” and “Monterey Poets and Writers,” and lectured at universities throughout the West Coast and in Hawaii.

In the 1990s, he received a bachelor of arts in literature from UC Santa Cruz, then went on to obtain a master’s degree in English from San Francisco State University. Meanwhile, he began working at Cabrillo College, where he most recently taught writing, composition and literature.

In the spring, around the time he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Tagami was notified that he was scheduled to be inducted into Watsonville High School’s Hall of Fame at the Henry J. Mello Center.

Lydon accepted the award on his behalf, and as part of the ceremony, he read Tagami’s poem, “Tobera,” prompted by the story he’d heard in Lydon’s class 40 years earlier.

To Tagami, Tobera’s death was symbolic of everything that was wrong with relations between Caucasians and Filipinos, who came to the county believing in America and all it had to offer, only to have their dreams dashed when they arrived.

“When they came, they got hammered, just hammered, and yet kept their idealism,” Lydon said. “Even though those ideals didn’t hold up in his experience either, it wasn’t something he was willing to give up, and most of the Filipinos weren’t either. And Jeffrey got it. He nailed it.”

The entire time they knew each other, Lydon said, Tagami was “very much about social justice. Justice was one of his beacons and his death seems to be such an injustice.”

Follow Sentinel reporter Kimberly White on Twitter: @kwhite95066


BORN: July 4, 1954

DIED: June 23, 2012

SURVIVED BY: Wife Shirley Ancheta of Santa Cruz; sons Miles Tagami of San Francisco, and Travis Tagami of Santa Cruz; parents Robert and Judith Tagami of Watsonville; five brothers, Robert Tagami, Rey Tagami, Fred Tagami, Richard Tagami and Alan Tagami; two sisters, Andrea Bucaloy and Lene Tagami; many nieces and nephews.

a review of October Light by Barbara Jane Reyes,