Juan Guillermo Parra Morales (1941-2014)
“My father, father of this hurricane. And of my poetry.”
My father was a direct link for me to the global counterculture of the sixties. He arrived in New York City in 1967 and, as my mother says, he never quite left that decade. My parents were among the first people in New York and Boston to practice yoga every day, be vegetarian, and make their own healthy, unprocessed food. For his entire life my father lived by certain ideals that, while they evolved, always valued the primacy of direct human relations above commerce and resisted the cooptation of individual and collective freedoms by a banal mainstream culture.
My father was a psychedelic pioneer, as well, and it was through him that I learned that cosmic consciousness exists in every living creature. He also taught me that this awareness doesn’t spare us from our mistakes and suffering. One of his gifts to me was the mantra he always recited, the Diamond Heart Sutra, or Prajnaparamita. When I became a poet in college and studied with Allen Ginsberg, who also chanted the Prajnaparamita, that mantra was one of my links between the private world of my family and the public world of poetry.
He was the person who introduced me to the secrets, wonders and dangers of Caracas, a city that is truly its own country. During the extended visits I made to Venezuela between 2001 and 2011, I was able to immerse myself in the literature and culture of the country thanks to my father’s boundless enthusiasm regarding my exploration of the home I had lost at age 12.
My father was born in October of 1941 in Baruta, which back then was a small town on the outskirts of Caracas. He died in October of 2014 at a nursing home in the Alta Florida section of Caracas, at the foot of mystical Mount Ávila. He saw the city grow from a sleepy capital whose street corners were given names tied to specific events and people, to a sprawling, semi-decaying metropolis afflicted by violence and political strife.
One of my great joys and privileges in life has been exploring Caracas in recent years on foot, by bus, subway and car with my father. It was through him that I gained access to the autochthonic culture of Caracas, beyond the skyscrapers and highways, in the bars, corners, plazas and homes of the city where people still engage in real conversations and where friendship and camaraderie exist for the pure enrichment of each other’s lives.
My parents were disciples of Sri Swami Satchidananda in the late sixties and early seventies in New York and Boston. It was through his teachings that they developed their daily yoga practice. During my first five years of life, before we moved to Venezuela from Cambridge, I caught a very brief glimpse of an imperfect utopia, one that was very real for me. During our many conversations in recent years I would often go back to those years, asking my father about the time he saw Jimi Hendrix play a secret show in a small Manhattan bar, or about when he allegedly did or didn’t attend Woodstock, or how it was he never joined the guerrilla movements that were so active in Caracas among students when he studied at the Central University of Venezuela in the early sixties. (When we went to a book presentation by the former guerrilla commander Teodoro Petkoff in 2007 in Caracas, he seemed to know half the people there, most of them former guerrilla fighters and sympathizers.) He loved talking about the past, but he didn’t live in the past. And he always acknowledged how many mistakes he had made. “I’m not better than anyone else, but I’m no worse than anyone either,” was his response.
During the years I spent researching Venezuelan literature in Caracas, my father was always enthusiastic about my endeavors. I would often tell him about the works I was translating, about the lives of the poets I was investigating, and although he wasn’t much of a reader, he appreciated the value of literature. He knew the importance of my efforts to translate Venezuelan literature into English. I talked to him so much about the poets Juan Sánchez Peláez and José Antonio Ramos Sucre that they became familiar figures to him. Which is why it was no surprise to me that he so quickly befriended Malena Sánchez Peláez when I introduced them in Caracas.
In a very real sense, my father lived his life poetically, far removed from conceit and competition. He appreciated all sorts of people, as long as they were willing to offer respect, share conversation and enjoy life.
With his death, a huge portion of Caracas dies along with him. He represented a city that no longer exists and whose traces I was privileged enough to witness on occasion. I’ve never met anyone with an energy like his: creative, loving, unpredictable and cosmic.
Whenever I thanked him for anything, he would always say: “I’m your father, you don’t have to thank me.” But today I do. Thank you, Negro, for your love, guidance and friendship.
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!