Like passengers on a roller coaster, the Merced College Theater’s emotions quickly swung from hysterical highs to melancholy lows and back again.

Poet and scholar Joaquin Zihuatanejo took the gathered crowd on an emotional journey, as he told comical stories of his rise to poetic fame and life’s bittersweet obstacles he had to endure along the way. The audience, for its part, appeared willing participants on the ride, cheering as he described his victory at the World Cup of Poetry and falling into a respectful silence as he talked about the tragic car accident that robbed him of his grandfather.

Zihuatenjo kicked off the Office of Student Equity and Success’ #MCHATEFREE fall speaker series with a pair of one-hour keynote speeches followed by one-hour workshops on Sept. 21. Zihuatenjo’s speeches were part of the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.

“For me, the appeal isn’t just spreading the awareness of poetry and how important the written word is for everyone,” Zihuatanejo said. “The dual appeal for me is that this time of year is sacred. This is National Hispanic Heritage Month, so any chance I have to come out, be in front of audiences and talk about my abuelo, my tios and the people that shaped me into the poet that I am, I jump at the opportunity to honor them.

“The other main appeal for me is that a college like this college is filled with some of the realest students that a campus can have. Colleges of this size, working people come here. People that are working their tails off and just trying to find a way to make the best possible life for themselves that they can. That’s inspirational.”

The crowd seemed to find Zihuatanejo’s story of growing up in a poor broken home in Texas equally relatable. A few were even moved to tears as some of the trials and tribulations hit close to home.

“I tour colleges, junior colleges, high schools, middle school, senior centers. Wherever someone wants me to come talk about poetry, I’ll go,” Zihuatanejo said. “But whenever I find young faces that remind me so much of my young face, that’s what I enjoy the most. When I was younger I was alone and angry and scared.

“A lot of these things the audience is feeling in front of me, so to be able to make a connection with them is life affirming. It makes all the rental cars and all the flights and all those things that are very unpoetic, worthwhile.”