To some, Danny Solis was a kindhearted man who loved puppies and children and always had a broad smile. To others, Solis was a fiery activist who wasn't afraid to fight whatever injustice he saw. Solis was a giant of a poet who helped spread slam poetry across the globe.
Now people say Solis leaves quite a legacy for future Chicano artists to follow after he unexpectedly passed away earlier this month. Solis, 63, of Rochester died in his sleep on April 6 in New York of unknown causes.
"He was never afraid to voice his opinion and stand up for what he believed in, even if he was contentious," said Bao Phi, a poet and author who works as a program officer for the McKnight Foundation. "His boldness and his commitment to political causes in his artwork really inspired a lot of us in Minnesota."
Solis was born on June 18, 1959, in Dallas. He grew up in the Dallas area and moved across the country — Austin, Texas; Boston; North Carolina; Albuquerque, N.M. — before coming to Rochester in 2013.
Solis garnered fame as one of the most acclaimed slam poets in U.S. and international competitions in the 1990s and 2000s, in part for the way he used the stage when performing his pieces. He won state and regional championships, as well as two national and international slam poetry championships.
He gave back to the poetry scene as well. In 2005, he was the director of the National Poetry Slam, the largest poetry competition in the world. And Solis was one of three poets chosen for a U.S. State Department project to teach and organize slam poetry in Nepal and Botswana.
He continued his work giving back in Rochester, as a facilitator for the now-defunct Diversity Council and as an arts organizer. He helped found the Day of the Dead Poets Slam in 2014 and formed the Rochester Arts Ensemble with dancer and fellow artist McCay Bram.
Solis initially moved to Minnesota to follow his ex-wife, Andrea Zoss, and his son, Teagan, when Zoss was hired at Mayo Clinic. Solis recalls in a 2019 StoryCorps interview that he wasn't sure at first about Rochester.
"Uh oh, is there any Chicanx culture that my son can see himself reflected positively in here?" he said.
Those concerns were dispelled, Solis said, when he saw how Teagan participated in the Day of the Dead celebration.
"In that moment, everything was worth it," he said.
Bram said Solis was always encouraging people to get involved in Rochester events, to learn more about the cultural happenings and artistic features that take place in southeast Minnesota.
"It's such a buzzword now to talk about diversity and inclusion, but he's one of the few people who truly lived that and tried to make everything that he went to more diverse, more welcoming, more inclusive," Bram said. "Part of his impact is helping to break down some of those barriers."
Solis' family say he never tried to classify himself as a certain type of poet — he appreciated poetry in all its forms ever since he tried to write his first work at 5 years old. Zoss, who remained close with Solis after they divorced in 2009, said Solis effortlessly connected with people and taught them to appreciate poetry.
"He is someone who is just extremely curious about everyone and had this magnetism about him," Zoss said.
Solis leaves behind his ex-wife, his son, two sisters and a brother. A memorial for Solis is planned for May 13 in Rochester, with other memorials planned in Texas and New Mexico next month as well.