Monday, August 11, 2014

Introducing a new series: Nefelibata

Nefelibata: Interviews with Latina Writers

curated and conducted

by ire’ne lara silva

(n.) lit. "cloud walker"; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination, or one who does not obey the conventions of society, literature, or art

Installment #1: Natalia Treviño

ils:   ire’ne lara silva
NT:  Natalia Treviño

ils: There’s an interesting tension between the title of your book, Lavando la Dirty Laundry, and the poems found in the book. The title makes me think first of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and then it makes me think of “airing dirty laundry” in public, the gossip, the looks, the rumors, and all the scandal. And while there is plenty of gossip and rumors, what captures me is the earnestness of this collection—its real desire to actually ‘do’ the laundry…to wash, to make clean, to make useful, to care for family history, the individuality of family members, and wounds both old and new. What was it that drew you so powerfully to the metaphor and reality of 'washing'?

NT:  You are asking me to come clean about this title, a title that hurts me to the bone. The title is literally about a family scandal that I discuss in the title poem. But the metaphor I am attracted to is about the science of cleansing. In chemistry class, I learned about the chemical function of soap, which I talk about in my poem, “A Lesson of Elements.” The soap molecule is like a chain, and one end of that chain wants to chemically bond with that which is insoluble in water: grease, and grime. This part of the soap molecule accepts the oil (and is accompanying dirt) and becomes complete when it is attached to it. There are so many lessons in this embrace. What if we do this too? Accept our dirt? Then we can move on right? The water loving end of the molecule, says, ‘Let’s go with the rest of this water.’ Water likes itself, wants to form unions, puddles, and leaves swiftly. I hope many of my poems are accepting the dirt, and leave a clear, bare essence behind. When I do not face my own dirt, I get into trouble. I become false, and the truth is that I will stink with hypocrisy.

ils: At the end of the first section, your concern/connection with Greek mythology takes the foreground. At first, I was rather surprised by the abrupt switch from family poems to Greek poems and back again. It wasn't until after some thought that it occurred to me that this was actually the perfect placement. It seems to me that as a girl your definitions of femininity, womanhood, family roles, etc. were being shaped by the women around you. And while you were learning those things, you were exposed to Greek mythology and that also shaped your ideas about womanhood. What is it about the stories of Penelope, Aphrodite, etc. that so struck you then and continue to speak to you now?

NT: The stories about Penelope and Aphrodite did not really resonate with me until I was really examining marriage and relationships after my divorce.  I began to see literary characters of all sorts in a much softer, more human light. Knowing facts about their stories, I began to imagine their inner dialogues, the feelings of separation Penelope must have felt, the arrogance Odysseus may have felt before he left her, the feeling of rejection from Adonis Aphrodite must have felt, a feeling that would be totally foreign to her as the goddess of love and beauty, and I began to fictionalize these stories in short poems.

Feelings of loss, rejection, and separation are universal and human feelings whether they are about a grandmother on the other side of the border, a wife in South Texas, or a literary mother in a book from the other side of the world. I am talking about the inner lives of women through family and familiar characters, and those characters are a part of our collective imaginations.

In movies, books, and schools, children are exposed to Hera’s jealousy and Zeus’ lust long before they understand those feelings within themselves. For many kids under ten, this may be the first time they get to know someone else’s ‘dirty laundry,’ and is it a wonder that so many claim a love for mythology before they start middle school? It is their dirt attached to the dirt on the page, and reading about dirt allows readers to start to heal, to begin to let go, to understand they can flush it out of their system.

ils: From 'Tortilla Skins': 
"Years after 'Buelito had died, you were a new kind of/ woman. Certain eyes. Laughing, traveling, playing cards. Able to/ wake and say, no, to skip the simmering heat of guisados and/ flame-burnt tortillas by the main noon meal. Bake a cake instead,/ at night. Crochet and smoke at the same time. Speak up around/the men. Accept a small glass of beer...Would you/ remarry, I ask. You are quick to answer: Yes, it is ugly to live/ alone." I think this poem speaks fundamentally to the ambivalence some women may feel in the space between tradition and freedom. Each comes with its own costs and rewards—and is powerfully associated with one’s identity. As a poet and a woman, how do you see your voice negotiating that space?

NT: Imagine extending your arms fully, and at the end of one arm, you are holding on to tradition. It is pulling at you with a mighty force, holding you up, all of the safety and acceptance that comes along with it. At the end of the other arm, you are holding on to freedom, and it is also holding you up, all of the promise and possibilities for happiness that can come along with it. Each force can pull your chest apart if the pull of each is too strong. And many women feel torn right down the middle of their bodies. Do they marry or stay single? Do they have children? Do they only date men?

When we are pulled by opposing forces, what allows us to feel balanced? If I give in to one pull or the other, I will lose balance and fall to that side. I think it takes strength to acknowledge the pull of each, to understand the attraction to and resistance of each. The only way I know to negotiate that space in life is to acknowledge the power of both forces pulling on me and not let one or the other fully win. By resisting the total victory of either, I can keep my balance. There are traditions in my poems that I embrace—love and marriage, motherhood, self-sacrifice, but these traditions do not go unexamined. There are freedoms I embrace as well— to criticize unfair marriage and unfair love, to show the mutilation of the self that occurs in motherhood, to give voice to silenced women who get lost in the struggle.

ils: In “Translating Birth,” you write “My grandmother once told me,/todos mis partos fueron bonitos/of her five births. In Spanish,/ the word for birth is parto,/and being raised gringa,/ I had been translating words to English/ by removing the o. It almost always worked:/banco, bank, santo, saint…/The Spanish for born was nacer. There was no nace./ At least birth and born alliterated in Texas./ Nacer and parto did not. I heard all of my partings were pretty./ Could the language be that wise?/ The child parts. Departs? Departe de meant from whom./ I saw the baby as a part that came from the mother.” In this poem, I see the poet’s need to relate the two languages, to find the places where words mean the same in both tongues, and also to find the places where translation is its own poetry whether beautiful or not.

NT: I love how you see this poem and how you explain it. As a bilingual child, I was constantly looking for a way to understand one language or the other, and when there was a connection between the two, the world briefly made sense. There was common ground between my quiet little house in suburban San Antonio and my home country, all that is terrible, greasy, polluted, candied, delicious, and loving that makes Mexico. There was common language that could float in my imagination, where I could hold a conversation with myself, where it was safe to say it or understand it incorrectly. And when a word had no sister cognate in English or no brother root in Spanish, it was extra hard just to remember what it meant. Every cognate was a rescue boat for me. It meant I could speak and understand the world around me. Words like dog and perro were a challenge. Cat and gato made me feel better, even if I was adjusting the sound a little to make them twins. 

Often the translation is poetry because poetry at its best offers a brief moment of enlightenment, and it is done through an illumination on an already known idea. I can write a poem about a cat, but when I compare a cat to a difficult friend, my reader will see those elements of the cat which align with my metaphor. My son recently wrote a poem with the line, “life is just death stuck in some traffic.” Woah. We are all stuck in the traffic on the way to death. He gave me something new. And translations do this all the time. A friend of mine and I were recently talking about Chinese characters and how we each learned the same thing in two unrelated workshops, that the character for autumn is two symbols, a tree and fire. This makes me see autumn in a whole new light. The trees are red and gold, the colors of fire. I have always loved the smell of Halloween, which is simply the smell of burning leaves.

I think many poets embrace the ugly, the gristled stone within the walls of the heart, the bleeding eyes that are cooked with the barbacoa. Sometimes there is too much emphasis on the gore for the shock value it can bring. There needs to be a reason that illuminates, that sheds light on the subject. The gristle on the heart needs to be compared to a lover or a politician. The bleeding eyes to Jesus. How often do we put Jesus in a taco and eat him alive, calling it border security or the Iron Dome?

ils: One of the poems that most affected me was 'Graft Draft.' No, not just affected me, I broke down crying in public and walked home with tears streaming down my face—because I identify so strongly with that desire to ‘carry’ a loved one’s pain, even if only for a little while. In a very brief space, this poem enacts a journey of healing—not the medical aspects but the emotional and psychological aspects of living with an illness/disease and how we, as humans, make peace with it and bring it into our daily lives. And yet in this poem and others, you don’t shy away from the very real and physical aspects of your husband’s melanoma. What did bringing these experiences into poetry do for you? 

NT: Those poems came very quickly and fluidly after we were past some major stages and worries with his cancer. As Wordsworth says, so much poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and as my mentor and friend Palmer Hall once said to me, “It takes about ten years to write about it,
doesn’t it?” We carry what haunts us. Taking these things to the page was a form of healing, of giving the emotions their due place, out and exposed in a non-violent manner. I say non-violent because this poem is about ripping off my skin to give it to my husband, to protect him. It is a desperate poem about the desperate feelings we both had when we were in the worst stage of his cancer, the not knowing. The emotions we felt made us want to tear the walls down, made us want to kill or die, and just end the fear.

We dwelled in the not knowing privately, with him not wanting to tell his family overseas in Australia and London until he knew, and me not being able to tell mine here in San Antonio until his family knew. My son was very young, and there was no point in sharing it with him as it would only frighten him, making us feel more desperate facing his questions within the sanctity and safety of our own home. And dealing with the not knowing went on for a long time. First we did not know what stage it was. Next we did not know if he would get chemo and surgery or just surgery. And then there would be another surgery. Next, we did not know if it had spread to the sentinel lymphs, and so we had to wait for yet another surgery. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Fear, fear, fear, surgery on days off with no one from his job knowing either, and we only had each other to turn to for comfort and for release, and we were facing his mortality alone and together. Doctors, nurses, and oncologists were very kind, but casual about all prognoses: “It may go to the brain. Call if you feel ANYTHING weird, ANYTHING hurt. It loves to travel to the eye. And the heart too, so call if you feel ANYTHING strange.” The man feels strange every day. He was over fifty. Oh, and surgery, in four weeks, or three, or, really, it felt like three hundred weeks.

Poetry allowed me to use extreme language to recollect and understand my anguish, my fear, and my sense of guilt. He moved here to marry me, and the Texan sun gave him cancer? The poems flowed easily. It was as if I had put a tourniquet on the wound that wanted to bleed, and in the poems, I bled freely.

ils: I am fascinated by the voice of Mary Magdalene towards the end of this collection:
“Jesus, my love, you didn’t have to do it/ that way, accept the thrush. Wings, flutter/ of beatings, serrated beaks against your back./ We’d only but touched in good ways--/And wife of yours I was,” and later, “Husband, that night, blankets/ I wanted to give you. Your body open/ to the rain. My face—ready for pluck/ and the ants gathered at my feet as you died./ Hundreds upon me before I knew, crawling/ curled like frightened dirt to my feet and legs.” There’s something passionate and unrestrained about her voice, her emotions. I would love to hear more about how this voice came to inhabit you, and to ask what it is about Mary Magdalene that fascinates you so?

NT: Certain stories hit me hard. I think we are all built that way. Around 2005, I heard the stories about Mary Magdalene being the wife of Jesus. It was in the news because Dan Brown called it into question in The DaVinci Code, and news about The Gospel of Mary emerged, as well as the
controversies regarding The Gospel of Thomas. I was floored. I looked into it, and I saw that the language used to defend the idea that Mary could have been the wife of Jesus had to do with Jesus kissing Mary on the blank. A hole is in this Gnostic document right where this word would be, but people presume it is the Coptic word for mouth, and there is language that Jesus loved Mary best.

It is a longshot, a very long shot to think that their marriage would have been deleted and concealed in each of the gospels that are now accepted. I came to inhabit this voice, first, as feminist rebellion against the idea in the Catholic church that Jesus only chose men as disciples. That is the precise reason given why women may not be priests. So many women’s lives could have changed, and they could have had such a positive impact on the world as Catholicism came to rule the West. Maybe.

And if this is true, historically, that she had been his wife, that she may have borne him children, I was even more angry. She would have to be the ultimate silenced woman, silenced because Christianity has been so loud in the shaping of so many cultures and countries. Her teachings, her history wiped out for centuries. This text, which was used to carve out the destinies of so many people through war, through Crusades, through unregulated global power, could have had the voice of a woman in it, a voice of an intimate soul, perhaps a voice of reason.

Again, there is no hard evidence that they were married, and it is all fiction in my book, even blasphemous, but the possibilities stirred my imagination, and I wanted to know what would she say about the last events of his life if she had been his wife as well as his disciple.

ils: In this book, we see you, the poet, as witness, as myth-reader, as grand-daughter, as daughter, as niece, and later, as mother and wife—we see you always in relationship to someone or something else. I’m curious to learn more about where you are—as poet/writer, as an immigrant, as a woman of color, as an academic, as a feminist, as a Latina. What other stories are you still wanting to tell?

NT: I am entering new spaces, collecting what I can learn about Mary for my new poetry collection, not Mary Magdalene, but Mary Mary, the mother of the big JC. I am doing this as a gentle way to finally grieve for my grandmother Socorro’s death and celebrating her life. There are many explorations in front of me with this journey, and it has taken me over five years since her death for me to begin. I think I am delaying grieving not just for her, but for Mexico, all of its grittiness, and all of its beauty that I always accepted as my home country. My grandmother’s death coincides with a great separation I have now with Mexico.

When she died, several important family traditions also ended. And her death came just before the increase in violence in her home city of Monterrey, which kept me from my frequent travels there, and so the grief over my loss became not only about her, but for a connection to home. 

By exploring Mary, I am entering the spaces I once inhabited with my grandmother, a space of unconditional love, motherhood, and endless storytelling. My grandmother worshipped Mary every day for over an hour a day, and the stories about Mary echo in apparition stories, in healing stories, in pilgrimage stories, and in her being used for the purposes of colonization of Mexico via the apparition story of the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos. I want to create stories out of facts and learn more about the sacred. My dear friend and mentor, Sandra Cisneros says writing is prayer, and I cannot agree more with that.

I am also in the final stages of completing my novel, La Cruzada. This is a story about a teenager named Berta who leaves her three-year-old daughter to come live in San Antonio as an indentured servant. She is a compilation of several women I have known who have made this difficult choice, and who suffered greatly as a result. I am moved by their silent suffering, their lack of education, and their lack of options. Often, their only choice in Mexico is prostitution. They have babies, and they want to keep their babies alive. They will do anything. What teenager knows how a decision will impact her? I have been working on this novel for over seven years, first as a short story, but it grew and grew. I feel for the mothers, and I desperately want more people to understand their position. When we understand their ‘dirty laundry,’ we might act more like neighbors than enemies.  


Born in Mexico City and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Natalia Treviño is the author of Lavando La Dirty Laundry, (Mongrel Empire Press, 2014). She is an Associate Professor of Englishat Northwest Vista College and a member of the Macondo Foundation. Natalia completed her Master’s degree in English at The University of Texas, and her MFA from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her poems have won the Alfredo Moral de Cisneros Award, the Wendy Barker Creative Writing Award, the  Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and the San Antonio Artist Foundation Literary Prize. Her poems have appeared in several literary journals including Bordersenses, Borderlands, Texas Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, burntdistrict, and Voices de la Luna. She has been anthologized as a poet, fiction, and non-fiction writer, with fiction appearing in Curbstone Press’ Mirrors Beneath the Earth,and essays inShifting Balance Sheets:Women’s Stories of Naturalized Citizens and Complex Allegiances: Constellations of Immigration. She is finishing her first novel, La Cruzada, a testimony of an teenage mother who leaves her daughter and her home in Mexico to work in the United States in an arrangement meant to last two years. Having experienced a bi-national childhood, she hopes to raise understanding between people on both sides of the Mexican-American border. She
lives with her husband and son just outside of San Antonio. Website:  


ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, TX, and is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press,
2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreward Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. ire’ne is the recipient of the 2014 Alredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, as well as a Macondo Workshop member and  CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Rigoberto González @ the Library of Congress

Rigoberto González 
delivering his lecture
post-lecture conversation and Q&A

"Have we done right by the lessons of those who came before? Have we done our part to clear a path for those who came after. This is the light under which I present the following lecture about the contemporary period of Latino poetry and its most exceptional voices, who will guide us through the shifting demographics of this country's population--for I am convinced that Latino letters, so often ignored or overlooked by the current literary establishment, will become the most important cultural testaments bearing witness to the era of transition"
                                                      ---Rigoberto González, April 10, 2014
One of the highlights of the 2013/14 Letras Latinas season  was Rigoberto González's lecture, "Latino Poetry: Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition" at the Library of Congress this past April. Above are some snapshots from the playing video. Below is the embedded video itself. 


González's lecture references a number of poets, but hones in on six: Eduardo. C. Corral, J. Michael Martínez, David Tomás Martínez, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Cynthia Cruz. Among the more established voices he references are the late José Montoya, to whom lecture is dedicated, Francisco X. Alarcón, Pat Mora, raulsalinas, and Sandra Cisneros.

Letras Latinas programming in Washington, D.C. is made possible,
in part, thanks to the Weissberg Foundation
and individual donors.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Maceo Montoya, Copilot Press, and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative

Last fall I was invited to engage with a remarkable work of art. When I was done, I wrote:

"[W]here does it all come from, Andrés? The images, the words?" Posed early on, the question unleashes a mestizaje-of-a-tome--that is: a book that marries word and image, prose and poem: a hybrid work of art as personal and vulnerable and moving as anything I've read in a long while. This is risky writing, maybe even counter-intuitive if one is pre-occupied with forging a certain kind of "career." I couldn't stop reading, continuing to the end in one sitting. Maceo Montoya, the artist-writer, opens multiple fronts: dialogues with the living (father, art critic, lover); dialogues with the dead (beloved brother); indelible images from my native California--too often overlooked. But the exquisite prose poem narratives--unapologetic romanticismo in my view--are what completely won me over."

That was/is my two cents for LETTERS TO THE POET FROM HIS BROTHERMaceo Montoya's new book, published by California-based Copilot Press

But what came next was an act of generosity which, given the subject-matter of the book, did not surprise me. Maceo agreed to donate his share of the proceeds from the sale of the first 300 books to the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative. Specifically, the proceeds are being earmarked for the one-day symposium Letras Latinas intends to carry out upon the publication of Andrés Montoya's posthumous collection of poems, edited by Daniel Chacón, and slated for publication with Bilingual Press.

Up until now, the money we've been raising for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative has been coming from sale of Malaquias Montoya's "Untitled," a silkscreen print inspired by Andrés' poetry. Those who have been able to afford its price tag have generously contributed.

But Maceo's generous gesture is going to allow people to join the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative for what we think is a very reasonable amount: $25, and that gets you this gorgeous book.

But there's more, in the same fashion that we have asked folks who acquired the print to have a photograph of themselves taken with it, we are inviting folks to have a photo taken with Maceo's new book in order to contribute to a photo gallery at Copilot Press' website. Here's the photo I contributed:

So, please head on over to Copilot Press, order LETTERS TO THE POET FROM HIS BROTHER, and when it finds its way into your hands, follow these instructions, and join us. Gracias!



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Interview With Maceo Montoya

 “Montoya’s humorous yet moving critique of the United States’ deportation policies avoids easy depictions of good and bad. The book features a decidedly complicated anti-hero whose journey sheds light on the lives of those who are affected when a person disappears from either side of the border.”

So wrote Rigoberto González for BuzzFeed back in mid-February in an online feature titled “14 Must-Read Works of Chicano Literature.”

Letras Latinas Blog is now pleased to offer this thoughtful exchange with the author of The Deportation of Wopper Barraza.

Our thanks to Letras Latinas Associate Roberto Cruz, who conducted this interview shortly before completing his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame.


RC:    Roberto Cruz
MM:  Maceo Montoya

RC: One of the things I found interesting about your novel was how it gives readers different perspectives, though mostly focusing back to Wopper Barraza. What informed your decision to take this multiple viewpoint approach instead of having the whole story unfold entirely through Wopper’s eyes?

MM: Wopper’s deportation began as a short story detailing his last night in his hometown. Basically an exploration of what was going through his mind as he pondered his very uncertain future. But upon finishing the draft, I kept wondering what would happen to him once he arrived. So I dove back in, and this time I found myself telling the story through the voice of an old farmer in La Morada, Michoacán the day of Wopper’s arrival. At the time, I was heavily influenced by Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which employs numerous voices over the course of decades to not just tell a story about the visceral realist poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, but also about the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation. Bolaño described his work as a “love letter” to his generation. This appealed to me. My aspirations were less ambitious, though. I wanted to tell a story of a smaller community, in this case those tied to the diaspora between Woodland, California and La Piedad, Michoacán and its surroundings.
As the voices multiplied, I looked for others who had used this polyphonic device. Of course there are many, but probably the most well known is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In fact, Faulkner’s entire oeuvre draws on multiple voices, with its roots in the Southern oral tradition. This made me think about the early works of Chicano literature, which also drew upon oral storytelling. For example, Tomás Rivera’s …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him and Rolando Hinojosa’s Sketches of the Valley both employed numerous voices and perspectives to reveal a larger community and experience. As my own novel developed, I felt more confident knowing that it wasn’t simply a formal device, but that I was, in fact, drawing on a longer tradition where voice, community, and place are intertwined.

RC: While I did find that I got to know a lot about Wopper from other people, it seems like the story itself lets us know the least about how Wopper perceives things. Rather, it is an interpretation made by people surrounding him. Could you comment on this?

MM: At the end of the novel, Arnie Beas, Wopper’s onetime counselor at the community college, finds that no matter how hard he tries to get inside Wopper’s head, he can’t figure him out. All he knows is that Wopper fascinates him as much as he befuddles him, which leads Arnie to have something of an existential crisis. For Arnie, Wopper’s inscrutability comes to symbolize his own frustrated ambitions. Similarly, as the different characters offer their perspective on Wopper– whether in Woodland or in La Morada – they’re actually describing themselves, their hopes and fears. Wopper might be an enigma, but I also understood that he was a cipher. This is a hard protagonist to pull off, and I often felt frustrated by my own inability to know him, but I realized that in my work as an educator I encountered young men and women like Wopper all the time. There was something very real about his inarticulateness, his unknowability. Others imposed their understanding of him on him. Ultimately, Wopper’s struggle was to figure out how to transcend those perceptions. In short, to become his own person.

RC: I noticed that there was a hint of mystery regarding some of the characters like Mija, and Don Martin that did not necessarily reach a conclusion. How do you think this affects the book in terms of bringing it to a close?

MM: Our lives are full of incomplete stories. We may know multiple parts but rarely do we get the whole. In a novel driven by perceptions I had to be okay with leaving certain mysteries unresolved. Much of the novel’s conflict results from lack of communication. Wopper was not a communicator. He shrugged his way through life, and so just about all of his relationships were riddled with mystery – mysteries no one cared about, but mysteries nonetheless. When he meets Mija the stakes grow. If early in their relationship the two of them had sat down and talked about themselves – their pasts, who they’d been with, what they’d been through, what they were looking for in life – their relationship may have endured. Easier said than done, of course. But because they never talked, they had to piece together each other’s lives, and eventually the partnership they’d developed, which was really very special, succumbed to hearsay, gossip, and misunderstanding. Near the end of the novel, when Wopper is back in Woodland and he and Laura (the girlfriend he’d left behind), have a conversation in the hospital it represents a significant step forward for Wopper. This small articulation of who he is offers hope that maybe his future will be driven by volition rather than by others’ judgment.

RC: The setting of this story felt very important. It seemed to come full circle from Woodland to La Morada, then back to Woodland. I feel like this addresses a bigger issue. How important do you think this element of your book is in portraying the struggle of belonging to two different worlds, but having trouble embracing one over the other?

MM: Woodland and La Piedad are actually sister cities. A large number of Woodland residents immigrated from La Piedad and its surrounding pueblos and ranchos. La Morada is invented, but I based it on a rancho where a few of my friends’ families are from. I think what has always fascinated me about Woodland is that so many of its residents are thinking about, dreaming of, and yearning for another place. But it’s not only in their minds, they are also actively trying to preserve that place, and, so much as possible, recreate it. This requires a tremendous amount of imagination. And when you have a whole community imagining collectively, it’s something very powerful. But for the children of those immigrants, who grow up surrounded by this imagined world – maybe they’ve visited it a few times, but for the most part they know Mexico, lo mexicano, through their parents – I think it can be a struggle to know where one’s place is. For me, this is the root of lo chicano, what it means to not only occupy that in between space, but to also learn how to come to terms with it. We all struggle with where we belong, we must constantly find a way of balancing worlds, and this requires its own kind of imaginative thinking.

RC: You added another part to this story that is not usually common, at least in my experience. Wopper was actually able to return to the United States. How do you think including this in your story changes the way in which people think about this struggle of having influences and belonging to two different worlds, not only culturally, but physically since Wopper made a life for himself in both these places?

MM: For me, Wopper had to return. Yes, his deportation woke him up, his relationship with Mija and his political activity and business dealings showed him what he was capable of, but living in Mexico would always be a form of exile. It would never be his home. Woodland is. And if he had never returned, I think he would’ve always wondered about it, yearned for it, much the same as his immigrant parents yearned for La Morada. But his parents, if they chose to, could always return. Wopper could only return as a fugitive, which is why I liken his experience to that of an exile rather than an immigrant. In ancient Greece and Rome exile was seen as a punishment worse than death or imprisonment. This makes sense to me, as the home is where one finds relevance, purpose. This is probably why so many immigrant dreams involve eventual return, whether it happens or not. Wopper may have succeeded in La Morada, but his true fulfillment as a person was only going to happen in Woodland, and so I feel as though there was always a sense of inevitability about his return. He fled La Morada in desperation, and part of it was because he started to comprehend that he was in over his head, that he was in a place that he didn’t understand and maybe never would.

RC: Another fascinating part of this book is that Wopper is actually from Mexico, but is more familiar with Woodland. Seeing the success that Wopper was able to have in La Morada, but his longing for Woodland, do you think this speaks to a reality that many people face in the United States, who were born in another country, but grew up in the United States?

MM: The numbness of Wopper’s existence in Woodland represents his inability to imagine a life different than the one he has. On the one hand you have a generation who staked everything on an illusion, a single-minded quest for a better life, while at the same time they imagine and reimagine the home left behind; on the other hand, you have a generation that is faced with the challenge of finding its own dream. Their parents staked everything on something imagined, but they, the children, must live with the reality. For this second-generation, finding its own dream can be trying in a country whose promises are often as intangible as they are unattainable. Wopper is clearly capable, as his success in Mexico demonstrates, but that doesn’t answer what he wants from his life, or even what’s possible. His deportation jarred him awake, but the larger questions remain. I mentioned above an existential crisis. In a way, all of the characters are dogged by the same uncertainties: What am I? Where do I belong? What do I want to become? Personally, I’m far removed from the immigrant experience, but as an artist, an educator, and, simply, someone who feels deeply for those whose experience it is, I believe that the answers to these existential questions are important to us all. 


Maceo Montoya grew up in Elmira, California. He comes from a family of artists, including his father Malaquias Montoya, a renowned artist, activist, and educator, and his late brother, Andrés Montoya, whose poetry collection The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems won the American Book Award in 2000. Maceo graduated from Yale University in 2002 and received his Master of Fine Arts in painting from Columbia University in 2006.

Montoya’s paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions throughout the country as well as internationally, including the traveling show “Caras Vemos, Corazones No Sabemos: The Human Landscape of Mexican Migration to the United States” and “Inter-viewing Paintings” at the SOMA Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea. His artwork has appeared in a range of publications, including seventeen drawings in David Montejano's Sancho's Journal (University of Texas Press 2012), an ethnography of the Brown Berets in San Antonio. Montoya’s first novel, The Scoundrel and the Optimist (Bilingual Review, 2010), was awarded the 2011 International Latino Book Award for “Best First Book” and Latino Stories named him one of its "Top Ten New Latino Writers to Watch." Recently, University of New Mexico Press  published his second novel, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza, and  Copilot Press published Letters to the Poet from His Brother, a hybrid book combining images, prose poems, and essays.

Montoya is an assistant professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches the Chicana/o Mural Workshop and courses in Chicano Literature. He is also affiliated with Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer (TANA), a community-based arts organization located in Woodland, CA.