from Weslaco High School La Palma Yearbook, 1991
“Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration” is the first public offering of the newly formed Poetry Coalition—twenty-two organizations dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, as well as the important contributions poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
During the month of March, coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers. This year’s theme borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Borderbus.” Please return to this space and enjoy all the pieces in the series, and leave comments to participate in the dialogue.
Barbara Curiel, CantoMundo
Francisco Aragón, Letras Latinas
by Emily Pérez
You are fifteen the first time it happens and you know the power of names and renaming from your study of the Bible, from learning about slavery, from that made-for-TV movie about the witness protection program, only this is not about witnessing and you are no stranger to confusion over your name, for according to family rules—names that sound good in English and Spanish, names that do not rhyme with anything, initials that don’t spell anything, a desire to name you for someone else but not call you that name—your parents decided to call you by your middle name, which results in a lifetime of bureaucratic nightmares including one time that you will have to sign a legal form verifying that Sarah Emily is the same as Emily and that you are both those people; your parents wanted to call you Emily but Emily Sarah would make you ESP, so now you’re Sarah E., and in doctor’s waiting rooms and on the first day of school you’ve trained yourself to answer to Sarah even though you feel at best a distant connection to her as if she is a cousin or alter ego—this will be useful to you years from now when telemarketers call and ask for her—and at school growing up on the Texas-Mexico border lots of names got mispronounced, you aren’t alone in this, the Mexican teachers would call Jaime by the Spanish HY-may instead of what she said, JAY-mee, making her blush, and in the mouth of the white emcee at football games, lovely, slender Fátima became FAT-i-ma as she aced grand jetés across the field when the dance team arrived for halftime, but this time, you are not at home, you’re on your own at age fifteen at boarding school in New Hampshire, a place as foreign to you, even worldly, even well-travelled you, as medieval Japan, and why you left home is another story but the lesson you learn today is the story that will stick, cut much deeper than what you will learn in Calculus; no, you are far from South Texas, far from the town where everyone knows you and your parents and their bi-racial marriage and your siblings and your grandmother who insists she is a citizen, which she pronounces SEE-tee-zen, and where you move easily across the segregated streets because in a patriarchal world with a Catholic order what girl doesn’t think of herself as her father’s daughter, her family as her father’s line, so now when your new math teacher in this cold, New Hampshire classroom asks you for your last name, and you say Pérez and think yourself a Mexican, and with a question mark at the end she spells P-E-T-T-I-S and her name is Spruil Kilgore, which for all you know may be common in this world of duck boots, backward caps, and last names used as first names indicating good-old-boy New England roots, and you respond, no P-E-R-E-Z, and she responds, oh, you mean PEAR-ez, thereby renaming you, and remember, this is not about witness, it’s about whiteness, this lesson you will learn today, that you are not who you say you are or think you are, that without your father, your border, without your family history in this country that predates this country, its lines in the sand, its river dividers, its Mayflower, that here and almost everywhere in this world that is suddenly a lifetime away from your small home town where you’re known, you are hers, you are theirs to pronounce, because she’s looking at you, and you are white.
Emily Pérez is the author of the poetry collection House of Sugar, House of Stone and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Diode, Borderlands and other journals. A CantoMundo fellow, she has received funding and recognition from the Artist Trust, Jack Straw Writers, Bread Loaf, Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and Summer Literary Seminars. She is a high school teacher in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.