Thursday, March 23, 2017

#WeComeFromEverything: no. 12

“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 Cynthia Cruz

Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland  is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyes, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.”
                                                  ——Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera

I read of a young girl who, after making her way through Mexico and crossing the US-Mexican border arrived speechless. The female worker assigned her case was unable to gather any information from the girl—who was visibly traumatized and clearly rendered mute from her travels.

Something happened during her exodus, the act of abandoning her home and traveling to safety to the US—something so traumatic she lost the ability to speak.


The girl was Mexican only when she arrived on the border. Before that, she was a girl. A girl who lived in Mexico. She became this something else when she arrived in the US, as she entered its threshold. As Judith Butler writes, as Fanon and Louis Althusser write, her becoming this other entity is the result of having being called into it. When she arrived at the border, she became Mexican, an immigrant, a refugee, a criminal. These are what the white border patrol or police person or white civilians called her and call her; and so it is what she becomes, what she became. Who she is now.

The border is a phantasm, a mirage imagined and then formed, made, upon this imagining. Those who attempt to find safety by passing through become something and someone else when they do.


Borders are unnatural, they are man-made; artificial and a means to separate those in power from those outside of it. The word border originated from the Old French bordure, which means ”seam, edge of a shield, border.” A border is a “rip,” it is a “seam.”

A  border is a distinct act of violence.


I want to talk now of the body and what happens to one’s body when one finds one’s self not at home in the world. In Sara Ahmed’s brilliant text Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, she writes: “Phenomenology helps us to explore how bodies are shaped by histories, which they perform in their compartment, their posture, and their gestures.” History and trauma are inexplicably linked: when one does not feel at home in the world, one holds back, hesitates. Furthermore, when one has become “Other” by others they are surrounded by, this is doubly so. Like being bullied in school, being seen and named as less than because one has come from someplace else, because one does not look like everyone else, does not speak or move like everyone else—this informs and changes one’s self and one’s body which, in turn, changes the way we move in the world. We take up less space, speak less, we overcompensate.


How do boundaries, which are artificial and a means of delineating who is allowed into the system and who is not, inform the way one is able or un-able to move in such a world.

And how does one carry this border or boundary within one’s self? This knowing that one is always Other, always even when one makes one’s way into and through this boundary, never fully absorbed? Always, always on the outside of this boundary which does not stop at the border, but is carried and reaffirmed in a multiplicity of ways within the boundaries of the United States.

In other words, even when we cross through and into, we never fully enter. We are always outside.


My own experience is this: I am the daughter of a Mexican-American, a man whose family came to the United States from Mexico, a man who was not able to complete grammar school due to his having to work in the fields—

My father does not exist. Though he has lived in the United States his entire life, he is invisible.

He is silent. He is framed and contained by a system not interested in him. And the way this presents in his day to day life is via access to institutions and means of earning a living.

It is not true, what he told me and what his parents told him, that if you work hard enough, you will move out of the class you were born into. It is not true there are no class systems in the United States of America. Class is a boundary, a border; it keeps people in their place. And the ideology that if one works hard enough, one can move up and out of their class, is a means to silence those in this space. Ambition and striving as a means to keep one’s mind and body busy while one is working multiple jobs and not moving forward at all. As long as one believes that if one just works hard enough, they will move up (and if they don't move up, it’s their own fault), one will not notice that one’s entire life has passed by.

My father has worked his entire life. My father lives in poverty.


When I was working as a nanny in the Hamptons one summer my boss, the father of the small child I nannied, asked me one evening, after I had finished my dinner at a separate table in a separate room from the family, “How do you end up with the name Cruz?”

It was not until he asked me the question that I became aware how much my name and what it meant had troubled him; how, I realized when he asked the question, that it had been bothering him since he hired me.

My name and where I come from arrives before me even before I speak; I am positioned, who I am and my body, are kept within that space.


To lose one’s voice when confronted with a border, with a boundary, with power that does not want you to enter—this is what I am attempting to address here. But words, as always, fail me.


What does it mean to lose one’s voice?

When I was a small child I did not speak. Perhaps there was something I was not able or unwilling to articulate or maybe my not-saying was in itself a kind of saying, its own strange language. 

And how does not speaking, a not-speaking that may in fact be the direct result of the trauma of coming upon a border, of experiencing not being at home, create its own border, its own threshold?

And how might this self-formed boundary, this threshold, serve as a form of resistance?

For my father and for my family, assimilation was the aim as it is for many immigrants. And yet, it has proved impossible; full immersion, impenetrable. We won’t be digested—we can enter, if we enter, but then we remain, still, outside. Remnant, dreg, excess.


And finally, I have to address the obvious: the very fact that I am living and surviving in this culture means I am a part of it; I am, in a sense, assimilated. Also, though not middle-class, I am also not without a place to live, I am not without work (adjunct and seasonal and yet—work).

That I have enough food to eat and clothes on my body, that I am not in immediate danger of my life, for my security, of deportation—presumes a kind of integration that I must acknowledge.

And yet what I am speaking of here is a way that one can remain outside of, even inside, the borders. This is what I am speaking of—when I think of my father who worked full time and often several jobs at once, and yet never had a savings, never owned a home, is peripheral. He did not leave a mark where he went. This is what I mean—a kind of tracelessness, a silence that is the result of years of being on the other side of gates and borders, counters and desks—always on the other side of power and institutions, access—and a way of moving one’s body through space—knowing that one belongs, that one’s body belongs in the space.


To be not at home, to be not at home in a space that will not, cannot, absorb one, is to be disoriented, to be lost, in a way. But also, this losing, this being not at home-ness, creates a stronger, perhaps, other, sense of knowing.

What happens when one loses one’s sight is that one’s sense of smell and hearing and touch become more sensitive—and in a way, one becomes more animal in the way that animals trust what they smell and hear, what their bodies sense, more than what they see. Intuitive, perceptive, disoriented but oriented in a new, strange way, what Gloria Anzaldua calls La facultad:

     La facultad is the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning 
     of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface. It is an 
     instant “sensing,” a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning. 
     It is an acute awareness mediated by the part of the psyche that does not 
     speak, that communicates in images and symbols which are the faces 
     of feelings, that is, behind which feelings reside/hide. The one 
     possessing this sensitivity is excruciatingly alive to the world

Cynthia Cruz is the author of four collections of poetry: Ruin (2006), The Glimmering Room (2012), Wunderkammer (2014), and How the End Begins (2016). Her fifth collection of poems, Dregs, is forthcoming in 2018 along with a collection of essays,  Notes Toward a New Language,exploring silence and marginalization. Cruz has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in writing and an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts. Cruz is currently pursuing a PhD in German Studies at Rutgers University. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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