Friday, March 31, 2017

#WeComeFromEverything: no.16

RGV poets

“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 

This Feels Similar to Something I Wrote About Eight Years Ago[1]
(but maybe now more people care about border walls)

by Emmy Pérez

Amid post-election talk about the need for more poetry of resistance, many of us writers of color acknowledge that we have always been writing as resistance. I would like to add that even when we are writing about our existence, it is an act of resistance.


We live in a country where many squirm when a minimal amount of Spanish is used, even when a word has no English translation, like the bird chachalaca (Nahuatl~Spanish), or more commonly when we pronounce our last names correctly outside of the borderlands.


“I don’t speak Mexican,” the seven-year-old says to the four-year-old, mimicking the parent who said this to an adult.


Two presidents ago, construction of 18-foot steel border walls and concrete “levee”-walls began here in the Rio Grande Valley, Tejas, and continued into one president ago.


The Secure Fence Act of 2006. My definition of a fence: a thing that when climbed, a kid’s adventure, gives a bit. These walls don’t bend.


Ten years later, campaign promises to build “a” wall (as if there are none) frenzied enough eager folks. The infamous cheerleading chant an order. The chant doesn’t promise they’ll actually do the physical labor or pay for it.

On the flip side, more folks are now concerned… because the words hurt, or if not hurt, provoke. More now that we’re in the first hundred days.

Hurtful and provocative language has made, to many, the idea of walls and the possibility of more walls (and taller ones), more real than our existing ones to them. We know it’s not only about walls. We also know that borderlands communities are going to have to live (continue living) with the physical ones.


In my poem “Río Grande~Bravo,” I call a wall built here eight years ago the “concrete abstraction in front of my face.”

Existing walls are out of sight, out of mind for many, even those who would hate them, like nuclear weapons and dangerous pipelines.

Most who want these walls will never touch them in satisfaction. And most who don’t want the walls won’t touch them in anger or sadness.

Or maybe, they will become a thing, a tourist attraction, like the satirical “Great Wall of Mexico” poem written by Ricky Tijerina two presidential terms ago, a piece he performed as a graduate student in a top hat like a circus-vaudeville announcer.

Without assigned seating, how have we and do we pick our seats?

Will we speak more openly now about the virtual or less visible walls, micro?


Actual wall building: big money for contractors and entities bidding for the job as if carrying out the will of god. (Or, “nothing personal… just business.”)

Many workers have hungry mouths to feed: “They are making our people build it, to keep our people out.”[2]


Post-election: the national media attempts to tell the RGV’s untold stories. Still, the whole community’s voice feels silent beyond our own local sensibilities, though the stresses are many.

Children here and everywhere are afraid their parents will not be home when they return from school.

Pick up the daily paper and witness plans to defund X, Y, Z, A, B, C… decrease taxes for the wealthy, increase military and wall (military) spending.


Campaign promise like the words of an Old Testament god. Fear it. Take it. Sacrifice, knowing some will die.

For what? No promise of a true heaven, even for the wealthiest elected and appointed officials, performing morality about who deserves to live (well) and die (sooner).


Activists spend their hearts and lives. The unsung sheroes/hero~ines. Thank you. You are hope.


Sometimes, after he’d raged and puffed up his chest, that OT god would decide: you don’t have to kill your own child after all.

If Congress doesn’t come through with the billions, maybe we’ll have, at least on this issue, a “loving” patriarch who reveals our final hope (as in lottery-ticket-lucky-feelings hope) by saying: I didn’t mean a literal wall.


Someday, the once loudest-mouthed border walls will emit no sound, except to those “still possess[ing] the need to cross”[3] them, except to borderlands residents unwilling to grow numb to them, who have allowed for the experience of loss amid numerous other losses. Except to those everywhere unwilling to forget the walls exist.


“Some people say it will lull you / to sleep” writes Lucinda Zamora-Wiley in a 2009 border wall poem.[4] “Comfort food / that makes your soul feel at ease— / those Mexicans won’t be climbing / that wall—zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”


(I’m willing to beg: if more walls are built, please don’t ever forget they exist. We know we exist. We don’t need wall supporters to know we exist. We need them to not order walls built where we exist.)


2008-2009: I cried watching the construction trucks. How do you raise children in this hate? I thought. I had no children at the time. Most everyone’s ancestors in the RGV are from México. Mine too. Regardless. How?


Amalia Ortiz asks “… how to ignore a wall?” in a poem by the same name. The poem calls out some of the local and global apathy: “Try risking nothing” and “Look anywhere, but do not make direct eye contact  / with the wall.”

The work calls upon writers, including Latinx writers: “Tell yourself the only good art is esoteric and / consider yourself part of the elite.” “And then when injustices do occur, avoid / them too. Tell yourself Trayvon has nothing / to do with a wall…”[5]


How to hide walls? Place some in people’s backyards. Call others “levee-walls” and make the tallest, exposed concrete sides face México. Don’t tell children the truth.


When the four-year-old first learned about the walls, and the plans for more, they said, “but everything will die! The grass, the plants, the river…” The child was not prompted to say this. “Who did this?” the child demanded. “Why?”

Even small children know what justice is before even knowing that people crossing will face the same dangers.


Anti-wall activists make things happen, and will not give up. They need more support. I will never stop thanking them. For giving us hope.

There is hope in the poets, too, in their refusal to accept what has been imposed, historically, and currently.


“Not a person, no.
You, border lands
You, home, you bloodied me,
swallowed me, made me”[6]
                                                            -Noemi Martinez


I’d like to propose that more poets and readers, including Latinx poets and readers, might lend their ears to more borderlands poets from the RGV[7], the birthplace of Gloria Anzaldúa and Américo Paredes, en la “herida abierta” where they were raised, where the communities are quite alive and among the most militarized.

While some in the literary establishment (and those who internalize or work within its values) are trying to catch a “poetry of resistance” wave in response to the recent election, I wonder when the larger literary establishment will be ready for the whole truth of our poetry.


Several RGV poets have won book prizes, achieved various markers of literary acclaim, and are Macondo Writers’ Workshop members and/or CantoMundo fellows (Rosebud Ben-Oni, ire’ne lara silva, my near tocaya Emily Pérez, Octavio Quintanilla, and Vanessa Angelica Villareal are all CantoMundo & RGV poets who live in other regions now).

Many RGV poets write in more than one language, or only in Spanish, with lyric power, and directness. Thank goodness for spoken word borderland poetry, such as the dynamic poetry of Amalia Ortiz, author of Rant. Chant. Chisme. published by Wings Press (she has another, Canción Cannibal Cabaret, in the works) and Veronica “Lady Mariposa” Sandoval, whose first poetry book is forthcoming from FlowerSong Books, an imprint of VAO Publishing, a local press founded by poet and writer David Bowles.

The poem quoted earlier by Lucinda Zamora-Wiley was published in Gallery student magazine in 2009 when she was an MFA student… somewhere else ought to feature it too.

RGV poets are also publishing in high profile venues: José Antonio Rodríguez, the author of three books, has a poem forthcoming in The New Yorker and prize-winning poet Rodney Gomez has recently published in Poetry magazine. All of their books and chapbooks are excellent.

Also check out books by local presses: Noemi Martinez’s South Texas Experience: Love Letters (Hermana Resist Press), Erika Garza-Johnson’s Unwoven (FlowerSong Books), Edward Vidaurre’s Chicano Blood Transfusion (FlowerSong Books). Or pick up a copy of the anthology Lost: Children of the River published by the Raving Press, and edited by Gabriel H. Sánchez and Isaac Chavarria. There are more.

The Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival (VIPF) is now in its 10th year of existence. FEIPOL (Festival Internacional de Poesía Latinoamericana) is planning its second international poetry festival. Pasta, Poetry, and Vino is another popular reading series. Lots more going on in the community and at the university too. We are here.
 RGV poets


Sometimes a few Latina/o/x students dabbling in creative writing worry if their work is “universal” enough, avoiding, in some cases, the painful and sometimes shameful idea of home in the borderlands. This happens often to students of color not provided with opportunities to study their histories and literature in their K-12 educations, or in college unless they seek out specialized courses or later set out on their own reading and experiential path. Resistance to writing about home is an important part of the process. There is always hope for decolonial healing in the future, and not only in writing about home.

The most active poets and writers who live(d) in the RGV write about their homes (this one and others) directly, imaginatively, with lots of love, even when they are critical of or complicating any definitions of home. We are planning a project to make this work more widely known. Most RGV poetry is hard earned for the poets and essential reading for the world.


Emmy Pérez is the author of With the River on Our Face (University of Arizona Press). She is also the author of Solstice (Swan Scythe Press). She has lived along the Texas-Mexico borderlands, from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley, for over 16 years. She is a recipient of a 2017 NEA poetry fellowship and teaches creative writing and Mexican American Studies courses.

[1] My lyric essay “Healing and the Poetic line” (in the anthology A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, University of Iowa Press 2011) was written simultaneously with my poem “Río Grande~Bravo” (With the River on Our Face, University of Arizona Press 2016).
[2] Emi Z. as quoted in the above publication
[3] see #1
[4] “Seeing Through It: Reflection on the Border Wall” by Lucinda Zamora-Wiley in Gallery magazine, University of Texas Pan American, 2009.
[5] Rant. Chant. Chisme by Amalia Ortiz, Wings Press 2015.
[6] South Texas Experience: Love Letters, by Noemi Martinez, Hermana Resist Press 2016.
[7] A brief list of some Chicanx/Tejanx/Latinx RGV poets (raised here and/or live(d) here) with books and/or other literary accolades: Elvia Ardalani, Amado Balderas, Nayelly Barrios, Rosebud Ben-Oni, David Bowles, Christopher Carmona, Isaac Chavarria, Julieta Corpus, César de León, Lauren Espinoza, Anel Flores, Odilia Galván Rodríguez, Daniel García Ordaz, Erika Garza-Johnson, Rodney Gomez, M. Miriam Herrera, Meliton Hinojosa, ire’ne lara silva, Rossy Evelin Lima, Noemi Martinez, Brenda Nettles Riojas, José Antonio Rodríguez, Edna Ochoa, Octavio Quintanilla, Gabriel H. Sánchez, Veronica “Lady Mariposa” Sandoval, Verónica Solís, Lina Suarez, Edward Vidaurre, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal. Also my near tocaya Emily Pérez and me. There are many more I may have missed or who haven’t published much yet that I’d love to list, but that is part two someday.

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