Sunday, April 28, 2019

Posada: An Interview with Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo

Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge

an interview with Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Posada's offerings rest in the hot sand of the U.S.-Mexico Border, desert flowers providing much-needed witness and humanity to the millions of migrants who cross in search of a better life. The collection explores the ramifications of Latinx transnational identity, discerning conflicting emotional, social, and even religious loyalties. Accordingly, Posada explores the intersecting narratives of Bermejo's immigrant family and the more recently arrived.

As a second-generation Peruvian-American, I am very grateful for the courage that my family had to journey to the U.S. For many of us, the border is of great importance to where we came from and how we got to where we are today. Inspired by her volunteer work in the Tucson sector, Bermejo treats the border as a living symbol with evolving meanings. Fostering unity and solidarity across generations of immigrants, Posada forges a link with the past, present, and future of Latinidad.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Traditionally, Mexican posadas are a central part of the Christmas celebration; they follow the Holy Family on their journey to find a room in Bethlehem. What does the word posada, commonly translated as inn, mean to you in relation to the migration of families across the southern border?

[Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo]: What happened was right before the book was to go to print as “Built With Safe Spaces,” I suddenly freaked over the title being too literal. I started going through the collection looking for a better title, and Posada popped out to me. For one, it’s the only poem in the book translated into Spanish, which I did for my grandmother. The front steps and door to her home are on the cover image and the events in the poem, Posada, happened on those front steps at her home in East Los Angeles. And two, I thought the Mexican Christmas pageant made a nice metaphor for the immigrant journey. As you mention, in the tradition, two people dress up as Mary and Joseph and process through the streets of a neighborhood knocking on neighbors’ doors reenacting the journey through Bethlehem searching for a safe place to stay the night. So I guess the word Posada represents my Mexican heritage, my version of Los Angeles, and my grandmother, which are all directly connected to why I care about immigrant and refugee rights.

[TK]: What impact did volunteering as a desert aid worker with No More Deaths have on your writing? What attracts you to the desert and Chavez Ravine?

[XGB]: Volunteering with No More Deaths gave me a center point for the whole collection. Before volunteering I said I was writing a collection of poetry, but I had no idea what it was about. After I went, I had something to focus on. Not only did it produce the social justice poems about the Arizona desert, it also helped me better understand my family history and my connection to Los Angeles as well as my connection to the desert. It gave me a frame. 

My connection to the desert isn’t something I’ve been able to fully verbalize yet. All I know is when I’m in the desert something in my spirit opens up. It’s like my spirit knows it’s home. As for Chavez Ravine, it was a moment in L.A. history that I knew nothing about for most of my life, and that shocked me. I wanted more people to know about this horrific injustice done to mostly Mexican-American people, and how the city ripped their homes away from them. Home is a very big theme in the book.

[TK]: This Poem is for Nopales makes a beautiful comparison between prickly pear cactus needles and your grandmother’s chin hairs. Nopales are a “love letter” from the land, your family, and your grandma. What does being a nopal woman mean to you?

[XGB]: My grandmother was a pretty stoic person. She didn’t speak much, she never judged anyone, and her prayers (after her family) were most important. Now, I’ll never be stoic, but I would like to be more mindful like her. The nopal is a succulent, so we know it can live in difficult circumstances. It’s got needles, so it’s a little dangerous, but it’s also quietly watching, and it’s giving. It feeds us. And most important it’s native to the Americas. I guess, I’m saying I want to be proud of who I am, and I want to gain strength in knowing who I am and not feel the need to be loud and or to prove myself. I want to have the quiet that comes with that kind of strength.

[TK]: Part III is a somewhat experimental section called Things to Know for Compañer@s: A No More Deaths Volunteer Guide. How did you mentally and perhaps physically honor those who perished in the desert? Did the original volunteer guide contain Did You Know sections?

[XGB]: When you are out in the Tucson-Sector of the border, death is kind of everywhere. It’s hard not to look out the car window as you are driving to a location, or to stop on a hike and look out over the canyons and know you are walking where someone has perished. What’s hardest are those people who will never be found or the bodies that will never be identified. I was constantly wondering who I was not seeing, and wished I could do more. How do you honor those people? I feel like I carried them with me every day I was in the desert, and then I tried to carry them onto the page with poems like Meditation for the Lost and Found and Ascension of Josseline. Those poems were my way of honoring.

As for a volunteer guide, there was no actual volunteer manual, perse. That poem was inspired by the three days of training I received before going out to the desert. We had Know Your Rights training, first aid training, desert knowledge training, and a class on the history of the area starting with the Tohono O'odham people and going through the different Administrations and how they changed the border with attention to NAFTA and The Obama Administration’s deportation numbers. That poem was birthed out of my training and the feeling I had when I first stepped into camp and went, “What did I get myself into?”

[TK]: In Our Lady of the Water Gallons, you utilize the widespread devotion to the Virgin Mary in South and Central America. to aid the migrants in the desert. Did you draw a general Virgen or one that resembled the Virgen of Guadalupe? Why does “the Virgin speak to faceless suffering” on the road?

[XGB]: I grew up Catholic, but I am not a practicing Catholic. I’m probably Agnostic, but I have devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe. I think many Mexicans and Central Americans feel similarly. I like that she unifies us in this way and that she means something very special to many people whether they are Catholic or not. I drew a line drawing of the Virgen. You can tell it’s her because there are flowers at her feet. I guess I wrote that line because many people are suffering in the desert. It’s a very hard place to be, and I think many of those suffering are calling on her for help.

[TK]: Meditation for the Lost and Found is a concrete poem in the shape of a square spiral read horizontally. I found it to be one of the most moving poems in the book because the desaparecidos are products of unfair human rights violations. I am assuming you felt this way as well because the shape is meditative and gives exceptional emphasis to the poem. What is your philosophy on shape and content?

[XGB]: I was reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges at the time, which will do things to your mind. I’m more of a narrative poet, so I attribute much of that poem to Borges’ influence. I was thinking about what happens if you keep turning the story. First you’re this, but then no, you’re that. First you are in court, but no, you’re on a hill, but no, you’re at home. I was also thinking about the labyrinths of medieval Europe, and how they are meant to be meditative, and I was wondering if I could make something on the page that would do the same thing, make you walk someone else’s path for awhile. I like that the shape is a little confusing, a little hard to read, and that you have to focus on the words. I thought this helped create a sense of meditation. In the end, I was going for the shape of a labyrinth, but the closest I could get was a spiral. But I felt the spiral was fitting since someone at No More Deaths told me that typically when a person is lost, they walk in a circle to the lowest point. The whole thing--the shape, the turns, the words--is a meditation on los desaparecidos.

[TK]: I see beautiful continuity in Posada within the love for your third and second immigrant generation family and the care you show to those who are recently arriving. It is a selfless contrast to xenophobia in the United States shown by those who have similar or higher degrees of immigrant ancestry. How can we combat xenophobia? How do you hope your poetry will help someone understand the migrant crossing?

[XGB]: Thank you for that. I’m happy those connections came through. From a young age, I understood that my parents were immigrants and that immigrant was a dirty word to many people. It’s what has drawn me to write about immigrant and refugee issues and what drew me to the desert. What I tried to do was inspire a sense of empathy in the reader by inviting the reader into these stories and experiences that maybe they’ve never seen first-hand. I also wanted to offer comfort to those who are suffering and to celebrate our stories. I wanted to honor my family. When I do talks to teens and college students, I always like to say the coolest part of being a poet is being able to celebrate my loved ones and to put them in a book and take that book across the country. I’ve been able to share my grandmother’s little Boyle Heights home with people in Seattle, Houston, Washington DC, New York City and more, and that’s meant everything to me.



Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo is a first generation Chicana born and raised in San Gabriel, California. Most recently, Bermejo was chosen as the first “Poet in the Parks” resident at Gettysburg National Military Park in partnership with the Poetry Foundation and the National Parks Arts Foundation. She is a former Steinbeck fellow, Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund/Money for Women grantee, Los Angeles Central Library ALOUD newer poet, and her poetry received 3rd place in the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books literary awards. She has received residencies with Hedgebrook and the Ragdale Foundation and is a proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. 

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