Tuesday, March 1, 2022

A House of Our Own: x/ex/exis: poemas para la nación by Raquel Salas Rivera

Photo credit: The University of Arizona Press via https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/x-ex-exis

I don’t want myself like this, / but this is the way you love me.* / *I don’t love myself like this, / but this is the way you want me.”
—Raquel Salas Rivera, x/ex/exis: poemas para la nación (The University of Arizona Press, 2021)

Raquel Salas Rivera’s poetry collection x/ex/exis entangles culture, government, and gender in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Drawing from historical and personal events, x/ex/exis is a psychedelic amalgamation of themes that eludes straightforward explanation, giving readers a peek into the experience of a trans person on an island plagued by colonialism.

Each poem in x/ex/exis appears in Spanish and English, a unique linguistic experience for bilingual readers. In “notes in time,” walls of medieval castles “absorbed stenches / that not even the wind.” In English, it feels like a word is missing, but read the Spanish version (“que ni el viento”), and the message arises. This syntactical suspension implies that not even the wind would approach or deal with the stenches. Salas Rivera employs this flexibility to play with meaning, as in the epigraph, whose Spanish version reads “no me quiero asi, / pero asi me quieres,” using the double meaning of the verb querer. Still, Salas Rivera doesn’t shy away from the violence of the Spanish language. “The requirements for being amadx / are: being amada,” they write in “the cut.” Using first a gender-neutral form of the adjective “loved,” then the feminine, these lines define the exclusionary nature of gendered language. Salas Rivera writes about rejecting love over a word split “in halves / that don’t complete” them. This is one of several instances where they use a dichotomy to exemplify the tenuous relationship between Puerto Rican culture and their trans identity; another is found in extreme temperatures. 

In this collection, heat is associated with the island: “i fight with my girlfriend because she opened the window / and it was cold…because it’s cold and i’m not in puerto rico…because it isn’t the rio piedras sun.” The heat is physical here, but it is also cultural, emotional. Contrary to their experience in the U.S., Salas Rivera said that “[In Puerto Rico]…there’s a sense of belonging but also a sense of people in your business…it can become stifling.” Latinx culture at large tends to value tight-knit families. However, this warmth is not always comforting. “The heat of the coveted embrace / always suffocates,” writes Salas Rivera, expressing the complicated feelings of rejection without hatred, of a family that loves but does not accept. “I love being around [my family],” they shared in our interview, “but I always feel like there’s a part of me I have to sacrifice. We don’t talk about my gender.”

Another complex interplay investigated in this collection is that between Puerto Rico and the U.S. The poem “a beach exists” compares Puerto Ricans leaving for the U.S. to mermaids amputating “their singular leg / wanting to be bipeds…for the future children / to be born without gills.” This calls upon one of the prevailing ideas from last month’s column: the erasure of culture to ensure success. However, Puerto Rico’s unique relationship with the U.S. also influences this discussion of culture. In “the word resources selects us,” the author juxtaposes moments of cultural immersion in Puerto Rico with the threat of U.S. influence: “the word resources selects us…saying / i need you ornamental lover of the territory.” “Territory” refers to the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico in the U.S. that makes the former susceptible to plundering by the latter. This poem follows “a long procession of loudspeakers in mourning,” which emphasizes the importance of Puerto Rico attaining agency; it’s culture and economy under the threat of colonialism and capitalism.

The final lines of  “the word resources selects us” read “and i keep planting translucid fences / around the plaza del mercado.” These fences are a final defense against the encroaching power of the U.S., but they also represent internal conflicts. “I’m obsessed with names,” Salas Rivera told me. “The names of streets and highways of Puerto Rico are the story of our history.” Including them was a conscious choice with historical implications. “[Luis] Muñoz Marín … would build a housing project next to a rich condominio…[so] the people in the housing project would be inspired to better their lives…this kind of twisted colony stuff.” By voicing their experiences, x/ex/exis denounces attempts to erase and exclude underprivileged/underrepresented communities within Puerto Rico.

Yet another institution of exclusion in these poems is the Catholic Church. “The history of the Catholic Church tied in with conquest in Puerto Rico, with colonialism,” Salas Rivera said. Nowhere is this connection clearer than in “in puerto rico we inherit your wars,” which equates the violence of the state (and Church) with the betrayal of history. In this poem, “the father” asks “if it’s worth / destroying faith” to recover Taíno bones discovered beneath a church. Based on a true story, this poem examines the Church’s willingness to abandon people like those in trans communities, who Salas Rivera says the religious ultra right view as “the enemy”: “gender inclusive language [is called] as an oppressive thing…trans people are the target.” Again, the author’s culture denies their right to be.

Toward the end of our interview, Salas Rivera admitted that this collection paints a bleak image of transness, but they also point out that it captures a moment in their life they needed to document. And it does just that. It presents a complex web of relationships between government, culture, and gender, asking readers to question the systems that define their culture, their country, and their self.

If you enjoy(ed) the themes and episodic narrative of x/ex/exis, I recommend Carmen Maria Machado’s, In The Dream House. If you enjoy(ed) its visceral diction, check out blud by Rachel McKibbens. 

Thanks to The University of Arizona Press for the review copy and to Raquel Salas Rivera for the interview!

Brittany Torres Rivera is a Puerto Rican writer whose work deals with culture, family, and (un)belonging. She has a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She is based in Orlando, FL.

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