Front Cover: Poetry Collection, Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
My Poetry Corner September 2019 features the poem “Mexican Heaven” from the poetry collection Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018) by José Olivarez, a poet, teacher, and poetry slam performer. Born in Calumet City on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, he is the son of Mexican immigrants. Despite all the odds, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University.
Olivarez’s first contact with poetry occurred through his high school’s poetry slam team. Their poetry had a profound impact on him. In a conversation with Jessica Hopper in July 2018, Olivarez said, “It made me feel like I could question more.” For the first time, he saw a way of becoming his true self, other than the reserved person everyone wanted him to be.
In his poem, “I Tried to Be a Good Mexican Son,” he shares his parents’ disappointment that he didn’t become a doctor, lawyer, or businessman.
I even went to college. But i studied African American studies which is not
The Law or The Medicine or The Business. my mom still loved me.
i tried to be a good Mexican son. Went to a good college & learned depression isn’t just for white people…
Olivarez speaks of rejections when looking for work and in his relationships. With the help of therapy, he learned to be more compassionate with himself, to revel in his imperfections, and to write bad poems without hating himself. He recalls in his poem, “My Therapist Says Make Friends with Your Monsters”:
my therapist says i can’t
make the monsters disappear
no matter how much i pay her.
all she can do is bring them
into the room, so i can get
to know them, so i can learn
their names, so i can see
clearly their toothless mouths,
their empty hands, their pleading eyes.
Mexican American Poet José Olivarez
Photo Credit: Chicago Creatives
After living in Boston and New York, Olivarez returned to Chicago in 2017, where he soon joined the teaching staff of Young Chicago Authors (YCA), and completed his debut poetry collection, Citizen Illegal.
“Coming back [to Chicago] kind of opened the doors to particular memories and pulled some things up from deep inside me,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in September 2018.
“[T]he work I’m most proud of are the poems where Mexicans break the rules and drink beer and live,” he said in a previous interview with Habitat Literary Magazine in December 2017. “I knew I didn’t want to write a sad book of poems for white people to read and cast pity on, so there’s lots of Mexicans just chilling.”
Olivarez breaks down the complexity of Mexican American identity in his poem, “Mexican American Disambiguation”:
my parents are Mexican who are not
to be confused with Mexicans still living
in México. those Mexicans call themselves
mexicanos. white folks at parties call them
pobrecitos. American colleges call them
international students & diverse. my mom
was white in México & my dad was mestizo
& after they crossed the border they became
diverse. & minorities. & ethnic. & exotic.
Divided into stanzas throughout the collection, the featured poem, “Mexican Heaven,” sets the tone for each segment, making it cohesive. The poem touches themes of religion, migration, and who is allowed to pursue the American Dream.
“There has to be more possibilities to what it means to be Mexican, what it means to be Latinx than [European colonization, the Mexican-American War, and the current era of immigration],” he explained in his interview with Chicago Tribune. “I was trying to strive to do more than just recreate those violences, recreate those traumas.”
From the first stanza, while the poet uses a lively tone to depict the Mexican American’s experience, the cruel reality is evident, given our current anti-immigrant environment.
all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.
St. Peter has their names on the list,
but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list
since Ronald Reagan was president.
As described in the following two stanzas, they needn’t have worried. St. Peter is a Mexican named Pedro / but he’s not a saint. He gets drunk on tequila and lets all the Mexicans into heaven, even our no-good cousins who only / go to church for baptisms & funerals. The Mexican women’s refusal to cook, clean, raise kids, and pay bills leave heaven in a mess and starve the men to death.
The fourth stanza captures well, with vivid imagery, the Mexican American’s struggle to achieve the American Dream.
Saint Peter lets Mexicans into heaven
but only to work in the kitchens.
a Mexican dishwasher polishes the crystal,
smells the meals, & hears the music.
they dream of another heaven,
one they might be allowed in
if they work hard enough.
At a time when I, too, am under attack as a minority, non-white immigrant from the Caribbean, Olivarez’s poetry collection resonates with precision. What response can one give when our current administration refuses to grant refuge to our fellow Bahamians, fleeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian?
As the poet observes in his penultimate stanza of “Mexican Heaven”: turns out [Jesus] gets reincarnated / every day & no one on earth cares all that much.
To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of José Olivarez, go to my Poetry Corner September 2019.
NOTE: Excerpts from Olivarez’s poems are sourced from his poetry collection, Citizen Illegal, published by Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2018.