“God threatens to kick
all the Mexicans out of heaven si no paran
con las pendejadas.”
I never asked my father if he believed in heaven. I assume he must have thought, in the months between his diagnosis and his death, about what would happen to him after, but I was 21 and struggling and I never asked. My mother tells me she still feels his presence – in the house he lived and died in, in the empty seat next to her at a concert. I can’t say the same for myself. I’ve never imagined him anywhere but gone.
I wanted to call my dad and talk to him about a lot of the poems in José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal, but especially the series scattered throughout the book all entitled “Mexican Heaven.” Which one of them did you think you’d go to, I wanted to ask. The one where there are no white people? The one with all the food you couldn’t find in New Hampshire? The one where Saint Peter has your name? Olivarez is a poet of personal experience, and his specificity allows for a depth of emotion that would be lost in an attempt at broad strokes. The worlds he depicts expand off the page and manage to encompass, emotionally, the reader’s experience, even if that experience did not involve Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive or an African American studies degree.
music, even on the day my grandma died
there were mangos though i tasted nothing.
but slowly i came back to the world & carne asada.
better than i remembered, smoke off the meat. i could not
contain my happiness even though it felt offensive
to smile with my grandma buried & getting eaten
by the flowers.
I don’t find it any more helpful to make generalizations about grief than I do about identity, so what I will say here is only that I recognize something in Olivarez’s “I Loved the World So I Married It” that feels like it belongs to both of us. There is no need to stay forever in the country of self-denial when the dead would want us to feast. There is no need to capitalize the “i” when you capitalize your childhood nickname. There is no need to give in to the English trope of “eaten by worms.” The body of the beloved can still be consumed by the beauty that feeds you.
everything in me
is diverse even when i eat American foods
like hamburgers which, to clarify, are American
when a white person eats them & diverse
when my family eats them. so much of America
can be understood like this.
In “Mexican American Disambiguation,” Olivarez breaks down the overlapping categories of Mexicanness on both sides of the border – mexicano, Chicano, Mexican American, gringo. “my dad became a citizen,” he says, “which should not be confused/with the keys to the house.” I want to show this poem not just to my father – who became a citizen, who called me a gringa – but to my friends who don’t understand what it means to be white or “diverse” depending on the light in the eyes of the beholder, on what is convenient for the person doing the looking. I will never know how many photographs I was pushed to the front of because someone called for an ethnically ambiguous face or how many opportunities I was denied because someone saw my full name and threw my resume aside. I believe the youth, who have been gifted more language for identity than I was, would call “the mexicano in me who is constantly fighting/with the upwardly mobile in me who is good friends/with the Mexican American in me, who the colleges love,/but only on brochures” a “mood.” I think it is a mood a lot of us are in. I think Citizen Illegal will become a touchstone, an origin text, for people striving to put words to that feeling; I think it represents one in a series of opening doors, each making more space for the rest of us to walk through.
Cassandra de Alba is a poet living in Massachusetts. Her chapbooks habitats (Horse Less Press, 2016) and ORB(Reality Hands, 2018) are about deer and the moon, respectively. She is a co-host at the Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge and an associate editor at Pizza Pi Press.