A version of this interview appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Chicago this year.
CMR: You are an activist and writer. In your poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, you bear witness to some of the most influential events of the later part of this century including but not limited to repatriation, immigration, environmental terrorism, climate change, the criminal mistreatment of immigrants, policing, incarceration, mass shootings, vigilantism, civil rights, death by firearms, among many other issues.
You also write about wholly personal issues including love, sex, joy, and devastating loss.
You are masterful at taking huge societal events—like immigration and the heroic plight of people seeking a better life—and crafting a relatable, human narrative. For example, in the poem “Detention” (My Book of the Dead, University of New Mexico Press, 2021) you give voice to a young person crossing the border, the horrors of being caught, detained, and eventually adopted by a white family. This piece is heartbreaking. It also shows the reader the narrator’s humanity in the face of a brutal reality.
Bearing witness and turning it into art is a form of activism.
How has the way you process the world—and its inequities—changed over the years?
Thank you for your comments. My first response has to do with initially choosing poetry to use for political actions. A very early poem, Napa, California. (OTRO CANTO, 1977) might be seen as a precursor of the recent poem you refer to, Detention. Both poems address, in the persona voice the plight of the migrant in the U.S., and the sometimes sense of inability to escape the circumstances. As you may know, I’m a self-taught writer and have developed my craft through practice. However, I don’t see in either poem a great change in perspective.
I do fervently live and believe in social justice, equity for all, especially the poor and working class, women, etc. I share the concern for our planet as do activists regarding environmental justice movement.
From a very early age I became interested in the world outside our flat in the Near West Side of Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times was delivered and we read it every day. My father read it from front page to back. He’d often remark on stories that caught his eye. One day he said to me, “They’re burning down the Amazon.” I might have been twelve or thirteen years old. Double that age and I’ve learned Portuguese at the University of Chicago and travel to Brazil on my own. It was 1979-80 and that country was under a military dictatorship.
Through all kinds of curiosity about the world, planet and all inhabitants once I grew into adulthood and since, I’ve gone out to see firsthand what I so long heard about. Whether it was the pyramids in Mexico or Egypt, the Art Institute of Chicago or the Louvre, budding feminists in Kaszkstan or Peru, academics in Germany and Paris, NGOs in Jordon or Ecuador. I process the world as an adult mostly first hand. I once gave a reading—not that long ago—in a small, agricultural town in the Southwest. The first question (from a young man) I received was how did I think I could relate to the women there. My humble roots and family background, for one. My older siblings, as children, worked summers picking tomatoes in Indiana. My parents worked in factories in Chicago until manufacturing moved to Southeast Asia where they could pay their workers substantially less, no unions, no safety regulations, etc. Mostly unskilled, my father died unemployed in his mid-fifties.
CMR: What activists or movements influenced you? And in what ways?
In high school, it was local politics, the Civil Rights Movement and the growing Latino and Chicano Movements. As a college student it was all the youth movements of the era, anti-war (Viet Nam), student movements, women’s movement, UFW, movements for justice in Latin America, you name it. As soon as I finished with my bachelor’s degree I head for California considered headquarters for the Chicano Movement and UFW. A few years later, back in Chicago, disillusioned by the male dominance and treatment of women by men in socialist movements, I turned my attention to feminism. I didn’t stop my believe in social justice, I began to focus on seeing it from women’s perspectives. There may may much more that I could see about the long journey of developing one’s consciousness. Like many of my generation I looked up to so many individuals, activists in the field, intellectuals, César Chavez, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, mind you, these were all strong and thriving individuals when I was coming up. I learned a lot from writers and those who preceded me. Their books were my teachers. In 1977 or 78, I gave a sociology class at a community college in Chicago and used Paulo Freire’s essential book. My friends in Chicago, California and New York (where I also started traveling too, on my own to seek out connections with Latino poets) were all my teachers, loves, mentees, and sometimes rivals.
It’s impossible to qualify all their influences.
CMR: Not finding yourself represented by middle- to upper-class feminists, you coined the term Chicanisma. Did this naming (or ownership) impact the way you approached the belief in social, economic, and political equality for women?
Xicanisma. The distinction between using the Ch of the Chicano Movement and an X was, I think, significant. The X signifies the indigenous connection, although I know the Chicano Movement was very connected to and loyal to our indigenous history. Certainly, as a Chicana I wasn’t the first feminist to note the difference between poor and working class women and the feminists who came out of certain class privilege, usually white. I will add this was true in Mexico and elsewhere.
Labels are often signifiers. It’s important to know how you’re being labeled but yhe most important is the one you give yourself.
In my collection of essays, MASSACRE OF THE DREAMERS: Essays on Xicanisma I set upon the task to attempt to describe, address, give depth and acknowledgement to women who so long were marginalized. It was long before the internet and Google. I searched in libraries and bookstores throughout the country on my own to find connections—from all over the globe. I wrote it without funds and with little support, just my own drive. How else do you establish in a book what you know, experience, feel in your gut but there’s no documentation? If it’s view now as a flawed testimony about a large group of people, over a long period of time, in two nations and beyond, when most of our experiences were deleted from history, distorted and we remained invisible in dominant society at the time of my writing it was a sincere attempt, at the very least, to enter into the dialog of world feminism.
I was invited to submit my manuscript as a formal dissertation to the University of Bremen in Germany. There were no mentors there, no residence, not so much as plane ticket to go defend it. However, defend it I did and was conferred the doctorate in American Studies.
CMR: You wrote that, as a child, you often felt isolated. Your parents, who worked two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet, often didn’t have energy to indulge or even talk to you. Once you began to read, however, your world transformed. You devoured books. One day, your father brought home a Bible from the bindery where he worked and you were wholly taken by the spectacles of war, displacement, death, and destruction.
But you never saw yourself—a young Chicana woman—represented in the books you read.
When you started attending Jones Vocational in Chicago, an all-girls secretarial school, you started a radical newspaper. How did this newspaper come to be and what issues did you write about and publish? As a young woman hell-bent on changing the world, how did it feel to have that power—to create something people would read?
In terms of early ‘technology’ the Xerox machine was it in my youth. Going from the mimeograph machine to pressing a button…. At Jones we were required to work half time at an office job. As a nobody, part-time girl clerk, I had access to the Xerox. I am indebted to that Xerox for being able to get my work out even years later. My primary interest, creatively was not journalism but art. So, I was the illustrator of my underground paper, too. It was distributed, by me, at my school but who knows if I gave it to any friends outside.
Yes, I was fascinated by that wonderful Bible by father brought home. It was the St. James version (we were Catholic). It taught me a great deal about patriarchy and fiction. (Fast forward, my novel, SO FAR FROM GOD.) But even in the Bible, where were the Mexicans? (Mixture of indigenous and Spanish-Catholic? The ‘New World’?)
I didn’t exactly shake things up around me with my stapled, Xeroxed publication. I was given the title ‘inteligente,’ by the Spanish Club (all Mexican girls.) Mostly, it showed my early ambitions to communicate what I was learning and fervently believing about the world. It was an activity inherent in my personality and character which led me to live the life I’ve had.
Today, on Social Media we see a lot about women’s ways to self-empower, to remind ourselves of ‘que chingonas’ we are, to give ourselves ‘permission’ to heal or what’s ‘ok’ to feel or do what we must do. Nearly a half century ago, I heard a distant call–the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Chicano Movement and in my world as a teenager studying basic classes and daily working an office job as the lowest on the totem pole, the role pre-assigned to me as a Mexican-American woman, it made sense to me to strive to break the horrific, unjust mold about my being.
How could I be so curious about the world, want to experience so much, learn languages, love art I’d not yet seen, music I’d not yet heard and accept be told my life was to take a menial job, marry, bear children, be a good, obedient daughter, wife and mother and die? (Simone DeBeauvoi)?
It may be a matter of language. Along the road, I didn’t see it as ‘empowering’ myself, or giving myself ‘permission.’ My word would have been conviction. Latinas, like African American had by the time I was coming up, needed women to speak up and speak out, too. There was no guarantee or even indication that I would be that woman or one among them. I only knew that it had to be and I was going to give it my all. Conviction regarding social justice led me there.
CMR: You founded the literary magazine La Tolteca. How has working with other writers influenced your own writing?
I have two careers, professionally speaking. One has been, blessedly, as a writer and the other, as a professor. In both cases, I’ve always worked with other writers. My zine was an outcome of the public writing workshops I gave from 2009 to 2019. I felt privileged and happy to encourage aspiring writers and lucky to have the contributions of many established writers.
During those years, I went through personal crises which affected my own productivity and pursuing publications. I was always happy for the writers who were pursuing their projects and that I could encourage them in any way. I did write and publish during those years. My writing, however, as a lifelong habit, throughout the process, I’ve kept to myself.
CMR: Your grandmother was a curandera (and you have some gifts too, yes?). You’ve written a number of essays about your grandmother and other healers, of mothers of all stripes and abilities, and explain the significance of the mother of all mothers, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to Chicanas, Mexican women and, especially, to the curandera.
But she was a curandera—loosely translated, a medicine woman—and proceeded to negotiate with Maria Guadaña, with whom, I seem to recall, she was on a first-name basis. I was the youngest of all her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and, as she also told me later, when I recovered, I was the very nectar of sugar cane in her heart, her consentida, and she was not about to let me go.
Later, in that same essay, you write:
God the Father was absent, though like the men in my family, who were often shadowy and silent, He nevertheless was the ultimate authority. He watched us with a close and critical omnipotent eye and mostly wielded His power by instilling fear. Our Mother, on the other hand, watched over her children without condemning our acts. Our mother simply loved us.
You also write exquisitely about your joy and challenges as the single mother of an only child.
This focus, on the mother as healer, as one who provides unconditional love, has seen you through the mystifying incarceration of your son. How has your background and experience with the all-knowing and suffering mother/caretaker/healer guided through your own hardships as a caretaker and mother?
With the exception of one spectacular and near-tragic moment, my only child, an adult man now, did end up imprisoned for two years. They were a long two years for me as a mother, mostly because of the mystification of the fact. With the exception of being picked up by police for doing graffiti as a teen he’d never been in trouble with the law before and hasn’t been since.
The last figure I’d have wanted to portray was the all-suffering mother. But suffer, I did. But live in this world that continues to designate archetype roles to women, I did. You don’t have to be a mother, wife to a man, obedient daughter, devout religiosa, prostitute or mistress to exemplify these roles. They show up within the confines of patriarchal designations for the feminine figure.
Like many women raised in and later conflicted by the religion, I kept a rosary nearby during my son’s ordeal. I participated in the Way of the Cross Procession in Northern New Mexico and attended several indigenous ceremonies in the Pueblo reservations in NM. I let myself weep. I sat alone once in a Catholic Church in an indigenous reservation and appealed to all who have gone through the pain and agony of oppression, genocide and mass devastation.
But I am also the woman who reads and writes and connects with the world using other signs. I sent books to my son, we read and talked about them. We emailed each other. A bit of our correspondence appears in the memoir essay collection BLACK DOVE.
I worked on La Tolteca Zine and gave public writing workshops and spoke about Chicano/a writing to mostly Chicano/a audiences that know of whence I speak and affirmed their experiences and perceptions as they did mine.
I lit candles and burned incense at home and at Churches and temples everywhere I traveled.
During that time, I was single and without immediate family support but relied on whatever friend or friends stepped up. These are times when you must know yourself and rely on your convictions. I’ve always been grateful to anyone who has shown compassion at any juncture in my life and I’m deeply grateful to the few who showed themselves in how and as much they could. A healer must know how to heal herself and be a sound person if she is to lend herself to the pain and illness of others. My aim throughout the ordeal was to stay firm, acknowledge my pain and move through it.
It was particularly difficult because of the patriarchal emphasis on blaming ‘mother’ for off springs’ failings to not blame myself, too. It was a concerted, conscious process but I moved through it, too.
CMR: In the early 1990s, when Sapogonia was published, you were dubbed one of “America’s leading Chicana writers” which was, I suppose, a way for the publishing industry to market you. It seems ridiculous, of course. You are a writer, first and foremost, no need for classification. How has—or hasn’t—the publishing industry changed over the years?
The qualification continues. It’s a notable distinction, therefore, from more than a century ago when the discussion was ‘woman writer’ versus ‘writer.’
Because Chicanas proved ourselves not just also to be readers, but to have the numbers in terms of consumers of books was a game changer in the 1980s.
Chicanas are not the only exotic flavor you can get but all kinds of perspectives from marginalized sectors. “Ghost writing” should be at the top of the list and be noted as best sellers when we think of how many authored books have become enormously successful from people like Trump to syndicated TV celebrities. Like the culinary arts, fashion and modeling, writing as a profession has proliferated in recent decades. You get a degree or certicate or don’t and just jump in and there you are, swimming upstream.
At the end of the day publishing is an industry and it is rule by what sells.
CMR: In your novel, Sapogonia, as well as in a number of essays in Black Dove, you take on the issue of mixed blood—of not being one or the other, not Mexican enough and not American enough. Can you talk about that tension—of not belonging—and why the exploration of it fuels some of your work?
At a result of European invasion, indigenous people experienced near genocide, slavery, servitude and to this day, second class citizenship. It fuel my work because a day of my life hasn’t existed where I don’t experience the tension between the dominant society I live in and the blood I inherited.
There might have been a deviating factor. We return to class and status. All things ethnic being equal, had I been born to a middle, upper or elite family, had I also been born in Mexico where my surname, mother’s language, my color and ethnicity were accepted, it would have made a difference. I’d have felt and been less marginalized than in the U.S.
These are factors that have influenced my work. My project has been to make beings like myself less invisible, validated, represented on all levels and empowered.
CMR: While you write about profoundly serious subjects, your writing is often humorous. In “Two Men and Me” the bad boys Charles Bukowski and Jose Bolanõ show up, with you, at a café.
I’m always fascinated by how a writer orders of a book of poems (or short stories) You began writing this collection in 2012, is that right? How did these poems come to you? In order? Or did you rearrange them before publication? And, if you rearranged them, did that cause you to edit any of the poems to fit the overall collection?
Yes, I decided to start a poetry collection in 2012. The poems came to me over time and experience in those years, whether through reading or lived or both. No, they’re not in ‘order’ but do cover the period of time: 2012-2020.
My own experience in terms of ordering is always organic and ever-changing. Some poems ultimately don’t make the final cut. I arranged all the poems before submission. The only pieces eliminated by my own choice, mostly prior to submission were because I didn’t feel they were successful and not because they didn’t fit the collection. They were gone in the ether.
One day, while staying in my small apartment in apartment in New York I laid out the hard copies on the bed and dresser. (Old school, how I’ve always organized my poems but usually on the floor.) I decided to organize them into three parts—where thematically they might make sense. It’s pretty much what you see in the book.
Years ago, I was sitting in the front row somewhere about to give a reading from my novel SO FAR FROM GOD. Someone behind me was laughing out loud. I turned around, it was a white woman reading SO Far From God. She said, “It’s very funny. Did you know it was funny?”
“I hoped so,” I said.
Aside from limerick or rhyming verses it’s not easy to be funny in poetry. Anyone who knows me for ten minutes, however, knows, I appreciate humor. Wit is a cup of liquid gold in any sitting.
CMR: A number of poems in My Book of the Dead deal with Mother Earth’s destruction. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “By the End of the Twenty-First Century When.” This poem is playful in a super terrifying way. You face the senseless destruction of our home head on but it’s also playful. How did this poem evolve?
Thank you, Chris.
The poem in reference didn’t have a long evolution. The planet was enduring the Trump Era. Buddhists remind us that we begin dying at birth. Dystopian governments aside, we are dying every day. One method as a writer to deal with a hard subject is to bring some levity and inject humor, irony or fantasy. I think this poem has some of all of that.
As to its evolution, I know some people sometimes don’t like to hear how something just flows stream of consciousness or comes from an actual dream. This poem reminds me of some of my pen drawings. Drawing consumed me during part of the Trump administration. I did them without preliminary planning. I’ve drawn hybrid animals, whimsical scenes, from mermaids to buffalo, goddesses to spiders. My subconscious revealing what’s on my mind, my fears, longings, grief and desires. It must be from the same place where such a poem comes.
CMR: What a few years we have lived through, huh? There are two elegies, one based on the life of H.G. Carillo and other based on your relationship with Francisco X. Alarcón. Did the writing of these, in any way, help you deal with the unimaginable death and sadness wrought by Covid?
We’re still living through these times. A week doesn’t go by without hearing of a death. The book was in when Sister Dianna Ortiz, whom I also wrote about, passed from cancer. And there are many others. I am of a generation that is experiencing death of my mentors, peers and those from COVID. My hope and intention is not to become numb by the frequency of death.
Carrillo and Alarcón had at certain points in life been personal friends. Their deaths touched me personally and led to the poems. Although Carrillo died as a result of COVID. The pandemic and contracting the virus remains a lived and survivors’ experience.
CMR: Is it true that, in the desert, you own horses? Has this always been a dream of yours? I mean, I dream of owning a horse.
I have mares. I never dreamed of horses. Once I was living on the homestead I’ve had now for twenty years, I thought it made sense. Decades ago now, I learned to ride in the desert here.
CMR: How is the rhythm of the desert different than living in a big city? The quality of light? In what ways has living in different parts of the country and world influenced your writing and activism?
Wow, best question. The quality of light is the difference. Where I live now and it was the place I’d come to when I was still teaching in Chicago and then in Boston, the light is startling with no obstruction from anywhere; from sun rise to sunset light around me. Like the Expressionists, I’ve studied the light on certain objects, the tree outside my bedroom winter, a sage bush or the Franklin Mountain Range at different times of day.
I see almost no human, hear no mechanical sounds, birds, dogs, mares…a mosquitos at my ear.
I’m not sure what made me move around. I’ve often done so on my own and with no job prospects waiting. I’ve bought properties that way. The biggest price I’ve paid for such dare has been worrying about how to pay my bills and loneliness. But I don’t regret any of it. It brought much to my writing and to my personal growth. Knowing the varying cultures in the United States and places I’ve stayed for periods of time and visited, I learned first hand to appreciate this world and planet. However, where I call home now has been twenty years. I’m New Mexican by choice, Chicagoan by birth and Midwestern by upbringing. In my heart, I am a Mexican woman. Ethnically, at face value, where ever I go from growing up in Chicago or walking about in Paris as a young writer, dominant society perceives me as mostly indigenous, foreign, Other and I embrace all of it. I write from the that privileged perspective to respond. As Whitman wrote so beautifully, “I contain multitudes.” There are no contradictions there.