Racial Profiling: Three First Books by Latino Poets

Craig Santos Perez

Since Jesus never learned
English, he was promptly denied
a second coming
into Arizona.
  —Paul Martínez Pompa, from “Retablos: 10 deleted tongues”

Arizona law SB 1070 makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally and requires immigrants to carry documents proving they legally reside in the United States. Not only will SB 1070 lead to racial profiling and violate many citizens’ civil rights, the law is also an inhumane response to the causes of immigration and the violent situation of the U.S.-Mexico border. With the dehumanization of Latino immigrants occurring in American law and politics and reverberating through the media and culture, the humanizing power of poetry becomes more urgent. Reading U.S. Latino/a poets needs to matter to all of us, right now.

My Kill Adore Him. Paul Martinez Pompa. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. 80 pp. $15.

My Kill Adore HimPaul Martinez Pompa’s My Kill Adore Him, winner of the 2008 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, vividly captures the traumatic experiences of many Latino/a immigrants. “Want” begins with a portrait of “day laborers” standing against a brick wall in the parking lot of a Home Depot. A truck pulls up, the window rolls down, and an arm thrusts two fingers in the air:

After two men climb into the bed
like spent athletes, the truck pulls
away. A man left behind tilts

his head up as if ready for the sky
to burst & soil everything
with water. (18)

These men are treated like nothing more than cheap labor, broken down not only by physical labor, but also by the miles they traveled to end up at a Home Depot in the United States. Pompa’s sensitive eye doesn’t take us with the men who find a job for the day, but lingers on the man left behind, the man who will not make any money that day, who will continue to wait in the July heat, who will perhaps be thinking of his family that he left behind to seek work.

“Want” shows us a moment in a migrant’s life after entering the U.S.; Pompa’s “While Late Capitalism” depicts the tragedy that often befalls those who cross the border in search of better lives:

[Crammed-in-&-bangin-against-each-othr-in-a-dark-aluminum-box-they-drop-like-fleas-or-croak-standin-6-hrs-into-th-trip-a-mothr-drapes-her-limp-babys-serape-over-th-mans-head-it-nods-back-&-frth-with-each-bump-in-th-road-thank-god-th-corpse-doesnt-smell-warm-piss-&-shit-make-bodies-vomit-on-bodies-th-coyote-can’t-unlock-th-trailr-door-a-womn-tries-to-scratch-a-hole-thru-th-wall-as-she-prays-some-phrase-or-word-some-idea-that-resists-translation-into-Englsh] (58)

Perhaps Pompa is referring to the 19 migrants who, along with nearly 100 other people, died from heat exhaustion after the trailer they were being smuggled in was abandoned and left locked in the heat before it reached Houston in 2003. The poem embodies that sense of confinement with its use of brackets; the hyphens further emphasize the “crammed-in-&-bangin” rhythm. Even the truncated words (“th” and “frth”) embody the crowdedness and aural stumbling of the “aluminum box.” These formal elements powerfully contribute to the haunting image of the woman whose scratching prayer eludes translation.

Pompa extends his portraits transnationally in the poem “MYKILLADOREHER,” a title that puns on the Spanish word  “Maquiladora,” the factories along the border where women are exploited as cheap, controllable labor (sometimes the women are tied to the assembly machines). In this series of prose poems, Pompa brings us into the lives of the workers:

What will settle in, what will rise from the lungs of girls who still burn weeks after detox treatment at a local clinic. Speak of headaches, blurred vision, diarrhea. How they suck air thick with sulfuric acid. Acetone working past unfiltered exhaust systems and through their livers. Most return to work despite doctors’ orders. Back inside, the tin roof and their steady perspiration remind them they’re still alive—together one breathing, burning machine. (62)

Despite the attempt of these poems to empathize with these workers, Pompa acknowledges that what happens across the border is “nothing [he] can imagine” (64). Yet, this is poetry’s work: to imagine the unimaginable, to create a web of empathy and intimacy, to allow the reader to breathe and burn with others. If the poet is brave enough to witness, then we must be too.

Boomerang. Brenda Cárdenas. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2009. 92 pp. $12.

BoomerangIn 2010, Arizona also passed HB 2281 to ban ethnic studies programs or ethno-centric classes. Aligned with this anti-immigrant affront, the Arizona Department of Education plans to ban teachers with thick or ungrammatical accents from teaching English. English-only laws have a long history in Arizona; the state passed its first English-only law in 1986 (only to have it ruled unconstitutional), and passed another English-only law in 2006.

English-only laws threaten to erase other languages and create a linguistically homogenous America. Those who support these laws demonize multiple tongues and depict accents as ugly and ignorant. This creates a tense situation for immigrants who live every day within multiple languages.

Brenda Cárdenas’ first book shows that multilingualism (and, by extension, multilingual poetics) is beautiful, profound, engaging, and necessary. Her work also resists pressure to write (or speak or live) “English-only.” The poem “Al mestizaje” begins:

In mi gente’s hips, la clave
and from mi gente’s lips, sale
a fluid, funky lingo fusion
that fools among you call intrusion,
but purity is an illusion.
So if you can’t dig la mezcla, ¡chale! (46)

The poem continues in a “funky lingo fusion” weaving English and Spanish. This kind of linguistic hybridity is heard throughout the book: some poems are entirely in English, some entirely in Spanish, some crosswoven, and some written in both English and Spanish (recto/verso). In Cárdenas’ work, we find what she terms “hemistitched” poetics (blending linguistic hemispheres).

Besides creating a lingo fusion to tell stories of family, relationships, history, and culture, Cárdenas also highlights the tones and textures of language itself. “Sound Waves,” a poem in four parts, describes how letters traverse languages. The first, “Tono—D,” ends: “This day es una danza de dedos / pressing half moons into clay, / the consonant touch of tongue / to teeth arching the sound away” (34). The half moon shape of the letter “D” is made real—into clay—in the textured and richly toned lines. The second section, “Duración—V,” reads in part:

Our v’s fling their arms open
and come back to us. Bs.
We have seen balas
faster than veins of light
etching the night sky. (35-6)

The opened upward shape of the “v” (resembling a boomerang) become “Bs” ringing through the sky like bullets as the speaker boomerangs between English and Spanish. These movements continue in the next section, “Intensidad—Ñ”:

La araña weaves her web of music,
tuning its strings while she sings
de sus compañeras obrando
en las cabañas, labrando
en los campos de caña.
She holds the high notes,
pulling filaments taut.
And when a fly’s wing
touches one fiber,
everything vibrates. (37)

La araña (the spider), like the poet, weaves a web of bilingual music, pulling the sonic filaments tight across the line so that the syntax vibrates. The final section, “Timbre—RR,” rolls towards a musical climax with an explosion of sound:

Erre, te quiero erre,
por mi barrio encarrujando
en tu carro zurrido
donde me estás arrebatando,
mi amante garrido. (39)

Cárdenas’ languages traverse borders of time and geography, creating rhythmic patterns that arch, etch, and vibrate. Her bilingual poetics is not an “intrusion” into America’s desired linguistic purity, but reflects the linguistic reality of many Latino/as and the multilingual fabric of the nation.

Bird Eating Bird. Kristin Naca. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2009. 112 pp. $13.99.

Bird Eating BirdIn Bird Eating Bird (winner of the National Poetry Series MTVU Prize, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa), Kristin Naca writes multilingual poetry, sometimes presenting the same poem in English and Spanish. Moreover, Naca writes from a multicultural perspective: she examines her Latina and Filipina heritage, as she moves across the geographies of Mexico City, Pittsburgh, and the Philippines.

The very first poem, “Speaking English is Like,” offers several descriptions of what speaking English is like for her: “The staple that misfires and jams the hammer”; “Red water out the pipes, teeming from the rusty gutters”; “The ghostly cu-cu echoing through the purple night, under stars.” (1-2) In her work, Naca imaginatively engages with the experience of language acquisition and use, showing us that learning multiple languages can give pleasure, even if it’s a difficult (or even painful) process.

In “Language Poetry / Grandma’s English,” Naca captures the joy of hearing her grandmother’s accented English:

A child, I love their arguments, never fully
understanding what Grandma means when
she tells Dad, She get you rosin / rousing / rosing.
You watch. She geep driving you grazy. Though
I do get when Grandma says, / gahng /, for can,
and when she says, / gahng /, for can’t.
When she curses, wants sympathy—like,
/ Gahng / it raw meat. It gives you gancer.
Look it’s / rrud /, she blusters. Her r
like she’s starting a lawn mower. / Rraw / meat,
Charlie, she argues, shows it to my father. (19)

Through the allusion to “Language Poetry,” Naca suggests that the indeterminacy of experimental aesthetics is experienced by many multilingual writers as an everyday reality. This childhood experience has remained with Naca, possibly spurring her explorations of multilingual poetics.

One of Naca’s most striking poems is “Uses for Spanish in Pittsburgh,” in which she tells the story of her Puerto Rican father:

At home, Dad kept his lengua íntima
to himself. His Spanish not for children,
only older relatives who forced him to speak,
reminded, Spanish means there’s another person
inside you. All beauty, he’d argue, no power in it.
Still, I remember, he spoke a hushed Spanish
to customers who struggled in English, the ones
he pitied for having no language to live on.

Her father did not pass down the Spanish language to his children because he believed that there was no power in it, that you had to speak English to survive. This pressure to linguistically assimilate denies the other tongue within. The poem continues as the speaker has learned Spanish through books and wonders whether she should attempt to speak to her father in his lengua íntima:

So many years gone, what use to invent
or question him in Pittsburgh? The educated one,
why would I want my clumsy Spanish to stray
from the pages of books outward? My tongue,
he’d think so untrue and inarticulate. Each word
having no past in it. What then? Speaking Spanish
to make them better times or Pittsburgh
a better place. En vez de regresar la dura realidad
del pasado. And then, if I choose to speak like this
who will listen? (9)

Perhaps one of the reasons why the speaker learned Spanish was to feel closer to her father, and soften the harshness of Pittsburgh and the past. Yet how heartbreaking it is that he might find her new, clumsy tongue “so untrue and inarticulate.” The fact that Naca can now write poems in Spanish shows that there is a power in writing in Spanish, the power to reclaim one’s intimate language. Now, Naca’s poems have multiple languages to live in.

The work of Naca, Cárdenas, and Pompa opens a space within the sound and fury of American politics and media to express the humanity of Latino/a histories, cultures, languages, and perspectives. This space of compassion—poetry—is the space from which we should address immigration and education policy. Seeing this space may also revise our public representation of immigrant populations to include how they contribute to the vibrant diversity of American culture.

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