Despite what National Hispanic Heritage Month would have you think, Latinx writers exist year-round! And despite what headlines like “Poetry is going extinct, government data show,” predict, this is a moment of poetic renaissance and poets of color are paving the way.
Vickie Vértiz’s Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut, which came out this September from the University of Arizona Press, sidesteps the glare of Hollywood to center the lives of the Brown working class in southeast Los Angeles. Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut is an offering; to a people, to a city—but it is also an irreverent reclaiming of land and home for those who have always been here.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian, also out this September from Noemi Press, is a haunting, a heartbreak. Beast Meridian turns trauma into astounding mythology, pushing through loss and erasure to find what it means to be a woman, to be lost, to find yourself anyway.
These collections wrecked me, leaving me weeping in public while I thumb through them at the laundromat or while waiting in line at the grocery store. But they have also made me feel fiercely proud of our stories, our histories. These are the books that have reflected and articulated a vision of Latinx identity I had never seen in literature, and that frankly, I never thought I would see. Their impact cannot be overstated.
I meet Vickie Vértiz and Vanessa Angélica Villarreal at a bar in Highland Park, a historic neighborhood in Los Angeles which, in the span of too-few years, has gone from a majority Mexican-American community to a lifestyle feature in Vogue. As we sit around a table in the bar’s back patio, the remnants of a Girls Scout troop meeting disperse, with the remaining parents discussing, I shit you not, the pros and cons of buying a horse for self-care.
A perfect backdrop for discussing the resistance inherent in telling the stories of queer, Brown, working class women of color, right?
Both of your books are rooted in place. Talk to me about home as a physical space, about leaving and returning.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal: Beast Meridian started as a project of trying to write myself into existence. I remember reading a lot of Chicanx work and feeling like it was so varied, what every poet and every writer was trying to do with their books, yet it all gets lumped together as this documentarian project of “this is how my abuela was” and “this is how it felt like to be poor” and “this is what it felt like to do this.” Especially when it comes to writing about identity and history and family, Chicanx and Latinx work across the board gets unfairly overlooked because people have certain expectations about that. I wanted to create a project that was rooted in place, was rooted in the act of remember and misremembering, in the act of creating your own narrative from the ruins of erasure. And of mapping the emotional textures of that, instead of trying to access real memories. Because those memories are eroding quickly and what the missing feels like, what the longing and the memory feels like, that is what I wanted to capture formally and through the strangeness of language.
Vickie Vértiz: My geography of home was very small; the circumference of home was very small. And my relationship to home is connected really closely to the way my father related to the family he made with my mom. Which is that he was gone a lot. And because he was a man he could be gone a lot. He could be at the yonque (at the junkyard), he could be at work, he could be anywhere he wanted. And it extended to the point of him creating a whole other family in Tecate, in Baja California. Because there’s the immigrant idea that you’re coming here for something better, but then there’s the male idea that there’s always someone better. And not just male, but maybe capitalist in some way. My model of home was that I could leave, and I should leave, and I could always come back.
Villarreal: It’s a lot of the same for me. Houston is such a hard place to think about because I had the worst memories of my life there, and all I wanted was to get the fuck out. If you look at patterns of migration, we are of a people whose lives are unbearable in a place because of powers that make it unbearable. And we’re always moving and so much gets left behind or erased when we move. I think that’s the heartache behind a lot of Latinx work: Stay with an unbearable place or move on and miss it forever.
Vértiz: What I’m trying to do with the book is like, well how do you take it with you? And how is it something that I willingly don’t leave, that hasn’t left me. The last poem in the book says something about “wherever I go I’m home.” Living in some places is both unbearably hard but also, we just continue to live there. And we find and create beautiful things. It is still home.
Vickie, in your book you talk about environmental impact and environmental racism a lot. Was that an intentional theme?
Vértiz: I didn’t realize that, but yes. I was reading in South LA [one day] and there was this señora who’s probably in her mid-70’s, who was like, “Oh you write about everyday things. Escribes de lo cotidiano, asi muy directo.” And I was like yeah, because I want everybody to be able to understand me.
What I found when I read Sandra Cisneros and Lorna Dee Cervantes was some part of myself that mattered that I didn’t know mattered before. So I’m writing about all these things that are important to my family. Us not being able to move anywhere because we didn’t have enough money. I got all these educations and what’s true is still this. And what keeps getting ignored is still this.
Villarreal: I can answer the environmental racism question, in a different way. [In Houston] all the kids who lived next to the high school where I went, that are within walking distance to that high school, would get bused out to a high school all the way out in the suburbs so that they wouldn’t have to mix with Brown people. And something that I was really aware of growing up is that I was treated differently. So the first section of Beast Meridian is about the sort of trouble that I got into for having totally normal developmental shit. I came up against a lot of institutionalized racism that wanted to define me as a troublemaker. I got sent to alternative school, I was over-punished, and although that is not necessarily environmental racism in the same way that Vickie writes, the way they treat poor kids, kids of color, in Houston they’re made to fall through the cracks. And most of them do. And I almost fell through the cracks. The only thing that saved me was this love of language.
Both Beast Meridian and Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut offer very clear and varied representations of queerness, which is often still seen as somehow at odds with Latinx identity. Talk to me about how those identities intersect in your work.
Vértiz: I think that there are a lot of working class, middle and upper class, Mexicanas, Mexicanos, Mexicanxs, that don’t think anything is wrong with being queer. And I think that there is a lot that is invested in making it seem as if everyone thinks that, but I don’t think it’s true.
Villarreal: For me the speaker in Beast Meridian is sort of always grasping at a true self. And that self has been displaced and defined for her, literally beaten out of her, punished out of her, erased from her. There is something that is fiercely reclamatory in Beast Meridian that the speaker wants to make true. And the truth of the matter is that, I came out as bi to my mom when I was 13 years old. And in a poem that was the hardest to write, “GirlBody Gift,” in 6th grade I experimented with dressing like a cholo. You know, I would slick my hair back, and I would wear men’s clothes, men’s Dickies with chucks. I came home from school and my dad was very disturbed, that his little girl was dressing butch, dressing like a man.
He saw me, and the poem is about that moment where he chokes me and he says, “Aqui no quiero jotas.” It speaks to so much that goes on in Latinx families, these expectations for girls to be a hyper-feminine, hyper-fertile, hyper-respectable female body from a very young age. And I was already rebelling against that.
For Latinx girls, you sort of have to negotiate a different set of expectations. Like, your family expectations are so rooted in racism and oppression and respectability in a way that white experience isn’t, that I couldn’t break my parents heart in this extra way, by being out and being queer and being with a woman.
And so, I had to sort of assimilate, in this other way. Assimilate towards heteronormativity. And the queerness there is a very muted, sort of wild desire that is constantly being tamped down by the speaker. I think that speaks to a lot of Latina experience because I’ve heard from other Latinas who are like, all of my friendships are queer, my desire is queer, but I just can’t disappoint my parents in this way. I wanted to write to that experience of being queer but not being able to live it.
Coming out is something that a lot of people think of as this turning point in their queerness. But so many queer people live their entire lives negotiating what their identity is and negotiating their desire, and they live a queer life in private, they live their queer identity in private, but never get to fully embody it. I think that they should be counted too. So that’s what this speaker is doing.
Music plays a big part in both of your books. What are your musical influences and how does that make its way into writing poetry?
Vértiz: Oh man. Ramón Ayala. Chelo. Daniela Romo. [But also] Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got A Gun, and Paradise City and Patience and Warrant. It was my hair band phase. It was also 1988 so it was a good time for that. PJ Harvey. Jenny Lee from Warpaint. They’re like warped young women making weird dissonant music. I think I give The Smiths too much credit, The Cure actually informed my teen years way more.
Villarreal: For me, grunge was the ultimate outcast music.
I would like to note for the record that you’re currently wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.
Villarreal: [laughs] I am, I am. When I was in my preteen and teen years, grunge was the thing that outcasts listened to. I feel like I found my artistic identity and my voice through grunge, specifically Nirvana. The vulnerability that was conveyed in Nirvana’s music was from a working class, oppressed, queer, sort of perspective, a very feminist perspective. And it helped me understand what I was trying to say and how I was trying to say it. But it also marked that point of departure from my identity because at the same time that I was getting into Nirvana and getting into Hole and Tori Amos or whatever, my dad’s cumbia band was taking off. And so I was actively resisting [all of that]. My dad knew Selena. He played with Selena. He played with Los Tigres del Norte and Bronco. He was connected to all of these huge cumbia movements, and I was actively resisting it. Music became a way of forgetting, and a way of distancing myself from what I thought a good Latina daughter should be. But if I would have been the perfect daughter, I could have known these people. I could have been in a band with my dad. So it’s a point of pain for me.
In the case of both of your books, the election happened right in the middle of your process. And along with it, all the racist, violent rhetoric around immigration and DACA. Did that affect the books at all, either the content or the positioning of them now that they’re out in the world?
Villarreal: I started writing Beast Meridian in 2011 and finished the manuscript in 2013. I was never trying to write a poetry book. It was a product of confusion and displacement and feeling very lonely in Boulder, [Colorado] and feeling raced in Boulder in a way that I had never felt before. Boulder’s whiteness and middle class environment is what made this book the wild thing that it is. I was always reacting against expectations of whiteness.
But then it got accepted by Noemi [Press] in 2015. And I think that this book, the very fact that it existed and narrated a point of view that was so virulently attacked, felt like a radical move in and of itself. It’s not responding directly to Trump, but it dares to exist.
Vértiz: No. Nothing. Nada que ver con este puto. Fuck him.
This is an opportunity to remind people to look at the things that are surviving and thriving beyond this very moment. What were we doing before? What are we doing now? Don’t get distracted. White people have a lot of work to do, let them do some of this work.
Who are you writing for?
Vértiz: One: Brown, queer, working class women. And two: Anyone who’s ever felt like they weren’t good enough or smart. Maybe that’s from colonization or from your father or mother or whoever but it’s always in there [in your head]. So like fuck you and no. Just no. The whole book is a no. Like, I’m doing this other thing and I hope you can be there with us some day but, I’m not waiting for you to tell me I’m beautiful or smart or important. I’m just going to go be that.
Villarreal: I’m writing for survivors. I think Vickie really captured the audience that I’m writing for. You know, Brown, queer, working class women of color. I specifically say survivors and outcasts because that’s what I feel coming out of this writing process. To [push back on] this constant negotiation of an identity and stand up in it, no matter where you are, and speak your truth no matter how scary that is—that’s who I’m writing for.