A Review of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal.
By Maria Esquinca, Poetry Editor.
Jose Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal is a powerful celebration of what it means to be a first generation Mexican American. His collection is expansive, covering topics including assimilation, body image, and depression. Each poem is full of keen observation, humor, and wit. His lyric-narratives don’t hold back from commenting on class, race, sexism, and the hypocrisy of white liberalism, “colleges are not looking for undocumented diversity.”
In the title poem “(Citizen) (Illegal),” Olivarez attaches the parenthesized words “citizen” and “illegal” to the three characters in the poem: the dad, the mother, and boy, highlighting their immigration status:
Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)
have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?
Olivarez creates a visual juxtaposition between something very sterile and abstract—immigration status—beside real people. It is uncomfortable and effective. In contrast to our legal system—which defines people on the basis of their legality, rather than their humanity—Olivarez does not let readers forget the status of the characters. By also making the characters nameless, he further exemplifies the dehumanization of immigrants through U.S. policies.
From the very first question Olivarez poses, it is apparent that these labels could never accurately describe the breadth of immigrant identities—a move he constantly makes throughout this collection. In “Mexican American Disambiguation,” the speaker disrupts what it means to be Mexican:
my parents are Mexican who are not
to be confused with Mexicans still living
in México. those Mexicans call themselves
His poems break down the various layers of identity, in the process redefining and rejecting stereotypical labels.
A striking element within Olivarez’s book is his humor. His matter-of-fact voice is full of witty observation, with narratives that often point out class and racism in a non-didactic way. In “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At,” the speaker finds himself at a party talking to a liberal white woman. The speaker finds himself having a conversation in which he must hurdle through thinly veiled microaggressions. The woman feels compelled to tell the speaker “she voted for hillary & wishes bernie won the nomination,” yet also tells him “how lucky he is.” She doesn’t meet too many Mexicans in this part of New York. Olivarez fearlessly slices through plain observation and inserts his own critique, “the white/ woman means lucky to be here and not in México.” Through the interloping of observation and cunning commentary Olivarez breaks open his poems past the point of neutrality, he offers his readers sarcastic descriptions that break open the hypocrisy of the scenario: A self-proclaimed liberal who votes for Bernie, yet is oblivious to all the Mexicans around her. Olivarez then, uses the poem as a place of assertion that rebels against erasure. He acknowledges the imprints his people have made in the U.S.: “i know we exist because of what we make.” Often, reading these poems is like reading a sculptor at work, shaving off the obvious hypocrisies and ironies people of color navigate while the “good white woman waits for me to thank her.”
Olivarez also evokes humor through his “Mexican Heaven” series of poems. (In total, Olivarez has eight, one stanza, “Mexican Heaven” poems scattered throughout the book.) These short poems reimagine a Mexican Heaven through various scenarios and descriptions:
all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.
St. Peter has their name on the list,
but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list
since Ronald Reagan was president.
Peppered throughout the book are also moments of self-deprecating confessions, intimacy, and love; “put some vaporub on my dad’s/diabetic toes and watch the sugar evaporate.” His narrative voice is unapologetically honest.
Citizen Illegal is a compelling collection. As someone who is also Mexican American, reading Olivarez’s book felt like I was reading someone who understood me. Olivarez describes what it’s like to feel like you belong neither here nor there, ni de aquí, ni de allá, but to live in that liminal, in-between space, familiar to children of immigrants—not fully American, not fully Mexican, but a beautiful blend of the two. His poems acknowledge the complicated feelings attached to Latinx identity: guilt for not being Mexican enough, for speaking “broken Spanish,” for not being a “good Mexican son,” pride for your culture, confusion about belonging, etc. But he provides a collection that envelops all of those feelings without admonishing oneself, but rather accepting that our identities are complex.
Citizen Illegal, then, strikes a delicate balance between reclaiming existence and admitting a sense of dislocation. I appreciate the book’s unrelenting refusal to be silenced, now more than ever these poems provide a powerful voice that needs to be heard.