Reinventing the World: José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal

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In the first episode of VS, a podcast where hosts Franny Choi and Danez Smith talk with poets to “confront the ideas that move them,” guest Eve L. Ewing says that the work of poets now is to “imagine the impossibilities [of our world] and render them possible.” Ewing adds that imagining better futures can potentially allow us to reverse engineer our way to those “impossibilities.” It is fitting, then, that Ewing wrote the blurb for the back cover of José Olivarez’s forthcoming debut Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, September 2018), since the book carries that mandate from its very title, rich with impossibilities made real for the reader. In the words of Morgan Parker, “magic is real,” and Citizen Illegal is proof.

Again and again, Olivarez gives us the poem as incantation, using language to transcend the limits of social constructions and the physical, temporal world. “Gentefication” resurrects the speaker’s abuelita and reverses the effects of gentrification, not just for Mexicans in Chicago where Olivarez lives, but in LA and DC as well. Olivarez imagines a world where families and communities like his aren’t forced out of their neighborhoods by the rich, a world where “the whole block is alive / & not for sale.” “Mexican Heaven,” a series of eight poems dispersed throughout the book, invokes similar magic, and reminds me of Danez Smith’s “Summer, Somewhere,” or 2Pac’s “Thugz Mansion.” For me, each poem in the series acts as a sort of refrain, returning readers to a world where “all the Mexicans walk into heaven / even our no-good cousins who only / go to church for baptisms & funerals.” Like Smith and Shakur, Olivarez constructs an otherworldly paradise for his people in recognition that the world he lives in must be reinvented, not renovated, to include them.

It’s clear though, that for the poet, magic is everywhere, not just a power to be wielded by the special. Often, we find the speaker in awe of the miracles that manifest independent of him. Take for example, the second poem of the book:

My parents fold like luggage
into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel

what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke. they protect what might
unfold them to discover they are six:
a family. if the man in green opens the trunk,

the road folds back. this moment & everything
that follows disappears into the ink of a police report.
why doesn’t he open the trunk? my parents say
god blessed us. maybe they are right

Even from his vantage point in the sky, the speaker surrenders to the impossibility of the moment. Here the poem is medium of record. It does not seek to explain and instead resolves in a tone of uncertainty and gratitude. The speaker recognizes how much magic pervades his entire existence. He is himself evidence of living, breathing possibility.

Another powerful element of Citizen Illegal is Olivarez’s seemingly limitless capacity for multiplicity. The book finds the speaker at an intersection of so many identities—Mexican but not, American but not, a Chicagoan but from Calumet City (a town outside of Chicago), a Harvard grad but a guy from the hood. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this is that Olivarez denies no part of himself: not his anger or his sadness or his violent urges or his smallness, not his joy, or his love of himself, or his mother, or his family. He rejects any attempt to integrate the parts of himself or reduce them to a singular. Instead he says, “hecky naw,” and presents each piece with the understanding that the coexistence of his identities means they already constitute one whole. In the closing poem of the book, “Guapo,” Olivarez is falling in love with himself piece by piece, which is nothing short of a metamorphosis from the speaker of an earlier poem, “My Therapist Tells Me Make Friends with Your Monsters.” From beginning to end, readers see the speaker running from himself less, realizing that like one’s history and heritage, “the hood isn’t / a garment you can toss off / it’s a skin.”

Olivarez’s efforts illuminate what may be the fundamental failure of the American imagination, a failure Audre Lorde described as our tendency to understand differences as possessing an inherent value in a natural hierarchy. Olivarez offers his readers a place where differences are allowed to exist together, alongside each other, within one another. And isn’t this failure of imagination a root cause of so much hatred and discrimination today? It seems clear to me that like Lorde, Olivarez understands that this change in our perception of difference is at least one key to dismantling power structures like nationalism, racism, sexism, and heteronormativity that suffocate so many. So much of this book is about valuing differences—even antitheses—without ranking them, about creating a sense of integration without loss.

This book shows the reader that we can love disparate the parts of ourselves as different, even contradictory. The poet does not have to convince himself that what is different is actually the same so that he might know some way to love it. That’s real magic, and that’s important work for all of us as human beings. But this book doesn’t just expand reader’s visions of what’s possible; it shifts language in order to show how our current realities are upheld, and what we can do to create new ones.

The book’s title and opening poem employ a brilliant oxymoron to draw attention to the nonsensical term “illegal immigrant.” Since a citizen is just someone who lives within the bounds of given municipality, every “immigrant” is, by definition, a citizen. In Citizen Illegal, what matters most is the person, the citizen, while “illegal immigrant” emphasizes an arbitrary classification in order to convince people to let some of their neighbors suffer under the justification that they’ve broken a law. Still, rather than “human” or “person,” the poet chooses “citizen,” a word with as much legal connotation as “immigrant.” Throughout the book, Olivarez demonstrates his mastery through the simple, yet precise rearrangement of common phrases in order to highlight realities often obscured by our language.

Olivarez does similar work in “Mexican American Disambiguation,” using familiar rhetorical buzzwords to point out the absurdity and arbitrariness of the labels we apply to each other, and the consequences such labels carry.

i call that sociology, but that’s just the Chicano
in me, who should not be confused with the diversity
in me or 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.

The poem uses the word “confused” seven times, impressing upon the reader the imperative to keep the distinctions clear while demonstrating how exhausting and, yes, confusing it is to navigate these labels. After all, the people in the speaker’s family “were safe from / deportation, which should not be confused / with walking the plank. though they’re cousins.”

There is something I haven’t talked about yet but that is one of my favorite elements of this work—its use of hip-hop vernacular and references. The Jay-Z epigraph, “not bad huh, for some immigrants,” struck me immediately because, as Jay aligns himself with the Latinx folks he hustled with during his youth, Olivarez positions the struggles of Mexican Americans as inextricable from those of Black Americans. There seems no better tool to demonstrate this connection than hip-hop. Though hip-hop is a Black art, it has always drawn influence from cultures across the diaspora. The influence of Latinx cultures, particularly that of Mexico, is especially prominent in the West Coast (think low-riders, flannels, Nike Cortez). Bringing that hip-hop element into his poetry demonstrates that Olivarez is not only interested in liberation for himself or people like him. He is doing his work for all brown and black people, a point he makes most directly in the poem “Mexican American Obituary”:

Juan, Lupe, Lorena, all died yesterday today
& will die again tomorrow
asking Black people to die more quietly
asking White people not to turn the gun on us

Here, in what is one of the most powerful poems in the book, Olivarez issues what may be his only warning/call to action for Mexican Americans: just because the problem affects someone you can identify as different, doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting you, too. The mistreatment of Black people sets a precedent that enables the maltreatment of Latinx people and other citizens. If they come for one of us, they will come for us all.

It seems clear that Olivarez wrote from every part of himself to build this incredible book. He uses the tools of his craft to create a sanctuary for others, and to present alternative realities that might finally serve, rather than pillage from, brown and black people. I’m deeply grateful for his work.

Frank Johnson is a Black poet, essayist, and visual artist born and raised in East Las Vegas. He received his MFA in 2019 from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the inaugural recipient of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute’s Donald Barlow Fellowship. Frank’s poems, essays, and reviews have been featured in a number of publications including The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Shallow Ends, The Rumpus, and Desert Companion. More from this author →