As artists, writers, editors, and organizers in the U.S. South we note there remains a gap between space offered to Latinx writers and artists speaking to and from their own experiences, and the fever pitch of the news cycle, where "immigration" rhetoric is most often wielded as a violent political weapon or treated with clinical distance. Scalawag put out the call to self-identified Latinx poets and writers living in the U.S. South to send us their work and the series, 'This Work Will Take Dancing': Latinx Poetry from the Southern U.S. was born. For the next several weeks we will be sharing pieces by dozens of Latinx poets from across the Southern landscape that dazzle and deserve our collective attention. We are honored to serve as a space to hold and uplift this work. In "There is No Eating without Feeding," poet Suzi F. Garcia offers brilliant context and reckoning to help introduce the series to our readers. We hope you will enjoy learning from these poets as much as we have.
Read more from 'This Work Will Take Dancing' here.
"There is No Eating without Feeding."
In Making Waves, Mario Vargas Llosa writes that because "it is impossible to know what's really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream and take refuge in illusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary." While Vargas Llosa is describing a very real situation in Peru, sitting in my bedroom in Little Rock, Arkansas, I could not help thinking that the similar ideas applied to the American South. Vargas Llosa's words remind me of the duality of pain experienced by Latinx Southerners. We are trying to remember and to build, while constantly being erased from where we stand.
In many ways, the same issues that haunt Peru (and much of Central/South America)—the persistent state of illusion—pervade the American South. There is a wide disparity in wealth, in education, and in access to resources (including health resources). Many times, the illusions that are created are illusions of survival. Growing up in the South, for many Latinx, is growing up in a space of contradictions—spaces that claimed legacies that excluded us, that tried to forget us or push us outside. To survive these contradictions, we had to re-imagine them, to infuse ourselves in paradox. To be alive in these paradoxes is itself a kind of poetics. In this collection of poetry from Southern Latinx writers, we see the stories that manage to carve themselves visible—even with sweaty palms or shaky hands, even while navigating experiences of perpetual negation—Southern traditions of "pride" and forgetting that were never meant for us. The pieces in this issue are from poets trying to build, while simultaneously trying to confront their own erasure. Beltran says, "there was a time I believed every history that was handed to me. There was a time when I confused the word believe for bleed." We are bleeding. They are turning Walmarts into concentration camps across Texas, trying to rewrite history in front of us. But we are done believing the weaponized myths. We are building our own homes.
In almost every city or town where there are Latinx, there exists a small part of town with its own grocery stores and society where Spanish is the first language of most. For Latinx living away from a welcoming community, the South can be incredibly isolating—a place that sees history in black and white. I say that it is black and white, but we can think more critically about how the American South utilizes extinction and mystic rhetoric when discussing indigenous peoples. This is nothing new to Latinx people. As Leyva points out in the poem "Abuelito," we are used to "mixing/ a little dirt from Europe with the mashed plantains." However, the way that this erasure creeps into our lives remains unsettling.
"Many times, the illusions that are created are illusions of survival. Growing up in the South, for many Latinx, is growing up in a space of contradictions—spaces that claimed legacies that excluded us, that tried to forget us or push us outside. To survive these contradictions, we had to re-imagine them, to infuse ourselves in paradox. To be alive in these paradoxes is itself a kind of poetics."
When I was in high school, the school put on a "Tales from the Crypt" production, where student actors were chosen to stand on the grave of a historic Arkansan buried in the famed Mount Holly Cemetery and tell the historical stories to groups who came through on a tour. We worked with a local costume shop, and many of the students portrayed notable rich white Arkansans from across history, like David O. Dodd, Isaac and Sallie Folsom (This is the same land where Mike and Janet Huckabee have bought plots for their own eventual future). For those of us playing people of color, there was generally less silk, less flash, and let's be honest—less history. I played Quatie Ross, the wife of Cherokee Chief John Ross. Quatie died on the Trail of Tears in Little Rock, that much is known. But then the myth takes over, and who Quatie was is quickly whitewashed. In the script I was given as a 17-year-old, Quatie died a "noble" death. She gave her only blanket to a shivering child and tragically caught her death of pneumonia. This story was told for the first time 50 years after Quatie's death and largely dismissed by historians. Why tell the truth when we can tell the lie? So, I, a Peruvian-American girl in 2001 told "my history" to over a thousand visitors that came through the tour that year. This was and is not Quatie's story. This is not even her illusion. This is the story that was written for her by white Southerners who wanted to cry even while disconnecting themselves from the depth of brutality and erasure that happened in their city. This is something that happened to white Southerners, not something that happened because of them. This consumption of detached myths erases the full humanity of the people who came before, mediating all of our understandings of who belongs here. Another senseless tragedy they honor.
The need to hold onto an illusion, an image, instead of reckoning with the breadth of truth's violence repeats itself throughout Southern literature. In fact, many would claim that Faulkner's basis for much of his work is the de-mythization of the South and white Southerners. In what Southern poet-scholar Bruno has called Southern Simulacrum, we can see how the perversion of the truth becomes not just legend, but legacy. The toxicity of the myth has seeped into the South like rain into soil, until it can longer be separated.
I was not a Cherokee woman, but there were no indigenous students in our school to play the part (and there were no Latinx buried in Mount Holly Cemetery that I could find). That did not deter the school from telling their version of Quatie's story. Just as they weren't deterred from putting on West Side Story, despite the fact that the school had fewer than five Latinx students in total; none of whom to my knowledge were actually cast in the musical.
Even where Latinx communities are flourishing, there is a marked difference. When the call went out for poets from the South, the first question on many poets' lips was: Does that include Florida and Texas? And it was one of my first questions too. What does "Southern" mean? This is certainly one of the most controversial questions you can ask of a Southerner. Is Oklahoma the South? Missouri? Once I was at a poetry reading at my community college in North Little Rock, and when the visiting poet suggested that Indiana was culturally Southern, she was actively booed by the audience until she took it back. I have been at readings across the country where people have made racist remarks, misogynistic remarks, and more. This was the only time I've seen an unanimously angry reaction from a crowd.
"The poets in this collection are Southern for the same reason they are Latinx—because they are. What that means to each of them is personal. Some of them find that the South has influenced how they see themselves as a part of a community, like when Ariana Brown says, "hometown is built on the bones/of her ancestors." Some are inspired by the landscape, as seen in Espinoza's discussion of cotton and the searing Southern heat."
But the idea of "culturally Southern" is one often touted to explain these seemingly arbitrary definitions of "The South." Indeed, the frequent refrain about the exclusion of Florida and Texas from discussion of the South is that they are not "culturally" Southern. What is the Southern culture? What builds culture? There is undeniable culture in Texas, in Florida. The misconception that Southern culture must fit into distinct categories is partly rooted in the ability to ignore that Texas and Florida have had Latinx people living there for hundreds of years. Poems in this issue push against these false borders. As Esquinca muses in "Mexican Millennials," "[we] scrape against the walls that want us out." These are not just literal walls. These restrictive classifications about what is Southern or Latinx scratch us as we are pushed against them. They take chunks of us.
We know multiplicity is possible. As much as cities like New York or Los Angeles tout diverse populations, Louisiana is one of the few places where we see these identities come together to create a culture unique unto itself, combining Southern, French, African, Caribbean, and Indigenous traditions. Latinx communities aren't just building these areas, but they are being built by the spaces themselves. Similarly, Latinx Southerners are built by the places they occupy and the people who occupy them.
Latinx have been "performing" a duality of identity since Virgen de Guadalupe, since creating a Spanish that mixes with indigenous languages, since folktales started outliving government lies, since oral history has been rendered equally as important—if not more so—than written history. As Vargas Llosa points out, it is these methods of not just surviving, but thriving that make these communities so rich in literary tradition, even if it's not necessarily always a written tradition. Southern is just another layer.
The poets in this collection are Southern for the same reason they are Latinx—because they are. What that means to each of them is personal. Some of them find that the South has influenced how they see themselves as a part of a community, like when Ariana Brown says, "hometown is built on the bones/of her ancestors." Some are inspired by the landscape, as seen in Espinoza's discussion of cotton and the searing Southern heat. Some find themselves wearing cowboy boots, drawling "y'all," and dancing in barns at night. And some flee the racist past/present of the South and speak of different types of migration altogether. Some never speak of the South out loud at all. Just as the South itself is undefinable, so is the relationship between poet and place. I hope that these poems give you a glimpse of the nuances here, the creation and the creators as full and literary, defying the flatness of myth.
Read more from 'This Work Will Take Dancing' here.