Identity Conflict: The Precarious State of Mexican-American Identity

Cover of “Citizen Illegal”

In José Olivarez’s “Citizen Illegal” (2018), a complicated perspective on the intersection of Mexican and American identities is offered. In “Citizen Illegal,” Olivarez addresses coming of age as the child of Mexican immigrants as a series of triumphs and challenges. The collection is composed of five chapters, each containing eight to ten poems. The poems themselves typically have multiple stanzas. Notably, throughout the collection are woven eight pieces of the poem “Mexican Heaven,” which explores the celebrations and struggles of Mexican American life. While most poems have multiple stanzas, some pieces, such as “I Walk Into The Room And Yell Where The Mexicans At” are written as prose. “Citizen Illegal” thus informs readers of the conflict within Mexican American identity. Specifically, the poems “River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” explore Olivarez’s feeling like a misfit within American culture due to his Mexican roots. In these poems, the evolution of Olvarez’s precarious identity from Mexican-American to American is observable. This evolution is indicative of a constant pressure to assimilate as well as perceived “otherness” of Mexican-Americans. Ultimately, in the context of political rhetoric and public perception of Mexican-Americans, these poems illustrate the perceived incompatibilities between Mexican and American identities due to the otherness of Mexicans in the United States. The pressure to assimilate is strong, then, due to the benefits associated with shedding Mexican identity.

“River Oaks Mall” is the fourth poem in the collection. The poem consists of six three-line stanzas concluded by a single-line stanza. The first letters of each sentence, despite grammatical convention, are not capitalized. Proper nouns, however, such as “Saturday” and “American,” are written conventionally. In “River Oaks Mall,” Olivarez describes walking through a mall on a Saturday with his family. The poem begins with the speaker describing a refusal to confess his feelings for the girl he likes and concludes with his throwing a coin from his father into a fountain in the mall. In seeing other young people around him at the mall, Olivarez notes that he feels a separation between himself and those surrounding him. This feeling of difference demonstrates the speaker’s conflict between his American and Mexican identities:

 

trying too hard is another way to confess.

my family takes a Saturday stroll

through the mall dressed in church clothes

 

every other kid in jeans, t-shirts, & Jordans.

fun fact: when you have to try to blend in

you can never blend in (Olivarez 6).

 

The juxtaposition in the sentence “my family takes a Saturday stroll/through the mall

Photo by Davon Clark

dressed in church clothes” specifically elucidates the reader’s conflict between Mexican and American identities. In this phrase, the family is representative of Mexican identity. Specifically, as religion is a strong presence in many Mexican families, wearing church clothes designates the family as a symbol of Mexican identity. The mall, as a staple of recreation in the United States and an extremely casual setting, is the pinnacle of an environment in which the family’s behavior is unusual. Here, mall culture exists as a microcosm of a greater American culture, as the shopping mall is a staple of life in the United States. The situation of “through the mall” and “dressed in church clothes” in the same line makes the juxtaposition impossible to ignore. This placement signifies the adjacency yet perceived incompatibility of Mexican and American identity to Olivarez. The imagery of a family taking a “Sunday stroll / through the mall in church clothes” also highlights the juxtaposition of the family and the shopping mall. The poem facilitates the reader to envision the scene, as picturing a family dressed in church clothes among groups of kids in stylish clothing is almost

Additionally, the repetition of “blend in” supports the juxtaposition in the second stanza. “Blending in” in this case implies the hiding of Mexican culture, as the juxtaposition illustrates the perceived incompatibility of Mexican and American culture. This repetition highlights the ever-present confusion that comes about as a result of Mexican/American identity conflict. Historically, divisions between American and other national identities have been rooted in fears of disloyalty. In the 2009 report Are Immigrants Disloyal? The Case of Mexicans in the U.S., Krystof Kozak examines the perceived disloyalty of Mexicans to the United States and posits explanations for this perception. Kozak outlines that concerns of disloyalty have existed since the independence of the United States. Disloyalty was a major argument employed by Nativists, who sought to limit immigration to the U.S. (Kozak). Kozak asserts that Nativism has persisted to the present. These modern-day Nativists categorize Mexican immigrants as “Other,” implying that they possess a separate identity from the rest of the United States (Kozak). “Blending in,” therefore, would work to alleviate the speaker’s “otherness” and subvert perceptions of disloyalty.

The final chapter of “Citizen Illegal” features “River Oaks Mall (Reprise),” which is a continuation of the narrative that began in “River Oaks Mall”. In this poem, the speaker is presumably an older version of the speaker from the first poem. This older speaker expresses a desire to shed the embarrassing Mexican hallmarks of his past in favor of an assimilated American identity. The poem begins:

we were so American it was transparent.

Southpole hoodie & a i-could-give-a-fuck type

attitude. french fries down our throats.

blood pressure bursting. thin, fair

white women in our fantasies. in our faces,

our grandmothers’ faces. so what?

we pawn it at the mall for a gold star (Olivarez 63).

In the phrase “in our faces, / our grandmothers’ faces. so what?” the rhetorical question “so what?” symbolizes the speaker’s imposed separation from Mexican culture and heritage. Assuming that the speaker of this poem is a grown-up version of the speaker in “River Oaks Mall,” this device demonstrates a discarding of familial history in order to assimilate into American culture. As one can picture “so what?” being spouted by a bratty teenager, the tone of this question is indicative of an adolescent rejection of the misfit identity of being Mexican in the United States.

The attitude of the speaker is elucidated by the “gold star” metaphor in the last line of the quote. When Olivarez says, “we pawn it [Mexican identity] at the mall for a gold star,” he is implying that he has traded an outward expression of his identity for social approval. Colloquially, a “gold star” is a common metaphor for achievement or the approval of others. The word “pawn” in this phrase additionally demonstrates the eagerness of the speaker to adopt a new American identity. Pawning an item is typically an eager and quick decision, as in pawning an engagement ring after a failed romance. The negative labels applied to Mexican-Americans put this “pawning” of identity in context. The struggles related to social categorization that Mexican immigrants and their children face are elucidated by Kathleen Rooney’s 2018 review of “Citizen Illegal” for the Chicago Tribune titled “’Citizen Illegal’ by Jose Olivarez is Poetry for this moment.” Rooney acknowledges Olivarez’s addressing of “the struggles and complexities of immigration and gentrification.” She further explains how labels such as “citizen” and “illegal,” when applied to individuals, can promote “fear, confusion, and discrimination” (Rooney). Rooney’s review of “Citizen Illegal” further defines the negative associations that society has towards Mexican-Americans. Olivarez’s “gold star” may be a relief from “fear, confusion, and discrimination” (Olivarez 63, Rooney). Therefore, in this quote, the speaker is trading an old, once embarrassing identity for a new identity. The speaker sees American identity as socially approved but sees Mexican identity as a thing of the past.

The sentiments of precarious identity in “River Oaks Mall” and the reprise are autobiographical. In Levi Todd’s interview with Olivarez for Hooligan magazine, Olivarez addresses the conflict between Mexican and American identity. In this 2018 interview, Olivarez discusses events and emotions within his own life that inspired the poetry in “Citizen Illegal.” Olivarez states that he once “felt like [he] had to choose one identity and perform that identity to the max” (Qtd in Todd). Thus, Olivarez perceived his multiple identities to be in conflict with one another. Olivarez’s one-time desire to “perform [an] identity to the max” provides context to the desire to commit entirely to an American identity in “River Oaks Mall (Reprise).” The act of being “so American it was transparent” expresses this total commitment to a single identity, as explained by Olivarez in his interview with Todd (Olivarez 63). The use of the word “transparent” in this phrase enforces the performance of an identity “to the max.” The word “transparent” connotes that the speaker doesn’t have anything to hide, suggesting that he is effectively “passing” as American. The exaggerated imagery in “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” additionally indicates the performance of identity that Olivarez spoke of in the Todd interview. The phrases “french fries down our throats” and “blood pressure bursting” offer almost theatrical imagery of stereotypical American attributes. The performance of “American” identity in “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)”, therefore, mirrors Olivarez’s own experiences in Mexican-American identity.

Due to the perception of Mexican-Americans as “other,” the speaker of “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” gains several advantages by assimilating in the United States. These advantages assuage the identity conflict that the speaker experienced in “River Oaks Mall” via the assumption of a new identity. The most significant advantage would be a reprieve from the stereotypes and the “otherness” that come with the label of “Mexican.” Political rhetoric enforces this “otherness,” necessitating a choice between “otherness” and assimilation. According to commentator Rush Limbaugh, Mexican-Americans are “allowed no demonstrations , you cannot wave a foreign flag, no political organizing, no bad-mouthing our President or his policies, or you get sent home” (Qtd in Kozak). Families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are being detained in camps, and Donald Trump is using his Twitter account to portray Mexican immigrants as “animals… and infestations” (Traister). Clearly, political rhetoric has drawn a line between the treatment of Mexican-Americans and the rest of the United States. Thus, assimilating into American culture and disassociating from Mexican identity may be a mechanism of self-preservation for the speaker of “River Oaks Mall (Reprise).” Olivarez’s “gold star,” then, represents the benefits associated with assimilation. Assimilation would protect the speaker from the categorization of “otherness” and the designation of “infestation.”

“River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise),” therefore, highlight the precariousness of Mexican identity in the United States. As Mexican identity is demonized, the speaker in these poems must assimilate in order to escape the stereotypes placed upon him. This need to assimilate suggests a pressure to be either entirely Mexican or entirely American, and the difficulties associated with incorporating both into a cohesive national identity. “River Oaks Mall” demonstrates the strain between Mexican and American identities, as the speaker feels embarrassed by his Mexican family in a United States shopping mall. In “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)”, the speaker assumes a fully American identity. In the context of both public perception of Mexicans in the United States and José Olivarez’s own experiences, the identity conflict within these poems gives insight to the perceived “otherness” of Mexican-Americans. “River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” tell a story about Mexican-American lives that is pointed and relevant. In the United States, Mexican identity and “American” identity, due to harsh political rhetoric and fears of disloyalty, are seen as incompatible.

Works Cited

Chiquiar, Daniel, and Alejandrina Salcedo. “Mexican Migration to the United States: Underlying Economic Factors and Possible Scenarios for Future Flows.” Migration Policy Institute, Migration Policy Institute, 12 Aug. 2015, www.migrationpolicy.org/research/mexican-migration-united-states-underlying-economic-factors-and-possible-scenarios-future. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Clark, Davon. “Hooligan Mag.” Hooligan Mag, Hooligan Mag, 13 Sept. 2018, www.hooliganmagazine.com/blog/2018/9/13/writing-poems-with-a-love-ethic-an-interview-with-jos-olivarez.

Kozak, Krystof. “Are Immigrants Disloyal? The Case of Mexicans in the U.S.*.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2009, doi:10.4000/ejas.7629. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Rooney, Kathleen. “’Citizen Illegal’ by Jose Olivarez Is Poetry for This Moment.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 7 Sept. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/sc-books-citizen-illegal-jose-olivarez-0912-story.html. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Todd, Levi. “Writing Poems With a Love Ethic: an Interview with José Olivarez.” Hooligan Mag, Hooligan Mag, 13 Sept. 2018, www.hooliganmagazine.com/blog/2018/9/13/writing-poems-with-a-love-ethic-an-interview-with-jos-olivarez. Accessed 8 Mar. 2019. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Traister, Rebecca. “Cages, ‘Infestations,’ and the Demonization of Immigrants.” The Cut, New York Media, 27 June 2018, www.thecut.com/2018/06/trump-immigration-zero-tolerance-ai-jen-poo.html. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Olivarez, Jose. Citizen Illegal. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2018.

Powell, Andy. “The Paris Review.” The Paris Review, The Paris Review, 24 Aug. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/08/24/there-are-no-white-people-in-heaven-an-interview-with-jose-olivarez/.

BP6

OpEd: First Draft

Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez (2018) is a collection of poems addressing coming of age as the child of Mexican immigrants. The collection is composed of five chapters, each containing eight to ten poems. The poems themselves typically have multiple stanzas. Notably, throughout the collection are woven eight pieces of the poem “Mexican Heaven,” which explores the celebrations and struggles of Mexican American life. While most poems have multiple stanzas, some pieces, such as “I Walk Into The Room And Yell Where The Mexicans At” are written as prose. Citizen Illegal thus informs readers of the conflict within Mexican American identity. Specifically, the poem “River Oaks Mall” explores Olivarez feeling like a misfit within American culture due to his Mexican roots.

In “River Oaks Mall,” Olivarez describes walking through a mall on a Saturday with his family. The poem begins with the speaker describing a refusal to confess his feeling for the girl he likes, and concludes with his throwing a coin from his father into a fountain in the mall. In seeing other young people around him at the mall, Olivarez notes that he feels he is different than they are. This feeling of difference demonstrates the speaker’s conflict between American and Mexican identity:

trying too hard is another way to confess.

my family takes a Saturday stroll

through the mall dressed in church clothes

 

every other kid in jeans, t-shirts, & Jordans.

fun fact: when you have to try to blend in

you can never blend in (Olivarez 6).

The juxtaposition in the sentence “my family takes a Saturday stroll/through the mall dressed in church clothes” specifically elucidates the reader’s conflict between Mexican and American identity. In this phrase, the family is representative of Mexican identity. The mall, as a staple of recreation in the United States and an extremely casual setting, is the pinnacle of an environment in which the family’s behavior is unusual. The situation of “through the mall” and “dressed in church clothes” in the same line makes the juxtaposition impossible to ignore. This placement signifies the adjacency yet perceived incompatibility of Mexican and American identity to Olivarez. The imagery within the quote also highlights the juxtaposition of the family and the shopping mall. The poem facilitates the reader to envision the scene, as picturing a family dressed in church clothes among groups of kids in stylish clothing is almost comical.

B6.

Works Cited

Olivarez, Jose. Citizen Illegal. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2018.

Racial Governmentality in Singapore and Malaysia as Enforced by Colonization

In the case of multicultural relations in Singapore and Malaysia, the age-old adage holds true: history repeats itself. In the introduction to Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore, Goh and Holden argue that the post-colonial racial governmentality in Southeast Asia continued to exist following independence (2009). Additionally, the frameworks that shaped colonial racial governmentality were set in place by pre-existing racialization. The social constructs that form post-colonial racial governmentality are both influenced by pre-colonial racial constructs and the aftershocks of colonial rule, and continue to exist into the present.

This evolution of racial governmentality is interesting because it illuminates how European colonizers have historically enforced racial systematization in their colonies. However, this systematization was also sometimes pre-existent in colonized nations. Racial governmentality is defined as a governmental system in a multicultural society that primarily focuses on the needs of a specific racial group. Goh and Holden state that the enforcement of racial separation in colonized societies was “not invented by colonial powers […] but rather built on and radically transformed pre-existent social imaginaries” (5). Here, Goh and Holden define racial governmentality as a system enforced by colonialism. However, the framework for this system was laid in place my pre-existing racial systems.

Additionally, racial governmentality has continued to exist post-colonialism in Singapore and Malaysia. Goh and Holden state that “colonialism’s racial governmentality was something that could not easily be left behind by the new national state” (6). Goh and Holden continue to describe the state of the People’s Action Party in Singapore and the United Malays National Organization in Malasyia (6). These organizations sought to reinforce racial primacy in their respective countries through civilian effort (6). In the 1970s and 1980s, similar movements took root as the Malaysian government enacted policies favoring “sons of the soil” (7). The fact that racial separation was often in place before colonization, however, should not be taken to dispel the role that colonization played in racial governmentality in Singapore and Malaysia. Both foreign and domestic influences have played a role in shaping racial governmentality in Singapore and Malaysia.

In conclusion, racial governmentality has roots that extend back to pre-colonial times in Singapore and Malaysia. However, colonial powers amplified these roots, and following colonization, Singapore and Malaysia continued to foster policies and movements that favored racial governmentality. As Goh and Holden state, “historical consciousness plays a major part in the formation of our identities and the definition of multicultural possibilities” (8). The histories of Singapore and Malaysia in terms of multicultural relations shape the present. These histories, furthermore, have influenced the presence of racial governmentality in these nations.

B5.

Works Cited

Goh, Daniel P.S. and Holden, Philip. Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. New York, Routledge, 2009.

 

 

 

Color Palette of the Interrogation Room

Vietnamerica (2011) by G.B. Tran describes the journey of a Vietnamese-American man in returning to Vietnam with his family. Throughout his travels, his relatives share their experiences of wartime Vietnam. The graphic novel is characterized by its use of color. Specifically, each page or spread tends to make use of a specific palette of colors, which unifies each page and scene.

In the scenes where Tran Huu Tri is in the interrogation room, a recurring dark maroon color palette can be seen. This pattern begins on page 69 when Tri is first apprehended and placed into the cell. The palette of these pages is characterized with dark maroon as a primary color and a pale yellow accent. Behind the panels, the background of the page is black. The linework on these pages is heavy, dark, and sketchy, indicating the darkness of the room where Tri is imprisoned. This pattern is reproduced in all of the interrogation room scenes.

This palette produces several noticeable effects in the interrogation room scenes. First, it provides the reader with a recognizable sense of setting. When seeing these colors together on the page, the reader will instantly be aware that the scene is taking place within the interrogation room. Secondly, the darkness of this palette provides graphic weight to the speech bubbles due to the contrast between the dark maroon and the white of the speech bubbles. This effect draws the eye to the dialogue between the Vietminh and Tri.

Works Cited

Tran, Gia-Bao. Vietnamerica. New York, Random House Inc, 2011.

B4

Jigari Dost

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is a 2017 novel depicting the journeys of several contemporary characters through living as a Muslim in the 21st century. The novel thus far has followed the characters of Isma, Eamonn, and Parvaiz as they navigate the intersections between their Muslim and British identities. In the novel, Parvaiz has been recruited into ISIS by Farooq, an individual who he encounters in his London neighborhood. Farooq allured Parvaiz with his claims of the equity that joining ISIS would provide him, and upon his arrival in Istanbul, Parvaiz appreciated the beauty of the sky-high minarets and general atmosphere of his new environment. However, upon being exposed to the brutality of life as a recruit, he develops a desire to return to his home in England. All the while, his sister Aneeka worries profusely about Parvaiz, while Isma wants no part of her brother’s life. Parvaiz’s section of the novel concludes with his approaching the British consulate in an attempt to secure a pass to England.

On page 137, Parvaiz describes his relationship with Farooq: “Parvaiz sipped the tea — too weak — and looked around the flat, trying to find any further clues to his yaar’s life. The Urdu word came closer than ‘friend’ to explaining how he thought of Farooq. Or even better, jigari dost — a friendship so deep that it was lodged within you, could not be cut out without leaving a profound, perhaps fatal, wound.” By using the phrase “jigari dost,” Parvaiz evokes a feeling of intimacy and connection that is partially incomprehensible to the reader. Presumably, the reader of the novel does not know Urdu, and thus this phrase is not familiar to them. By using a non-English phrase to define Parvaiz’s perception of Farooq, Shamsie is defining Parvaiz’s perception of Farooq as something that can not be readily understood by the reader, as the language itself is not readily understood by the reader. The use of an non-English phrase further signifies Parvaiz’s internal transition to defining himself as more Muslim than British by creating a divide between the reader’s understanding of Parvaiz’s British life and his life in ISIS. This transition, of course, is defined by the radicalized Farooq, and should not be interpreted to indicate that a Muslim identity is synonymous with a terrorist affiliation or that a Muslim identity is incompatible with a British identity. Parvaiz’s perception of Farooq as a friend that “could not be cut out without leaving a profound, perhaps fatal wound” however, enforces that Farooq is the primary factor that is defining Parvaiz’s identity at this point in the novel. This effect is significant because it shows that Farooq is tempting Parvaiz to entirely discard all elements of his identity that do not fit within the expectations of his group. Specifically, we can see that Parvaiz feels pressured by Farooq to discard his British identity. Parvaiz feels, as a result of Farooq’s guidance, that his British identity is incompatible with his Muslim identity, and therefore, it must be discarded.

B3

Works Cited

Shamsie, Kamila. Home Fire. Riverhead Books, 2017.

Imagery and Escapism

Some tragedies are difficult to confront. Claudia Rankine’s poem from Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) titled “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin” uses imagery to show a desire to escape from the police brutality that affects the black community in the United States. Specifically, Rankine utilizes images of nature, which evoke a sense of peace that juxtaposes the event that the poem was inspired by. Imagery is a type of descriptive language that appeals to the senses and prompts the reader to create a mental picture inspired by the language.

Rankine’s repeated images of nature echo throughout the poem. In the fourth paragraph, mentions of the sky are woven between mentions of struggle and pain. Rankine writes, “On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush.” (89). The image of the pink sky falls in the middle of the sentence, which is concluded by a series of words that connote negative emotions. In this line, I was drawn to the image of the sky as it contrasts strongly with the emotions evoked by “struck, sleepless, sorry, senseless, shush” (89). Then, Rankine uses the image of blossoms to juxtapose violence, slavery, and brutality. Following a list of instances of violence and institutional racism, Rankine writes, “a throat slices through and when we open our mouths to speak, blossoms, o blossoms… The sky is the silence of brothers” (90). Rankine’s brutal image of hanging is juxtaposed here by the image of blossoms, which the reader associates with softness.

The effects provided by Rankine’s imagery are significant, as they offer a glimpse into the speaker’s coping mechanisms for grieving Trayvon Martin. By returning to images of blossoms and the sky, Rankine shows a desire to escape from the realities of police brutality.

Works Cited

Rankine, Claudia. “February 26, 2012 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin.” Citizen: An American Lyric, Graywolf Press, 2014.

B2

Defining Race and the Role of Human Equality in a Multicultural Society

Image credit: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

The changing face of racism makes it an elusive concept to address in modern conversations. While outright racism exists, it is the system of institutional racism that is the most insidious. The photo above depicts Irish protesters. Their protest signs demonstrate their disapproval of the Irish police force and its reluctance to address black victims of violence.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race frames racial oppression in the context of society and describes conversational tools to address the topic of race. Published in 2018, the book provides instruction for genuine alliance with people of color. Oluo states that racism is rarely an individual attribute, but rather an institutional force that continues to oppress people of color (27). This idea is useful, as, I believe, it diverges from the average white person’s perception of racism. When a white person hears the word “racist,” images of “unabashed racism,” such as swastikas or the Ku Klux Klan, may come to mind (Oluo, 27). Framing race as a societal problem, however, points the finger at institutional support in terms of allowing racism to flourish. This idea also permits the opportunity to fight these oppressive systems (Oluo, 36).

Multiculturalism, written Ali Rattansi and published in 2011, is a short introduction to conversations surrounding multiculturalism. Rattansi outlines the role that the strive for human equality has played in the origins of multiculturalism. Following World War II, Rattansi explains, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sparked societal changes towards the idea of race (15). These changes are significant as they set the stage for the progressive social movements of the 1960’s and beyond. These historical moments illustrate that policy changes and social changes are key in changing racist systems.

Image credit: United Nations

Both Oluo’s definition of race as a societal, rather than an individual, issue and Rattansi’s explanation of post-WWII reversals of racist policies reinforce racism as an institutional system of oppression. Just as racism is a “systemic machine,” policy changes and social movements can function to address the injustices of this institutional problem (Oluo, 28). Oluo and Rattansi’s ideas therefore synergize to explain the societal changes that must take place to address institutional racism. These chances include the recognition of the existence of racist systems by white people and the enactment of policy changes that establish human equality.

Works Cited

Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2018.

Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.

B1