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
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.
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