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