Given today’s political climate with our current president, Jose Olivarez’s work, Citizen Illegal (2018), engages readers to learn and understand true experiences told by someone who is knowledgeable about Mexicans immigrating into the U.S. The collection of poems reveals cultural, social, and socio-political struggles of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. Citizen Illegal helps us re-imagine this topic by showcasing specific experiences that other Mexican immigrants can relate to while also educating readers of these experiences. It directs our attention to micro-level experiences that are not portrayed. Further, it encompasses emotions and experiences revolving around Mexican immigrants. Citizen Illegal is divided into five sections and contains poems ranging from 1 stanza to multiple stanzas in addition to the emotions ranging from nostalgia to sorrow. While there is no set character, the poems are meant to place the reader in Mexican immigrants’ position and enlighten relatable situations. Throughout the poems, readers learn about relations between individual family members, and between Mexican immigrants versus American society. Although Olivarez himself is not an immigrant, he is the son of immigrant parents, whose experiences informs some of his poems. His work helps readers understand the untold experiences of Mexican immigrants that no one thinks twice about. The poems allude to esoteric and specific experiences while educating and informing the reader of more than the misconceived notions or what is often portrayed in the media. Citizen Illegal highlights the experiences of Mexican immigrants that are not portrayed in media or that are seldom in discourse revolving Mexican immigrants. It challenges the representations of Mexican immigrants in U.S. cultural production and highlights untold experiences of Mexican immigrants. In particular, his multiple one-stanza poems titled “Mexican Heaven” describes and understands the ideal “heaven”/utopia that consists of both Mexican and American culture. The various “Mexican Heaven” poems allude to representations and experiences of Mexican immigrants that defy the misconstrued and negative portrayals of Mexican immigrants.
As Alejandro Portes and Robert L. Bach explains in their book Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States, the history of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. spans as far back as 1907 during the annexation of land belonging to Mexico (Bach and Portes 77). Eventually, the annexation of Mexico’s land reconfigures into the narrative and understanding of Mexican immigrants as “bad” because they are trying to “reconquer land that was formerly theirs (U.S. Southwest)” (Chavez 3). Often, what is portrayed or misconceived of Mexican immigrants is that they “don’t contribute to society” or “they’re taking all our jobs” or, as President Trump has most recently described them, “drug dealers, rapists, and criminals”.
Unfortunately, we believe or perpetuate these notions because these narratives are most often the only ones portrayed, making us unaware of their untold experiences. In addition, these portrayals contribute to what author Leo Chavez coins as the “Latino Threat” narrative in his book, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Narrative, and the Nation. The “Latino Threat” narrative encompasses the many assumptions of Mexican immigrants, including the “unwillingness to become part of the national community,” “illegal alien,” “destroying the way of American life,” and a foreigner (thus implying a threat to national security) (Chavez 3). The “Latino Threat” continues to perpetuate the discourses revolving Mexican immigrants in part (but not exclusively) because of the negative portrayals and the lack of continued struggles Mexican immigrants face. These portrayals are “typically devoid of nuances and subtleties of real lived lives”, consequently negating the additional obstacles and experiences of Mexican immigrants (Chavez 4). Because of the lack of appropriate Mexican immigrant portrayal and the over portrayal of the “Latino Threat” narrative (as made evident by President Trump), many individuals’ perceptions of Mexican immigrants revolve around the “Latino Threat” narrative.
While he has multiple poems titled “Mexican Heaven” in different sections of the book, the “Mexican Heaven” poem in the third section exemplifies Mexican women’s role in the Mexican community. The Washington Post conducted a research study to analyze the depictions of Mexican immigrants in news media. Their results asserted that while the majority of Mexican immigrants’ portrayals were harmful and produced them in a negative light, Mexican immigrant men were more often represented than Mexican immigrant women were. This “Mexican Heaven” poem complicates the portrayals of Mexican immigrants as it gives recognition to Mexican women, rather than Mexican men, who “are pictured more often than females” (Washington post).
The poem is one stanza, comprised of five lines, and narrates common domestic responsibilities:
all the Mexican women refuse to cook or clean
or raise the kids or pay the bills or make the bed or
drive your bum ass to work or do anything except
watch their novelas, so heaven is gross. The rats
are fat as roosters & the men die of starvation. (Olivarez 31)
The repetition of “or” throughout the poem separates the numerous tasks/responsibilities Mexican women have, even though they may not work at an actual job. The repetition produces the effect of an ongoing list that is “never-ending”, that the domestic responsibilities of Mexican women are endless. Additionally, in omitting commas to separate the tasks, the poem forces the readers to take their time in reading and reflecting on each task. This poem showcases that while Mexican immigrant women contribute just as much in providing for the family, even though it is not always portrayed. Moreover, in stating that this imagined “heaven” is where the women refuse to do this continuous list of tasks, it signifies that the “heaven” they imagine is different than the one they are living in. This poem illuminates that the “heaven” imagined for Mexican women is being able to relax and not do any of these tasks. However, the “heaven” they are living in (America) emphasizes that they have to do these tasks in order to help sustain their family’s life.
In examining Olivarez’s work, his poems speak to experiences and motivations of Mexican immigrants. As sociologist Carol Cleaveland observes in her research study, ‘In this country, you suffer a lot’: Undocumented Mexican immigrant experiences, Mexican immigrants individuals migrate “in order to spare their families potential suffering from poverty, or from having to immigrate themselves” (Cleaveland 582). They immigrate in pursuit of a better life, of the American Dream. Immigrating in pursuit of the American Dream reflects their concerns and worries of providing for their family and of financial stability (Hugo Lopez, “Latinos”). While there is no concrete definition to the concept of the American Dream, the Pew Research Center defines the American Dream as “hard work, financial security, career success and confidence that each new generation will be better off than the one before it” (Hugo Lopez, “Latinos”). The American Dream is the idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you want. In another short-stanza poem titled “Mexican Heaven”, Olivarez is able to articulate what an imagined “heaven” looks like to Mexican immigrants while highlighting the realities of coming to America and striving to achieve the American Dream. The poem further complicates the portrayals of Mexican immigrants by illuminating the concealed, continuous struggle of trying to provide for their family. In a seven-line stanza, the “Mexican Heaven” poem of the third section of the book showcases the contrasting ideas of the expectations versus the realities of America. Through the use of descriptive diction, Olivarez highlights to the reader the dismay of Mexican immigrants’ experience in America:
Saint Peter lets Mexicans into heaven
but only to work in the kitchens.
a Mexican dishwasher polishes the crystal,
smells the meals, & hears the music.
they dream of another heaven,
one they might be allowed in
if they work hard enough. (Olivarez 19)
The word “heaven” refers to the ending destination of Mexican immigrants: America. The word “heaven” juxtaposes where they come from, indicating that the place they are leaving in pursuit of “heaven” is unpleasant. As Cleaveland stated before, many Mexican immigrants migrate to the U.S. as “neo-liberal economics created untenable conditions for workers in Mexico” (Cleaveland 568). Mexican immigrants migrate because they are unable to work and therefore unable to make money to provide for their family. Additionally, the third, fourth, and fifth line of the poem contain diction that describe menial tasks, specifically referring to a job in the kitchen. The third and fourth sentences indicate that the worker is not enjoying the event, rather they are the ones prepping it. This portrays one of many low, “under-the-table” jobs Mexican immigrants work in order to sustain their life in America because of the disadvantages of language barriers and minimal education (Cleaveland 569). Because of their status, Mexican immigrants are forced to “work at jobs that are exploitative in terms of pay and benefits” (Cleaveland 571). Many places hire Mexican immigrants while not giving them the full benefits because it is cheap labor. Furthermore, describing these jobs by referencing some of the human senses (touch, smell, and hearing) places the reader in the shoes of a Mexican immigrant working the job. In placing the reader in this labor position, it illuminates an aspect of the life Mexican immigrants have in that they work “under-the-table” jobs because of their status.
The second half of the poem uses diction that refers to the idea of the American Dream. The words “dream” and the phrase “if they work hard enough” indicate that by working hard, one can achieve the American Dream. However, this poem showcases that “working hard enough” is not enough because Mexican immigrants are able to only work in menial occupations. It highlights an experience that is not often portrayed in the media and it recognizes the labor Mexican immigrants face in order to sustain their life.
Even after migrating to America, Mexican immigrants still face obstacles that remain concealed. One of these instances is the experience of Mexican immigrants needing to give up a part of their culture for the sake of white people. Olivarez encompasses this situation in another “Mexican Heaven” poem:
There are white people in heaven, too.
They build condos across the street
& ask the Mexicans to speak English.
I’m just kidding.
There are no white people in heaven. (Olivarez 21)
This Mexican Heaven poem highlights the relationship between Mexicans and the neighborhood they live in. It illuminates and an experience that it relatable (but not exclusive) to Mexican immigrants as it juxtaposes their positionality in relation to others, specifically white people. The contrasting diction of “build” and “ask” indicate that white people have the privilege to do and ask what they want of Mexican people. In incorporating the sentence about “speak[ing] English”; it illuminates the experience Mexican immigrants have about needing to change their language.
Additionally, the first sentence of the poem indicates the reality of being in America while the last sentence imagines a “heaven” in which there are no white people to denigrate them. In America, they are asked to rid their language and speak English, whereas in an imagined “heaven”, they do not have to worry about such an incident. The poem further illustrates Olivarez’s intentions, in which he states in a 2018 interview with Hannah Steinkopf-Frank of the Chicago Tribune. The interview, titled “Chicago Poet Jose Olivarez builds his own world in debut book ‘Citizen Illegal’,” contextualizes Olivarez’s background and experiences to show how they are illustrated in Citizen Illegal. In addition, the article suggests that while many of poems are based off of Olivarez’s experiences, they can also be accredited and attest to other experiences of Mexican immigrants, as he wanted to “create a space where Mexicans who already know the language feel that intimacy” (Steinkopf-Frank, “Chicago”). This poem highlights the experience of language as while each individual has their own obstacles, language is a common obstacle shared by (but not exclusive to) the Mexican community.
Primarily, analyzing Citizen Illegal and its multicultural contexts showcases that the portrayal of Mexican immigrants in U.S. cultural production is frequently a negative portrayal and disregards other aspects of Mexican immigrants’ experience. Citizen Illegal highlights and explains experiences that are not always depicted in discourse revolving around Mexican immigrants. In the “Mexican Heaven” poems, Olivarez is able to describe experiences in easy-to-understand terms, such as recognizing Mexican women’s role in the Mexican community, understanding the difficulty of striving for the American Dream, and understanding the sacrifice of culture in order to “make it” in America. After reading Citizen Illegal with additional research, I question why these experiences remain untold and why the negative portrayal of Mexican immigrants are perpetuated in U.S. cultural production. Citizen Illegal speaks to a specific audience that can relate to these experiences while educating other audiences of more than Mexican immigrants being “drug dealers, rapists, and criminals”. Ultimately, the discourse and portrayal of Mexican immigrants remains in this perpetuating state of unconstructiveness unless challenged or enlightened, as Olivarez does in Citizen Illegal.
Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat : Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, Second Edition, Stanford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/dickinson/detail.action?docID=1162035.
Cleaveland, Carol. “‘In This Country, You Suffer a Lot’: Undocumented Mexican Immigrant Experiences.” Qualitative Social Work, vol. 11, no. 6, Nov. 2012, pp. 566–586.
Farris, Emily and Silber Mohamed, Heather. “The news media usually show immigrants as dangerous criminals. That’s changed – for now, at least.” Washington Post, 27 June 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/27/the-news-media-usually-show-immigrants-as-dangerous-criminals-thats-changed-for-now-at-least/?utm_term=.ee14874a0da7. Accessed 24 April 2019.
Hugo Lopez, Mark. “Latinos are more likely to believe in the American dream, but most say it is hard to achieve.” Pew Research Center, 11 Sept. 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/11/latinos-are-more-likely-to-believe-in-the-american-dream-but-most-say-it-is-hard-to-achieve/. Accessed 30 April 2019.
Olivarez, Jose. Citizen Illegal. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2018
Portes, Alejandro, and Robert L. Bach. Latin Journey : Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States, University of California Press, 1985. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/dickinson/detail.action?docID=470876.
Steinkopf-Frank, Hannah. “Chicago Poet Jose Olivarez builds his own world in debut book ‘Citizen Illegal’.” The Chicago Tribune. 11 Sept. 2018, Website, https://www.chicagotribune.com/redeye/culture/ct-redeye-jose-olivarez-poet-citizenillegal-20180808-story.html. Accessed 4 March 2019.