Seeing America Through the Eyes of a Chicano

Francisco X. Alarcon provided by poetryfoundation.org

Francisco Alarcon published his book of short poems From the Other Side of  Night/Del Otro Lado de La Noche in 2002 as an attempt for readers to get a glimpse of Chicano experiences in America. Alarcon was born in Wilmington, California and moved to Mexico with his family in the 1960’s. Being raised in Mexico, but consistently traveling back to Los Angeles in order to visit relatives opened his eyes to cultural differences at a young age. He began transforming the experiences he had as a Chicano child growing up in two worlds into poems. The poems themselves began to transition from feeling out of place at school to feeling out of place in the country where he was born. 

From the other Side of Night/Del Otro Lado de la Noche contains a wide array of pieces from his fifteen years as a poet with a few new additions. The poems are categorized by chapters all pertaining to the books they were featured in. Majority of the poems are written in a style Alarcon likes to call “skinny”(Transcript 1) meaning short poems with few words and lines per stanza. While there is no clear speaker many of Alarcon’s poems are meant to represent crucial points in his life including love, heartbreak, and family. Yet, it is the poems of struggle and hardship that invoke the most emotion. As an activist for Latino rights, Alarcon used his profession as a poet in order to spark notions of change in those that read his work with a huge focus on the younger generation of Latinos and Chicanos. In particular, his 2 page poem Carta a America/Letter to America focus on the mistreatment and misrepresentation Chicanos and Latinos feels in the United States.

To fully understand the pain invoked in Alarcon’s poems, one must know some history of the Anti-Mexican sentiment that has plagued the U.S since the late 1800’s. In Nadra Nittle’s article History of the Chicano Movement, she discusses the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty was passed in order to end the Mexican American War which resulted in the United States acquiring territory such as Texas and California, which previously belonged to Mexico (Nittle 1). What followed was decades of discrimination toward Mexican Americans including segregation in schools and violent hate crimes. While the protests did lead to some substantial changes for civil rights of Chicanos such as the birth of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, we appear to be in an era where these Anti-Mexican sentiments are on the rise again. 

Alarcon addresses how this historical hatred has manifested itself into modern views of Chicanos in his poem Carta a America/Letter to America. He starts the poem off with an undisclosed person saying: 

pardon

Common sign put up in shop windows during the early 1900’s

the lag

in writing you 

 

we were left

with few 

words (Alarcon 51) 

There is no direct statement of who the “you” in the poem is, but there are implications of it being America or American citizens. Similarly, there is no direct title associated with the “we” so the reader must assume the “we” as being Chicanos, Latinos, or other oppressed groups. The stanzas are both very short and contain very few words per line, meaning it can be read quickly. A parallel between the “we” and the structure of the stanzas themselves becomes evident; both contain few words. However, it is important to acknowledge they were “left with few words” meaning someone has control over the allotted amount of words the are aloud to say. It is obvious Alarcon is the one who decides how many words to include in his poem and what is being said, but who is controlling the “we’s” voice. 

Thinking historically, the U.S government was known to shut down protests advocating for equal treatment during the Chicano Movement. One such instance was the death of Ruben Salzar, a Mexican journalists recognized for his effort of addressing Chicano struggles in mainstream news sources. In an article surrounding the 2014 documentary made by Phillip Rodriguez, “Ruben Salzar: Man in the Middle”, evidence is presented exposing the strange circumstances around his death. Given how successful his articles became the LAPD, began to issues warnings again Salzar claiming he was being monitored by law enforcement (Rodriguez). He was then coincidentally killed after police began tear gassing and beating Chicanos protesting Anti-War sentiments. No one was charged for his death and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department refused to release any information on this case for years (Rodriguez). But this is just one of the many instances where law enforcement has psychically silenced Chicanos voices their pleas for change. As states in the PBS article, the U.S government appears to have control over the voices of Chicanos and can take action against them which parallels Alarcon being able to control the amount of words he uses in his poem. Both the Chicanos and the poem are being limited by a higher power. 

The poem then transitions to a long list of inanimate objects that represent what the speaker feels like the “we” or Chicanos can be compared to including a rug, table, lamp, toy and pan. The 7 stanza list is then directly followed by 2 stanzas that represent what the “you” does with these objects: 

you fear us 

you yell at us

you hate us 

 

you shoot us 

you mourn us

you deny us (Alarcon 52)

The stanzas are set up in such as way that the reader can see the increasing levels of hostility all steming from fear. The fear manifests itself into direct acts of aggression resulting in a shooting followed by a mourning. Each line contains an aggressive or violent action imposed on the “us” by the “you”. This repetition forces the reader to stay on these ideas of violence for a while. But one must remember that the violence is being directed towards the “we” in previous stanzas, which has transformed into the “us” in these two stanzas. The “we’s”(Chicanos) were previously compared to random objects in the previous seven stanzas. Interestingly enough,  the objects are all luxury or essential items that most Americans have in their home, not to mention all these objects are pretty harmless. If the Chicanos are being portrayed as harmless, essentials parts of society why are they being brutalized? 

This portrayal of repetitive violent acts towards innocent “objects” as depicted in the nine stanzas, mimics the rise in hate crimes against Latinos and Chicanos in the United States. Brendan Campbell, Angel Mendoza, and Tessa Diestel from News 21 address these acts of aggression in their 2018 article “Rising Hate Drives Latinos into Silence”. A huge factor in this rise has stemmed from the 2016 presidential election. Pricilia Garcia, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant told the News12 staff “post election, I could tell there was a change. People became a little more brave with their words, especially when it came to hateful things they said”(Campbell, Mendoza, Diestel). There were 34 reported anti-Latino hate crimes directly following the first two weeks of the 2016 election; a 176% increase over the year to date daily average (Campbell, Mendoza, Diestel). Not only are the crimes increasing, but “studies have shown the FBI substantially undercounts them”(Campbell, Mendoza, Diestel). This aids the denial expressed in the ninth stanza. Having the stanza end with “you deny us”, gives power to the word “deny” as that is the last idea the reader is left with. Considering the “you”(America) has the ability to deny the “us” (the Chicanos), it completely undermines the repetative violent acts as seen in both the stanzas and reality. It is important to remember that the poem sets up the Chicanos to appear harmless, so seeing consistent infliction of hate towards innocent people should invoke feelings of anger for the reader; especially if they are Mexican. 

Through all this history of violence and discrimination the poem approaches an end with the speaker acknowledging the resilience of the Chicanos saying: 

“United Race”

and despite 

everything

we 

 

continue 

being 

ourselves (Alarcon 52)

This resilience is what forms the back bone of Latino and Chicano activism. The power to keep their culture despite society telling them to hide it. A huge part of this culture is the language. The poem “Carta a America/Letter to America” is structured in a way that forced the reader to acknowledge the different language and in turn the different cultures present in America. The first column contains the poem translated in Spanish directly next to a second column containing the english translation. Having the Spanish translation presented directly across from the English translation not only allows for a broader audience to enjoy the poems, but forces the reader to acknowledge a presence of two languages. Alarcon is quoted in a 2018 “Transcript From an Interview with Francisco X. Alarcon” saying Latinos “have this connection with the Spanish language, and I want to keep that, to me it’s very important”(Transcript 1). There is a sense of pride both he and many other immigrant families feels in being able to speak another language. Alarcon’s choice in having every poem first being presented in Spanish and then English demonstrates this sense of pride—-putting his native tongue first. For non Spanish speakers who read the poems, they are consistently made aware of the presence of a different language. While this may seem like a waste of ink to some, it may result in curiosity from others which aids in Alarcon’s goal of preserving Chicano culture and language. 

The final stanzas of the poem contain a plea to America from the perspective of the “we’s”. They ask: 

America 

understand 

once and for all —

 

we are

the insides 

of your body 

 

our faces 

reflect 

your future

The ending metaphor compares Chicanos to the inside of Americas body, in a sense making them the organs. We have yet another example of Chicanos being compared to essential parts of life, although the significance of being the “inside of a body” is arguably more important than the previous comparisons of tables and rugs. It is possible to remove some organs without resulting in a fatality to the body, but if one were to remove all their organs they would surely die. This implies that it is impossible to get rid of all the Chicanos and Latinos in the United States. But not only is it impossible, it is unadvised do the serious repercussions it would have on the country; similar to what would happen if you removed all your organs from your body. In a statistics provided by the Census Bureau, it is projected that in “2060 Hispanics will comprise 28.6% of the total population with 119 million Hispanic individuals residing in the United States”(CNN). This sentiment further supports the claim of “our faces/reflect/your/future” (Alarcon 52). By stating the faces of Chicanos “reflect” future of America, Alarcon creates a sense of peace between both groups. Considering the long history of violence between Chicanos and “Americans” the reader gets a sense of relief when reading the last stanza. If the reader so happens to be Chicano or Latino one can only imagine the sense of pride they must feel knowing their presence in America will last for many generations to come. 

Alarcon takes readers on a rollercoaster of emotion stemming from historical oppression, but ultimately leading to a hope ending. He chronologically start the poem of with stanzas that revert back to the history of the United States silencing Chicanos and moves onto how Chicanos are still the targets of hate despite being deemed harmless and in some ways essential through his use of repetition and metaphors. One must not forget that this poem is meant to be a letter as mentioned in the title. This leaves the question, when will it be mailed out? When will America read it? If America does read it will they do something about it or just throw the letter away? Even if the letter doesn’t get read Alarcon makes sure the reader understands that Chicanos keep being themselves and ensure their future in America despite the history of being silenced, beaten, and mistreated. His final statement in the Reading Rockets interview goes as follows “And I think it will be important to open up, you know, the idea of, you know, it’s OK to be American and to be bilingual. It’s OK to be Latino, to be dark-skinned, to speak Spanish as a first language. It’s OK. It’s America. No problem with that”(Transcript 9). Alarcon wants readers to realize despite all the hardships there is immense pride associated with being Chicano in the United State and how they should be proud of who they are. Although he has sadly passed on, his poems will surely keep invoking notions of pride and notions of change for the Chicano community. 

Works Cited

Alarcon, Francisco. Interview by Reading Rockets “Transcript from an Interview with Francisco X. Alarcon” PBS, 27 Nov. 2018 http://www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/alarcon/ transcript. Accessed 6 May. 2019. 

Mendoza, Angel. Campbell, Brendan. Dieste, Tessa. “Rising Hate Drives Latinos and Immigrants into Silence.” Public integrity.org, 22 August. 2018, https:// publicintegrity.org/federal-politics/rising-hate- drives-latinos-and-immigrants-into- silence/. Accessed 6 May. 2019 

Rodriguez, Philip. “Ruben Salzar: Man in the Middle”.PBS.org, 29 April. 2014, http:// www.pbs.org/program/ruben-salazar-man-middle/. Accessed 6 May, 2019

Nittle, Nadra. “History of the Chicano Movement”. ThoughtCo, 21 January. 2019, https:// www.thoughtco.com/chicano-movement-brown-and-proud-2834583. Accessed 6 May. 2019

“Hispanics in the US Fast Facts”.CNN, 6 March. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/20/us/ hispanics-in-the-u-s-/index.html. Accessed 6 May. 2019