Esoteric Experiences in Citizen Illegal

In his 2018 collection of poems, Citizen Illegal, author Jose Olivarez 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 and emotions of nostalgia to sorrow. While there is no set character, the poems are meant to either place the reader in the author/Mexican immigrants’ position or simply enlighten identifiable situations. Throughout the poems, readers learn about relations between individual family members, and between Mexican immigrants versus American society. It alludes to esoteric experiences while educating and informing the reader of more than the misconceived notions or what is often portrayed in the media. In particular, his multiple one-stanza poems titled “Mexican Heaven” describe the ideal “heaven”/utopia that consists of both Mexican and American culture. 

Cover of Jose Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal

Although Olivarez himself is not an immigrant, he is the son of immigrant parents, whose experiences outlines some of his poems. His work helps readers understand the untold experiences of Mexican immigrants that no one thinks twice about. 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 experiences. Given today’s political climate with our current president, Olivarez’s work engages readers to learn and understand true experiences told by someone who is knowledgeable about Mexicans immigrating into the U.S.  

Jose Olivarez’s collection of poems, Citizen Illegal, comprises poems that speak to things that are relatable to Mexican immigrants. 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 common misconception of Mexican immigrants is that the men are the hardworking one, while the women stay at home. Although I am not dismissing their effort, it is important to highlight the unofficial work Mexican women partake in. The poem is one stanza comprised of five lines and narrates common 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 word “or” separates the numerous tasks/responsibilities Mexican women have, even though they don’t work at an actual job. The repetition of the word “or” produces the effect of “never-ending”, that the responsibilities Mexican women have are infinite (could go on and on). This goes against the misconception and highlights the unnoticed work of Mexican women.

Additionally, in omitting commas to separate the tasks and using multiple “or”, the poem forces the readers to take their time in reading each task, reflecting the difficulty of each and realizing the domesticity of them. Implementing commas would make the list become fluid and rushed, not allowing for reflection and thought for each task. The repetition of “or” and the omission of commas showcases the jobs of Mexican women as, although domestic, still important. Important enough that the son of immigrant parents noticed as a kid growing up. It conveys that Mexican women are just as hardworking as men, and also contributes to society (misconception that they don’t) by implementing same actions as American women. Further, these devices highlight immigrant Mexican women’s roles and showcases one of the relatable “things” that other Mexican immigrants or children of Mexican immigrants can relate to.




Works Cited

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

One thought on “Esoteric Experiences in Citizen Illegal

  1. I love and admire that you are doing a close reading analysis on poems like myself. Defining the word, Esoteric would be highly helpful in making your close reading points clearer, and allow the readers to understand the connections between Esoteric experiences in relation to Citizen Illegal. You do a great job of explaining the author’s background and its connection to his work as well as the importance of it. We both include lines/images from our chosen poem which is crucial in helping our audience see how it is written and read in terms of punctuation. Lastly, your analysis of punctuation in the poem is very well done and displays the effect and larger meaning of the poem which I also comment on in my poem. Something interesting to incorporate would be pictures from/of the author/ his family as well as what this “Mexican Heaven” looks like.

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