OpEd: First Draft

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.


Works Cited

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

2 thoughts on “OpEd: First Draft

  1. Dear Scottale,

    I really appreciated your in-depth analysis of the juxtapositions of the Mexican American family dressed in church clothes strolling through the mall (6). I agree that the almost “comical” affect of the image you pull from the poem depicts the narrators conflicting narratives of Mexican and American identity. Although I have not read from Olivarez, I am curios if you could further explore the comparisons and contrasts between Mexican religion and white middle class American mall culture. Maybe further research within these specific emblems of American and Mexican culture could reveal a more personal reflection from Olivarez of the significance of the Mexican American identity.

    I am curious to further analyze the significance of dressing up in order to “blend” into American culture. To me, this connection surfaces stereotypes and hints at larger immigration narratives to assimilate in American culture.To deepen your analysis, I would suggest questioning
    1) How is assimilation illustrated / What are the undertones
    2) What specific characteristics illustrate distinctly Mexican or American culture?

    Hopefully further introspection into how these themes are addressed might deepen your analysis of this poem and others.

    Nice work!

  2. I enjoyed reading your analysis of Olivarez’s conflicting identities. Having his family walk around in their church clothes through a mall where everyone is dressed casually is a powerful use of juxtaposition to express how his two worlds are in constant collision. I would also like to point how the use of repetition supports your analysis of juxtaposition in the last stanza. The main focus of the last two lines are the words “you” and “blend in”. On one hand the speaker addresses “trying to blend in” which is clear reference to his families clothing choices making them stick out in the mall. However, the speaker then says if one must try to blend in “you can never blend in”. This furthers your analysis of these differences “being impossible to ignore” if one can never truly “blend in”. The repetition in the lines parallel Latinos constantly having to remind themselves to “blend in” which means hiding part of their culture. I feel like the use of repetition compliments the use of juxtaposition in making the reader feel stuck and confused, just like the characters in the poems. Near the end of your analysis you dress this question, “can we ever truly blend in” if we must make such an effort to do so? I think this would be an interesting question to try and answer.

Comments are closed.