The Vietnam War: The Contrasting Politics of Representations & History

The most accessible narrative of the Vietnam War portrays the American solider heroically fighting the communist super powers of Northern Vietnam. These depictions are drawn predominantly from perspectives of American soldiers and circulate within American popular culture. The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1957 through 1975, followed the aftermath of World War II (Ferry 2). In this period, the French reestablished colonialism in southern Vietnam while communist leader Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north (Ferry 2). Meanwhile 1960s McCarthy age of postwar America sustained a culture of conformity and anxiety towards communism in the United States. In this age of McCarthyism, the U.S. government deemed any act which challenged the preservation of American culture as untrustworthy or inherently communist. Fear in the spread of communism from Southeast Asia prompted U.S. military involvement (Ferry 3). Antiwar movements followed in the late 1960s when a recorded 500,000 plus American soldiers were documented fighting in Vietnam (Ferry 3).

Cartoonist Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do (2017), is a 329 page graphic memoir which documents the detailed history of her family’s escape from Southern Vietnam in the 1970s to their new lives in America. Published by Abrams ComicArt in New York City, Bui narrates the text of the graphic memoir in a poetic fashion alongside engaging illustration. Bui titled the memoir The Best We Could Do, from her perspective as an aging mother and in recognition of the two paternal generations which the timeline of her memoir follows. The structure of the memoir begins from the birth of her first born son, backwards through memories of the war. These memories are shared through the eyes of her siblings being raised in the United States, temporarily displaced in a refugee camp off the shores of Pulau Besar, to Bui’s birthplace in Vietnam. In this timeless story of immigration and the Vietnamese diaspora, Thi Bui examines the importance of identity and the meaning of home.

On the theme of representation, NPR host Mallory Yu’s article “Cartoonist Thi Bui Weaves Together Personal and Political History” (2018) offers a biographical framework for examining how the personal, historical, and political amplify the significance in representation of various Vietnam War narratives. Yu’s report which was aired on All Things Considered offers insight into how Bui found closure in her traumatic past after realizing that she is not responsible for representing all Vietnamese diasporic voices of the war. Published by World Literature Today, scholar and professor Alison Mandaville offers a similar framework for examining the politics of representation within American popular culture in her review of “The Best We Could Do/Saigon Calling: London 1963-75” (2018). Mandaville offers the underrepresented narratives of Vietnamese Americans Thi Bui and Marcelino Truong, who share intimate family and political histories which contrast stereotypes of Vietnamese people illustrated in film, pop culture, and American scholarship. By acknowledging the difference between Bui and Truong’s stories, Mandaville demonstrates the politics behind the absence of contrasting representations of the Vietnam War.

In “Chapter 2: Refugees from War” of the book Vietnamese Immigration (2003), Joe Ferry provides a comprehensive political history of the Vietnam War starting at the end of World War II in the 1940s through the 1990s. In doing so, Ferry successfully outlines and draws connections between the politics of how dominant portrayals of the Vietnam war has potentially impacted U.S. immigration policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ferry’s book was published by Mason Crest Publishers in 2003. Mandaville’s analysis of how Bui and Truong’s distinct and intimate narrations of the Vietnam war illuminates the erasure of Vietnamese diasporic voices and histories in mainstream media. Yu’s interview with Bui, which argues that a singular perspective can never accurately reveal the entire truth of the Vietnam War overlaps with Mandaville’s argument of representation politics. Both of these points inform Joe Ferry’s argument of how poor depictions of Vietnamese people in mass media predicted bias immigration policy of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Throughout her graphic memoir, Bui weaves U.S. anti-immigration rhetoric in scenes of tension to highlight the influence in which discriminatory language inhibits freedom of cultural expression and racial, ethnic, and minority acceptance in the United States. After hastily escaping Sai Gon in an evening on the March of 1987, Bui’s family meets a refugee boat docked in Can Tho. After landing on the shores of Pulau Besar, Bui’s family joins a refugee camp holding “hundreds of thousands…flooding into neighboring countries, seeking asylum” (283). Bui’s family waits in line for their name and picture identification to be registered into the refugee camp before Bui’s mother, who is pregnant, returns from the local Hospital Kuala Terengganu. Central to page 267, Bui inserts photocopied passport-sized images of herself and each of her family members holding plaques which function to generically identify her family among thousands of others by “name, boat number, date of birth, and date of access” (267). While Bui is depicted unintrigued, staring blankly beyond the focus of the camera, Bui’s father also appears unamused with a weathered look in his eyes. Bui’s mother is captured supporting the weight of the youngest of Bui’s sisters on her hip. Surrounding the four images, Bui illustrates rough, impersonal sketches of nineteen other Vietnamese refugees also holding their identity plaques which detail their significance. In cursive print, the center of page 267 reads “We were now BOAT PEOPLE-” with an undertone of defeat simultaneous with acceptance and solidarity (267). Although the text is presented in a style similar to a handwritten letter, the font is in fact computer generated. The personalized appearance of this text resembles traces of official documentation through Bui’s artistic choice to present the text deceivingly hand-written. Bui’s unclear presentation of how she wants this page to be observed is constructed intentionally to provoke the audience to inquire their understanding of what “boat people” connotes. Additionally, which context and sources have informed their preconceived notion of “boat people”.

Located in the bottom right corner of the page, is a textbox which reads “—five among hundreds of refugees flooding into neighboring countries seeking asylum.” (267). The sketches of these faces in the background of the text further suggest how policy and news coverage mutes these individual stories. The most easily accessible narratives of the Vietnam War often portray from the American perspective. These perspectives, which circulate within American popular culture insufficiently document the Vietnamese diaspora. Similarly to the discourse which supports anti-immigration policy, Bui argues even the resources of authority such as the news also part takes in minimizing detailed family histories into simple numbered statistics.

The intimate photographs of Bui’s family in contrast to the rough outlines of other underrepresented Vietnamese personal and political histories work to exemplify the subtle ways in which cultural outlets, such as the news, promote and sustain the dehumanization of immigrant and diasporic communities. In critique of the function of anti-immigration rhetoric, which is to dehumanize, Bui intentionally utilizes the common metaphor of refugees ‘flooding’ into the United States. Similar to the language surrounding disease control and epidemics, ‘flooding’ suggests threatening undertones of what can not be contained and is therefore negative or deviant. In the context of the Vietnamese refugee crisis, ‘flooding’ also works to create an effect of negating the human experience while emphasizing the animalistic. Finally, Bui purposefully juxtaposes the individual portraits of Bui and her family to a common example of anti-immigration terminology such as ‘flooding’ to reveal the ruthless way in which anti-immigration language disregards the countless, undocumented voices within Vietnamese diasporic communities. Through this work, Yu’s argument emphasizes the significance inherent within how representation is narrated. While she asserts that Bui’s voice should not forcefully bear the responsibility of retelling the entire Vietnamese diasporic narrative, the intimate photographs Bui shares at this point on her memoir validates the individual in each recount of their lived experience in the diaspora (2). The narration of Bui’s family properly exemplifies how the voices and lived experiences anyone within the diaspora should have been depicted.

Mandaville’s critique of the media’s role in supporting the erasure of the voices directly relates to Yu’s report, which criticizes the lack of recognition which mainstream American cultures gives to the muted voices of Vietnamese diasporic communities. Before beginning her talk at the San Diego Comic-Con convention, Bui shares with her audience that her narrative represents a singular representation of a national narrative which extends beyond herself (Yu 1-2). Until recognizing this truth, Bui was unable to begin the process towards reconciliation of her family’s traumatic past (2). Both of these scholars indirectly acknowledge the damaging ways in which media simplifies the histories surrounding the Vietnam war. Ferry’s critique in the lack of footage documenting the destruction of “once-lush green countryside” now damaged with “land mines; chemical sprays [which] stripped foliage and vegetation” diverges from the fabricated narrative of the American soldier sacrificing himself for the betterment of Vietnam’s deeply entrenched communist society (4). The enhanced representation of the heroic American soldier in the wake of the degradation of Vietnamese ecology validates Bui’s frustration with the political bias inherent within media representations.

Toward the end of her memoir, Bui introduces a painful memory exemplifying how anti-immigration rhetoric has effectively manifested within the Vietnamese diasporic communities into a dangerous competition of who can deviate farthest from their cultural baggage. Upon arrival into the United States, Bui’s family moves into a two bedroom house with her aunt, her husband, their five children and one dog in Hammond, Indiana. From an impressionable age, Bui sensed the societal pressure to assimilate into American culture. Bui’s older cousins, who “had been in America for three years already”, often scolded Bui for behaving like “such a REFUGEE!” when, for example, she ate cereal out of the box (285). In response, Bui blamed herself for “probably embarrassing” her cousins for their “fresh-off-the-boat appearance” (285). Bui illustrates this page into a set of two larger frames stacked on top of one another. The top half of the page distinctly separates into two smaller frames which portray, Bui and her siblings in contrast to her more experienced and assimilated “American” cousins. Bui and her siblings are illustrated barefoot, in simplistic clothing which does not serve beyond the functional use as a protective layer. In contrast, Bui portrays her older cousins, aunt, and uncle, standing confidently united in the aesthetic appearance of 1970s American fashion.

The metaphor of appearing “fresh-off-the-boat” threatens Bui’s cousin, who has already gauged the sacrifice she is expected to make in order to find comfort in the contrasting binds of American culture. Vietnamese people have historically named themselvesat people”. This title reclaims aspects of the shared refugees experience of escaping Vietnam in boats. The boats provided the Vietnamese refugees a means of survival and an opportunity for escape. Floating for weeks at a time in a wide expanse of ocean water, most families were split apart or never had the opportunity to reach land. Bui foreshadows themes of assimilation and the model minority in this scene when her cousin threatens her for her dress and mannerisms which don’t align with American culture. Boats which were once sought-after for protecting refugees, now represent a discarded narrative as an foreigner subject to alienation. Assimilation now dictates how Bui will craft a home for herself in the United States. Although the boat represents a concrete Vietnamese identity distinguished through war history, the drifting boat also connotes an emotional and physical sense of unidentifiable weightlessness. Despite actions of assimilation, the boat in “boat people” is symbolic of the American identity which Vietnamese refugees will never claim.

While the parallel alignment of these frames appear to highlight difference between Bui and her cousins, the arrangement also foreshadows the insecurity which Bui’s cousin feels towards her threatened “American” identity. After dismissing Bui, Bui’s cousin asks, “at least don’t eat like that in front of my house where everyone can see you!” (285). In this bottom frame, Bui’s cousin projects her insecurities onto Bui in the form of unwarranted aggression. The words of her cousin invoke the fragility in their identities as Vietnamese-American immigrants (285). Similar interactions at school inform self-consciousness in her identity. Bui’s cousin reveals the precarious nature of her American identity when she reprimands Bui for harmless mannerisms such as eating cereal out of the box.

In connection to the work of Bui’s memoir, Mandaville’s critique of the media’s role in supporting the erasure of the voices directly relates to Yu’s report, which criticizes the lack of recognition which mainstream American cultures gives to the muted voices of Vietnamese diasporic communities. Before beginning her talk at the San Diego Comic-Con convention, Bui shares with her audience that her narrative represents a singular representation of a national narrative which extends beyond herself (Yu 1-2). Until recognizing this truth, Bui was unable to begin the process towards reconciliation of her family’s traumatic past (2). Both of these scholars indirectly acknowledge the damaging ways in which media simplifies the histories surrounding the Vietnam war. Ferry’s critique in the lack of footage documenting the destruction of “once-lush green countryside” now damaged with “land mines; chemical sprays [which] stripped foliage and vegetation” diverges from the fabricated narrative of the American soldier sacrificing himself for the betterment of Vietnam’s deeply entrenched communist society (4). The enhanced representation of the heroic American soldier in the wake of the degradation of Vietnamese ecology validates Bui’s frustration with the political bias inherent within media representations.

In reflection of how poor depictions of Vietnamese people in mass media influenced bias immigration policy, Ferry demonstrates the influence of pop culture and wider socio-political movements on U.S. policy. He acknowledges President Lyndon Johnson’s conscious shift to “not seek re-election as president” in response to U.S. antiwar campaigns (3). Ferry’s critique of how poor documentation, or a lack thereof, overlaps with Yu’s critique of how an absence in representation obscures some parts of history while exaggerating others. In the latter half of chapter 2, Ferry recounts the suffering which refugees experienced through generations following the war (5-7). Although Ferry does not outright state how mass media has directly influenced the discriminatory immigration laws of the late 1970s and early 80s, he point out the revealing significance and politics of not documenting history of the “bombs [which] destroyed infrastructure that had delivered electricity, clean drinking water, and sanitary sewage disposal to the population” following the aftermath of the Vietnam war (4). Through this point, Ferry correlates how the removal or leaving out of certain histories reflects a stylized prejudice in documentation.

Through his book, Ferry’s analysis of documentation aligns with Mandaville and Yu’s arguments which highlight the politics and responsibility of representation. Through entertaining Bui’s personal inflictions and “academic grumpiness” toward deconstructing offensive and stereotypical cultural representations of Vietnamese people in graduate school at NYU, Yu discusses how Bui intentionally “weaves the personal, historical, and political” in form of a graphic memoir (4). Yu discusses how Bui consciously decided to promote her voice through the frame work of a graphic memoir, which is the most accessible to a wide audience. The singular narrative of the Vietnam War which the Vietnamese people are bound to by Hollywood blockbusters consistently document the Vietnamese in stigmatized representations. The demonization of the Vietnamese aligns symbolically to the negligence of their continued suffering following the aftermath of the war.

The context of Bui’s memoir in conjunction with the connections between Yu, Ferry, and Mandaville arguments advocate and pioneer for the significance and politics of representation within the sphere of multiculturalism. The connection between how Yu illustrates the specific biographical context of how the process of writing this novel while raising her child supported Bui’s reconciliation of her layered identity relationship with her parents, Ferry, outlines the objective political history of the Vietnam War in contrast to mainstream documentation, and Mandaville outlines major debates of how blind American patriotism sustains ignorant representation of non-American perspectives, provides access points of deeper analysis into the role and responsibility of media in representing history. Points of overlap between Yu and Ferry’s arguments have had the effect of further illustrate the extent to which mass media can impact culture and history. Drawing from the overlap in these three source, the essence of how, which, and what narratives are portrayed in the media carries importance. Mandaville’s point of distributing the knowledge of oral histories draws stronger ties of connection between Yu and Ferry’s argument which both indirectly highlight the importance of documenting history in accessible modes of communication. These congruent points of connection broaden the definition of “false representation” to include also a lack in representation. Additionally, on the point of representation, these sources raise the question of how will media continue to impact history moving forward. How will this influx in influence be monitored? Should it be monitored?

Work Cited

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. Abrams ComicArts, 2018.

Ferry, Joe. “Chapter 2: Refugees from War.” Vietnamese Immigration, Mason Crest Publishers,   2003, pp. 8-14.

Mandaville, Alison. “The Best We Could Do/Saigon Calling: London 1963-75.” Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. World Literature Today, March-April 2018.

Yu, Mallory. “Cartoonist Thi Bui Weaves Together Personal and Political History.” All Things    Considered from NPR, 1 August 2018,     and-political-history


Mexican Heaven: (Untold) Experiences of Mexican Immigrants

Cover of Citizen Illegal and author Jose Olivarez

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)

cartoon taken from

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)

cartoon taken from

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.


Works Cited

Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat : Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, Second Edition, Stanford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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. 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, 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,

Steinkopf-Frank, Hannah. “Chicago Poet Jose Olivarez builds his own world in debut book ‘Citizen Illegal’.” The Chicago Tribune. 11 Sept. 2018, Website, Accessed 4 March 2019.


Vietnamerica & The Artistry of Graphic Memoirs

In my experience, graphic memoirs are some of the most informative mediums of cultural text. The illustration, dialogue, framing and colors within a graphic memoir work in cohesive fashion to intensify patterns, emotions, and narrative themes. I find the artistry of how an author uses these creative tools entertaining and at times more helpful than a traditional novel to read from

In Vietnamerica, GB Tran’s use of color, shading, and spacing within his illustrations work successfully to exaggerate the frustrations GB feels after arriving in Vietnam with his family. On page 49, GB Tran depicts himself annoyed at his mother for coddling him over what to pack for their family trip to Vietnam. The neutral shading in this set of frames consists of neutral blues, blacks and whites. Pacing around his home in New York GB disregards his mother’s sentiments.

In the last frame of the page, GB paints himself engulfed in a chaotic blend of orange and black smoke. Suggesting an out of body experience, GB looks as if he is in an illusion where his head is floating into thin air, above his body. The frame transports the audience in an unfamiliar place which one could assume is Vietnam. Given the expression of his face, it is clear GB recognizes he should have listened to the wisdom of his mother.

On the following page, GB is depicted with spinning wheels for eyes, going mad. The unfamiliar streets of Vietnam are now roaring with trucks, food vendors, children, families, store fronts and exhaust. Within these frames, distinct hues of red and orange direct the gaze of the audience to the communist star depicted near the center of the illustration. Through the overt application of bright orange and reds hues covering communist symbolism, GB suggests the disruptive nature of these frames as resultative of the destructive aftermath of communism.

In these frames GB is stripped of his Western comforts and familiarity back in New York. He is framed in harsh juxtaposition against aspects of the Vietnamese culture he is one generation removed from.

All of his interactions within these frames are short,and dismissive. While trying to purchase Pho from a street vendor, his language capabilities are shattered. Nothing he says or does seems to resonate within this space which his family nostalgically roots themselves. GB depicts himself almost escaping the 2-dimensionality if the page to exaggerate the alienation he feels. There is simply no space for him. The singular illustration symbolic of the American culture he grew up around is the red and yellow McDonalds brand presented in the background of a smaller frame. Even this is drowned out behind an excess collection of dust and exhaust.

Works Cited

Tran, Gia-Bao. Vietnamerica. New York, Random House Inc, 2011.