I Have Always Been Here: Poems. Christopher Carmona. Otras Voces Publishing, December 2013. $10.00.
Review by Katherine Hoerth.
The word “Chican@” is often associated with being an immigrant, a foreigner, an outsider in the United States. Since the 1960s, however, writers and scholars such as Alurista, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Lorna Dee Cervantes have resisted this notion through their works, retelling history, reviving mythologies, and giving voice to the peoples native to what we would now call the American Southwest.
In his second collection of poetry, I Have Always Been Here, Christopher Carmona, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Brownsville, furthers this conversation. He challenges the conception of the Chican@ as immigrant, draws connections between Chican@s and Native Americans, reconstructs history through the lens of the “conquered,” and ultimately strives to broaden the definition of what it means to be a Chican@ in America today. Through a seamless mixing of poetry and prose, of languages, of cultures, Carmona reminds his readers that borders are malleable, “that bridges can be / crossed both ways,” that the “only thing stopping us is the belief that we can’t.”
Early on in the collection, the speaker sets out to retell history through verse, legends, and personal experiences. In the poem “café tsisdu,” (café is Spanish for “brown” and tsisdu Cherokee for “rabbit”) we see these mixing of heritages, of establishing roots. It is also interesting to note that Carmona chooses not to separate languages with the use of italics, perhaps allowing the languages, like cultures, to mix and blend into one another. The poem unfolds with a series of questions that make the reader rethink the perspectives from which history is often told: “are you running to tell us … about blue coats, silver guns, and promises carried on slippery / breath?” “are you running so that i may follow / … chased by conquistadors slinging scimitars,” “or were you hunted by vaqueros with lassos é pistoles making / fences with teeth?”
The poem “on the day i was born” functions in a similar way, though it weaves in Aztec mythology, history, and familial experiences. The poem begins:
on the day i was born
the angels came to plant my soul
but Coyolxauhqui got there first
and cried a tear into my ear
so that i would always dream in verse
Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec goddess of dreamers and poets, becomes a symbol for the speaker’s own awakening, his cultural awareness. The poem continues, gains intensity, by repeating the refrain “on the day i was born,” weaving in the personal and the communal histories of peoples: “my mother took me in her arms / and spoke my name for the first time,” a deeply personal moment, is juxtaposed against images of “thousands of Indias” who “had their wombs / stolen by the icy metallic hands of genocide.” As readers we see how the speaker is born into this mixture of beauty and ugliness, inheriting his cultural history, the wounds that come with it. The poem ends with a cry, essentially letting readers know the reason for its (the poem’s, the book’s, and perhaps even the speaker’s) existence:
on the day i was born
i cried for the first time
and have never stopped since.
He will tell his story and be heard.
Place, the land itself, also contributes to the cultural awareness that Carmona works towards in his collection. Many of the prose pieces depict growing up “deep in the nutsack of Texas” with vivid details of everything from the smells of “grapefruit orchards … fresh cut grass … backyard barbeques in concrete pits” to nostalgic images of nopales, or cacti, with their “prickly spines and quiet demeanor” that were important and sacred to the speaker’s ancestors, “used for … tequila, clothing, and water.” Through these pieces, readers are made familiar with the landscape, the cultures, the languages.
The real absurdity, then, is how the speaker begins to be treated an outsider, an immigrant, a trespasser. The poem “check | point” for example, depicts the speaker at a border patrol checkpoint, questioning his own identity with Gloria Anzaldúa, the poet and theorist who grew up in the same region as Carmona, in the backseat. In “23 steps,” readers are put into the position of Other, forced to “wear my difference on my skin” as, step by step, we walk in the speaker’s shoes through a dark alley at night opposite a woman with skin that “almost glows in the streetlight” and “golden blond hair.”
One of the book’s strengths is how it builds connections between peoples instead of drawing boundaries. In “reverse colonization” the speaker begins by stating “i am not Native but / we are cousins” and goes on to explore, through sharp imagery, what that connection looks like, from a curandera great-grandmother who carried cures and remedies in her pockets “stitched together with love, stories and weathered / fingers” to a Catholic mother with “service in English guilt in Spanish / and an altar kept on the dresser” to a grandmother who came from “deep in the heart of Yaqui lands.”
The speaker blurs labels, spewing them out one after another until they are almost meaningless: “Chican@ Mejicas Indi@s Spanish Ingles Tsalagi … American / mixedblood mestizo Spanish” and so on. He goes on to say, “mi cara es tu cara mi lengua es tu lengua / mi color es tu color” and repeats it in English. The poem ends with an offering, calling for readers to:
remember that bridges connect
we can tear down fences
and start trading chiclets for fry bread.
And that’s what Carmona’s book adds to this conversation. Sure, other Chican@ poets have resisted the image of the Chican@ as an immigrant, but I Have Always Been Here is unique in that it calls for a building of bridges between Native peoples, draws on similarities, what we all have in common. It does this with grace, mixing mythologies, cultural images, languages and even labels, until we see just how malleable and subjective this life is.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of a poetry collection, The Garden Uprooted (Slough Press, 2012). Her work has been published in journals such as Pleiades, Rattle, and Front Porch. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas Pan American. Visit her online here.