My Perspective as a Poet from the Borderlands

As a poet from the Rio Grande Valley, I write about what I know – which is my family, my culture, the distinctive region I live in, and the borders that surround us. I was eight years old the first time I was taught to be ashamed of my language. Growing up in a household on this side of the frontera, it wasn’t strange for my parents to choose teaching me only Spanish when it was their primary tongue and so common in our community. (Though my now pocha tongue would tell you otherwise.)

I am a Chicana/ Mexican-American from an immigrant family, I’ve lived my entire life in the border deeply immersed in Mexican culture. My parents grew up in America as migrant farmworkers, traveling the nation every year for work opportunities and witnessing firsthand discrimination towards their language and skin color. They experienced the burlas I never have.

I look at the divide between my parents’ upbringing and mine – what I see is how their struggles and experiences are embedded in everything I do. Their storytelling of calloused hands, deportation, and empty food pantries.

I am fortunate to be a part of an artistic family of comadres and compadres in El Valle that embraces the diversity of our borderland voices, acknowledging each other’s endeavors and experiencing how a support system has helped build a foundation that opened doors for our literary and arts community to flourish in the past decade. In my work at McAllen Public Library, I have seen the passion our local librarians and school teachers have for cultivating an environment of preserving our cultures.

Recently, I had the privilege of becoming my city’s poet laureate from 2015-17, an experience that has connected me with a larger audience in my region. I have been visiting schools and community centers spanning the geographic length of the Rio Grande Valley. This role has been a humbling and enlightening experience, allowing me the privilege and opportunity of observing how residents of South Texas experience poetry with writers approaching me from the unlikeliest corners. My community has opened its doors in venues I’d never considered, such as the Mexican Consulate in McAllen, TX. This absolutely thrills me but also has shown me that even in the Valley, there’s a spectrum of literacy we have yet to acknowledge.

After all, how can I consider events I’ve attended and hosted as being an embodiment of ‘border voices’ when our peers from el otro lado haven’t been represented?

In recent years, I have seen a growing number of Mexican, Central and Latin American residents at poetry events here in the Valley. This is due to immigration surges from Central and South America and also because of the closure of cultural centers in Mexico, where our frontera neighbors are facing increased fear and inseguridad. I’ve wondered what encourages them to participate in Valley events, and it is, I believe, because of the power of the spoken word and the Latino literary tradition that runs deep through the spectrum of Latinos with very different life experiences.

I believe these events must be documented by those living it.

Times have changed. It’s been almost five years since the last time I crossed the frontera, and what saddens me most is realizing my nieces and nephews will never know the frontera as I do. Their world only consists of este la’o and they have never met or visited la familia in Mexico.

Not because of a physical border, but that invisible border called fear.

I am from the borderlands of deep South Texas. A place where a wall was built to divide one region from the other – a symbol that confuses me with theories. I jump from skin to shell with my lenguajes – that’s what my borders gave me. Infinite roads of luck and legends and memories.

But to write of life en el otro la’o…to write about life as an immigrant…I could never do that because what I have learned is that all connections I have to those experiences aren’t enough. I have learned I am ignorant and naïve. I have learned that even though I am a writer, sometimes my job is to listen and learn and embrace and support other voices who can authentically tell these stories.