The Intimacy of Family, Home, and Identity in
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
Reviewed by Valorie K. Ruiz
It takes a focused introspection, awareness, and openness to capture what it’s like to exist within the intersection of multiple identities. José Olivarez’ Citizen Illegal, published by Haymarket Books, is one of those debut collections that feel authentic and confident in its willingness to be so much itself. Citizen Illegal is composed of five sections that seamlessly build a narrative focused on the identity of the speaker.
In the first section, the opening poem titled “Citizen Illegal” functions as somewhat of a prologue foreshadowing a collection that shares what it means to live in the borderlands as a Mexican-American, how this identity is further complicated by lighter skin, and the guilt that one can feel when it comes to sharing these oppressions in English.
Section two and three familiarizes us with the setting: his home, family life, Chicago, and how these settings change as we see the speaker change. In these sections we witness the joy found within the speaker’s environment through odes such as “Ode to Cheese Fries.” This poem drops the reader into a restaurant that serves cheese fries so good, we’re alright with its artificial ingredients. In “Ode to Cal City Basement Parties” we learn more about Cal City and begin to see the landscape change as the speaker shares their journey of falling in and out of love with the city. Through José’s illustration of landscape we see more than just the joys.
In “The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted Into Grad School” we are introduced to the speaker’s multiple conflicts: the family celebration of graduate school acceptances, and how these accomplishments are weighed down by financial instability. Another example where the speaker is confronted with a challenge is in the poem, “I Tried to Be a Good Mexican Son” which illustrates a son who is eager to make his parents proud, and how this expectation is further complicated by his culture. In addition, the author lets us feel the disappointment that comes with failure. The third section is where we carry the heaviness of being ‘othered’ and the longing that comes with always seeking people who share similar experiences.
Throughout the book, particularly in the middle of the collection, the series “Mexican Heaven” threads the book’s themes together. In the series, each poem is disconnected from the narrator and each piece opens with a new myth, as it shares the stories of various characters such as: Saint Peter, Jesús, and Pedro. These characters become a facet of the speaker. Not only do they build the personal narrative of the “I” in the surrounding pieces, but they share a beauty of Mexican culture that is domestic and undervalued. However, the characters are never afraid to acknowledge the smallest of beauties: music, pozole, and Virgen tattoos. What I especially appreciate about José’s work is his ability to organize and narrate poems that amplify each other.
The opening poem on page twenty-eight shares a view of heaven that feels limited and specific to the speaker who identifies as Mexican-American stating, “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 where they might be allowed in / if they work hard enough.” In this, we see the struggle of working a demanding and undervalued job (even in heaven) and the sense that there is a reward if one were only to work harder. This poem calls us as readers to acknowledge the extended amount of labor the Latinx community must work to achieve even a limited dream.
We see further acknowledgment of labor by the speaker in the poem “The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted to Grad School.” José illustrates what it means to hold, achieve, and the aftermath of accessing one’s ‘American Dream’ when he states: “when he graduated from college, he threw/ his cap into the sky & it fluttered like a bird/ with a broken wing. when it landed, my brother/ was still broke & unemployed.” The fluttering of a bird with a broken wing is an image that pushes the need to exist and succeed in white America, specifically in academia. While the middle section of a book can often be a point of reflection or slower movement, this book surprises readers by taking what we have learned (about feeling ‘othered’ and the challenges of balancing two identities) to show us how this can alter the way we move through college and adulthood.
The closing poem of the third section “Mexican American Disambiguation” reinforces the speaker’s constant unpacking of his identity. We see the stories of his family, his own experiences, and how the identities they hold might have carried privilege at one point even if that seems far from the present reality. This poem calls itself out within the first few lines: “i am a Chicano from Chicago/ which means i am a Mexican American/ with a fancy college degree & a few tattoos.” In knowing this we trust the speaker and the awareness he carries. Fast forward about fourteen lines and we see the speaker’s awareness of his parents as “diverse. & minorities. & ethnic. & exotic. here, in Chicago, even if at home they might have been called gringos”. This poem is a complete “disambiguation” in that it challenges colorism within Mexican and Latinx culture, exploring undocumented individuals as being “royally fucked”, and explains the struggle of first generation children to be “constantly fighting” to be “upwardly mobile”. By the end of the poem on page forty-two, we as readers walk away sensing what it means to be seen as a diverse token and how this translates into a constant fight to prove oneself.
The final two sections deal heavily with ‘home’, what it means to leave home, what it means to return, and how we learn to make home in the space where our feet stand. A poem that stood out to me in the fourth section that truly captures the essence of this book is “My Family Never Finished Migrating We Just Stopped”. By the fourth section we understand the internalized split the speaker feels with his identity. It is a common theme the speaker grapples in most of the poems. But it is here that the book seems to come to a resolution: the idea that home is a feeling or an effort, stating: “they build a sanctuary underneath the sand,/ under the skin we shed, so we can wear/ the desert like a cobija, under the bones/ of our loved ones, bones worn thin/ as thorns to terrorize blue agents.” We see that home is in the fight, or that home is in night under sand and skin.
José Olivarez is unafraid to make a poem both focused, and expansive. He is skilled in taking larger moments and emotions in order to bring them back to the intimacy of family. This collection is a gut-punching debut and there are countless more poems worth mentioning, but I think the experience of reading from start to finish is part of what makes this book powerful.
Contributing Writer’s Bio:
Valorie K. Ruiz is a Xicana writer fascinated by language and the magic it evokes. She currently lives in San Diego where she spends most of her days consuming carne asada french fries.