Assimilation as Disappearing Act: José Olivarez's Citizen Illegal
(Haymarket Books, 2018)
Asylum applicant, expellee, exile, desplazado, deportee, non-citizen, refugee, outcast, pariah, displaced, indésirable, undocumented, alien, illegal. All of these names have been employed or invented by international organizations like the UN, as well as by national and state administrations and NGOs, used both to identify the unprotected at a given point in time and in a given context, and also to contain them, by keeping the person at a distance. In circumscribing the movement of people, the language we choose to use may be used against us, limiting our own ability to perceive the person, and perhaps also the state processes which produce the systematic exclusion behind citizenship.
Contesting the designation of these labels does not just endeavor to combat the ensnaring confluence of boundaries between national polities and labor markets, but also legality and illegality, and moreover, the micro, individual, and everyday effects of prejudice and racism that often camouflage or redirect the macro, legal mechanisms and structures at work in the production of “illegal” migrants. José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection, Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018), is a poetic assault on these state and cultural processes that continue to stamp out empathy and humanity within the rise of today’s migratory drift and its management by the state. Olivarez’s critique so often begins with his own self-inquiries, and much of this book can be read as both a theoretical rumination on language-as-discourse and a first-generation coming-of-age lyrical narrative, bookended by two scenes of assimilation-outcry inside River Oaks Mall, a familiar family set piece in which American dreams are window-shopped and tried on, bought and sold, as ersatz as democratic capitalism’s “freedom” to consume.
When we are first taken inside “River Oaks Mall,” Olivarez introduces us to the many ways there are to confess, moving from a grade-school crush to Americanization, the ongoing process of assimilation; assimilation which is always a pose but one that requires disappearance—and yet, he writes: “my family trying so hard to be American/it was transparent.” And yet—behind or underneath the transparency of assimilating are the often unconscious ways in which free citizens of the world dehumanize the people in our communities, a point of contact made clear in Olivarez’s parenthetical repetitions of categorization in the book’s title poem, which begins on its own reorientation of the origin story:
Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)
have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
is the baby more Mexican or American?
place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).
if the mother holds the baby (citizen)
too long, does the baby become illegal?
The citizen, from the birth of the “Declaration of the Rights of the Man” in 1789 through today, only becomes an imagined “we” out of the fiction of the “other”—a fiction reified in non-citizenship, all of those people we object to through our language and the many ways in which they are objectified, too, a point Olivarez seems to suggest when re-staging the migratory passages of his parents in “My Parents Fold Like Luggage”—a poem-as-prayer, and in many ways a response to the biblical Nativity against the starry night sky of the Mexico-US border. Just like any border, Citizen Illegal moves, unfolds, divides itself within a man-uf®actured spectrum of self-loathing and self-lies; an exploration of the many ways we shed ourselves; the many ways we’ve tried to walk, and to walk out of our own skin, all of it shifting without pause from high to low, personal to politics, elegy and comedy—the desire for self-deception, for example, couched within an “Ode to Cheese Fries” and the subtle invitation for readers to repeat the order:
give me everything artificial including cardboard fries,
the bread fresh
out of some Walmart cloning experiment—throw in
a cold pop—
i want a joy so fake it stains my insides &
never fades away
Organized into five sections and interjected with versions of a “Mexican Heaven” as a scene-shift backdrop, Citizen Illegal moves best when it transgresses its own boundaries, moving from overly familiar moments, like the “lights off … /under/ground. under/the influence” of “Ode to Cal City Basement Parties” and towards something unexpected, pliable, unconstrained, as when Olivarez responds to another brutalization by the ICE by becoming wolverine, allowing his claws to come in, replacing “liberation … chit / chat” with rage (“Poem in Which I Become Wolverine”), or when he moves from reimagining his own childhood to re-entering his mother’s (“My Mom Puts On Makeup”): “i am unbraiding our DNA, unknotting our lives …” So much of the trauma of immigration and exile for first-generation citizens involves precisely this kind of reconstitution-as-recitation: our affinity and our ability and our utopic desire for reimagining a home that we can only ever write about; that we can only return in words: the desire only to re-tell the story, to re-live and re-learn the trauma—and yet, to find power in that dislocation; to find conviction in the fact of our betrayal, the splinters left in the body when it breaks open, breaks apart.
Olivarez is keenly aware of the ways in which we, too, other immigrants and children of immigrants, are often implicated in the same structures that hold us down, forcing us to reckon with our own complacency, especially the structure of racism within Latinx/Latinidad communities; nowhere is this more salient than when he frames the sacrificial rites of patriotism against the actual violence of its consecration within a structure of police brutality, militarization, and gun culture; picnics and parades and sports as American as rape and mass murder:
Juan, Lupe, Lorena became American this way,
serving crackers at a picnic while a strange wind
swung through the branches carrying names.
Juan, Lope, Lorena all died yesterday today
& will die again tomorrow
asking Black people to die more quietly,
asking white people not to turn the gun on us.
(“Mexican American Obituary”)
The privilege of passing within a system that reproduces itself through imitation, mimicry, and the disappearing act of assimilation becomes a frequent point of entry for Olivarez’s poetics of interrogation, whether his speaker imagines asking “Jesus/how i got so white” only to have Jesus wonder “the same damn thing” about a cultural blotting out of brown- and blackness (“I Ask Jesus How I Got So White”), or when he methodically sieves “the diversity / in me” from the government brochures announcing “NON-WHITE, HISPANIC or WHITE, HISPANIC, who/my parents call mijo” in the brilliant “Mexican American Disambiguation.” In all of these, Olivarez endeavors to shed skins but also to shed light, focusing on the psychology underneath the racialized and classist social structures of an America articulated in contradictions, where the difference between being ethnic and exotic is measured by more than just a few consonants.
“[Y]ou can take the boy / but the hecky naw stays,” Olivarez declares, pages earlier, “announcing his nation / of origin shame i was / ashamed the first time / i left home …” If this book is a series of dispersals, it is also a re-arrangement of arrivals, as when we return to the primal scene of fatherly love (“Poem to Take the Belt Out of My Dad’s Hands”) or transport back to River Oaks Mall (“River Oaks Mall (Reprise)”), when Olivarez begins the way he ended his initial account: “we were so American it was transparent” but then pushes further, allowing the poem the levity of Selena and french fries—once again—if only to ready the thudded (studded) reality of gentrification and poverty porn, the glorification and exoticization of slumming it, 2018’s reality of a México that “is hip now” and the pawn shop that “charge(s) Mexicans / triple to get in.”
If one purpose or promise of poetry is the reinvention of myth then we need to start by rethinking our own origin stories, the names we use and the ways we are represented and the ways in which we represent our community. Likewise, it is revealing that Olivarez ends his sprawling, startling debut on “Guapo” and its ritualistic observation and exultation of the body: “… it is my new name. it is my old name. / it is my only name.” Behind shame and guilt, behind humiliation and hunger, is the remarkable discovery of the sovereign subject: the celebration of a world without borders, and the self that is endlessly created through our discontinuous migrations.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is the author of seven books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James's The American and Gertrude Stein's “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work appears in American Poetry Review, Ambit, Nat. Brut, Poetry International, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and Life Writing, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and edits PANK and PANK Books. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece, “This body's long (& I'm still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. In 2019, he was awarded a CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institute fellowship to join the Consortium for the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.