ESL or You Weren't Here
In their debut collection of poems, Pinoy writer and visual artist Aldrin Valdez conjures a constellation of identity through the remnants. Memories, photographs, letters, transcriptions, artworks, and pop culture references cleave to reconcile the joy and trauma inherent in a duplicitous, multi-hyphenate world. Valdez's recollections of a childhood in the Philippines—a country to which they have not yet returned—are in contrast with a sudden move to New York City in 1994 that reunited them with their birth parents. ESL or You Weren't Here presents a portrait of their journey to awakening: they are American; they are Pinoy. They are gendered and non-gendered; a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, queer "bakla" all at the same time. The 27 multi-chaptered poems depict this tender, heart breaking, deeply intimate, open and satisfyingly sweet journey.
Valdez, whose painted, drawn, and collaged visual compositions often explore notions of displacement and diaspora, resists easy categorization. Throughout the book, the poems mimic this visual practice with words that dance across the page like an artist making marks on canvas or an illustrator testing a new pen. They deftly switch between Tagalog and English, using language as a tool that both excludes and welcomes others to the intimacy of each memory-based vignette. Language—its absence and presence—becomes a coded shorthand for loneliness and longing. Sentiments that get lost in the back-and-forth toggle of translation allow the colonizer and colonized to stand on level ground.
Divided into three sections, named in Tagalog, the book begins with a metaphor likening learning English to the story of Maria Makiling, the folkloric guardian spirit of the natural world who turned herself into a mountain to guard against a natural disaster. Early on, Valdez's family fractures: their birth parents travel to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream, leaving Valdez and their siblings behind in the care of the grandparents. As a child without the language to process the profound sadness and confusion of their parents leaving, Valdez leans into the comfort and safety of the grandparents who now serve as "mother" and "father" ("Nanay" and "Tatay"), particularly Nanay, who becomes the focus of their young world.
The process of schooling creates a huge dissonance for the young Valdez, underscoring the dualities of life: language and gender. In "Blue Bakla," a snapshot of Nanay taking them to school, they write:
I don't want to be so visible in school.
I can't speak English and reading frustrates me.
I am learning at a slow pace.
Like Maria Makiling
into a mountain.
I am learning to speak
as drawing :
in the air,
Sections within the poem portray Valdez as a shy youth, mispronouncing English words and mixing up their meanings, struggling to memorize Catholic rituals and texts they learn at school, and joyfully loving their best friend, another little boy called Christopher, through innocent intimacies and pop songs.
"Dalawa" finds Valdez adjusting to life on Long Island after their birth mother returned to retrieve them. Navigating the double consciousness of dual language, identity, and culture co-mingles with a crushing need for safety and protection to prevent collapsing into self-withdrawal and isolation. In just a few short months, Valdez learns Nanay has succumbed to cancer: "It's a Friday when she's gone. / In Manila, her leaving is faster: 12 hours into Saturday— / in New York, does that mean she's still alive?" But Valdez carries forth, going to school and living life as if nothing has changed, unable to process the grief of this loss. From the title poem, they write: "Brittany I say. It's Monday, her curls beautiful & American. / We're in the playground wearing puffy jackets. / Pebbles scatter on asphalt. / My grandmother just died. / She doesn't believe me. / Says why are you in school then if she died." Illustrating the ways their physical duality, with a family separated by culture and geography, further isolates them.
In "SHUFFLED SLIDES OF A CHANGING PAINTING," the last poem in the collection, the speaker begins reconciliation, learning to embrace their queerness, Pinoy-ness, and in-between-ness in earnest. In the section titled "6." they write:
And so the projections continued. I tried not to scold
my childself. Unruly as they are (they,
because there was no he or she yet,
at least not in the Tagalog words I spoke)
shaking the shadows for a familiar body, changing you
from someone I could get to know
"67.," a meditation on the decision to begin pronouncing their name again as it sounds in Tagalog rather than English, they announce, "I roll the R now when I say my name / it's like I'm biting on pearls apologetically." The sections comprising the poem take inspiration from Robert Gober's Slides of a Changing Painting (1982-83), in which the artist photographed a canvas repeatedly and created a slideshow of the images as a new artwork. Valdez's textual "slides" are not sequential, although their ideas softly bleed into the next like Gober's self-described "memoir of a painting," giving the appearance of ordered logic, following a process over time. Through the jumbled sequencing, Valdez highlights the shiftiness of memory to revel in the tender places along the path of change. Like Nanay in the opening poem, "Tagalog," Valdez is finally going home.
ESL or You Weren't Here is a meditation on what it means to be whole. Through raw, open, vulnerable prose, Valdez generously allows readers to experience their process of learning to know oneself as a home. Whether trauma is resolved or its impact remains a wound, ESL or You Weren't Here affirms that our index of experiences begins and ends with hope.