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Books Review Gripping explorations of the fraught spaces between Mexico and the US

Citizen Illegal
by Jose Olivarez
(Haymarket Books, £12.99)


ACCORDING to the poet and activist Martin Espada, within the “Latinx” community — people of Latin American origin or descent living in the US or elsewhere in the Anglo world — there is “the open expression of anger and grief, the music of protest, the search for a reflection of one’s face after the mirror is broken.”


That description is certainly evidenced in the fearless writing of young Latino poet Jose Olivarez, the son of Mexican immigrants in Chicago. His stunning debut collection Citizen Illegal delves into the complexities and contradictions that embody life in the difficult spaces between Mexico and the US.


In poems that explore head-on issues of mixed-race identity, ethnicity, gender, class and immigration within the Latinx community, he combines dark humour and sharp social critiques with a potent emotional drive. The book's sections begin with a “Mexican heaven” poem that sets the tone. “all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven./St Peter has their names on the list,/but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list since Ronald Reagan was president.”


That distrust of the US system and mockery of the Trump administration pervades the collection, a political critique defying the prejudices and bias against first and second-generation Latin Americans living in the US.


The poet paints a vivid portrait of a life lived in between spaces, cultures and traditions, from a Latino boy playing in a gentrified barrio to a rebellious adolescent with a strong bond with his mother and grandmother, who share the sense of heritage, the Spanish language and history with him.


Olivarez explores the legal status of the Latinx citizen in the US and poses profound questions about a government that appears more interested in building walls than bridges with its southern neighbour.


In My Family Never Finished Migrating We Just Stopped, Olivarez depicts migration as an ongoing and difficult process, with border crossing a public stage where personal and communal tragedies occur on a daily basis. “we invented cactus. to survive the winters/we created steel. at my dad’s mill/ I saw a man dressed like a Martian/walk straight into the fire. the flames/licked his skin, but like a pet, it never bit him./in the desert, they find our baseball caps,/our empty water bottles, but never our bodies.”


Citizen Illegal is part of the growing exploration in Latin American literature of place, language and identity, providing glimpses of Latinx lives lived in full within rich, growing communities. It's the work of a very promising and exciting new poet.


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