José Olivarez & The Power of Latinx Collaboration

Last December we caught up with José to talk about the release of his debut book Citizen Illegal. On September 4th José released Citizen Illegal, in which he dives deep “into the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America.” In our latest interview we caught up with José to talk about the release of Citizen Illegal, working with Sentrock on the cover, and the Latinx community. Indulge below and follow Jose on social. 


You co-authored Home Court in 2014. How do you feel your career has shifted leading up to your debut?

That’s a good question. Since Home Court came out I’ve just been continuing to work, study and write. I think the beautiful part about releasing Citizen Illegal is that all of the work I put in over the last fifteen years and leading up to the release has led to the work being received with a lot of generosity. A lot of people are very excited about it so I don’t know about a transformation, but for me, it feels like a progression. It feels like a steady growth.

Before we get into the real meat of the book, let’s break down the cover. You said it was designed by Sentrock?

Yeah, Sentrock was one of a number of artists that were on my dream list to work with for the cover. But he was definitely at the top of that list. Luckily we knew some people in common and they made the introduction. We met up in Pilsen one afternoon to talk about it to see if he’d be interested and he was. He was like, “Yes, send me some poems. I’ve always wanted to do a book cover.” He’s never done a book before. He’s had his work in print and murals, but for him, this was a new challenge and a new way to get his work out into the world. I sent him a packet of poems from the book and that’s how he turned around and made the cover art.


You told the Chicago Tribune that you wanted the cover to reflect the “multiplicity of identities.” Do you feel like it’s done that?

Yeah, absolutely. When I look at the cover, and actually when Sentrock was talking me through what he was trying to do, I see a lot of different elements. In addition to the Willis Tower and the Chicago skyline, you see elements from the desert. You see a Mexican eagle with the snake, you see the character has tattoos and is also wearing a rosary. You have a lot of different images all happening at once and immediately I was like, “This is perfect.”

What’s your favorite visual element of it?

It kind of changes from day to day. Today I’ll say that I really like one of the small details where the character is wearing Nike shoes. That’s a small detail that feels very on point.

A recurring theme in your book is your father’s experience in the steel mills. I know from personal experience in a Mexican household that fathers really are inbred with machismo and the pride of physical labor. Did you ever feel pressure or stigmatized in your decision to become a poet?

Yeah, for a long time I felt worried that my family wouldn’t support my decision to become an artist/poet. I think my fear came from them always pushing me to go to school and to study and become a doctor or lawyer or engineer. But you know, in reality, they’ve been nothing but supportive. Both my parents came to my release party a couple weeks ago and now they even show off. My mom shares all my posts on Facebook and is telling all our family members. It’s been really cool to see that as I give my parents more opportunities to be a part of my work and a bigger part of my life, they’ve really stepped into that. I was always really scared that I’d be a disappointment and that hasn’t been true at all.

You told The Paris Review in an interview that your biggest goal was to create a conversation about your family that was “unashamed,” not wanting to come off as though you were ashamed or embarrassed by where you come from. How did you work through overcoming that?

I overcame it by sharing the work. My parents have the book and my brother’s read the poems. My mom doesn’t speak English. She only speaks, writes and reads in Spanish, but even then I think she gets the point of the poems and I talk her through them. For me, it’s just been about communicating and being open about who I am and how I’ve experienced things and asking them about how they see themselves the book, the work, and the world. And again, giving them opportunities to just really grow and be wonderful. And they are.

One of my favorite poems of yours is “I Walk into the Room and Yell Where the Mexicans At.” It feels very personal, very real, but it also feels kind of lonely. From what place in your life did that stem from?

So I was thinking of this particular night at this particular party where I gave this really great reading and I was feeling great. I had just crushed it and I knew I crushed it. I was having all these great conversations and then this particular person kind of took it upon themselves to remind me that I’m, you know, so lucky to be in the room. That wasn’t the only time that that’s happened so immediately I was thinking about all the ways that I have been lonely but also all of the ways that I have not been lonely. Even in that room, I wasn’t the only Latinx person there even though I was the only one that she was seeing, you know what I mean? There were Latinx people working all over the place. There was plenty of us there, but she didn’t take the time to see anybody else. I was feeling lonely, but also everywhere I went I heard music that reminded me of home. It was this loneliness and then also like this secret community, where everywhere I went I could see and feel at home. I felt that this woman was really trying to put me in my place. I don’t know if she would say it that way, but she was like exerting her power like I should be saying thank you for this opportunity. I come from a working-class family, so I’ve always looked and made sure to acknowledge all the people working an event because I know that events are big productions, and so at the same time I could see over her shoulder that I was not alone. I’m never alone. I’ve been to many different parts of the country and there’s always Mexicans or Latinx people everywhere. It was like trying to write a poem that captured both of those things at the same moment.

In a lot of your poems, Citizen Illegal, for example, your flow is seamless, almost like a tangent. And you note the difference between a Mexican vs. a Mexican living in Mexico. How often do you note these similarities and differences of your Mexican side, your American side, and the bridge between them?

I think when I was younger I felt like those two things were opposed, that I had to always choose a side. But the older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve been worried about that. I kind of feel like I carry both of those things with me at all times. It’s less about which side I choose and it’s been more about how to incorporate everything I love from everywhere. In the writing, I try to play with how fluid identity is. Especially me, I used to think of it as a rigid box with my identities being very solid containers that felt like they were trapping me in some ways. And so learning to see identity as something that is more fluid has allowed me to make healthier choices for myself.

And that definitely shows in your writing. In the instance that you rhymed abogado with avocado, for example. What is your creative process like in that you can make those kinds of connections?

I like to be mischievous in my poems. I’m like very aware of the outside narratives being imposed upon me as a Chicano writer. I know that one of the expectations of Chicano writers is that we’re always writing about the border, we’re always writing about immigration. It’s kind of what the world turns to us for, is our expertise on those particular topics. But that’s such a limiting way of looking at anyone’s experience and identity. I try to be mischievous in that a poem that maybe starts with those ideas can end somewhere else entirely. When I think about the way politics impacts my life, it’s never very neat. It’s not just that a policy decision has physical consequences for me, but I have to carry that emotional weight of seeing the news and seeing that children are being separated from their parents. That carries a toll. So in my writing, I try to find ways to subvert those expectations and surprise the reader and myself with how much can be talked about.

In our last interview, you said you wanted your book to be something that could’ve helped you heal in your early twenties. Do you feel like you’ve done that for your readers?

I don’t know! To me, that’s a question you’d have to ask the readers of the book. It’s certainly something that I feel proud of. It’s something that the young people in my life that I’ve given the book to, and when I’ve done readings to teenagers, are really excited about. I’m going to get the chance to speak to a few different high schools coming up in the next few months, so that’s something that I’m really excited for. I think that I’ve been pretty successful, but you’d have to ask them.

While the book showcases your experience as a first-gen Mexican-American, how do you want non-People of Color to receive the book?

I don’t know, I’m not really particularly worried about that. Non-People of Color have tons of books written for them and about them. If they pick up my book and decide it’s not for them, then that’s okay. And if they pick up the book and decide they do like it, then that’s great too. The book is about people, it’s about relationships. I think there are entrances for everyone. But if it’s not for some people, then that’s okay.

Your abuelita was a very important woman in your life from what you tell in the book. If you could read her a poem from your success, which would you want her to hear?

[moment of silence] This is my dad’s mother, my Abuelita Jacinta. She passed away probably as I was in the middle of working on the book. There was the immediate grief afterward, but what I found was that there were continued moments of grief. I would see something, walking around New York City or Chicago, and then I would feel the grief of her passing away once again. I tried to honor that in the book by, you know, she’s visiting a bunch of the poems. I don’t know that I’d read her one but I definitely wish I could sit with her and read her all the poems.

You’re about to embark on your book tour, the “Gentefication World Tour.” By spreading the news of your book and your experiences, how do you want to contribute to the revolution that will hopefully change injustices in Chicago?

That’s a good question. What I’m hoping is to be a part of the moment that we’re in where people are imagining different possibilities for what the City of Chicago can look like. I don’t think that’s just my job, but I think it’s our collective responsibility to try to do better than what we have right now because I think we can. I think it’s possible. I think already there’ve been a number of victories in the last month or so. Rahm Emanuel announced he was not running for another term on the day that my book came out so that was like a happy coincidence. He didn’t make that choice just because he felt like quitting. He knew that he was gonna lose, he knew he couldn’t win that fight. Already we’re seeing people’s organizing and imaginative powers resulting in victories. I think we have to continue to imagine. Now that we have Rahm out of office, we have to decide what else we want. If not Rahm, then who else? And not just at the mayor’s position but who do we want to represent us and help us forward? How are we going to hold those people accountable so that they make Chicago as equitable and just as possible?

Focusing on the Latinx community within that, how important do you think support in that community is, especially in the creative fields like poetry writing, where competition is such a driving factor?

What I’ve found is that collaboration and community are the driving factors. That’s something that has been hugely important. I think all of us understand that it doesn’t help us to have one person be the voice of our community. Actually, there are a million different stories from our neighborhoods and from our communities that we need to tell. We can hold each other up and support one another. Right now, particularly in the Latinx community and particularly here in Chicago, it’s a really beautiful moment. In the poetry world, there’s my book, but there’s also Jacob Saenz’ book, Throwing the Crown, which is really incredible. He’s from Cicero. There’s Julian Randall who’s a Dominican poet from Logan Square. Erika L. Sánchez from Cicero, her book, Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for like eight weeks in a row. And that’s just in poetry. In the visual arts world, there are huge numbers of people making really incredible work, like taking the images and iconography of the past and reinventing them and recreating them and adding to those lists. For me, it’s less about competition and more about celebrating this moment of genius and community that we’re in.

And you’ll definitely be seeing that in your co-editing with BreakBeat Poets. Tell us about that.

Yes! My next project is helping to edit this anthology which is going to be called The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. It’s going to showcase 70+ poets and writers from around the country that are writing in conversation with hip-hop and thinking about hip-hop aesthetics in their writing. I’m really excited! I’m imagining that it’ll be a meeting point for some of our major writers like Willie Perdomo, who’s helping edit the book along with Felicia Chavez, and some emerging writers where this will be one of their first handful of publications. I think you’ll see a vision for the future along with a representation of a rich heritage as Latinx writers and creators.

Within Latinx poetry, yours and that of today’s young poets, how do you think it’ll change and evolve in the next few years?

I’m really excited. I can’t wait to see how it’ll change and evolve. I think about the lineage of poets that I’m building my work on. I don’t know how they’ll move and shift and change things but I’m excited to cheer them on as they go about doing those things.

Written by: Andrea Carrillo