by Rigoberto González

Identity is a prevalent theme in Latino poetry1,expressed and negotiated through various emotional registers, depending on the poet’s relationship to an ancestral homeland and to experiences as an ethnic minority in the United States. Over the centuries, understandings of identity have shifted significantly, leading to the nuanced conversations on the subject we now witness in contemporary poetry.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, national movements in Latin American countries mounted successful struggles to wrest independence from Spain in their respective countries. Broadly speaking, the founding of each nation unified populations by appealing to a collective sense of belonging. Official narratives of emancipation, new public institutions, and critical symbols of citizenship such as national flags helped foster a collective national ethos. Nevertheless, nation-building was in many places also predicated on the violent exclusion—tacitly and explicitly— of many sectors of the population, notably Indigenous people and descendants of the African diaspora.

At the same time, this process allowed many Latin American and Caribbean countries to emerge on the global stage, to overturn systems of slavery and exploitation, and to attempt to rewrite their colonial histories—as the example of Haiti powerfully shows. For many members of these new nations,“ home” began to have an identifiable place on the map. Later on, attachments to places of birth, perhaps inevitably, remained strong when Latin Americans, often as exiles, migrants, or refugees, moved to the United States in the twentieth century for various reasons—among them, repression related to the Cold War.

America and América were often positioned as opposing pulls or competing homelands. In the first half of the twentieth century, the inescapable metaphor of the American “melting pot” implied that to assimilate or to claim a fully American identity was to disavow one’s Latin American roots—even as Latinos were frequently perceived as foreigners, outsiders, or somehow mere interlopers in the U.S. In “The Mexico-Texan,” written in the 1930s, Américo Paredes offers a satirical account of seeming to belong nowhere: “In Texas he’s Johnny, in Mexico Juan, / But the Mexico-Texan he no gotta lan’.”

Members of subsequent generations may not possess quite so immediate an attachment to a Latin American homeland as their immigrant forebears felt. They can conceive of identity without privileging one particular identity over the other. The American self and the Latino self, the bordered North and South, the here and there of personhood need not be mutually exclusive, though this doesn’t mean a lack of conflict, confusion, or ambivalence. In the 2010s, writing in the spirit of Paredes’s tongue-in-cheek take on identity, José Olivarez, in his poem “Mexican American Disambiguation,” calls into question the preoccupation on both sides of the border with identity labels, along with skin color, language, citizenship status, class, and nationality:

. . . my mom
was white in México & my dad was mestizo
& after they crossed the border they became
diverse. & minorities. & ethnic. & exotic.
but my parents call themselves mexicanos,
who, again, should not be confused with mexicanos
living in México, those mexicanos might call
my family gringos, which is the word my family calls
white folks & white folks call my parents interracial.

Olivarez’s poem demonstrates how identity is situational at best. Far worse is the application of labels, which are fallible descriptors:  those who subscribe to them, and their claims of intractable characteristics, perpetuate nothing more than stereotypes, generalizations, assumptions, and mischaracterizations. Olivarez’s poem was inspired by Idris Goodwin’s poem “How Idris Became Eddie, and Why It  Matters,” whose speaker catalogues the various permutations, mispronunciations, and questions about his first name over the years in encounters ranging from the curious to the hostile. In the end, such exchanges yield only a superficial knowledge of the person being asked to explain his name, though the poem’s speaker learns plenty about himself. Similarly, “Mexican American Disambiguation” shifts the power from the query to the reply— a response in service not to such rudimentary questions as “Where are you from?,” “What do I call you?,” or “What are you?” but to the complex, mutable terrain of Latino identity that provides the ground for personal journeys.

Those personal journeys, however, are also political, engaging additional dimensions of identity such as gender, sexuality, and race. In contemporary poetry, nationality and American-ness have, for the most part, become secondary concerns in a social justice climate that is invested in reckoning with more pressing issues such as patriarchy, transphobia, homophobia, and anti-Blackness. The poem “Cristo Negro de Portobelo” by Darrel Alejandro Holnes, for example, approaches the latter two themes as a means of re-inscribing Blackness and queerness within Latino identity.

The Black Christ situates the speaker’s ancestry in Panamá (where Holnes was born), home to this wooden sacred statue that the faithful believe is imbued with curative and magical powers. The spiritual healing sought by the poem’s speaker, however, is acceptance within a religion that condemns “what priests / and their laws call unnatural acts”—that is, homosexuality. But just as it’s possible for Blackness to exist within a figure that has been depicted conventionally as white, it’s possible to exist as a gay man within Catholicism. This assertion is an act of rebellion, which the speaker embraces as “my new religion.” Rebellion, the speaker continues, is also “something else romantic and American / like a crownless king, perhaps an immigrant one / atop a throne, in native disguise.”

Latin America, like the U.S., has histories of slavery. The descendants of those once enslaved are as Latin American as the descendants of the colonizers and of the Indigenous populations of the Americas. Within a racialized U.S. context, descendants of enslaved people may call themselves African American; descendants of enslaved people from Latin America who are immigrants (or the children of immigrants) to the U.S. may call themselves Afro-Latino. Holnes’s “crownless king” might evoke the usage of “king” in the Black community to denote royal African ancestry. The “native disguise” perhaps makes reference to the Black Christ’s signature purple tunic, which symbolizes penance and mourning. Like Indigenous peoples, Africans were coerced into adopting Catholicism or were persuaded to convert as a means of survival. Moreover, in this image, we might note a compelling inversion of historical categories and hierarchies. With a hint of irony, in his gesture toward freedom or “something else romantic and American”—as if this were something easily done—the speaker embodies the syncretic image of the Christ, along with the complex and violent histories it encompasses, and in doing so, perhaps empties these categories of their fixed status in order to define himself anew. Undisguised, or undressed— which is how the speaker presents himself at the beginning of the poem—there’s only the Black body as a complete and autonomous entity that does not need to be embedded within a cultural project or supported by any other entity to exist.

The various manifestations of Latino identity imply that much effort has been exerted in disproving “the Latino” as a monolithic entity, so that it is now impossible to arrive at a clear picture of a community whose diverse members nonetheless share an ancestral language, overlapping colonial histories, and a Latin American heritage. Indeed, we should not expect to generalize conclusively or definitively about a heterogeneous group that is dynamic, consistently expanding and changing. In any case, the perception of Latinos from the outside is of little concern to Latino poetry, which has privileged perceptions from within. From the inside, declarations of solidarity, empathy, and political alliance between groups are at the heart of its collective strength and unity. Thus the Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada self-identifies as Latino, a term that others resist because it erases specific ancestries and histories. Espada’s position is as generous and optimistic as the attitude we find expressed in Richard Blanco’s poem “Como Tú / Like You / Like Me.”

Blanco dedicates this poem to “all our nation’s immigrants” but it is addressed particularly to the DREAMers, those young people who arrived as undocumented children, many of whom can only recall living in the U.S. Conferral of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status protects these individuals, as of this writing, from deportation. (“DREAMers” refers to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors [DREAM] Act, legislation that if it were passed would grant them citizenship.) Blanco, the child of Cuban exiles, also had no control over the circumstances that guided his family’s journey into American life: “Como tú, I woke up to / this dream of a country I didn’t choose, that / didn’t choose me— trapped in the nightmare / of its hateful glares.”

By identifying with the DREAMers, the exiled speaker establishes kinship in the experience of displacement and the isolation that comes with the knowledge that one cannot return to the ancestral homeland. Blanco adds a striking element to this narrative, however, when he writes:

Like memory, at times I wish I could erase
the music of my name in Spanish, at times
I cherish it, and despise my other syllables
clashing in English. . . .

The moment addresses the uneasy coexistence of the speaker’s anglicized first name and a Spanish last name, a forced union not unlike the relationship between the DREAMer or exile and the U.S. But there is also here a gesture toward a desire to surrender to a blank-slate beginning, a commitment to a future unencumbered by the past. The unfairness of continuing to face the same obstacles as one’s parents or ancestors did can feel insurmountable. However, Blanco ends the poem on a more redemptive note:

. . . Like thunder,
I’m a foreign-borne cloud that’s drifted here,
I’m lightning, and the balm of rain. Como tú,
our blood rains for the dirty thirst of this land.
Like thirst, like hunger, we ache with the need
to save ourselves, and our country from itself.

“Our country” as a declaration of belonging, of citizenship (though the use of “citizenship” has fallen out of favor in Latino literature due to its denotation of exclusivity), is a radical pronouncement. As is the positioning of those with conditional or (precariously) protected status as the inheritors of the promised land—those who will guide and influence the next ideation of America. So, too, the Latino community, now the largest minority population in the U.S., will exert a consequential impact on the ever-evolving concept of American identity.


1 The authors of the contributions in this Reader have varying preferences in their use of terms referring to people in the U.S. with ancestors in the Western Hemisphere outside the United States and Canada— “Latino,” “Latinx,” and “Latine,” among them. We have left this terminological choice to the discre-tion of the individual authors.— The Editors.

Discussion Questions

1. José Olivarez’s poem details how different labels are applied to people to describe the same thing (“my mom / was white in México & my dad was mestizo / &  after they crossed the border they became / diverse”). Have you ever seen this happen in your own life, or to  people you know? Are such descriptors complementary or contradictory?

2. Identity is often multifaceted, and people often identify simultaneously as members of distinct but overlapping groups. Re-read Darrel Alejandro Holnes’s poem “Cristo Negro de Portobelo.” What particular identities does he affiliate with, and how does he express or explore those identities in the poem?

3. Look at the similes that Richard Blanco uses in “Como Tú / Like You / Like Me,” beginning with “Like a mirror.” What do these similes share in common, and why do you think Blanco chose them when thinking about his own identity and those of “all this nation’s immigrants,” to whom the poem is dedicated?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Julia Alvarez, “All-American Girl”
Gloria Anzaldúa, “To live in the Borderlands means you”
Julia de Burgos, “Puerto Rico está en tí / Puerto Rico Is in You”
Maya Chinchilla, “Central American-American”
Sandra Cisneros, “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me”
Tato Laviera, “Mixturao”
Richard Garcia, “My  Father’s Hands”
Mariposa, “Ode to the Diasporican”
David Tomas Martinez, “The Only Mexican”
Jasminne Mendez, “Machete”
Gabriel Ramirez, “On Realizing I Am Black”
Lola Rodríguez de Tio, “La Borinqueña / The Song of Borinquen”
Brandon Som, “Chino”
Emanuel Xavier, “Madre America”