by Vincent Toro

When teaching poetry, I try to guide my students to move beyond identifying some purported “message” of a given poem and instead unpack what work a poem is doing: to consider the inner workings of its operating system, the ways it impacts its reader, and how it builds from and contributes to the cultures and communities from and where it was written.

So let’s ask ourselves: What work is Latinx poetry  doing? Mythmaking is one possible response. Myths themselves perform important work for the cultures and communities where they are born and in which they circulate. Myths, in the form of folktales and leyendas (legends) created and shared within a given community, help make sense of the world, pass on necessary knowledge for survival, imprint cultural values and mores, elevate our daily lives beyond the mundane, and examine history beyond the surface of names and dates. Myths can also help us understand our interconnectedness with nature and in this way heighten our sense of responsibility for the land’s stewardship and care. Given our current ecological crisis, this function of mythmaking becomes all the more urgent and all the more precarious. Contemporary mythmaking might also seek to preserve and at the same time mourn landscapes, species, and traditional forms of caring for the land at risk of extinction.

“Telling folktales in Latin American societies,” writes Rafael Ocasio, “is a popular activity that informally teaches and allows one to ‘make sense of the world  people could not control, to reinforce traditions, and to pass along wisdoms.’ ”1 For Latinx people, mythmaking is an act of making sense of our situation as colonial subjects and bodies othered by forms of racialized oppression. Colonialism, racism, and patriarchy are systems that, in their exploitation of the land and people alike, can seem impossible to overcome. But perhaps through the work of mythmaking and (re)telling our myths, we can attempt to understand the forces behind these systems and imagine how we might liberate ourselves from them.

Let’s look at how three Latinx poets go about myth-building.

The Chicano visual artist David Gonzalez once told me how when he was in elementary school in South Texas, he and his compadres would go behind the school to eat their lunches out of sight because some white classmates would bully them if they saw them eating tacos. This might seem difficult to believe or even understand these days porque now everyone loves Mexican food, right? But back when David was still in school (and even now in some places), any sign that one was different—from a person’s skin to their clothes to their accent, or even the food they eat—was (is) perceived as a threat by the culture of the oppressor. This pushed (and pushes) many Latinx people, and other people of color, to feel a pressure to assimilate, to try to speak, behave, and look like the oppressor, or to at least try to keep one’s markers of difference cloaked.

Juan Bruce-Novoa has addressed this problematic choice Latinx people face between assimilation and preservation of the ancestral homeland. Accepting the ultimatum to assimilate to the oppressor’s culture may result in limited material gains, but at the cost of surrendering one’s identity and connections to one’s community. However, Latinx communities have forged ways of resisting assimilation by endeavoring to preserve the cultures of their homelands through rite and ritual. Bruce-Novoa writes that

the sacred circle of tribal culture becomes the ethnic circle of defensive isolation from the surrounding dominant culture. Rituals from the homeland become the talisman of authenticity, relics of the “true” culture, and eventually the foundation blocks—altar/corner stones—of the new-old culture. The implication is that a community can remain spiritually within its original space, uncontaminated by evil outsiders, by repeating the origin rituals as practiced in the homeland.2

This, in part, is how Latinx  people have thwarted attempts by others to render us invisible. By turning our ways into myth and legend through song, poetry, and storytelling, we preserve and elevate our cultures while neutralizing attempts to diminish or erase our histories and practices. Poems like Natalie Diaz’s “Tortilla Smoke: A Genesis” do this kind of work for us. Here, the basis for mythmaking is the act of making, sharing, and consuming tortillas.

Indeed, Diaz, who identifies as both Mojave and Latinx and is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, has observed: “Even though most people use the word ‘myth’ to speak of our tribal stories, we see them as truth. So, for me, myth has always been the truest truth. The word ‘history’ on the other hand, we question.”  Here, the work of mythmaking also becomes a form of record-keeping that questions dominant narratives that do not, and cannot, encompass the histories of oppressed peoples.

The poem opens thus with that most quintessential of creation-myth phrases, “In the beginning,” and concludes its first stanza with “and they were good,” evoking the language and structure found in the opening of the Bible’s book of Genesis. Here, the tortilla transcends being mere food and becomes “a fleet of prairie schooners / sailing a flat black sky,” “bright tribes” and “merry-go-rounds” that multiply to feed the world.

Throughout the poem, Diaz likens the making of tortillas to a spiritual ritual, referencing the Holy Spirit, saints, and prayers when describing tortillas being created and consumed. The poem offers a syncretic vision of the universe in its blending of Catholicism—hostias, misas, the Virgin Mary—with corn, central to many belief systems throughout the Americas, from the Maize God of the Mayas to the Corn Mother of the Pueblo, Cherokee, and many other North American tribes. But the poem also interweaves the sacred with the profane in surprising and irreverent phrases such as “to toke and be token,” where the tortilla God rolls up the  people “como porros” (like joints) as they are “lit up luminous with Holy Spirit.” While they remain steeped in reverence and wonder, there is a subversiveness to the unlikely scenarios the poem proposes. Yet this melding of the humorous with the holy, which incorporates the rite into the space of the colloquial, is not entirely dissimilar to the ways Christianity (primarily Catholicism) has been re-ritualized throughout the colonized world. Indeed, syncretism marked the response by colonized peoples to Western religions used to violently assimilate them. Syncretic aesthetic and spiritual forms are evidence of Indigenous peoples incorporating Christian elements into their own cultures and making Christian symbols their own: a creative form of resistance (and survival) in the face of cultural erasure.

As the tortilla multiplies and travels the world it ends up spanning time, connecting generations, and transcending space, “gathering rocks, size, lemon / trees, Joshua trees, creosotes, size, spray-painted / blue bicycles rusting in gardens.” The mythical tortillas descend into people’s homes, slowly leaving behind “bits and pieces of finger-sticky dough.”  We’re offered glimmers of the starker social realities in which the poem is steeped: the grandpas in white undershirts and the “cancers whittling their organs like thorns,” a line that also resonates with the earlier allusion to San Peregrino, patron of all those suffering from cancer, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses.

In this cyclone-like time warp, the everyday is projected onto the space of the mythical—or vice versa. Indeed, the poem proposes a kind of cosmological inversion, where the social ritual of tortilla-making, which reflects a sophisticated cultural technology—the masa out of which tortillas are made having undergone the complex ancient Mesoamerican  process of nixtamalization that makes the corn’s nutrients easier to absorb—becomes the “natural” or “original” element at the source of myth: the “light” that is “shaved from its cob.” It’s almost as if the poem were proposing that ritual precedes myth or metaphor. Here, ritual becomes instead a tangible cultural practice that is in tune with the earth and the sustenance it provides.

In the poem’s final stanzas, grandmothers return from mass to continue their prayers by making more tortillas for the world to enjoy, only to awake as if from a dream and “realize frogs haven’t had tails in ages” (a reference to the rhyme used to console children: sana sana colita de rana) and ascend, once more, on “round white magic carpets and tortilla smoke,” returning to “the end that is the beginning” of the poem.

Via its circular structure, Diaz’s poem evokes ritual’s life-preserving potential against the forces of entropy and erasure. Ritual is framed as a self-perpetuating cycle, like the cycles of biological life and of natural regeneration, promising sustenance and harmony between the natural and the cultural orders. Moreover, tortilla-making, in the poem’s cosmological reordering, precedes not only colonization but also, in some sense, culture itself. In this way, it allows Native and Latinx people to survive the difficulties that the colonial apparatus places on them, or to metaphorically exist outside of them in perpetuity. The poem thus offers the possibility to carve a space in which historical conditions can be transcended by offering an alternate version of the beginning of the world that can project itself into the past as well as the future.

Monsters and super natural beings are familiar elements of myths, legends, and folklore. Often shocking or spectacular and uncanny, such figures are invariably symbols or  metaphors. Latinx legends and myths (El Chupacabra, La Llorona, and El Cuco) represent aspects of our diverse identities and sometimes painfully complicated histories, as does La Ciguapa, the titular star of Elizabeth Acevedo’s poem.

The poem’s foundational anaphora (repeated phrase) “they say” establishes the tone of a leyenda (legend) and speaks to how folklore spreads through oral (re)tellings as amusing anecdote, grassroots performances, and bochinche (gossip or rumor). With each “they say” we are offered new, sometimes differing accounts about La Ciguapa; each (re)telling of the La Ciguapa legend becomes a new attempt to “make sense of the world people could not control.” She is formed and transformed into a multitude of metaphors that contend with issues of gender, race, and colonialism particular to the Dominican Republic, as Ginetta E. B. Candelario articulates in her essay “La ciguapa y el ciguapeo: Dominican Myth,  Metaphor, and Method”:

With backward-pointing feet offering a built-in mechanism for misleading those who follow, pursue, or attempt to grasp her, the ciguapa signals that Dominican social facts are often two opposite things at once, progreso (progress) and regreso (return), a con/tradición (contradiction within tradition) and contra/dición (against and  counter diction).3

La Ciguapa represents the marginalized Indigenous and African presence on the island, and the poem devoted to her is a reclaiming and re-envisioning of the leyenda, making references to stories that overlap but are not always aligned with one another. La Ciguapa is said to have been born on Hispaniola’s highest mountain (El Pico Duarte) as if made of the island itself: “crane legs, saltwater crocodile scales.” But other tales recount her having been “made on one of  those ships”—slave ships—and offered for sale (though no one will buy her) on “the auction / block.” In this way, Acevedo places the myth at the heart of the island’s complex history as the first place in the Americas where enslaved people  were brought and sold. La Ciguapa seems to emerge out of the dark clash between the landscape, “an egg made of ocean,” and the colonial violence that violently transfigured it and its peoples.

Moreover, Acevedo’s poem centers La Ciguapa’s elusive nature, how she has killed the men who have relentlessly pursued her: “They follow her none word sing-song / and try to climb her, tall and dark and rough as sugarcane / and don’t know  until they’re whittled down how they’ve scraped / themselves dead.” In her fatal magic, La Ciguapa is a symbol not only of historical trauma, out of which she seems to have sprung “entirely formed,” but also of  resistance. She is one of the “sacred monsters” whom the poem’s speaker claims is falling into oblivion; against this forgetting, the poem revivifies the myth and, perhaps tacitly, the spirit of rebellion and liberation invoked by her refusal to be tamed and by her “long cry” and “burning hair.”

We have seen how Latinx poets perform mythmaking with ritual and through the (re)invention of fantastic beings. With this last poem, let’s consider how Latinx poetry can utilize the fuerza of myth in writing about place and environmental crisis.

“Sonata of the Luminous Lagoon” is a tale about the island of Puerto Rico. In the Nuyorican tradition from which I write, Puerto Rico has readily been idealized in epic fashion. Many Puerto Ricans born on the mainland (myself included) can feel rejected in the United States, which then sparks in us feelings of longing for the island that we only have a peripheral relationship with. This, in turn, can provoke the urge to idealize the island. Much of my first collection, which includes “Sonata of the Luminous Lagoon,” engages with this crisis of identity in the Nuyorican spirit. But by addressing similar questions on the importance of leyenda as these other Latinx poets, I am also attempting to do something  else here. Because, as gestured in Diaz’s approach to the mythical vis-à-vis the historical, myth can be used to unearth and examine truths concealed by power and speak to contemporary geopolitical relations as the expression of centuries-old histories of imperialism and colonialism.

Puerto Rico, as the world’s oldest colony, has been kept in a state of perpetual servitude to other people’s empires: first the Spanish empire, then (and now) the U.S. empire. The mythmaking work of “Sonata of the Luminous Lagoon” is an attempt at illustrating the impact of U.S. intervention on the island, specifically its effect on the environment and the local inhabitants, its long-standing caretakers. To do this, I adopt an Indigenous Latinx conceptual model: the areyto. Boricua scholar Lisa Sánchez González defines the areyto (or areito) as “a communal get-together of song, dance, discussion, and strategic planning”4 in the form of a ritual group ceremony performed by the Taino, the  people who populated the island at the time of the Spanish colonization. There is little known about the original areytos—only descriptions by invading Spaniards who understood very little about what they were witnessing—but they have come to function as symbol and metaphor for Caribbean Latinx writers and artists, myself included, who have worked to (re)create and (re)envision the areytos for a contemporary Latinx context.

This poem was conceived as part of an areyto that makes myth of a real place on the island known as the Phosphorescent Bay, famous for containing a type of algae that glows at night—a characteristic that has unwittingly made it a tourist attraction. In this site, which I name the “Luminous Lagoon” in the book, a mythic battle for the soul and the people of the island is taking place. As in many leyendas, there are characters who serve as witnesses to record and pass on the tale to others. The witnesses here are the “Crickets, coquis” who testify to the devastation wrought by the imperialist tourism industry on the forest, ocean, and local pueblo. The record of this assault on the island unfolds through juxtaposed images: an island preserve encroached by “surf shops,” “coral” contorted into “cell phone ads,” “yucca fields” taken over by “spa resorts.” These juxtapositions mythologize the tensions between the natural world, Indigenous populations, and the colonial force that is the tourism industry. The poem as Latinx leyenda is intended to be a warning for anyone who might be too willing to accept the intrusive presence of the tourist/colonizer. But the poem ends with a turn, known in poetry as a “volta,” where the colonizers who have come to devour the environment and its prior inhabitants for their own leisure/pleasure are now being feasted on by those they sought to conquer; the “mosquitos” eating them represent a revolt and reclamation by the natural environment. Thus, “Sonata of the Luminous Lagoon” does the mythmaking work both of warning the community and of critiquing the oppressor by imagining the island of Puerto Rico as a space of mythic stature and value where human, ecological, and cosmological problems are confronted and contested.

These three poems address, in their distinct symbolic, cultural, and spiritual languages, the question of what work Latinx literature is doing. Among the many offerings given to us by Latinx poets, one might say that diasporic poetry can make of myth the “literature of the spirit,” of and for a people that have survived and thrived despite centuries of colonization. This mythmaking can help us to preserve our culture(s) and identity(s), and also provide us with new possibilities for imagining ourselves, our communities, and the places we come from or live in as Latinxs in a world and landscape rapidly being transfigured by the forces of colonial capitalism.


1 Rafael Ocasio, Folk Stories from the Hills of Puerto Rico / Cuentos folklóricos de las montañas de Puerto Rico (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021). Ocasio quotes Sharon Barcan Elswit, The Latin American Story Finder: A Guide to 470 Tales from Mexico, Central America and South America, Listing Subjects and Sources (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 1.
2 Juan Bruce- Novoa, “Ritual in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s ‘The Line of the Sun,’ ” Confluencia 8, no. 1 (1992): 64.
3 Ginetta  E. B. Candelario, “La ciguapa y el ciguapeo: Dominican Myth, Metaphor, and Method,” Small Axe 20, no. 3 (Nov. 2016): 100–112.
4 Lisa Sánchez González, Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (New York: NYU Press, 2001): 170.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the different functions of myths or legends evoked in each poem? Which ones are drawn directly from folklore and which ones are expanded or invented by the poet? What are the different roles the myth plays in each poem?

2. What are the different ways in which the mythological or fantastical permeates the everyday in each poem?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Diego Báez, “Yaguareté White”
Rafael Campo, “My Voice”
Sandra Cisneros, “Loose  Woman”
Ir’ene Lara Silva, “dieta indigena
Rachel McKibbens, “drought (California)”