by Lauro Flores

Poetry often addresses the bonds of family and community, and Latino poetry is no exception. But families, of course, can be a web of fraught relationships, and sometimes wider community expectations can seem constricting or parochial. The immigrant experience, which often involves displacement, adaptation, and change, makes matters even more complex—perhaps especially so when migration marks one generation but not (directly) their children.

Eduardo Corral’s “In Colorado My  Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” Laurie Ann Guerrero’s “Put Attention,” and Alberto Ríos’s “Nani” explore the nuances of these themes with poignancy, illuminating the challenges involved in navigating family bonds and forging connections within various communities.

In these poems, we encounter attempts to salvage, through memory, the images not only of individual  family members but also of spaces, objects,  house hold items, and other elements once present, now transformed. Taking such memories as a point of departure, the poets offer lyrical reconstructions of cultural bonds made tenuous by the passing of time and the pressures of assimilation.

Corral’s poem paints a raw portrait of an undocumented Mexican immigrant striving to survive in the United States, and his son’s complex, at times bittersweet relationship with him. The poem’s fragmented structure mirrors the precarious nature of their existence. It might also point to how the past so often disrupts the present— a  process reflected in the alternation of verb tenses throughout the poem.

The father, nicknamed “Jalapeño” by his coworkers, endures, like many undocumented workers, menial low-paying jobs, persecution, and racism. At the same time, he is portrayed as a defiant and enigmatic figure who wavers between moments of masculine bravado and unexpected wisdom and candor. In Corral’s telling, a portrait, at once larger than life and deeply intimate in its specificity, emerges through a collage of seemingly disconnected memories and asynchronous cultural references.

While suffering indignities, the speaker’s father displays unwavering pride in his roots: “Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba.” “His favorite /  belt buckle [is] an águila perched on a nopal”— central elements of Mexico’s flag and coat of arms and of the foundational myth of the Aztecs. His pride can also veer into irreverence—“The silver letters / on his black  belt spell Sangrón [haughty, annoying]”; “If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm / into a jar of  water.” He drinks at breakfast, and he laughs so hard his hands shake. At the same time, he is prone to moments of disarming, plainspoken insight: “The heart can only be broken / once, like a window.” Perhaps a covert romantic, he sings corridos for his friends at night.

And although this combination of sentimentality and bravado is characteristic of a kind of machismo, so prevalent in the genre of the corrido, the father is also an outsider: “Bugs Bunny wants to deport him César Chávez wants / to deport him.” Like the  earlier “Jesus  wasn’t a snowman,” this line, absurd at face value, seems to suggest a hidden truth. It might gesture to how the father, though feeling excluded by America as figured  here via its popular culture, is also not stirred by the expressions of pride of the Chicano movement (signaled by Chávez, one of its heroes). It’s perhaps also illustrative of how the poem deals with memory: moments once metabolized by the young speaker in the idioms of childhood—cartoons and goldfish—float to the surface of the present with the strange sheen of that which is unresolved.

It’s sometimes difficult to gauge the closeness of this relationship. We know that the father playfully mocks the son, calling him nicknames like “Scarecrow.” At one point, the son wakes to his father’s thumb in his mouth like a gun: “¿No qué no / tronabas pistolita?” Literally “I thought you wouldn’t go off little gun,” the phrase could mean something like I thought you didn’t have it in you or I got you—“tronar” a possible euphemism for killing or being killed. In any case, we get the sense that the father might be playfully enacting a scene in a Western or a corrido where two rivals are finally facing off.  There is a sense of intimidation or violence lurking beneath the surface of this moment, which is also made tender by the use of the diminutive—“pistolita,” perhaps a nickname for the son. The ironic distance and humor sprinkled throughout the poem—the “¡No mames!” ( you’re kidding, stop kidding around) that directly follows the father’s proverb on heartbreak—is perhaps as much the father’s way of relating to his son as it is a sense that has “percolated” into the son’s own way of beholding his father, and possibly his way of dealing with the more difficult facets of their relationship.

Despite these ambiguities, the speaker still strongly identifies with his father: “Again and again I borrow his clothes”; “When I walk through / the desert, I wear his shirt. The gaze of the moon / stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.” In this melding of fabric and flesh, the boundaries between father and son become blurred.

The poem ends with the enigmatic line: “The snake hisses. The snake is torn.”  We’re left with the cryptic resonance of previous lines but none of the humor. The rupture of the snake— absent in the reference to the father’s favorite belt buckle—opens the ending to multiple interpretations. The snake could gesture to the fall from Eden, a reading that, compounded with the reference to the Aztec myth, might illustrate a fundamental separation between the speaker and his father, who is likely also his primary tether to his Mexican identity. It could also suggest that the son has partially moved beyond the shadow of his father’s influence. At the same time, if the snake evokes for the reader a hidden or lurking threat, its being torn could signify that the son has moved past the precarity his father faced. The image might denote his ambiguous feelings about having, in some way, left his  father  behind. In any case, the reader is left with what is likely an intentional feeling of irresolution, and the questions that the poem  doesn’t answer might mirror the ways in which the speaker is still grappling with the image of his father.

“In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” is a smartly misleading title, the blunt description of what the father does failing to do justice to the man he is, as revealed by the portrait that follows. More than just a powerful commentary on the plight of an undocumented man—whose struggles resonate with those of a larger community—the poem sheds light on the complex bond between a father and a son and the cultural and material forces that pull them apart as much as they bring them together.

Laurie Ann Guerrero’s “Put Attention” explores the difficulties of communication within a bilingual family, centering on the literal translation by the poet’s grandmother of the Spanish phrase “Ponga atención,” whose idiomatic equivalent in English is “pay attention.” In an interview, Guerrero noted: “Thinking back to the time when we as children laughed at our undereducated grandmother, how we wanted her to speak clear English  because that’s what they wanted in our Texas public schools—I was very ashamed. No one would know my parents’ first language was Spanish, and that because of this, my first language was English. There is still a very real stigma that affects my generation, my parents’ generation, even my children’s generation. Already as children we had internalized this racism, and it is still being perpetuated in the community.” In the speaker of the poem’s remembered attitude toward her grandmother’s  English, we see a reflection of the shame instilled in her as a child with regard to Spanish, and the ways language can be wielded, tinged with violence: “we threw / down shards of  English . . .  for her to leap in and / around.”

The poem hinges on the repetition of the mistranslation, evoking the urgency of a grandmother trying to communicate with younger family members. And perhaps what Guerrero reveals in the making of this poem is the desire to retroactively bridge a cultural gap. She carefully recreates a childhood space shared by the speaker and the grand mother through various remembered images: flickering TV shows in Spanish, a statue of the Virgin, family photos. The poem’s many artifacts become complex symbols of hybrid cultural identities, from the Texas beer Shiner Bock to the Mexican sweet rice drink horchata, making attention, and what it’s directed towards, something that transcends words and demands a deeper, more nuanced understanding, encompassing forms of cultural knowledge at the risk of being lost. Where to “put” one’s attention? Answers proliferate, dramatizing how the speaker, when she was young, was unable to take in what her grandmother was saying. Is attention to be “put” in their “hands,” signifying a practical skill? Or does it reside in the images from the television, “that seeps fat red lips and Mexican moustaches”? The act of “putting attention” slowly emerges as both a tangible action and, especially at the end of the poem, an intangible gift.

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker, no longer immersed in childhood memories, still wonders where her attention should go—where to put it. This leads to the final moment of the poem, where the grandmother, now older, is struggling with cognitive impairment, and the poet wishes she could connect with her ailing relative through her own generous and loving act of attention: “Put attention somewhere large. Back into her eyes.”

The repetition of the titular phrase  here with the image of “somewhere large” emphasizes the vastness of what “attention” encompasses.  We’re left with a sense of grief, the reiterated phrase now ringing with regret. The poet gazes into a kind of emptiness, the part of the grand mother’s brain that can no longer remember even “her own /  daughters,” as well as “how to make rice, translate instructions.” Guerrero mourns the now unrecoverable lessons that her grandmother, with her insistence on attention, was trying to impart. And while some of  these lessons might have been practical or even inconsequential, the phrase has come to encompass a lost world. Faced with the immensity of this loss, the poet is left with the opportunity to honor her grandmother, to somehow give the gift of attention back to her, and to formulate for herself what those teachings might have been.

As in Guerrero’s poem, Alberto Ríos’s “Nani” depicts family members attempting to communicate across a generational, cultural, and linguistic gap. “Nani” focuses on the unspoken bond between a grandson and his grandmother. Here, food becomes the central motif, bridging the distance between them. The speaker quietly observes and readily accepts the meals Nani prepares, even though he can only speak “a third” of her language. The speaker seems fixated on the words that Nani speaks but which he has forgotten or can no longer articulate properly:

. . . she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak

Nevertheless, a form of  silent communication emerges between the two. Nani’s smile and the reiterated images of her “wrinkles” become a map of her life experiences, a wordless language that narrates her struggles and losses: “I see a wrinkle speak / of a man whose body serves / the ants like she serves me, then more words / from more wrinkles about children.” “Her insides speak / through a hundred wrinkles.” Despite the barrier between him and his grandmother, the speaker accepts her offerings, highlighting a bond built on care and unspoken affection: “Even before I speak, she serves.”

All the way to the end, the poem brims with these other kinds of language, with the constant potential for communication. Beyond her wrinkles and smiles, language vividly emerges from the “other mouths” of Nani’s many  children and inhabits the act of serving, so prevalent throughout the poem. And yet, this might all just be projection, imagined visions of who Nani was and “could have been,” inspired by the stories told by her children, the “tremendous string around her, / holding her together.” Akin to the relationship with the grandmother in Guerrero’s “Put Attention,” the full reality of Nani’s person, and of everything she might have passed down to her grandson, is partly inaccessible, leaving the poem’s speaker to wonder “just how much of me /  will die with her.” In this regard, the ending takes on a different tone, and what we’re left with is perhaps the ritual of serving without a larger dimension of cultural transmission. “What is this thing she serves?” the speaker asks, but it is as if he  were really asking: Who am I without knowing whom I come from? And yet, the tenderness of the last line leaves the reader with quiet reassurance; perhaps none of this is as important as the love shared between the grandmother and grandchild in that moment.

In different ways, the poems in this section address an inscrutable or somehow not fully knowable figure who, whether living or gone, continues to haunt the speaker’s present. Here, the yearning to understand one’s family history, in many ways a universal desire, is made more acute by experiences of cultural estrangement. And yet, these poems might illuminate how poetic language emerges as a medium through which to communicate, mourn, and honor the past. In helping to reimagine a relationship to absence, through the ghostly and lived matter of memory, the poem becomes a site to reckon with, and define for oneself, the many layers of individual and cultural identity.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the similarities and differences between how the family members in each poem—the  father in “In Colorado My  Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” the grandmother in “Put Attention,” and the grandmother in “Nani”—are depicted? How does the speaker of each poem understand their relationship to these parents and grandparents? How does their relationship to this family member affect the speaker in the poem’s present?

2. How does each poem deal with time? Which verb tenses are used throughout the different poems, and do they change? In each poem, what sense do we get that the past is far away, or alternatively, very close?

3. What are the “memory-objects” or childhood images in each poem? What effect do they have? How does each poet set the scene of their past? How does the presence of “Bugs Bunny” in Eduardo C. Corral’s poem contrast with the “fat red lips and Mexican moustaches” seeping from the television in Laurie Ann Guerrero’s poem?

4. What lessons have the speakers been able to gain from their parent or grandparent? What lessons might they have missed?

5. How do experiences of migration or of linguistic or cultural estrangement affect familial relationships? What is particular to these relationships that might speak to Latinx or diasporic experience more broadly?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Rio Cortez, “Ars Poetica with Mother and Dogs”
Richard Garcia, “My  Father’s Hands”
Jaime Manrique, “El fantasma de mi padre en dos paisajes / My  Father’s Ghost in Two Landscapes”
Judith Ortiz Cofer, “Because My Mother Burned Her Legs in a Freak Accident”
Ruth Irupé Sanabria, “Distance”
Virgil Suárez, “El Exilio”
Andrés Cerpa, “The Distance between Love & My Language”
J. Michael Martinez, “Lord, Spanglish Me”