by Víctor M. Macías-González

Latino Poems often draw inspiration from places real and imagined. And though we should acknowledge, as the critic Norma Elia Cantú has pointed out, that contemporary Latino poetry is characterized by fluidity as well as influences crossing parochial, ethnic, and national boundaries, many Latino poets are careful to stress the importance of affective geographies in their work. The book Querencia, its title a term referring to a nostalgic love of place, examines how Latino and Indigenous writers from New Mexico incorporate this feeling into their poems.1 Hardly alone in feeling this way, Latinos elsewhere similarly refer to morriña— homesickness.

This charged relationship to locale is common across various Latino communities and their poets and writers, regardless of whether such authors trace back their histories in the U.S. to conquest or immigration, the latter sometimes experienced as exile. From seventeenth-century epic poems to twentieth-century Chicano poetry and beyond, Latino poets have explored the shifting relationship between place and identity. Their poems delve into the complexity of living in an America that is also América, and— given the fundamental linguistic dimension of Latino experience— show how life is lived in English, en español, in Spanglish, or in Indigenous languages such as Nahuatl.

As Latino poets explore their sense of belonging, readers glimpse how Latinos feel both in and out of place, negotiating or navigating multiple identities in a process that ultimately informs what it is to feel American. Varying relationships to an ancestral homeland color the work of Latino poets, whether first, second, or nth generation. With certain poets, this ambivalent relationship to place is expressed through the disquietudes of otherness and alienation, as well as the compounded effects of racial and class differences. Others project outwards to the longed-for homeland. Latino poetry thus presents a dual consciousness, a sense of  there and here, as seen in Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Exiles” (2008).

In the poem, Herrera addresses those who were forced to leave home due to South America’s dirty wars in the 1970s and 1980s, more specifically t hose fleeing the repression inflicted by U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Herrera contrasts this experience with the alienation felt by Latinos in the U.S. who are “from here” yet feel displaced without having a claim on a home from which they are exiled. His metaphorical use of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893), signaled in the poem’s epigraph, embodies the frustration and anxiety of those who, although born in America, do not feel accepted there. The key to understanding this sense of alienation throughout the poem is Herrera’s insistence on the words here and there:

At the greyhound bus stations, at airports, at silent wharfs
the bodies exit the crafts.  Women, men, children; cast out
from the new paradise.
They are not  there in the homeland, in Argentina, not there
in Santiago, Chile; never  there in Montevideo, Uruguay,
and they are not here
in America
They are in exile: a slow scream across a yellow bridge
the jaws stretched, widening, the eyes multiplied into blood
orbits, torn, whirling, spilling between two slopes; the sea, black,
swallowing all prayers, shadeless. Only tall faceless figures
of pain flutter across the bridge.

In this opening, the newly arrived exiles, although sitting in “greyhound bus stations, at airports, at  silent wharfs,” aren’t “there in the homeland” and are also “not  here / in America.” The implicit question of where they are seems to hover over the stanza break before it is swiftly answered by an as-yet-unidentified speaker: “in exile.” Taken at face value, the proposition is darkly existential: to be in exile is to not fully exist, or to exist in a state of fundamental placelessness. This suggestion is only made starker by the ghostly, expressionistic descriptions of “tall faceless figures of pain [that] flutter across the bridge.” Yet in the fourth stanza, the speaker(s), materializing as a collective “we,” begin to articulate their own condition of disorientation as “the ones from  here [. . .] only  here” who watch those who are “not from here nor there” arrive.

In the matchbox-city description that follows, Herrera paints a portrait of profound, claustrophobic malaise: it is as if everything is a model of itself, a “miniature” landscape of “chrome radios” and “saints in supermarkets” where the “makeshift” prevails and one dies “awake.”  These surroundings are only made more oppressive by the suggestion of another possible life, and the paralyzing inability to access it “without the bridge” that embodies the exiles’ firm connection with their homeland. The speaker(s) thus invoke a querencia for a community that does not include them. And despite an awareness of the trials faced by the newly exiled, this desire for belonging urges them to ask: “Where is our exile? / Who has taken it?”

This question perhaps reflects the poet’s own experience as the son of Mexican farmworkers growing up in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. Indeed, for Herrera, as a second-generation Mexican American, being American negates the experience of being (unlike his parents) from elsewhere. During his time in college, in the midst of the Chicano Movement, he delved into the Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica as a source of pride and inspiration, while becoming aware of broader anti-imperialist movements decrying U.S. involvement in Central and South America. Indeed in the poem, informed by this  political education, Herrera contrasts the experience of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans— the internal colonies of the U.S. if we consider the territories of northern Mexico annexed by the U.S. in 1848 as such—with the experience of Latin Americans who arrived in the U.S. during this period of his life.2 In this way, the poem may suggest that  these differing conditions of exile are interrelated through shared historical struggle, while being marked by affective and material differences.

In contrast to Herrera, the Cuban American poet, essayist, translator, and academic Pablo Medina was exiled to the U.S. from Cuba with his  family as a child in 1960, a year  after the Cuban Revolution ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought to power the Communist Party of Cuba, led by Fidel Castro. Medina has addressed this experience in his writings, including his poem “The Floating Island” (1999), which begins with an epigraph from Cuban dissident Heberto Padilla’s (1932–2000) poem “A veces me zambullo” (Sometimes I Plunge, 1973), in which Cuba is cast as a white vessel “brillando contra el sol y contra los poetas” (shining against the sun, and against poets). Initially a supporter of the Revolution, Padilla ultimately grew disenchanted with the regime and was targeted as an internal  enemy—enduring surveillance, repeated harassment, a show trial, imprisonment, and torture. His case became an international cause célèbre.3 Embittered, he sent his wife and young  family abroad in 1979, joining them the following year. For Medina, figures like Padilla  were representative of the repressive conditions that led to the exile of many Cuban intellectuals. In the poem, Medina ridicules Castro’s paradise: “pretending it shimmers . . .   / denying the terror it feels / when no one listens, denying / that it is always almost drowning, / that it cannot help anyone, least / of all itself.” The poet implies that more than a boat or floating island, Cuba is a sinking ship reminiscent of Padilla’s “white vessel.” Moreover, the island is described as “such a little place,” “a strip of dirt between morning and night,” heightening the reader’s sense of its isolation and vulnerability, and possibly suggesting the added challenge of the U.S. embargo against it. The poem ends by invoking a squandered sense of possibility, situating Cuba

between what will be and what was,
between the birth of hope
and the death of desire.

The reader is left to wonder whether, like Padilla, Medina is mourning the dashed hopes of the Revolution.

A fellow Caribbean writer, the Afro-Latina poet, novelist, and essayist Mayra Santos-Febres, situates her oeuvre and Puerto Rican literature more broadly within the wider context of Afro-Caribbean writing. Through its expansive focus and the lush plurality of perspectives it engages—those of drag queens, migrants, Black women artists—her works exalt experiences that might other wise be erased and forgotten.4 In Boat People, the book-length poem from which “Ink” (“Tinta” in its original Spanish version) is taken, contemporary contexts of migration and statelessness—consequences of the legacies of colonial violence—emerge as haunting reflections of the  Middle Passage. The book brings to life a vast underwater city, and through its fragmentary, choral telling, an archive of lost bodies and lost voices is reconstituted and reclaimed. “Ink” focuses on the specific experience of Haitian émigrés, disparagingly called “boat people” in the media, a term first applied to Vietnamese refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and includes words in Haitian creole. Santos-Febres homes in on the desperate conditions of violence and hunger that drive Haitians to improvise a raft made of “four tires” in the hopes of reaching the U.S. The poem suggests a process fraught with danger where many die or are arrested and sent back to Haiti, a context elucidated from the perspective of an anonymous Haitian  woman, her body defenseless and vulnerable as she floats at sea, where “ there’s nothing / not even ink / to describe / [her] journey.”

Ink frequently appears in Santos-Febres’s works. In the late 2000s her weekly literary radio program on the University of Puerto Rico’s Radio Universidad was titled En su tinta (In Ink), invoking ink as a common culinary metaphor where squid ink symbolizes one’s essence. Elsewhere, “ink” refers to the author’s voice, in relation to the embodied experience of writing by hand. Finally, for Santos-Febres, ink at once recalls the violence of racial categorizations and represents the beauty of Blackness.

This thematic section features the work of Mexican American, Cuban, and Puerto Rican Latinos, each with different experiences of displacement. Yet the themes of crossing and  water emerge as two salient motifs. Herrera refers to the crossing of a physical and spiritual bridge that connects us to the homeland, while for Medina and Santos-Febres, the ocean, with its “gut” and its “wild eyes,” becomes quasi-sentient. Its formidable vastness renders  those leaving or seeking to return defenseless against its  will. At the same time, according to Santos-Febres, the ocean offers a perpetual sense of expansiveness that is fundamental to the Caribbean literary imaginary.  Whether situated in or away from the “first home,”  these poets each investigate a sense of “beyond” that, in the act of writing (and reading), becomes a tangible here and now.

Footnotes

1 Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez, Levi Romero, and Spencer R. Herrera, ed., Querencia: Reflections on the New Mexico Homeland (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020).
2 Here one might note that some Mexicans feel that immigrating to the U.S. is a reoccupation or return to lost territories; the trans-Mississippi  U.S. is thrice Mexican as the historic northern half of New Spain, the northernmost extension of newly independent Mexico, and the mythical Aztec homeland of Aztlán.
3 Nick Caistor, “Obituary. Heberto Padilla: Poetic Symbol of Intellectual repression in Castro’s Cuba,” Guardian, October 14, 2000, https:// www.theguardian.com/news/2000/oct /14/guardianobituaries.cuba; Heberto Padilla, Fuera del Juego, edición íntegra (Mexico City: Círculo de Poesía, 2009), 123–24, https://circulodepoesia.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/galeria _ fueradeljuego.pdf.
4 See Jotacé López, “Mayra Santos- Febres: Afirmar la afrodescendencia en el Caribe y latinoamérica,” Latin American Literature Today 23 (Septem-ber  2022), https://latinamericanliteraturetoday.org/es/2022/09/mayra-santos-febres-afirmar-la-afrodescendencia-en-el-caribe-y-latinoamerica-por-jotace-lopez/.

Discussion Questions

1. What is the relationship between our sense of home and our identity? How does the interplay between where we’re from (and everything this can mean) and who we are animate these poems? How might the tension between  these two notions (homeland and self) inform a person’s feeling of Americanness?

2. Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Exiles” opens with a fragment of a diary entry by the artist Edvard Munch that seems to allude to his painting The Scream. Its associations with feelings of angst or deep, persistent anxiety seem to imbue the rest of the poem. What might be at the source of this anxiety and alienation? Overall, how does the degree of closeness between each poem’s speaker and an ancestral home color the emotional landscape of each poem?

3. Where do you think the speaker of each poem is situated geographically? What is the “here” and “there” of each poem? Does the speaker seem to be telling their own story or that of someone else’s? How does this embodied distance reflect or contradict metaphorical closeness with a homeland?

4. Describe the landscapes and settings depicted in each poem. How do the descriptions of landscape, and our experience of it, inform our understandings of the speakers’ sense of belonging (or not) to a home they’re currently in or one  they’ve left  behind? How might these descriptions illuminate a feeling of “querencia” or “morriña”?

5. How does the experience of “crossing” both physical and spiritual thresholds figure in these poems? Consider how this experience relates to notions of border and diaspora.

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Excilia Saldana, “Danzón inconcluso para Noche e Isla / Unfinished Danzón for Night and Island”
Eugenio Florit, “Los poetas solos de Manhattan / The Lonely Poets of Manhattan”
Marjorie Agosín, “Lejos / Far Away”
Javier Zamora, “El Salvador”
Alan Pelaez Lopez, “ ‘Sick’ in America”
Ray Gonzalez, “At the Rio Grande Near the End of the Century”
Cynthia Guardado, “Parallel Universe”