by Urayoán Noel

When approaching Latino poetry, I emphasize its plurality of languages and the many differences they embody. Latino identity in the U.S. is a pan-ethnic formation often understood in terms of a project of political unity, and, as such, there is no one language for Latino poetry.1 Since Latino identity is a hemispheric arrangement, Latino poetry reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Americas,  whether in English, Spanish, or other languages of Latin America and the Caribbean, including Indigenous languages and creoles.

Poems and poetry  were key to the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which made possible the rise of Latino Studies as an academic discipline in the 1980s and 1990s. Festivals like Flor y Canto and  performance spaces like the Nuyorican Poets Café helped  popularize Latino poetry as an embodied practice across vernacular language communities, where the mixing of  English and Spanish was linked to the reclamation of Indigenous and Afro-diasporic traditions. Early critical work found a social politics in the languages of Latino poetry,  whether by framing Chicano poetry as a mode of “interlingual” writing where discrete code-switching between English and Spanish gives way to a generative tension between two (or possibly more) languages2 or by reading for Nuyorican poetry’s “tropicalization” of poetry’s Northern geographies as well as its synesthetic rendering onto the page the rhythms of Afro-Latin  music.3 Much of this critical work stressed poetry as a heterodox mode of resistance to linguistic assimilation, often involving the interplay of languages in formally eccentric and politically defiant ways.4

The work of poets such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra María Esteves, Alurista, Victor Hernández Cruz, José Montoya, and Tato Laviera has helped shape the sociolinguistic and literary study of Spanglish as a creative response to the complex reality of living between languages enmeshed in unequal relationships of power,5 as well as the emergence of Spanglish as a powerful  metaphor for the complexities of Latino life in the U.S. and its rich cultural histories and practices.6 In this way, Latino poetry has emerged as a laboratory of languages and identities, bringing notions of border and diaspora to the fore.7

Over the past fifteen years, as Latino literature has become more institutionally visible, the work of innovative Latino poets has received greater critical attention, especially given the surge of interest in translingual poetics that do not merely combine languages but also destabilize or transform them, as in the poems by Edwin Torres, Rodrigo Toscano, and Steven Alvarez included in the Latino Poetry anthology.8 Some of the most important analyses of Latino poetry over the past quarter century have connected its linguistic innovation to a political imagination beyond the cultural nationalisms of the 1960s and 1970s, whether by arguing for poetic bilingualism as a challenge to the monolingual state or by reading a range of Latino poetic geographies as modes of subaltern resistance to a global neoliberal hegemony.9 Even so, Latino poetry remains underappreciated by literary scholars and the media alike, and many of the most visible readings of Latino poetry still assume a binary understanding of Latino identity in terms of what Ilan Stavans calls “the tension between double attachments to place, to language, and to identity [my emphasis].”10 In my reading, the language of Latino poetry should be understood beyond the clash between “the Anglo and the Hispanic” worlds and across a complex field of differences and intersections.11

Contemporary Latino poetry is renewing language and complicating existing paradigms from a space of difference. Black and Indigenous Latino poets are writing against instrumentalized identities and from lived experiences of struggle against anti-Blackness and settler colonialism. Undocumented poets are writing against the assumption of citizenship (even if unequal citizenship) that has long shaped Latino politics in the U.S.12 Disabled poets are writing against the ableism of social movement histories and from a sense of aesthetic and political liberation as personal and collective bodymind practices. Trans poets are mapping the coloniality of gender and insisting on gender difference and dissidence as central to social justice movements, using and defining terms like Latinx and Latine.

In the context of the increasing Latinization of the U.S. and the demographic and  political visibility of certain diasporas (Central American, South American, Dominican,  etc.), Latino poetry is also challenging the orthodox geographies of Latino identity (Chicanos in the Southwest and West, Puerto Ricans in New York, Cuban Americans in South Florida,  etc.). With these expanded geographies come expansive  political, historical, and linguistic imaginaries. In this sense, border in a Latino poetry context can refer not only to the Mexico–U.S. border but also the Haiti–Dominican Republic border, while diaspora can be applied not only to Hispanophone Caribbean communities but also to movements across, along, and beyond the Central American isthmus and the U.S. or to histories of  political persecution and exile in South America. Even within the U.S., given the gentrification of many historically Latino urban areas and the growth of Latino communities across suburban and rural areas far beyond the Mexico–U.S. border, it is impossible to reduce the linguistic innovations of today’s Latino poetry to a few emblematic locales akin to the countercultural heyday of San Francisco’s Mission or New York’s Loisaida neighborhoods. Tomorrow’s Latino poetry may be in Quechua or Garifuna or Haitian Kreyòl, and it may be exurban or rural and emerge far from the liberal coasts.

I have argued for an approach to Latino poetry beyond an English-Spanish binary and attuned to a range of historical, geographic, cultural, and embodied differences. Key to this argument is an appreciation of the many Englishes and many Spanishes across the constellation of Latino poetries past and present. In a sense, the borderlands of Latino poetry are also linguistic, extending into and beyond Latino barrios that are home to historically racialized and classed varieties of  English and Spanish. We can acknowledge the historical and ongoing othering of Spanish in the U.S. as a subaltern language (fueled by nativism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, etc.) while also stressing that Spanish as a language of colonization predates the United States. Following the translation scholar Lawrence Venuti’s famous distinction between a foreignizing translation that performs difference and a domesticating translation that assimilates difference, we could argue that, within Latino poetry as a non-monolingual field, much of the most linguistically exciting and influential work has stressed the performance of difference.13

A final question has to do with how to square such a high literary genealogy of Latino poetry with its undeniable indebtedness to the oral tradition, including border and diasporic forms such as corridos and plenas as well as the vernacular reinvention of traditional Spanish forms such as coplas and décimas. My own sense is that the linguistic innovations of Latino poetry should be understood from above and from below, at the intersections of print and expressive cultures, where literary innovation is inseparable from the embodiment of poetic language as a mode of creative survival and resistance.

Many of the tensions I have discussed so far animate the four poems I was asked to consider for this essay. Francisco X. Alarcón’s “Un Beso Is Not a Kiss” models a poetics of queer untranslatability where the open-ended nature of the poem is an invitation for the reader to complete its meaning. For Alarcón, a poem is thus collaborative, much like the act of kissing, and just as “un beso can’t / be captured,” a poem resists fixed meanings and cannot be “traded” for another poem, and a hunger for new meanings can never be “sated.” “Un beso” is not “a kiss”  because “un beso” evokes certain  things (a sense of mystery or danger) that the  English “a kiss” cannot convey (except, perhaps, a shared secret, which is the promise of the poem). In this sense, Alarcón’s poem embodies Venuti’s foreignizing approach to translating, asking us to linger with rather than assimilate the differences that make “un beso” impossible to domesticate into “a kiss.” With three stanzas of seven short lines each, Alarcón’s poem is deceptively simple, its seeming regularity complicated by how bilingual lines are broken in surprising ways, asking us to embrace multiple and possibly contradictory meanings (“un beso  can’t” and “un beso is”). Given all this, the poem’s last word (fatal) is significant since it can be read in both  English and Spanish yet has different meanings and shades of meaning (in Spanish, fatal can mean “unavoidable” as well as “deadly”).

Alarcón’s use of Nahuatl in “In Xochitl In Cuicatl” challenges an English-Spanish binary, reflecting his own Nahua heritage and upbringing while embodying the vernacular Flor y Canto politics of the Chicano Movement, with which Alarcón was involved. (“In Xochitl In Cuicatl” is Nahuatl for “Flor y Canto,” or “Flower and Song” in  English.) The use of different columns for the English and Spanish suggests the poem is a bilingual self-translation, but the Nahuatl title and its repetition in the body of the poem signal that perhaps neither  English nor Spanish is the original language and that neither  European language can take  precedence over Nahuatl. As in the previous poem, the symmetry of lines (their length and number per stanza) belies how the poem at times rejects a line- by-line equivalence: in stanza four “un olvido / encontrado” becomes “a memory / at once lost / and found,” sacrificing the off- rhyming four-syllable lines of the Spanish yet spreading its music out over three lines and changing the focus from forgetting (“olvido”) to memory. Not only does Alarcón’s  English sound better than a more conventional translation (something like “a found / forgetting” or “an oblivion / found”), but it also interrupts the poem as a system of bilingual equivalences, as does the use of Nahuatl. The poem’s title also embodies a distinct vision of poetry as collective song and communal world-making rooted in the natural world, far removed from the lyric “I” of the  European tradition, as evident in the last stanza’s invocation of a collective (“we”) personified as fireflies who come together at night in “dreaming up / the cosmos.”

Pedro Pietri’s “The Broken English Dream” embodies an irreverently translingual performance where the assimilation of a Puerto Rican underclass into midcentury New York City is criticized by way of a parody of the Pledge of Allegiance. The poem’s surrealist imagery and lack of punctuation give it a breathless feel, somewhere between denunciation and comedy monologue. Spanish in the poem scores the violence of assimilation, echoing a children’s song that uses rhymes (“Pluma: Pen” and “Gallina: Hen”) to teach Puerto Ricans  English in school, and ending with a famous jingle used in Bustelo coffee commercials. “The Broken  English Dream” appeared in Pietri’s first book, Puerto Rican Obituary, which was published by the Marxist Monthly Review Press in 1973. The poem subverts the  stereotypical depiction of Nuyoricans as poor colonial subjects of the welfare state (as in West Side Story), developing a scathing critique of how Spanish is commodified and used to assimilate Nuyoricans into an exploitative system. Pietri also performed the poem on his 1971 live album ¡Aqui Se Habla Español!, recorded at the Puerto Rican Socialist Party’s Casa Puerto Rico (off Manhattan’s Union Square), and his irreverent performances would help shape the Nuyorican poetry tradition.

At the end of the poem, the anaphoric repetition of “So this is America” evokes Allen Ginsberg’s classic Beat poem “America” while connecting the U.S. as a land where one is free to consume and be sold mindless popular culture to a colonized “america / exploited by columbus / in fourteen ninety-two.” In Pietri’s insightful, satirical vision, one vast, extractivist colonial project links the conquest of the Caribbean and the Americas and the diasporic displacement of Puerto Ricans like himself to New York, where they are expected to work nonstop to line the empire’s pockets and where you “follow the garbage truck / to the welfare department / if you cannot speak  English.”

My own poem “No Longer Ode / Oda Indebida” is a self-translation in conversation with the poets discussed above. (It appears in my 2021 collection Transversal, which includes a self-translation after Alarcón and an elegy for Pietri, whom I consider a mentor.) The original  English poem grew out of my sense of powerlessness as Hurricane María ravaged my native Puerto Rico in 2017. Looking for a form that could serve as a vessel, I played around with the three-part structure of the Pindaric ode of ancient Greece using Petrarchan sonnets (abbaabbacdecde), but it felt too stiff and formal, so I decided to make the last stanza a décima (abbaaccddc)—a ten-line stanza prevalent in Hispanic verse—only in pentameter instead of the usual octosyllabic lines. The décima is commonly improvised in Puerto Rican música jíbara, and is characterized by a more compressed, playful music, which I felt the poem needed. It is also a form that reminded me of my grandmother, to whom the poem is dedicated. Once I had played around with the form enough, the poem came to me in bursts and torrents, and I began piecing it together.

When I was editing Transversal in 2020, I decided I needed a Spanish version as well, since so much of the manuscript consisted of self-translations and I knew I wanted it to open the book. I tried to honor the syllabic music of Spanish by making the Spanish version hendecasyllabic (eleven syllables, almost but not quite matching the ten syllables of a regular iambic pentameter line). My choice to alternate lines in  English and Spanish was partly a response to being stuck in New York during lockdown: Puerto Rico and the Caribbean felt so far away that folding together the Spanish and English versions was a way of feeling closer, of insisting on the connectedness of languages and geographies and making the page an archipelago amid diaspora. In my process, there was a nod to the queer intimacy of Alarcón’s and Roque Raquel Salas Rivera’s differently embodied self-translations as well as to Rhina P. Espaillat’s virtuosic self-translations of rhymed and metered verse. There is also something of Pietri here: his mix of irony and heartbreak, his jarring  music, and his willingness to make language mean by confronting us with its unmeaning, especially at the end of the poem when the Yoruba word Ashé (used colloquially to mean something like “Amen”) carries with it the ghosts of other words (ache, ashore, the hache or letter h in Spanish), the ghosts of all that is untranslatable.14


1 See Suzanne Oboler, Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re) Presentation in the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 6.

2 See Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Poetry: A Response to Chaos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982) and the discussion by Rafael Pérez-Torres in Movements in Chicano Poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. 213. Bruce-Novoa analyzes poems by poets such as Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, Alurista, José Montoya, Ricardo Sánchez, and Raúl R. Salinas, all included in the Latino Poetry anthology.

3 See the introduction to Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman, ed., Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (Durham, NH: University of New England Press, 1997), and Aparicio’s essay “Salsa, Maracas, and Baile: Latin Popular  Music in the Poetry of Victor Hernandez Cruz,” MELUS 16, no. 1 (1990): 43–58, as well as the poems by Victor Hernández Cruz and Sandra María Esteves included in the Latino Poetry anthology.

4 See Alfred Arteaga, Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), and Juan Flores, “ ‘Qué Assimilated,  Brother, Yo Soy Asimilao’: The Structuring of Puerto Rican Identity in the U.S.,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 13, no. 3 (1985): 1–16. Arteaga discusses numerous poets included in the Latino Poetry anthology, among them Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, Alurista, José Montoya, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lucha Corpi, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. Flores builds his argument around the work of Tato Laviera.

5 See chapter 6 of Ana Celia Zentella, Growing Up Bilingual: Puerto Rican Children in New York (New York: Wiley, 1997), and, as a general reference, her “Spanglish,” in Keywords for Latina/o Studies, ed. Deborah R. Vargas, Lawrence La Fountain Stokes, and Nancy Raquel Mirabal (New York: NYU Press, 2017).

6 See Ed Morales, Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America (New York: St. Martin’s, 2003). Among the poets Morales’s book engages are José Martí, William Carlos Williams, Julia de Burgos, Alurista, José Montoya, Gloria Anzaldúa, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri, Sandra María Esteves, Tato Laviera, Mariposa Fernández, Willie Perdomo, and Edwin Torres, all included in the Latino Poetry anthology.

7 See the poems by Gloria Anzaldúa and Mariposa in the Latino Poetry anthology.

8 See Sarah Dowling, Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood  Under Settler Colonialism (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018), which discusses the work of Cecilia Vicuña; and Stephanie Burt, The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), which analyzes a poem by Tato Laviera.

9 See Doris Sommer, Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), and Michael Dowdy, Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013). Sommer engages the work of poets such as Victor Hernández Cruz and Tato Laviera, while Dowdy devotes significant attention to poets such as Martín Espada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Jack Agüeros, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Marjorie Agosín, Valerie Martínez, and Victor Hernández Cruz (the title of Dowdy’s book comes from a poem by Hernández Cruz).

10 Ilan Stavans, “Preface,” in The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (New York: Norton, 2010), liii.

11 Ibid.

12 See G. Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) for some useful context.

13 Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

14 See Emily Apter, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (London: Verso, 2013).

Discussion Questions

1. How does each poem engage with different languages— either through direct translation or hybrid forms? How does the poem’s engagement with bilingualism or multilingualism inform its shape, sound, and content? How does Francisco X. Alarcón’s “In Xochitl In Cuicatl” contrast with Urayoán Noel’s “No Longer Ode / Oda Indebida” in its  presentation of two or multiple languages? What is the effect of experiencing two languages side by side versus in an alternating sequence?

2. Take some time to read the poems out loud to each other. If there are speakers of each of the languages represented, consider assigning different parts. What is it like to hear the different languages out loud? How does reading and receiving the poem in different languages affect our experience of its meanings and sounds? How does the presence of Nahuatl inform our reading of “In Xochitl In Cuicatl,” for example? What does it feel like to only understand part of a poem? How might it draw our attention more closely to sound? How can one “read” or hear a poem in a language whose literal sense one  doesn’t understand?

3. What place does Spanglish hold in these poems? How does weaving one language into the other affect our understanding of the poems’ message? Are there things that can only be said in one language?

4. What does “The Broken  English Dream” tell us about how language is wielded to oppress and marginalize certain communities? How does the language “borrowed” from different sources—daily speech, songs, stories, or advertisement jingles—enhance our experience of this critique?

5. What other kinds of linguistic experimentation exist in these and other poems beyond their engagement with multiple languages?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Tato Laviera, “Mixturao”
Ricardo Sánchez, “canto”
Silvia Curbelo, “Between Language and Desire”
Edwin Torres, “[no yoyo]”
José Montoya, “El Louie”
Ernesto Cardenal, “Managua 6:30 pm”
Rhina P. Espaillat, “On the Impossibility of Translation”
Rodrigo Toscano, “Latinx Poet”
Alurista, “silver”; “with”