by Eliza Rodriguez

Latine poetry as we know it today comes from a long line of resistance to oppression in the Américas. Protesting the multiple forms of violence inflicted by the twin engine of colonization and racialized global capitalism, Latine poetic traditions have more often than not been multidimensional, combining art, politics, autobiography, history, prose, and poetry. Indeed, our greatest poets have written across these lines and worked as teachers, organizers, journalists, editors, and revolutionaries—raising their voices in solidarity to imagine and build movements for justice and peace.

The three poems included in this section—Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “Bananas”; Diana García’s “Operation Wetback, 1953”; and Aracelis Girmay’s “The Black Maria”— are very different in terms of style, content, and tone. Yet all three emerge from a Latine tradition of poetry as a record, as witness, and as the articulation of a resistant imagination grounded in the experiences and critical imaginations of Latine poets. This is poetry as testimonio, as call to action, as counterpoint to oppressive dominant narratives, and as invitation to the chorus of voices calling us together to make the world a more just, more liberated place.

“Bananas” was first published in Chicana Creativity and Criticism (1988), a landmark anthology co-edited by the scholar Maria Herrera Sobek and the novelist Helena María Viramontes. They brought together poetry, visual art, and essays in order to stress the critical function of creative work; the combination of  these elements extended the argument that Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa had put forth through their editorial choices in their anthology This Bridge Called My Back (1983): that creative work is an important site of meaning-making and the production of knowledge about the world and our experiences of it. They called for a “theory in the flesh” that both emerged from and illuminated the experience of women of color. If we consider that theory is nothing more than a possible explanation of observed phenomena, and that creative work is a space where one can reflect on one’s own life and make meaning from it, then genres like poetry are key theoretical sites where knowledge about power and  resistance is conceptualized and articulated through body and breath.

“Bananas” was published in one of Cervantes’s own publications only in 2006, when it was included in Drive: The First Quartet. The poet-persona in “Bananas” is Cervantes herself, addressing, in fragments of letters, an Estonian physicist named Indirek. This real-life epistolary friendship began when Indirek, inspired by her poetry, wrote to her. The course of their correspondence included a debate of sorts about the nature of poetry itself and its relation to what goes on in the world.

A five-part poem, “Bananas” travels across the globe and across the twentieth century. The poem’s numbered sections take us to varied locales marked by colonial violence,  political repression, and environmental disaster. In section II, Cervantes evokes the slaughter of workers in Ciénega, Colombia, known as the Banana Massacre—a mass killing carried out by the Colombian army against workers striking against the United Fruit Company. She depicts the episode in descriptions as lush as they are lurid—“stench / permeates the wind as bananas, black on the stumps, char / into odor,” while “Feathers fall over the newly spaded soil: turquoise / scarlet, azure, quetzal.”

In section IV, Cervantes brings the reader face-to-face with the “desecration of the desert” in the Navajo Nation. Here uranium mining during the Cold War led to thousands of Dineh workers and others falling ill and dying (despite the known risks of lung cancer associated with uranium extraction), as well as the long-lasting poisoning of Native water, food, and medicinal sources. In the final stanza, Cervantes names the U.S.–occupied Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific— where 68% / of all infants are born amphibian or anemones,” possibly alluding to the effects of U.S. nuclear tests on neighboring Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and 1950s (with the atoll’s population forcibly relocated).  Here, Cervantes allows for an uneasy relationship between poetry and horror, beauty and tragedy, to come to the fore.

The evocative valence of bananas changes across the length of the poem: they are “yellow as daffodils,” deadly “gold claws,” and the key ingredient in banana bread (which the poet-speaker wants to ship to Estonia). Bananas become a symbol for the interconnected networks of trade and capital, stand-ins for the “banana republics” of the Global South, where legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and extractivism foster extreme precarity and violence. We come to understand such episodes as not only affectively but also materially interconnected through networks that extend within and beyond the bounds of the poem. If one traces the lineage of the United Fruit Company ( later Chiquita) banana, the violence perpetrated in 1928 in Colombia repeats itself in Guatemala, where the overthrow of President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 at the behest of this same company led to the genocide of approximately 200,000 Indigenous Guatemalans during its decades-long civil war. One might also note how Dole (UFC’s competitor for many years, named in section III), whose founder participated in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, paving the way for its annexation, was responsible for bankrolling paramilitaries that slaughtered striking workers in Colombia in the 2000s. The banana emerges as a metaphor made real—the common thread of histories of domination and empire that extend into the present.

In the last lines of section IV—“Old  women weep as the camera rolls on the dark / side of conquest. Encounter rerun. Uranium. 1992.”— Cervantes once more evokes this sense of repetition. Here, uranium poisoning in the ’60s becomes an extension of the same colonial apparatus that in 1868 first established the Navajo reservation, or that in 1492 marked the beginning of genocidal campaigns in the Americas: “Campesinos / replace Indians who are a dream and a rubble / of bloody stones hacked into coffins: malaria, / tuberculosis, cholera, machetes of the jefes” (lines from section II). Centuries of conquest throughout the American continent, and the parallel histories of extermination that emerge within it, are made starkly visible through the condensed technology of the poetic line where “Sheep nip across / centuries in the  people’s blood.”

Moreover, through the interplay between myth and fact, where the slain campesinos are “poised as / statues between hemispheres” and then “pericos,” “those messengers from Mictlán, the underworld, where ancestors / of the slain arise with the vengeance of Tláloc,” we begin to read these histories against the backdrop of a poetic order. Here, the parallel trajectories of Mexico and Colombia merge in the mythological underworld. We might similarly note the intertextual richness of the poem: how the description of the Banana Massacre is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s magic realist treatment of the same episode in One Hundred Years of Solitude, or how the poem recalls Pablo Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.,” which denounces the company for how it has “rebaptized these countries / banana republics.”

The poem thus opens up a variety of avenues through which we can expand our understanding of the past and shift our relationship to it. In this delicate compression and reorientation of historical time, or inversely, in its projection into the mythical, we might become doubly aware of how the consequences of past events can sprout like the “tomato / size tumors [that] bloom in the necks of the pickers” some “500 years  later.” But we might also be made gently aware of the possibility of lyrical reinvention and the potential that poetry bears for the spirit, “the yellow seed / in air as life is the seed in  water.” Perhaps Cervantes is proposing that poetic language is a generative force that blooms just as quickly.

At the same time, the poem raises questions about the possibility that poetry can defeat the material conditions of suffering. When Indirek implies that “Poetry, though, is food / for the soul,” Cervantes responds with an outraged “And bread? What is cake before / corn and the potato?” questioning the very claim that poetry  matters at all—though her perspective on this question is reconsidered (or deepens) at the poem’s conclusion.  These closing lines I return to again and again.1 The final invitation, “What do you say? Your friend, // a Chicana poet,” not only brings us into a personal relationship with the poet but awakens us to the possibility for intimacy that poetry makes possible. The realm of connection represented by the epistolary exchange with Indirek now expands to include the reader in this closing gesture of friendship. In the same way that bananas come to stand in for global networks of trade and centuries of colonial violence through the desire that they be shipped and sold across the globe, they also become a powerful  metaphor of solidarity and sustenance.

And if beauty and love are improbable in the face of so much violence and pain, they are nonetheless visible in the smallest subatomic structures (hadrons and neutrinos), elemental units of what makes the world. The “poetry of Improbability” becomes a site of activated potential—and intention—“what you do is what you get.”  Here, poetry is not judged by its capacity to effectuate change on a tangible level but instead is justified in its very intangibility, in its being made from the frenetic energy of change itself—“quarks and sunlight.”  Here the “magic in the Movement” becomes, perhaps, the beauty in the struggle.

Like Cervantes, Diana García draws on her identity as a Chicana to articulate her politics and poetics. Originally published in García’s book When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000), “Operation Wetback, 1953” is another instance of poetry as history and as personal protest against racist dehumanization and violence. It details a moment of domestic intimacy between a pregnant woman and her husband just before he goes off to work in the fields for the day—but is never seen again. The title refers to the largest mass deportation program in American history, which targeted workers of Mexican descent. Indeed, its very name is a racist slur against  people of Mexican origin, hateful speech that justifies the dehumanization of Mexican and Mexican American people. More than one million workers were kidnapped and forced onto planes, trains, buses, and in some cases boats, to be dropped hundreds if not thousands of miles away, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and  whatever was in their pockets. Often these  people  were sent to parts of Mexico where they were not originally from. It is widely acknowledged that countless American citizens as well as migrants with legal authorization to work were forcibly deported as well. García based this poem on her own family history, particularly the story of her uncle, who was only able to return to California thirty years later, where he found out that his wife had died in the interim.

Indeed, this poem is simultaneously about remembering this forgotten history and the pain of forgetting it in the first place. These losses rewrite the histories of families and are carried through generations even in their unremembered forms: “You never tell your  children / what you can’t forget [. . .] how you forget this one man’s voice.” What you can’t forget is that you do forget. The pain of that contradiction is at the heart of this resounding but little-known history. By focusing on a series of intimate moments and amplifying their textures and sounds through distilled, painterly gestures, a “blue shirt [that] blurs against the summer sky” and a sky that “absorbs his patch of blue, then empties,” García brings to full effect the quiet, daily ways in which historical tragedy bears on the personal. The unfathomable grief of mass displacement is made tangible through the lyrical reconfiguration of a moment long gone. Unlike Cervantes’s energetic compression of a vast history of conquest, García’s poem reckons with the historical by halting it to near stillness, offering an expansion of the particular that helps us to see the  whole. The past is distilled into a stark, singular here-and-now, and we’re made to understand how although the moment the poem depicts has gone like the “voice that blends with sounds of a truck / that never brought him home,” it continues to haunt the present.

Drawing on her Puerto Rican, Eritrean, and African American roots, Aracelis Girmay brings an Afro-Latine perspective to this question of poetry and resistance. “The Black Maria” shares its title with not only the book in which it appears but also a poem that immediately precedes it in the collection; together they invoke the historical roots and consequences of anti-Blackness around the world. The book was in part inspired by the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy in which nearly four hundred refugees from Eritrea and Somalia crossed the Sahara through Libya, only to drown off the coast of Italy. Not mentioned directly in this particular poem (though it is referenced elsewhere in the book), the Lampedusa tragedy casts a backwards shadow on the history of the  Middle Passage, which reverberates in this contemporary wreckage. The title is a reference to the plural of the Latin mare, which means sea. The poem directly refers to the (mis)naming of lunar valleys and craters as seas; the assumption that to name something is therefore to know its true nature recalls the biblical mastery of Adam naming every thing in the world as he comes to know it. This form of epistemic mastery is characteristic of European knowledge production, evident in historical global exploration and subsequent colonization, not least the transatlantic slave trade, embedded in the structures of global capitalism that persist to this day. Girmay makes these connections poignantly: “ European ships heave fatly with the weight of black / grief, black flesh, black  people, across the sea; the / astronomers think the moon’s dark marks are also seas & call / them ‘the black maria.’ ” Notice that the ships are described as  European rather than as slave ships—naming them accurately: they are from  Europe, owned by  Europeans—correctly situating the source of this violence.

Fast forward to the twentieth  century, and “Black Maria” becomes an informal name for police vans used in mass arrests across the early and mid-twentieth century in the U.S.—resonating, in turn, with the nationwide anti-Black police violence that catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2010s. The racist and violent murders of Black people by police and civilians in the name of self-defense are read against a history of white supremacy and its systemic consequences: mass incarceration and state-sanctioned murder. Girmay writes: “If this is a poem about misseeing— Renisha McBride, / Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, / then  these are also three of the names of the black maria.” Renisha McBride, a nineteen-year-old Black  woman, was shot in the face through a locked screen door by a white man  after she came to his front porch seeking help  after a car accident in 2013. Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old Black high school student, was murdered while he was walking in his father’s gated community by a Latino vigilante/neighborhood watch captain in 2012. Rekia Boyd, a twenty-two-year-old Black  woman, was shot and killed by an off-duty white police detective in 2012 who fired his weapon from his vehicle into a small group of young Black  people—Boyd and her friends. By naming Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and Rekia Boyd, the poem resonates against the contemporary backdrop of the “Say Their Names” projects that intersect with the goals of Black Lives Matter. Naming them as individual people keeps our focus on their lives and how they were cut short by racist state-sanctioned violence.

The poem deals complexly with the misperception and misnaming of Blackness that are both the cause and consequence of the dehumanization of Black people. Language and naming are inevitably vectors of power and violence: “someone who does not love you cannot name / you right, & even ‘moon’  can’t carry the moon.” Despite the importance and insistence on naming, language is always insufficient in that it carries with it the omissions and violences of official histories.

As in “Bananas,” parallel histories are delicately interwoven and made to touch through the gaps in the archive.  These connections are paradoxically made possible through language itself, the syntactic reorientations of the poetic line, like the “Sheep [that] nip across / centuries” or the  metaphor that allows two disparate realities to meld or to be put on a different scale—“semen stars, / egg moon” and “ hemispheres / of soft fruit.” Girmay’s poem warns against language that extends from a solely empirical understanding of the world “A hard studying of / cells  under a microscope,” and the violent histories this mode of knowledge production carries with it. At the same time, she also exalts language’s potential for wonder and reinvention. In the waxing lyrical propositions of the poem, language emerges, with all its irrational, generative power, as “an asha tree, a fool that grows / everywhere,” as a counterpoint to the dark side of the Enlightenment, the “side we /know, the side made dark with the black maria.”

Girmay ends the poem enlacing these different black marias and returning to the limits of language while at the same time multiplying the meanings of the black maria: “If this is a poem about estrangement &  waters made dark / with millions of names & bodies— the Atlantic / Ocean, the Mediterranean &  Caribbean Seas, the Mississippi, / then these are also the names of the black maria.”  These bodies of water are unmarked graves for Black people killed by whites in the name of colonial expansion, slavery, racism, and contemporary neocolonial dynamics of mass displacement. The closing lines of the poem memorialize Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy who in 1955 was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched, his body dumped by his attackers into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. His mother chose an open casket to expose the horrifically racist violence of her son’s lynching. The poem’s final sentence stresses the ways that looking into the night (a shifting metaphor of grief and of darkness that allows us to see the moon and the stars) is also a way of looking into the truth of the experiences of Blackness that exceeds the language that we have to talk about it: “Open casket of the night, / somebody’s child, our much more than the moon.” The ugliness of the violence done to “somebody’s child” is recalled in the same breath as the possibilities in refiguring how we remember him. What would it mean to be “our much more than the moon?”

These three poems are stirring examples of how poetry might offer a polysemous understanding of our past and our present. It can provide enough ambiguity and paradox so that several truths can coexist. In this, it may unlatch modes of interacting with our material reality that shift the focus from what is to what can be, “cells on their way to becoming other  things: a person, / a book, a moon”— a feat necessary for reimagining politics, the relations of power that structure our everyday lives. It may raise more questions than it answers, but  those questions are generative; they create more questions, and perhaps those questions have multiple answers. And although poetry cannot take the place of  organized struggle, advocacy, or political action, maybe one of the things it can claim to do is put us into a different kind of relation with one another, where the poem is written anew in the ears of each reader.

As Cervantes reminds us:

. . . how what you do
is what you get—bananas or worry.
What do you say? Your friend,
                                                           a Chicana poet


1 See my “ ‘The Poetry of Improbability’: Lorna Dee Cervantes’s Global Chicana Feminism,” in Stunned into Being: Essays on the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, ed. Eliza Rodriguez (San Antonio: Wings Press, 2012), 136–54.

Discussion Questions

1. What are some of the historical episodes named or evoked in each of the poems? With the help of the discussion leader, attempt to place them on a timeline and map. Do they seem connected to one another? In your view, do they relate to issues we face today? And if so, how?

2. Identify the speaker in each poem. Who is the “I”? Are they situated within the episodes of struggle being relayed by the poem, or are they on the outside looking in? How do these events affect the speaker? In turn, who is the speaker addressing in the poem? How does the function of the “you” differ in “Bananas” from that in “Operation Wetback, 1953”? What might the relationships between subject, speaker, and reader reveal about poetry’s relation to the  political?

3. All three poems bring historical tragedy into the realm of the personal—either by invoking a direct experience (as in “Operation Wetback, 1953”) or by recounting events that the speaker feels a strong connection to but did not personally experience or witness. How does history bear on everyday life in the poems? How does history color and impact seemingly mundane or intimate details?

4. In “The Black Maria,” Aracelis Girmay alludes to “cells  under a microscope,” while in “Bananas,” Lorna Dee Cervantes speaks to the “quarks and sunlight [. . .] hadrinos and neutrinos of color.” In these and other instances the poems evoke scientific language to color their retellings of history. According to these two poets, what place might scientific inquiry hold in relation to poetry as a way of understanding our place in the world? In what ways do the poets’ treatment of this relationship differ? What relationships are they establishing between how we choose to understand the world and systems of slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression? What answers might poetry provide here?

5. What is the relationship between poetry and action as explored in these poems? What role does the poet play in political struggle? What kind of answers can poetry provide (if any) to those seeking to transform social conditions? How might the poems imagine alternatives to repressive social and  political conditions?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Clemente Soto Vélez, “from The Wooden  Horse”
Daniel Borzutzky, “Let Light Shine Out of Darkness”
Vanessa Angélica Villareal, “A Field of Onions: Brown Study”
Frank Lima, “Oklahoma America”
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, “I Am Joaquin”
Carolina Ebeid, “Punctum / Image of an Intifada”
Raúl R. Salinas, “Unity Vision”