José Olivarez' "Citizen Illegal" Illuminates the Experiences and Language behind Migration
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
For readers' consideration: This review was written prior to the release of Citizen Illegal, and not published until over a year later, due to the dropping of the piece by original intended publisher
In Citizen Illegal (2018) poet José Olivarez immerses the reader in his first-hand perspective on immigration, the complexity of citizenship status, and growing up as a first-generation American. The collection is both political and personal, and his strong poetic talent shines through it all.
Citizen Illegal is divided into five parts, most of which start with an ongoing poem, continued throughout the collection, titled “Mexican Heaven.” This poem contains a form of liberation and a destination that is both universally desirable and specific to Olivarez’ personal life experiences. The reader is invited to a celebration full of horchata, tamales, menudo, smoking weed, drinking beer, and being greeted by St. Peter. In other words, this heaven is a party. One of the “Mexican Heaven” poems simply reads:
tamales. tacos. tostadas. tortas.
pozole. sopes. huaraches. menudo.
horchata. jamaica. limonada. agua.
The “Mexican Heaven” series creates a utopian vision of heaven: one that is accepting of Mexicans, as opposed to a place of exclusion.
Olivarez emphasizes recurring key words and ideas, and repurposes their definitions to his advantage. With words and phrases such as “secret”, “as the car steals north”, and “all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven,” he plays with and questions the common notion of immigration being a sneaky act. Words often used in the United States to dehumanize immigrants are instead used to create a visceral experience for reader, while simultaneously drawing attention to the common use of such words in mainstream American media.
Not all of Olivarez’s poems describe the experience of immigration and its generational effects. Some poems describe the experience of growing up a chubby kid in California, like “Ode to Scotty Pippen”, where he admits:
i was short and chubby & jumped
like i carried baby elephants
In the pockets of my gym shorts.
Olivarez also speaks about his nuanced relationship with his parents, particularly unconditional love shown through discipline. This particular aspect holds one of the greatest potentials to open up a portal to some of the humanity of everyone. In “Poem to Take the Belt Out of My Dad’s hands,” Olivarez isn’t necessarily recalling an abusive childhood, but merely a discipline style of getting “spankings” that molded him, and his relationship with his father. It is left to the reader to decide whether Olivarez is describing a contested relationship with his father, or recalling the nostalgia of a method of discipline he received as a child. Olivarez imagines:
In this story, he is wearing the belt instead of bringing it down. My ass stays soft….in this story, he doesn’t reach for the belt...he reaches for my head and rubs it.
Throughout Citizen Illegal, Olivarez’s parents are a consistent presence from their immigration to America, the way they maintain contact with Olivarez as an adult, and their discipline styles--a significant and usually memorable facet of childhood that molds one’s personality, behavior, and outlook on life.
The collection brings Olivarez’s life in the United States down to a cause and effect of his parents’ labor, transition to United States culture, and their undocumented immigration status through his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a graduate student.
Although Olivarez has had a nearly, whole life’s experience in America, where he has developed his identity, his identity is also deeply traced to his parent’s decision to move to the United States, and has simultaneously filled his life with Mexican culture and removed him from it.
The poem “Rumours” also captures the experience of youth—Chicano lingo and adolescence, scattered with nostalgia and young love, with teenage basement parties as a recurring backdrop.
As opposed to stepping away from stereotypes of Mexicans working, cleaning, and cooking in the United States, Olivarez highlights the career opportunities through which Mexicans are allowed into the United States. These entry points are also expressed in “I Tried to be a Good Mexican Son,” in which Oliverez, among other issues establishes an understanding of the responsibilities that Mexicans do not consider the issues in Black American society relative, despite similar systems working against them. The first lines in “I Tried to be a Good Mexican Son” read:
“I even went to college. but i studied African American studies which is not
The Law or The Medicine or The Business. my mom still loved me.”
The last lines read:
“i try to be a good Mexican son, but all i know how to do is sit down for a good second and leave before a bad one.”
Olivarez uses Citizen Illegal to both document his own life, and analyze the systems and language that surround it. In some instances, Olivarez’s poems are a form of breaking down social politics into autobiographical narrative. His sharp, witty critiques of systems of exclusion end in punchlines about how Jesus became white, and gaining weight when one falls in love.
Ultimately, The poems in Citizen Illegal are illustrations of the traumas that America places on citizens and non-citizens alike. The collection serves to illuminate the specific human experience of immigration from Mexico to the United States, and places a human face, often Olivarez's own, to a discourse that frequently relies heavily on dehumanizing language.