C-VILLE WEEKLY: Articulating ‘Mexican Heaven’: Poet José Olivarez illuminates both bruises and bliss in Citizen Illegal

Caroline Hockenbury


Openly exploring themes barred from traditional classrooms, like spirituality and sexuality, taught José Olivarez more about life’s possibilities than all assemblies combined.

Most people avert their eyes when the world gets messy: they scrunch uncooperative hair into the safety of ballcaps, kick dust bunnies conveniently under couches, and dunk ugly memories into their mental trashbins. It’s unusual to meet someone who sits down with disorder, shakes its hand, and engages it in honest conversation. José Olivarez is one such rarity—an artist who detects music amidst the chaos and spins unlikely rhythms into poetry.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez is an expert at manning the spaces in between. His work not only names the linguistic, generational, and cultural gaps in the second-gen Mexican-American experience, but it gives a body to each divide. Citizen Illegal—Olivarez’s first full-length collection—is an articulation of the Latinx experience in modern America that’s both gut-wrenching and musically immaculate. Each page is a testament to the “messiness…[of a] wound reopening at a moment’s notice and then being swallowed up again.”

A Chicago native, Olivarez will return to Charlottesville next week (he was on a Virginia Festival of the Book panel last March). He’ll set up shop at the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, leading a community artist talk on September 11 and a youth poetry residency the next day. These events will kickstart Social Justice Through Creative Practice—a series of workshops and talks crafted by Creciendo Juntos, an organization leveraging resources and connections to serve local Latino families.

Olivarez completely reframed his relationship with literature when he joined his high school poetry club, which in turn introduced him to a citywide program known as Louder Than a Bomb. This tournament-style showcase and workshop series enabled him to unlock achingly authentic language, in contrast to the lofty, inspirational jargon pumped out at schoolwide gatherings. Olivarez recalls listening to adults preach about the promise of students’ futures, then heading to the cafeteria to bump into military recruiters where college ambassadors should’ve stood.

At poetry club meetings, he saw, for the first time, “adults being quiet and allowing teenagers to speak for themselves.” Openly exploring themes barred from traditional classrooms, like spirituality and sexuality, taught him more about life’s possibilities than all assemblies combined. The universe opened up when he realized he could command literature instead of passively participating as a reader. Over time, the network he found through Louder Than A Bomb expanded as he met key players at Youth Chicago Authors, the foundation responsible for organizing the festival.

He went on to Harvard, and though his initial plan after graduation was to teach high school English, YCA’s unofficial motto kept pulsing in his head: “It’s your responsibility once you learn the [poetic] craft to pass it on to somebody else.” He eventually wound up back at YCA, working as a teaching artist.

To Olivarez, poetry’s strength lies in its accessibility (“In 45 minutes, [you can] have the draft of a poem.”) and its limitlessness: “You never stop learning as a student of poetry; there’s always more,” he says. And when it comes to conversations of equity and justice, Olivarez believes crafting lyrics is a powerful means of polishing a subject’s emotional core. “Oftentimes, we don’t have time or space to delve into” weighty topics, he says, “[but poetry] allows us to put some of that messiness next to each other and see what feels true to us.”

Olivarez also makes sure to emerge from the messiness with fistfuls of joy: fingers—drenched in “golden goo,” reaching for more cheese fries; glimmering red lipstick applied by a mother before a night out dancing; and ’90s pop wafting through a favorite restaurant. He even pens odes to Cal City basement parties and Scottie Pippen. His words reverberate with the influence of great poets like Natalie Díaz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ada Limón. A self-proclaimed amateur rapper who sometimes pins down a poem’s rhythm before its words, Olivarez additionally points to his musical influences throughout Citizen Illegal, ranging from 2pac and Kanye to Selena and the Backstreet Boys.

Perhaps the ultimate strength of Olivarez’s collection lies in the community ties that bind it. Not only do his parents, partners, and friends fold into the pages, but the structure of the text is the reflection of deeply loyal and deeply rooted relationships: All eight poems titled “Mexican Heaven” are evidence of a close acquaintance helping him split up one long piece the night before the manuscript was turned in.

Olivarez is at work editing the fourth volume of The BreakBeat Poets (forthcoming, March 2020), a multi-installment anthology highlighting “work that brings the hip-hop aesthetic to the page.” Meanwhile, he’s just starting to jot down “little pieces of languages,” progressing toward his next collection. Looking back at the art he’s already shared, Olivarez’s takeaway remains the same: “Individually, it’s very hard to progress. If you’re working communally and are really there for one another, I think that makes the journey a lot easier and a lot more rewarding, too.”

José Olivarez appears at The Bridge PAI, where he will host a community artist talk on September 11 and a youth poetry residency on September 12.