Thursday, January 18, 2007

Guest Columnist: Lisa Alvarado

[Note: Lisa Alvarado's (with two co-writers) novel, Sister Chicas, was reviewed by La Bloga in May 2006. It's a pleasure to welcome Lisa as our Thursday guest.]


It's a specific and singular description, it is a political distinction, un sabor especíal.

My story has its roots in Mexíco, transgressing the border, morphing into a passion play in America. But I'm not American in the quintessential sense, certainly not Anglo. This story is about hunger, longing for a mythological homeland, in both Mexíco y la tierra Azteca, hidden en un libro de papel picado. This article is about an identity split at the roots, straddling the border, an identity that is fed by Aztlán--southwest desert, standing under an open sky on at a crossroad in rural Oaxaca, and finally by urban asphalt in Chicago.

Like so many second generation children of immigrants, I was raised to be 'successful'—to speak English---English first, English only. I lived in a world of hot dogs and carnitas, cerveza and yard parties, comic books and prime time TV, but there was always something missing. My parents spoke English only in our house, English with a vengeance. And they clucked their tongues at me when I tried to talk in Spanish con unos de mis abuelitos.

And for all the effort to be upright and middle American, we couldn't pull it off---we loved our music too loud, shimmied too much when we danced, cooked with epazote and savored chorizo and nopales. We never fit, we never meshed, and somehow I knew there was an answer somewhere in the geography of my grandparents' faces, las caras ancianas, las caras índias. But I needed words as the key, I needed what Spanish I could find, wherever I could find it.

When I was a teenager, I snuck off and learned what snatches of phrases and sentences I could from my grandfather, glimpsed into a family history rarely talked about in a mix of English and Spanish. My parents chided me, teased me. After all, we were an American family living in our Chicago northwest-side two-flat. What mattered was that we were here and we were making the good life happen. I never argued with my parents about their choices, they worked too hard to pay the mortgage on that red brick with the driveway, worked too hard to feed us, clothe us, send us to Catholic school. Instead, I developed a secret life, I thought that my guilty pleasure, these talks on the sly would satisfy me. Little did I know that the opposite would be true.

I said before that this was a story about mythology, and it was, it is. I romanced mis raices Mejícanas y Chicanas, drew strength from them. Before I became a writer, I spent years as a campus activist, agitator, union organizer. As a writer, however, I began to find flesh for the bones, the juicy, lush curves of language, of history. But somehow, it was a step removed, real and unreal like the state between dreaming and wakefulness.

Years passed and I found that the verdant landscape of language had seduced me. I became a writer, hoping to touch the hem of the skirt of history and ancestry. Mexíco gave me birth, in blood and pain, in ecstatic and arcane knowledge, in joy and sorrow, but I live some where else, beyond Mexíco, somewhere even beyond Aztlán, although I feel its tethers, too. As an adult I lived in D.F., traveled in Oaxaca, visited New Mexico and Colorado, but there was always something missing, something I now know I had to find in myself, in Chicago, something about heritage and identity that is both seeded in the bones and something I choose to create every day.

Now, at mid-life, I am more at peace with the way these worlds have collided, perished and continue to be reborn in me. I speak what Spanish I can without shame or guilt, I dig deep for the things that nurture and fill me, here in Chicago, and in the real and imagined sojourns to a place called home.


In this dream,
I am whole.
I am no longer
saving other people's stories,
scavenging their words,
sifting through their remains.
In this dream,
My fingers run
through Frida's hair.
In her hair I plait dark flowers
the color of blood.

She tells me
the jaguar comes to bring me power,
the medicine to end this pain,
the food for this hunger.
In this dream,
I have made magic from the mud of the Rio Grande.
Wrapped in corridas and ranchero music
are spells and incantations
to undo the age of forgetfulness and indoctrination.
In this dream,
I have a lover whose face is stone,
ancient as a temple marker.
His mouth is full,
his eyes half-closed.
He whispers:
Come to me, mi índia,
mi pequeña perdida.
Remember who you are,
Remember who you are.

Mexico: ninety days and counting or You really can't go home again

iridescent electric pink
line the boulevard
next to where
someone's pissing
right in the middle of the day
yesterday's pozole
slick and greenish
stains the street
around the corner
from the Monument to the Revolution
there a golden angel
looks down on prostitutes
with imitation Chanel bags
and taxis are
green and yellow beetles
carrying sour businessmen
who ask the teenage pimps
how much
the cross-eyed
boy in the Lucha Libre mask
stares at me
and runs past barefoot beggar children
in clown makeup
but the clowns never smile
and they're on every corner
they block the path
of women gong to work
wearing not quite
put together
cheap copies
of clothes they saw
in Vogue or Cosmo
but nothing really matches
they always wear
white heels
or a belt with a giant buckle
and the requisite miniskirt that makes
their ass stand out
to that the pesero driver
with one gold tooth
always holds their change for just that extra second
I don't get the shits
but baby-faced doctors run IV's in both arms
for migraines and food poisoning
the fat man who served me
chiles rellenos
laughed at my buzz cut
and winked
when he slid me the plate
outside the ER
stand private guards
with tight lips and clenched pistols
working their job
they scowl at the howling sushi delivery boys
on motorbikes
who rush to the bar for a quick one
in between deliveries
inside the Museo Bellas Artes
I see the outstretched arms of Rivera's peasants
and refuse the outstretched arms
of the Indian sitting at the bus stop
I clutch my postcards
with Frida's self-portraits
the one with red dress
the one with the hammer and sickle body brace
down the street from my favorite helado stand
the one with flavors like guayaba, mango, cajeta
a man grabs my crotch to see
if I have any balls
I almost knock over
a tianguis stand of charro Barbies
the seller's daughter
a girl with an olive oval face
blinks her long lashes in disbelief
What is this American doing here?

Lisa Alvarado is a poet, performer, and installation artist, focusing on identity, spirit, and the body. She is the founder of La Onda Negra Press, and is author of Reclamo and The Housekeeper’s Diary, originally a book of poetry and now a one-woman performance, and is the recipient of grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs, The NEA, and the Ragdale Foundation.

The Housekeeper’s Diary, which dealt with her experiences as a domestic for one of Chicago’s wealthiest families, premiered nationally in Washington, D.C. in 2001, as a co-production with Sol y Soul and Gala Hispanic Theater. She has performed through out the U.S. and in Ajijic, Jalisco in Mexico. Lisa and her work have been featured in the Reader, The Chicago Tribune, Latino USA/National Public Radio, and Public Radio International. Her writing also received critical acclaim from such authors as Luis J. Rodriguez, who wrote..."...she is a fine poet, able to addresses deep concerns in crisp, trenchant language...The Housekeeper’s Diary...casts its spell on you...You will never see domestic work with the same eyes....”

Lisa has also completed an ambitious trilogy of performance pieces, REM/Memory, Bury The Bones and Resurgam, whose themes are the culture of violence, popular culture and personal redemption.

Her first novel, Sister Chicas (written with Ann Hagman Cardinal and Jane Alberdeston) has been bought by Penguin/NAL, and was released in April 2006. Sister Chicas is a coming of age story concerning the lives of three young Latinas living in Chicago.

Lisa: Welcome to La Bloga. La Bloguera and Los Blogueros look forward to your second column, next Thursday (January 25).

Please join us on Saturday, January 20, for a guest columnist. It will feature children's literature.

Don't hold back, gente. La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. Share your ideas, literary pieces, cultural observations, reviews and critiques. Don't hold back, hace clik


Anonymous said...

Qué bueno I took a break when my replacement could turn out to be Lisa of Sister Chicas fame. I'll only worry that the caliber of posts might be montones higher than mine.

Great way to take the reins, Lisa, with your bio intro. We should always do that--give readers more reason to read the LBN (La Bloga Newbie).

"Chicana . .. a political distinction, un sabor especíal." A great opening: wish we'd thought of it as a Bloga slogan.

We're lucky to have her, Bloga World; welcome her accordingly.

LBN, espero que en tu viaje con nosotros, nunca terminen los sabores singulares.

Manuel Ramos said...

Great way to start -- excellent post. Welcome to La Bloga.

Gina Ruiz said...

Bienvenida! I love the phrase, "the juicy, lush curves of language, of history" it's so evocative and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Lisa: I enjoyed your post very much, as well. I get to Chicago once a month for PALABRA PURA a reading series for Latino/a poets that I co-curate. The series is a year old and we're trying to develop the open mic portion of the series more this year. Might you consider coming to read in it one night, and then being a feature later on? Are you aware, as well, of Proyecto Latin@ in Pilsen?

In short, I'd like to meet you.