Sunday, July 16, 2017

Blessed Be: The Poetry of Yaccaira Salvatierra

Olga García Echeverría

Poeta Yaccaira Salvatierra

*Earlier versions of the following poems previously appeared in Cheers From the Wasteland, Huizache, and MiPOesia


Blessed be the Spanish overlooked on a page—hanging
on to tips of tongues, so they are not swallowed
and lost.

Blessed the bending of backs amid yesterday’s
and tomorrow’s dawn: a thousand diagonal arms
reaching for alfalfa or kale in unison, in silence.

Blessed be the midnight blue paisley handkerchief
protecting a woman’s grandfather from sunrays
piercing like endless needles searching
for skin among Salinas and Watsonville fields.

Blessed be the midnight blue travel on the Greyhound:
San Diego, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Los Angeles.
When the angels arrived at the Greyhound stations
of various destinations, they quickly began to look

for a woman entangled in her grandfather’s language
and her country’s, one sounding like barks
muffling the other trailing farther in the distance.
Having lost their sense of direction, the angels thought,

Blessed be these urban cities and not-quite-yet cities.

Then, the angels returned to their terminals, wings tucked
into their corduroyed jackets as they made their way
down narrow aisles of midnight blue seating.

Once, her grandfather said: Guided by the song
of your voice, angels will protect you. Once, he said:
Reza todos los días y canta alabanzas aunque
no tengas una vela, para que no te olvides. 

And she lights a candle in memory of his song.

And she prays soft and steady every night for those
trailing in the distance.

And she knows she will never be a greyhound
under the midnight blue, yet runs, pacing herself,
so she does not tire from guiding her own children
towards the songs of their grandparents’ understanding.


Lola learned to wear a dust cloth
like a white glove
and an apron like a red dress
she twirls in her mind
when she sings an Héctor Lavoe song:
Pronto llegará
el día de mi suerte.
Sé que antes de mi muerte,
seguro que mi suerte cambiará.

Close by, her employer
discards junk mail
like a pile of dead leaves
while listening to Lola sing
a song he does not understand.
She must be content,
her employer thinks,
but when asked to work on Sundays,

Lola has learned to say I can’t.
Maybe she is not content,
he rethinks.
What he doesn’t know
is that Lola has a daughter in Perú—
that the language of her song
is a silence in her heart,
or that she makes wings                

from every dollar she is paid,
and on Sunday mornings,
she opens her windows
and lets them fly south.


Pigeons hovered as we lowered your casket next to your gravestone;
they filled their silvery-purple chests, spewed a lullaby into your stone grave.

Grandfather, you once told me that no song of lament to any Saint
could stop pigeons in Mexico City from having the sky be their gravestone.

As a young man working in the city, a pigeon fell next to your feet,
so you left for the Central Valley: clean air and a small bed for your grave.

I had seen pictures of you younger, sunburned, always wearing huaraches—
your toes filled with dirt like that brick-color dirt under your gravestone.

When you were much older, living off of your Bracero’s pension, you
went to church every day, saved money every month for your gravestone.

Sometimes you went to mass without your teeth, said evil spirits hid them,
but it didn’t matter, you still prayed when you thought of your name on stone.

You always cooked a pot of pinto beans and made soft flour tortillas for us—
I think I’ll put a bag of beans and white flour next to your gravestone

instead of lilies.

  I carefully placed your portable stereo in the grave so you
could listen to Vicente Fernández sing a ranchera under your gravestone,

hear him cry the Mexican yodel—I don’t think I ever saw you cry, Salvatierra,
but at your burial, we cried your favorite “Chente” song over the bed of your grave,

Yo sé perder, yo sé perder, quiero volver, volver, volver.


One of my favorite names in the world is currently Yaccaira Salvatierra. It's a name I imagine we could torture some white supremacists with. It's fierce, poetic, and unapologetically muy Latino Américano. Yaccaira Saves the Earth. I met Yaccaira this past April at LitHop in Fresno. We were both part of the reading Damas, Sirenas, and the New Beats of El Corazón, which also featured the talented poets Nancy Aidé González and Marissa Raigoza.

This past month, I had the opportunity to read some of Yaccaira's poems and interview her via email. Of course, the first question I asked her was about her name. Here is our guest featured poet sharing a little about herself and her work.

LitHop Fresno 2017: Yaccaira, Yo, Nancy, y Marissa (our group organizer and Loteria Queen)

Welcome to La Bloga. How did you get such an awesome name? 

First, thank you for the compliment, I truly feel fortunate to have been given this name. My birth name is Yaccaira Hortencia de la Torre Salvatierra and, as you can imagine, it has not only been butchered but I have lived under different variations of my name because of its uniqueness, but I feel that Yaccaira Salvatierra holds all of me, the Peruvian and Mexican history of me.

You write about your maternal grandfather in your poem "California Hymn." Is that where the Salvatierra comes from? 

My father is de la Torre and my mother’s maiden name is Salvatierra, which is gorgeous and painful considering that my grandfather, Teodoro Salvatierra, worked on California lands as a farmworker for years while my grandmother and aunts stayed in México. I suppose a literal translation to his name could be “Teodoro saves the earth,” but metaphorically it truly embodies his life as a Bracero, which is filled with irony because my aunts and grandmother lived in poverty in México, and because of the poverty we endured when we moved back to the US when I was two.

And Yaccaira?

According to my father, Yaccaira (pronounced Ja-hi-da), is Quechua for a cemetery of flowers or a place where spirits congregate. It basically describes a burial cite. It’s poetic and haunting, but when I visited Perú for the first time—my father has never returned, he left in his thirties—my family who also speaks Quechua, did not make this correlation. As a matter of fact, and with reason, when I asked, they were more interested in wanting to know about my father, all the years that had passed, and his guitar-playing days as an apprentice to a well-known guitarist in Perú. They wanted to reminisce about his years in Perú with me, his first and eldest child, the closest they will probably ever be to him again. That first day, my family gathered in a circle and they took out a guitar. One by one, my uncles played a song, sang, and said something in Quechua or Spanish about a memory of my father. It was a beautiful moment, which left me with more questions about him.  For now, my name holds that mystery, it’s the Peruvian part of me I know little of, the spirits I need to unveil to know my father’s story. Salvatierra is honoring my Mexican family, the beginning of where I start in their story.

What was your first connection to the creative word?

I was born into a very unstable home where it was common and natural for me to retreat within myself, disconnect from those around me and find solace in my solitude.  Even before I knew how to write, I was making up songs about how I felt. I remember one of the first poems I expressed was in song and in Spanish. It was about a dandelion, a wild flower, which in Spanish is called diente de león directly translating to lion’s tooth.  To a child, that image can be frightening, but to me it was wonderful; however, I changed things around in my song. The blades of grass were lion’s teeth protecting this wildflower, or flor silvestre—that’s such a beautiful word: silvestre. I once heard my mother say that cada espíritu nace con su canción, each spirit is born with its own song and I think mine is of sounds and words.

Do you remember writing your first poem?

By second grade, I did eventually write my first poem, but I didn’t know it was a poem then. I grew up Catholic and in the church. Around that time, someone at our church was leaving, someone who was dearly loved by everyone, including me. During one of our Sunday school classes we were asked to make farewell cards filled with pictures or writing. I don’t remember what I wrote about, but I remember it was a child’s sincerity and sadness. When I gave it to Irma, my Sunday school teacher, she showed it to her husband who was there and said, “Tienes que leer este poema que escribió Yaccaira.” “You have to read this poem Yaccaira wrote.” I suppose that would be my first written poem.

Lucille Clifton reminds us that poets have been around long before academia and classrooms. She says that it's important to remember that perhaps “poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, 'Ahhh.' That was the first poem." Who are the untraditional poets/dreamers/storytellers in your family who have influenced you?

There is so little I know about my family, and so much I want to know, so much I feel needs to be documented for my sons and their understanding of themselves in this world, particularly the United States. For example, my father left Perú in his thirties, but the reason for him leaving is filled with so much mystery, and to this day he will not talk about it. He was also once a guitarist, but he stopped playing when he stopped drinking. I was ten years old then. Because he's always been reserved and secretive about his life, my three older brothers and I made up stories with the bits and pieces we did know of him. Poetry is like this for me. I remember when my father would drink, he would go into a bedroom and play his guitar and I would sit outside of the door.  I would hear him sigh after a song, and it was in those sighs I felt I was entering into his life, one that was meant not to be shared but I wanted to know so much about. On the other hand, my mother has always been an avid reader, a great storyteller, but mostly about her life, that of my aunts, or about spirits. Lots of them.  Ultimately, I am drawn to the stories as a way to better understand them, especially since my childhood was so tumultuous.  

What is your greatest challenge in writing? What is your greatest pleasure? 

My greatest challenge is finding time to write, or trying to keep a schedule. I am a parent, a teacher, and a writer. The balance is so difficult because I many times choose my sons’ needs over mine. I feel it is a spiritual necessity; I am not only having to fulfill my spirit’s longing, but I have to guide that of my sons’.  In addition, I am a single parent, which makes finding time and keeping a schedule even more difficult. I used to have this routine where I would write Saturday and Sunday mornings early while they were asleep; however, I’ve always preferred to write at night. Truthfully, my heart goes out to single-parent artists with little support, or without a co-parent. It’s not easy.  My closest friends are dancers, musicians, or writers, and they live following their spirits need to create.  It’s an imperative to their survival. So, it’s not easy for me, but my two sons have also been one of my greatest pleasures. I have learned so much from them; they have gifted me with more insight into humanity, which is priceless.  Besides, I am enjoying watching them become young men with the need to create.  One of them has the gift of writing and art, and my other son finds happiness in photography and digital music production. And, of course, I find a lot of pleasure in writing a poem.

Pigeons often appear in your poems. Is that one of you animal spirits? 

I have not had a professional vision quest of my spirit animals, but the rock pigeon has to be one of them.  Ever since I was younger every time I heard a pigeon coo I felt it was a message that things were going to be okay, or that my spirits were close by watching out for me.

Thank you, Yaccaira. Here are some pigeons for you. Blessed be tu vuelo! 

Yaccaira Salvatierra is an educator and art instructor living in San José. Her poems have appeared in Huizache, Diálogo, Puerto del Sol, and Rattle, among others. She is a VONA (Voices of Our Nation) alumna, the recipient of the Dorrit Sibley Award for achievement in poetry, the 2015 winner of the Puerto del Sol Poetry Prize, and a nominee for a Pushcart Prize. Although she has lived in over seven cities in California, San José has been home for the past 17 years where she lives with her two sons. (5:00 p.m. at Hart’s Haven Used Bookstore, 6:00 p.m. at Spectrum Art Gallery)


Alma Luz Villanueva said...

Wonderful poemas... y que bonita nombre.
Alma Luz Villanueva

Norma Elia Cantú said...

Gracias, Olga....y Yaccaira! About your name...could it be a variant of Yahaira? Love the poetry, too. Adelante!