Creciendo Juntos

Creciendo Juntos


Recently, Creciendo Juntos has recently brought to life a program titled Social Justice Through Creative Practice. Karina A. Monroy, the person behind this program, reasoned that “from poets to podcasters, our goal for these guest speakers is to provide inspiration and motivation to the Latinx community to begin their own creative initiatives for social change.”
Our first guest was José Olivarez, a Mexican-American author, poet and educator based in Chicago. His most recent and well-known book is his collection of poetry “Citizen Illegal” that focuses on his experiences of identity of being a Mexican American son of immigrants and the overlapping identities that he explores over time in his writings. His writing also shares the hardships Latinx communities faces living in today’s times in America.
On the day of Olivarez’s first event, it was expected to be raining for the majority of the day. However, that didn’t discourage the upward of 50 people who piled into the small gallery of the Bridge Progressive Art Institute (PAI) to hear his readings.
At the beginning of the artist talk, Olivarez was also surprised by the presence of his family members, who had driven in from Richmond to see his live show. This perked up his energy but also made him nervous. In the end, he appreciated it more than ever.
The following day, Olivarez had a 3-hour long workshop with the youth of Charlottesville that featured several poems from different poets such as Marhwa Helal, Morgan Parker, and many non-traditional poets that have ventured away from the traditional academia style of poetry. Another interesting note to the workshop was the inclusion of Latinx music to provide influence or guidance in our brainstorming sessions.
Originally, I had wanted to sit down with José Olivarez to interview in person. However, with a tight schedule for both parties, it didn’t happen. Fortunately, we were able to schedule a phone call and have a conversation inspired by the artists talk and the workshop.
I started the interview by asking him about his experiences in Charlottesville and if there was anything that had stood out to him in particular.
Olivarez immediately jumped into answering, “There’s two things. First, [in the] the writing workshop, I got to hear some of the stories that people have experienced in the city. [I was also able] to see the enthusiasm that people have for an open mic… I think there’s a real hunger that people have in Charlottesville for poetry and for more sharing in community dialogue.” He continued, “The other thing that blew me away that was really special was my family coming to my reading. I wasn’t expecting that, so getting to see my family was really neat for me.”
Following his comments on the workshop, I was curious about what his goals were for the workshops and if he was satisfied with the outcome of it.
Olivarez wanted to introduce new exercises and voices into this workshop to encourage students and writers to explore outside their comfort zones. “Sometimes, as writers, we can get stuck in the same patterns, so I wanted to break those patterns a little bit… Poetry doesn’t have to sound one way. It can sound in a number of voices.”
As mentioned earlier, Olivarez brought non-traditional poems into the workshop. They were poems from Black people, Brown people, and immigrants. I also want to point out that the entire audience of the workshop were students of color from the Charlottesville community. As we were reading poems from poets as Eboni Hogan (Cardi B Tells Me About Myself) or Li-Young Lee (Immigrant Blues), the students were more inclined to share their stories and found more relatable content that they were able to discuss or perceive more depth into. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was intentional. I asked Olivarez for his reasoning in bringing in these poems for the workshop.
Olivarez simply said that he happens to really love and enjoy those poems deeply. “They have different voices, and they use different languages… The way we talk every day is already poetry.” He emphasized that it’s important to introduce new ways of languages into writing.
I brought up how the participants of the workshops continue to use the same practices and exercises after Olivarez’s visit. This reminded me of how he used music from different backgrounds in the space during the workshop. I proceeded to ask why he incorporated music into the brainstorming process.
Olivarez explains that music is another example of different pattern in writing. “I think sometimes, we can associate poetry with one particular style of writing. Bringing music helps break down those patterns.”
Bringing it back to the first event, his artist talk, we discussed the commentary among the group, after his readings. I asked him if there was anything he heard that made him reflect.
“Getting questions about translating the poems into Spanish…” Olivarez began. “That is something I had been wanting to do, so hearing that again, and having my family there, was a reminder that I want to work on that.”
This prompted me to ask him if he had a translator in the works or planned on getting one anytime soon.
It turns out that there’s already a translator, David Ruano, in Mexico that has been translating some of his poems selectively. “But,” Olivarez continues. “There’s no book contract that has him translating my whole book. But that’s something we can look at in the future.”
This made me wonder if he was nervous or scared that the translation could change the meaning or vibe of the poems. I asked him about this.
Olivarez quickly started that it wouldn’t scare him that the meaning or the atmosphere of the poems could change with the translation.“The poem changes every time someone reads it.” He explains. “Every time someone reads it, it’s different than the way I wrote it…. The poems seems to have [their] own lives that people can interpret it or hear it the way they need to hear it.” He went further, explaining what he’s more concerned with, “It’s figuring out the logistics, in the sense of figuring out the financial aspect or contract details that I’m more focused on.”
After his artist talk, some of the participants were inspired and wanted to have lunch with Olivarez. We invited him out to get some local pizza at a restaurant on The Corner, and several students ended up coming. I asked him for his thoughts on our community and the spaces we had set up, now that he had had some time with the group.
“It was cool to see that people were asking if anyone needed any help in splitting or paying for the pizza…” Olivarez started. “To see the community that you all have as student, taking care of each other.” He emphasized that in certain academic spaces that are predominantly white, it’s very important for a community like that to exist.
The person who sparked this spontaneous outing unfortunately was unable to make it to the event, but this reminded me of a question he asked after the artist talk that I wanted to bring up again. The question was ‘were there any concepts (or ideas) from your writing that brought up difficult conversations with your family or parents? How did you have these conversations with your family?’.
“It’s a process.” Olivarez began, “Relationships are always developing and changing. In a different point of my life, I felt that those conversations were very difficult to have.” He went on, “But the more we continue to have these conversations, sometimes it can get easier and sometimes it can still be hard… When you have parents that make an effort [to be involved in these conversations], it’s important to keep trying…”
He made sure to stress that it’s okay to take breaks in these types of discussions, “Sometimes, if you are tired of having the same conversation about certain topics, it’s okay to disengage.” He emphasizes, “You don’t always have to keep fighting.”
On that note, I asked if he ever had doubts in his writing and if he ever overcame them. Olivarez immediately said he has doubts to this day.
Even in recent experiences, he would question his title or his achievements. “What I’ve learned is that I’m not the only one. Part of what it means to be human is, even if you accomplish things, it doesn’t always reflect in our own mind state. In terms of how I overcome it… Overcoming it is hard because it makes it sound like you can finish a process, but to me everyday it’s on a spectrum.”
As we go into discussing his writing processes, I know that a lot of poems he has written have strong and subtle themes of living in-between identities. I wonder if he had any advice for the youth that are struggling in finding comfort within their identities.
“Identity is a lot.” Olivarez empathized strongly. “It’s more complex than we usually think about. I call myself a Latinx person or Chicano. But those terms are a wide umbrella and they could also erase some differences that are important…. In all of those experiences, we have to continue to illuminate one another, because even though we belong to similar group dynamics, we also have things that are very different from each other. We should celebrate those differences the way we celebrate the similarities.”
This encouraged me to ask him if any of his identities have changed since he began writing.
“I think that writing has allowed me to fully embrace all of my identities.” Olivarez admits. “I don’t have to pick and choose my identities. It helps me to express those identities a little bit more loudly and coherently.”
After a rather long conversation, I asked if he had any final words or advice he wanted to put out for youths of colors.
Olivarez began saying that this question is a hard one. More often than not, he tries to stay away from this idea that he naturally has tons of advice. “I’m just like anyone else… I’m trying my best. Sometimes I can find answers that feel good and sometimes those answers change.” He states. “But, I think what I would want to say is that you are loved, you are not alone, and if you feel isolated- there are many of us in the United States and this country belongs to us as much as it belongs to anybody.”

Written by Elizabeth Valtierra

Edited by Tiana Sigala

Click here to read October 2019 Newsletter.

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