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Wednesday Shout Out
Javier O. Huerta’s debut, Some Clarifications y otros poemas received the Chicano/ Latino Literary Prize from the University of California at Irvine. I’m not sure it could have been a contender in any other competition (except possibly for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize) because half the poems in this collection are in Spanish or use Spanish in key moments within the poem in ways that not even the context can illuminate the meaning for non-Spanish speakers. It’s a book without apologies in terms of audience: You have to know Spanish and be familiar with elements of the Chicano/Mexicano culture, no matter who you are, to fully appreciate the book. The following prose poem is a more accessible piece for non-Spanish speakers:
“Tu jefe es coyote,” my cousins said. I was only six, so I pictured Father on all fours with tongue out, panting, on the prowl. “No seas tonto,” my cousins teased and laughter spread. I tried to smile. They never heard his paws scrape, scrape our window screen. Never saw him tear up our couch or knock over the kitchen table. They never heard my father growl. They did not have to take a trip to visit the razor wire. They were not speechless when keepers opened Father’s cage. They did not spend sleepless nights dreading they, too, would grow gray fur and fangs. They did not understand. No, they never fought the urge to howl.
The opening phrase is “Your father is a coyote” (as in the wolf-like dweller of the North American desert) but not really. It’s “jefe”—a slang term for father, but also, literally, “boss,” which speaks to the dynamic of the relationship. The term of endearment becomes a declaration of influence or authority, which is an important thread at the end of the poem.
But the word “coyote” is misunderstood by the speaker: the cousins are referring to the term used to name the men (usually) who smuggle undocumented aliens from Mexico into the United States. The two identities of the father then inform his behavior and fate: the “razor wire” is the literal border fence that the coyote (man and animal) crosses in defiance to imposed demarcations of citizenship, and the “cage” is the imprisonment of the transgressor—the coyote (the man) is caught by the INS (now Homeland Security) and the coyote (the animal) is caught by Animal Control in response to the fearful residents who have built their homes over its natural habitat. The irony behind the use of the coyote as trope is not lost on Huerta.
For the speaker, the father’s transformation into a caged animal signals a possible birthright. Will he too “grow fur and fangs”? Will he too be caged for being a trespasser on this homeland turned forbidden soil?
Huerta’s book is timely, daring and a true testament of how an artist responds to the troubled times. His activism extends beyond verse, which is what a true citizen poet does. (Naysayers take note.) Huerta keeps an informative blog tracking the developments in the perpetual struggle for undocumented immigrant rights in this country. He’s currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of California at Berkeley.
(From Some Declarations y otros poemas, published by Arte Público Press, 2007.)