Border Waters: On Ayendy Bonifacio’s “To the River, We Are Migrants”

February 1, 2021   •   By Renee Hudson

To the River, We Are Migrants

Ayendy Bonifacio

IN THE BORDERS OF DOMINICANIDAD: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction, Lorgia García-Peña explores how the sea can be a border, noting that in the Caribbean and elsewhere, “the question of bordering the nation inevitably encompasses the sea from which potential threats — in the form of colonial forces or, more recently, undocumented immigrants — can arrive.” However, she also notes that the sea can also be “a symbol of freedom” as it “marks both the end of the insular territory and the beginning of the endless possibilities of a world beyond” that also emerges “as a symbol of globalization and miscegenation: a place where all the waters mix.” While the sea as a threatening border represents the view from receiving countries who fear immigrants and refugees, the sea as freedom and mixing represents the point of view from those who would leave their home countries in search of a better life.

In his poetry collection To the River, We Are Migrants, Ayendy Bonifacio explores such border waters and their implications for questions of national belonging, citizenship, and language. His poem “Lengua River” (River Tongue) echoes the “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” section of the foundational borderlands text, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). In this chapter, Anzaldúa ruminates on the violence of policing languages, mostly through English-language-only policies. She muses, “[H]ow do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it?” only to reach the conclusion that “[w]ild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.” “Lengua River” opens with this scene of violence as the speaker tells us, “Se jalan por los thick accents / pounding the voces to a negro y azul, / but not everything translates.” In a move characteristic of the collection, to understand these lines, one must read the Spanish version that follows as it “translates” the Spanish of these lines to English and the English to Spanish: “Allow them to pull from los accentos gruesos / golpeando las voices to a black and blue / Pero no todo se traduce.” While these lines are a fairly straightforward translation, as Octavio R. González observes in his introduction to the collection, it’s more accurate to call the Spanish poems “versions” of the English poems, as they function more as a “reprise,” but with a difference since the lines often vary in both the English and Spanish versions in terms of extra lines (or missing lines) as well as in the use of line and stanza breaks.

In placing “Lengua River” and its Spanish corollary, “Río Tongues,” side-by-side, Bonifacio encourages readers to consider both poems in tandem and to experience the interplay between English and Spanish in the poems. In imagining the tongue as a river, Bonifacio recalls not only the violence of taming a wild tongue, but also the freedom and mixing that water offers according to García-Peña. The speaker describes the “Babel-like / corrientes [currents] that washed my tongue, / where language is the sound of the / creek consumed by the river,” which reveals that the river tongue both waters the mouth and also makes the sounds of language. The speaker continues: “My tongues are where / the rolling rivers clatter, / where el desgastado salmón [the worn-out salmon] swims against / what belongs to aquí y allá [here and there].” If in the first quote the river tongue offers rebirth and renewal, the clattering rolling rivers in the second set of lines show the mixing of two languages and two cultures. The reference to aquí y allá recalls one of the opening epigraphs of the collection by the Dominican American poet and translator Rhina P. Espaillat, which begins, “My father likes them separate, one there, / one here (allá y aquí),” the “them” clarified a few lines down: “‘English outside this door, Spanish inside.’” The river tongue mixes the language, erasing the difference between here and there and leaving only a struggling, exhausted salmon in its wake.

The political regimes of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina and Donald Trump form the background of the collection, with Bonifacio writing about a scene during the Trujillo dictatorship in his poem “Sixteen,” where he references Trujillo by calling him “the Dominican chivo.” Chivo, or goat, was Trujillo’s nickname (as evidenced by the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2000 novel about the Trujillo dictatorship, La Fiesta del Chivo or The Feast of the Goat). Applying this term to Trump several pages later in “To Walk Backwards,” Bonifacio writes, “When the US’s chivo was elected, my littler brother picked up / the phone and asked / ‘Am I getting deported?’” Without naming either Trujillo or Trump, but qualifying the chivo as either from the Dominican Republic or the United States, Bonifacio implies that Trump, like Trujillo, is also a dictator. Writing this review shortly after the attempted coup at the Capitol building on January 6, I can’t help but think it was but a preview of what would happen if Trump ever managed to rise to power again. Yet in leaving these chivos in the background and foregrounding the speaker’s little brother’s question — am I getting deported? — Bonifacio proves the old adage that the personal is political.

Such issues of deportation and the question of citizenship arise in poems like “I Was Born American,” whose assertion in the title is immediately undercut by the first line of the poem, which begins “at the age of six,” suggesting the difference between biological birth and the birth of citizenship and national belonging. Indeed, the age of six is when the speaker lands in the United States, not when the speaker becomes a citizen, which implies a more ambiguous relationship to Americanness, an Americanness capable of emerging sans citizenship. Such a formulation brings to mind García-Peña’s notion of El Nié, which “means ‘ni es una coas, ni e la otra’ or ‘it is neither one thing nor the other,’” that “signif[ies] a space of in-betweenness for Dominicanyorks who like neither ‘here’ nor ‘there.’” For García-Peña, El Nié is “the body that carries the violent borders that deter them from entering the nation, from access to full citizenship and from public, cultural, historical, and political representation.” While “Lengua River” recalls the here and there of El Nié as well as the struggle to embody different languages through “Babel-like / corrientes,” “Ode to My Cicatrix” renders visible the violence of crossing borders as the speakers writes of a scar “[o]n my left shoulder, / you are a souvenir shaped like / a new star or a bad omen / burning ‘citizenship’ on my brown skin.” The speaker continues, “Cicatriz (cicatrix), you are the river / that naturalized me.” Naturalization doesn’t come without scars in this beautiful collection. When Bonifacio writes, at the beginning of the poem, that “[i]n Spanish, the ‘x’ is disfigured,” it’s hard not to hear in this assertion an echo of the debates surrounding the “x” in Latinx. If the x in Latinx is disfigured and disfiguring, then Bonifacio encourages us to see how the process of becoming Latinx is not without its own scars, its own violence.

“People of the Sun and Moon” is the closest Bonifacio comes to addressing what García-Peña calls “rayano consciousness,” the border consciousness born from the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In theorizing rayano consciousness, García-Peña hopes to imagine “new ways to theorize Latino/a studies,” particularly in terms of “the imagining and narrations of dominicanidad,” which she does by examining the anti-Haitian sentiment prevalent in the Dominican Republic, a fact rendered visible by la sentencia in 2013 when thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent were stripped of their citizenship and deported back to Haiti. While the inclusion of Haiti in Latinx Studies is still a novel idea, work by García-Peña and Ricardo Ortiz has started the dialogue within the field. In “People of the Sun and Moon,” Bonifacio also offers a potential entry point for thinking about both countries together. He writes, “We are a whole people / down in ese mar caribeño (that Caribbean sea), / standing with our ancestors / on auction blocks.” Here, Bonifacio links the island of Hispaniola, which is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to the longer history of slavery that joins the island with others in the Caribbean. Even more suggestively, he writes, “Qué locura (what madness) to always feel like / both sides aren’t Black, // for the face in the shadow is the same / that harvests light.” In this way, Bonifacio’s rayano consciousness acknowledges the blackness on both sides of the border to imagine a whole people.

It’s in the poem titled “The River” that Bonifacio writes a closing couplet that lends itself to the title of the poem: “To the river, we are migrants, and it / does not matter how our mouths open.” “Migrant” implies temporary movement in contrast to the more permanent immigrant, suggesting that within the timescale of the river, all movement is ultimately short-term. The line “it / does not matter how our mouths open” returns us to the enduring questions of language that permeate the collection, as the speaker points to the artificiality of borders — the river doesn’t care about differences in language and culture, how mouths open and tongues move (or refuse to be tamed).

To the River, We Are Migrants is a collection imbued with loss — the loss of countries, the loss of a father — as well as resilience. In “The Vacant Room in My Mother’s Apartment,” the speaker forgets “about ceiba trees / that coronated my childhood” and in “Shattered Windows” “end[s] up on a park bench by the swings / where no one plays, where my friend was murdered, / thinking, why didn’t I die here?” Yet, in “Other Worlds,” the speaker also says,

We were naturalized in our new world, planted
deep in the coarse concrete, growing any which
way we could, coiling around rusting fences enclosing
courtyards that no one cared enough to clear, so we called them
home.

In so doing, the speaker upends the notion of the new world — Columbus famously first landed on the island of Hispaniola — and writes a story of endurance in a world hostile to Latinx thriving. In “El Río, Mijo,” Bonifacio writes, “’[g]lioblastoma’ the doctors say, as if / to say, Pray for him, in both languages / if you can.” To the River, We Are Migrants is thus a collection of prayers — in both languages — as much as it is a collection of poetry. The opening poem, “River Piedra,” riffs on the “Hail Mary” prayer as Bonifacio writes, “Hail Many, fallen gravely, look how the desert settles over / our ancestral markings.” Yet, significantly, the Spanish version reads “Dios te salve, muchacho, ya no eres de aquí,” which translates to “God saves you, boy, but you are no longer from here.” Neither from here nor there, the speaker exists, as he notes in “King of Dirt Floors,” “in between two rivers / — no matter what side.”

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Renee Hudson is an assistant professor of English at Chapman University, where she specializes in Latinx and Multiethnic American literature.