JULY 28, 2019
IN HER PROVOCATIVE 2018 ESSAY “Make America Mongrel Again,” Carmen Giménez Smith explores the forms of resistance made possible by the defunct collective the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo and argues that “the term [Latinx] doesn’t necessarily emerge implicitly from within, but rather functions as a term created to confine the migrant identity of the Americas and its proximal colonies.” In her configuration, then, the term Latinx bounds (and binds) identity. Further, because in doing so the term “confine[s] the migrant identity of the Americas,” Giménez Smith suggests that as an identitarian category, Latinx does the work of white supremacy by positioning this migrant identity outside of the United States. Cognizant of the fact that “America” and “American” have come to signify the United States rather than the Americas as a whole, she points to how the conflation between America and the United States ignores the hemispheric possibilities of the terms “America” and “American.”
In another theorization of Latinx, Alan Pelaez Lopez’s “The X in Latinx is a Wound, Not a Trend,” published just a few months after Giménez Smith’s essay, we see affinities between their critique and Giménez Smith’s, both urging us to rethink latinidad and Latinx. Pelaez Lopez argues that the x stands in for the four wounds of the Latin American diaspora: the wounds of settlement, anti-blackness, femicides, and inarticulation. In writing about trans and gender-nonconforming Latin American and Latinx subjects, Pelaez Lopez writes about addressing these wounds as a way to “navigate a Latinidad that has yet to love us.” Pelaez Lopez’s fourth wound, that of inarticulation, emphasizes how “because we inherited the colonizers language paired with the silence from many of our elders, many Latinxs aren’t able to articulate their stories.”
In her latest poetry collection, Be Recorder, Giménez Smith joins together the political projects raised in both her essay and Pelaez Lopez’s. Be Recorder troubles what it means to be “American” and restores the hemispheric sense of the term while simultaneously offering a language for speaking the violence Latinxs experience in a Trumpian world. In speaking another colonizer’s language — English — Giménez Smith twists the language upon itself and, in referencing the nativist rhetoric of the Trump regime, undercuts his key slogans and ideas.
A prime example of this poetic strategy is the name of the third and final section of the collection, “Birthright.” The term recalls birthright citizenship, which President Donald Trump has tried to end via an executive order. Some hospitals in Texas have also tried revoking birthright citizenship by refusing to issue birth certificates to babies born in the United States to undocumented parents. The echo of citizenship provides a frame for thinking through the boldness and bravery of the poems in “Birthright.” The first poem in the section, “In Remembrance of Their Labors,” begins:
What is the nature of the brown artist desire for disruption? My legacy: a long lineage of / fuck-up hustlers, mostly on my father’s side. On my mother’s side: civil servants: three gen- / erations of accountants for the state. On my father’s: scamps, scam artists, pimps, criminals: perfect models for destabilization.
In thinking of a legacy, the speaker dwells on lineage — not where am I going, but where I have been. The speaker identifies, through the father’s side, with a long line of disrupters. Significantly, this lineage is not an artistic one, but one based on family ties. To create a legacy, the speaker says: “In remembrance of their labors, honest and corrupt, I infiltrate the creative class by / racializing its traditions.” The speaker does not create an artistic lineage, then, because “the creative class” is one that requires infiltration. As the creative class is not open to the racialized subject, the speaker draws upon a family legacy of resistance to theorize poetry.
In “Current Affairs,” which appears in the first section, “Creation Myths,” Giménez Smith continues to undercut key slogans of the Trump era while also launching another resistance legacy into the future. She writes,
a cannon sponsored by Red
Bull shot out T-shirts
With GPS tracking in the Make
America Great Again stitching.
We screamed yasssssssss
For a decade and that is what had happened.
The references to “Red Bull” and “GPS tracking” underscore how corporations — and capitalism more broadly — and the surveillance state undergird Trump’s nativism. In screaming “yasssssssss,” the speaker resurrects queer of color resistance as the popular phrase emerged out of drag culture, particularly the ball culture popularized in the documentary Paris Is Burning (1990). She projects this resistance into the future as the screaming lasts a decade, outpacing our current time period.
Be Recorder draws upon specific lineages to imagine better futures, demonstrating how issues of legacy persist in the collection. Roughly halfway through the second section, “Be Recorder,” she notes that a particular part of the poem is “after Pedro Pietri’s ‘Puerto Rican Obituary.’” Originally published in 1971, Pietri’s poem also appears in Hurray for the Riff Raff’s song “Pa’lante” (2017), whose music video documents the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Pietri resonates here as Giménez Smith offers her own take on the poem, which nevertheless demonstrates how nothing has changed for Latinxs. Where “Puerto Rican Obituary” begins with the lines:
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
Giménez Smith opens with “they work their fingers / to the soul their bones / to their marrow.” She echoes Pietri but also departs from his structure in her enjambed lines. Similarly, while Pietri repeats the same five names throughout the poem as a kind of incantation and a way to anchor the struggles of the Puerto Ricans in the poem, Giménez Smith names “Yolanda Berta Zoila / Chavela Lucia Esperanza / Naya Carmela Celia Rocio” as people who “once worked here / their work disappearing / into dream-emptied pockets.” In this way, both poems interrogate the American Dream and find it wanting.
References to America and to who counts as American permeate the poems as Giménez Smith questions the parameters of these terms. Another section of “Be Recorder” begins with the lines:
I became American each time
my parents became American
each instance symbolizing a different
version of being American
first is when they decided to stay
and next is the photo of my parents beaming
by a judge with citizenship in their hand.
The speaker’s narrative would seem to tell a typical immigrant story. Yet, the lines that follow shortly thereafter undermine such a story: “Though I was born in America / I wasn’t born American.” These lines shed further light on the first two lines quoted above as the parents’ process of becoming American initiates the speaker’s own process of becoming all over again, demonstrating that birthright is not enough to grant citizenship. A few lines later, the speaker observes, “I was born / foreign in America,” highlighting how despite birth in the United States and parents who have become citizens, immigrants and their children are always rendered foreign within the United States.
While this would seem to be disheartening, the speaker calls upon America in the hemispheric sense to assert a claim to the idea of America and American. In redefining America, the speaker says, “I mean the chain of land called America connected / by chains of mountains where minute threads of / the first people who lived in that America live in me.” The speaker draws upon the Chicanx strategy popularized by the phrase, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” In other words, the speaker establishes a precolonial right to the Americas based on connections to “the first people who lived in that America.” Such an argument underscores the arbitrariness of borders that divide a people from their land. Yet, significantly, such an approach happens among Chicanxs rather than Latinxs in general because of the secession of Mexican lands after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost half its land to the United States. Thus, when Chicanxs claim a prior right to the land, they do so to highlight that the land did not always belong to the United States. Of Peruvian and Argentinian descent, Giménez Smith would seem unable to deploy a similar strategy. However, in asserting a sense of belonging to America in this way, she both highlights how Chicanx claims are already a kind of imaginary to begin with (most obviously with the myth of an Aztec homeland, Aztlán, which roughly corresponds with the lands Mexico lost) and that the sense of this claim is one available to all Latinxs, regardless of country of origin.
By writing “that America,” Giménez Smith echoes José Martí’s famous 1891 essay, “Nuestra América” (“Our America”), in which he famously called for an America that rejected European and United States influences and instead celebrated the indigenous histories and cultures that constituted Latin America. Giménez Smith’s “that America,” also signals the sense that there are two Americas, though as Be Recorder suggests, one is the America we live in, the other is the America we wish for — where Latinx does not mean foreign. In recalling a rich legacy of theorizing “America” and “American,” she writes against our contemporary moment in which Latinxs are framed as new arrivals, as teeming masses waiting to cross the border. She writes, “Miss America from sea to shining sea / the huddled masses have a concern / there is one of you and all of us.” Referencing both Katharine Lee Bates’s 1910 “America the Beautiful” (“from sea to shining sea”) and the plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (“huddled masses”), this part of “Be Recorder” also alludes to Trump’s former ownership of the Miss Universe Organization through “Miss America.” In these lines, Giménez Smith also signals revolution. The “huddled masses” or “all of us” have the ability to resist “one of you.” In “Miss America” we also hear “to miss,” a longing for what America could have been, what it could be.
In “Make America Mongrel Again,” Giménez Smith writes that “Mongrel is multiplatform art that critiques, high and low culture, and deploys a pointed critique borne of dismay and urgency.” I can’t think of a better description of Be Recorder. After the 2016 United States presidential election I found myself paralyzed and hopeless; Be Recorder gives me hope. Be Recorder is necessary reading for our dark times. The collection reminds us of the rich, interconnected histories between both Americas, North and South, the one we live in and the one we wish we lived in. Given Giménez Smith’s affinity for the queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, it seems fitting to point out that rather than living in what he calls the “prison house” of the “here and now,” she urges us to strive for “a then and there,” a future we have yet to make possible, but is always on the horizon.