"The poem refuses to be a good worker"

José Olivarez and Antonio Salazar use poetry and photography to dive into the nuances of their Mexican American experience.

José Olivarez and Antonio Salazar

Mexican artists José Olivarez and Antonio Salazar are in conversation on masculinity, community and love with their new poetry and photography collection, Por Siempre (“Forever,” Haymarket Books, April 2023), while making it clear that their subjects shouldn’t be reduced to their Latinidad connection. As Olivarez writes: Now, I can’t help but be exhausted by the eternal chase to prove (to who?) (white people?) (government officials?) that my people are virtuous enough and perfect enough to receive basic human rights. The truth is: migrant people exist in an abundance of different ways. And still, they all deserve dignity and basic human freedoms.” Or, as curator and art historian Naiomy M. Guerrero emphasizes in the forward, Blanket terms and generalized categories made to encase large swaths of us under a common experience is tenuous at best.”

Por Siempre tells a deeply human story. It looks at the way a hand rests on a baby bump, the way a child bounces impatiently as their father tinkers under the hood of the family car, the ways we check ourselves in bathroom mirrors before embarking on another day. These photos and poems are playful, raw, intimate— and as American as apple pie and sazón.

—Sherell Barbee, Print Editor

Photos by Antonio Salazar

The poem is written by the son of immigrants. The poem wants
to thank his parents for migrating to the United States. The poem
knows his parents were thinking one day mi hijo va poder escribir
los versos más tristes
while riding across the border. The poem knows
he gets paid five dollars every time he writes the word border.
border border border border border border border border.
The poem knows he gets paid ten dollars every time he speaks Spanish.
Frontera. Frontera. Frontera. Frontera. Frontera. Frontera.
The poem never turns down overtime. The poem is angry
his parents migrated to the United States.
The poem knows in Mexico he would be unburdened
with being a minority. Oh, to be born lower case. Lower caste.
Lower class. The poem confesses to never riding across the border
in the trunk of a car. It happened to someone else. The poem
understands relation is relative. Relatives don’t understand the poem:
Mijo, why did you go to Harvard just to stay poor? The poem knows
he will never know the promises his parents made to stay alive.
The poem wears a mask. The mask is a bouquet of gardenias.
The bouquet is for your protection. If the poem ever dropped
the bouquet. the only thing remaining would be a fist.

the poem wants to work. listen: growing up our parents hustled. they grinded. they worked
two jobs a day & two jobs after that. their reward: more work. never enough pay. or play. couldn’t outwork
debt. or death. dear god, it wasn’t just sugar killing our parents. it wasn’t just anxiety. the poem
is tired of working. enough of grinding. what does the huevón know? life is for living. apologies
for being obvious. we celebrate our parents for working themselves down to the bone, so we can work ourselves down to the bone, so someone else can get fat off our labor.
the poem is sorry for ever glamorizing the struggle. enough of work. enough of struggle. the poem refuses to
be a good worker. the poem vows to never
be productive. huevón y flojo y qué? the only work the poem is interested in is working on a tan.
the only struggle the poem will glamorize is the struggle of cracking open a coconut without spilling any
milk.

Photos by Antonio Salazar

The poems wants you to look again.
Look again if all you see is the cracked glass
Like halos behind the lovers’ heads.
Against, the broken window policy.
Allow us to remix: all that’s cracked
Isn’t broken.
Still you want to document.
To paper the background. To background check
The building.
Nobody says gentrification around here.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it means
We have different language. A different way
Of seeing.
Like when the couple kisses in front of the door
With the broken window,
You think juxtaposition.
When all we see is love kissing love in front of
Love.

José Olivarez is a writer from Calumet City, Ill. He is the author of Promises of Gold and Citizen Illegal. Citizen Illegal was a finalist for the PEN/​Jean Stein Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. It was named a top book of 2018 by The Adroit Journal, NPR and the New York Public Library.

Antonio Salazar is a photographer based in Phoenix, Ariz. He heavily explores themes surrounding Chicane/​x identity in the Southwest through his art.

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