“Pocho Boy Meets World” is a Latinx poetry column written by California poet, Alan Chazaro. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is leaving his home and teaching job in Oakland to pursue living in South America and Mexico for the next year. For each destination, Pocho Boy will search for emerging and iconic Latinx voices to read, while documenting the textures, histories, and influences of each poet’s hometown region. Join him as he eats his share of quesadillas and uses broken Spanish in hopes of connecting more deeply with what it means to be a U.S. Latinx writer in Latin America.
Vol. 1: Pocho Boy Leaves California
If you really know me, then you know how much I love saying I’m from the Bay Area. My friends who aren’t from here must think I’m hella annoying because I never shut up about my pride for being rooted in this soil. And why shouldn’t I be proud? I’m a first-generation Latinx writer and teacher who has witnessed the aggressive gentrification and social upheaval of our communities over the past few decades, so it’d be foolish of me to suddenly go quiet in a time when local residents are being silenced and economically displaced at historic rates.
Being from California, and attempting to document this part of the country, is a big reason I started writing. Ever since both of my parents immigrated here from Xalapa, Veracruz, I’ve been marinating in a diverse culture that is known for being rebellious yet intellectual, tech savvy yet street smart, progressive yet scrappy. It teaches you how to rap along to the Humpty Dance while tracing the shapes of graffiti letters and thinking like an entrepreneur, regardless of your background. It’s a place of many contradictions, no doubt–painfully symbolic when you see high-paid tech workers blindly strolling past the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. But this friction is a part of my fabric: I am who I am because of where, how and when I was raised–the imperfect and contrasting spirit of this place–and for this privilege I am forever grateful. Whether listening to the local rappers blaring in our radios, living with neighbors who are undocumented, or learning from professors who were arrested for demanding revolution, I have been inevitably made aware of the heartbeat and struggle of being from the Bay since day one.
The funny thing is, perhaps because of how fluid the Bay Area can be, I didn’t immediately recognize myself as Latinx, pocho, Xicano, or any other form of Latino beyond knowing that my parents were from Mexico (which, as a kid, can be difficult to truly understand). I just knew I was kinda Mexican, kinda American, and never fully either. It wasn’t until I transferred to UC Berkeley as a community college student and enrolled in Chicano Studies classes that I, like many middle class pochos I know, began to fully grasp the nuances of our identities. I began to learn more about California’s history, about Mexico’s past, about what had been lost and what had been stolen, about those who had tried to regain it during the Chicano Rights Movement back in the days. During these years, I felt like someone whose consciousness had suddenly been activated, like Neo when he first unplugged himself from the Matrix and would never return to a normal life of ignorance. Since then, I’ve traveled the world with a redefined sense of purpose and self, using my poetry as not only a platform to say something that sounds pretty, but to actually investigate and explore who I am, who I was, and who I might become. Thankfully, along the way, I’ve met, read, learned from, and listened to some of the dopest pocho and Xicano poets this side of the moon.
When it comes to Mexican American poetry, there is no shortage of voices waterfalling north of el río Bravo. From the classics like Gloria Anzaldúa, Luis J. Rodríguez, and Sandra Cisneros to emerging and contemporary powerhouses like David Tomas Martinez, Erika L. Sánchez, and Eduardo C. Corral–these names just randomly popped into my coco–there are enough of us to form our own nation. Until we do that, there are volumes upon volumes of anthologies dedicated solely to Mexican American poetics (most recently, a version edited by Cynthia Cruz; props).
And it doesn’t end there. Because when it comes to Xicanismo–a term that was created in the 1960s by those who wished to identify with their Mexican heritage but also recognized their U.S. upbringing–there are variations within our variations. Are you a Texas Xicano? A Colorado Xicano? An Arizona Xicano? A Northern California Xicano? A Southern California Xicano? You get the point. And the more I meet Xicanos living in places like Chicago (what up José Olivarez!) or rural Washington (like the Republican-leaning prima on my wife’s side who we often see at weddings and reunions), the more I get to expand my burgeoning sense of self and community. In short, there isn’t simply one type of Xicano, let alone Latinx, experience. Which brings me to the final nuanced–but essential–term that helps explain us: pocho.
Simply put, a pocho is a person of Mexican descent who is either considered (at best) as not truly being Mexican or (at worst) being a white-washed cultural traitor. Though it was originally used as a derogatory term to make fun of those of us who spoke imperfect Spanish or weren’t born with salsa dancing hip magic, over recent years it has been reclaimed by artists, poets, and scholars as a term of pride and acknowledgment (special shout out to Sara Borjas for bringing it back strong). Sorta like saying, Yeah, I’m not your textbook definition of what you expect a Mexican to be, and I might not know how to sing a corrido, but that doesn’t completely eliminate my connection to my culture. It’s a term of liberation and empowerment, of declaring your awareness of disconnection in order to reconnect with a purpose. I’ve grown to appreciate it as my favorite term to describe myself, since, like I said, I wasn’t like the majority of my friends who grew up being instilled with strong Mexican values and culture. I had to find it on my own once I developed my sense of independence and creative exploration.
When I met Joseph Rios for the first time, he was wandering the aisles of AWP (a gigantic book orgy that every writer and aspiring writer attends once a year to drink, party, attend seminars, promote themselves, then drink and party some more). This year it was held in Portland–a city that was originally established to become the white mecca (take that, Pacific Northwest yuppies, not as progressive as you think!). I naturally gravitated towards Joseph because 1) he was a brown homie rocking a black beanie in a mostly white–though admittedly diverse–ocean of bodies; 2) he was literally the only person with a beer in his hand at what might’ve been 10:39am; and 3) I had heard about his poetry before and wanted to meet him, since another Bay Area writer I admire (Javier Zamora) put me on game.
Talking to him in the middle of the AWP tornado suddenly became a sanctuary. Though I’d never met him, he was super chill and we effortlessly flowed into conversation. It was one of those too-few moments when you meet someone for the first time but you feel like you might’ve known them since childhood. He reminded me of so many people I’d grown up with in the Bay Area, though he was loudly and proudly a Fresno kid.
We talked for at least 15 minutes while the conference blurred in the background, before we gave our daps then split onto separate paths. Besides listening to him drop knowledge on me about the poetry industry, I managed to snag a final copy of his book, Shadowboxing, which he dug up from the bottom of his backpack and signed with thanks for supporting my labor of love. When I got home from that trip, with at least 20 new books, his was the first I read.
Shadowboxing was all love and no labor to get through in one sitting. Though quintessentially Xicano and even a bit pocho in voice and subjects, it was unconventional in form, often utilizing imagined personas and interviews with various characters to jab at multiple aspects of his identity and place in the world as Mexican American male. For lack of a better phrase, it didn’t hold back any punches. There are suggestions of someone being beaten with a baseball bat, a memory of taking a shit in a burrito’s tin foil wrap, and a relentless search for meaning in a fragmented and unforgiving reality. But what most stood out to me from his collection of beautiful poems was his attempt to define and make sense of what it means to be Xicano, to be raised in California with Mexican blood.
In “Elegy with an X,” he enters theatrical mode–as he often does in the book–by setting the scene and providing a stage-scripted dialogue between himself and a professor at UC Berkeley (where he also attended, like I did, as a community college transfer student; are you starting to see why I vibe with him so much?). The professor, Arteaga, opens with this philosophical manifesto:
The Xicano is the subject of Aztlan the cultural nation but not the state and not the subject to capricious borderline. It is not the state of being but rather an act, xicando, the progressive tense, ando xicano, actively articulating self. The infinitive xicar meaning to play, to conflict, to work out dialogically unfinalized versions of self.
Of all my years studying and reading Xicano poetics, this description says it better than any; I’m declaring it as the official burial ground to end all questions of what it feels like to be in a body that is torn between homes, as Xicano and pocho bodies are. We belong to a psychological territory (“Aztlan”) but not to a physical place, which is equally freeing as it is exhausting. It is an “active articulating [of] self” that must come from travel, from conversation, from conflict, from listening, where we are learning how to express who we think we are in relation who we are not. It is just as much “play” as it is “work” to embrace your “unfinalized versions of self.” To me, this is a very Xicano/pocho thing to admit: that we are not only incomplete, but that we are imperfect as every version of ourselves, and in acknowledging this, it allows us to open ourselves to deeper interrogations and restitchings in search of a new wholeness.
I believe it is with this spirit of “xicando”–or in my case, pochando–that I am leaving California, home to talented poets like Joseph Rios, in order to discover what other “cultural nation[s]” exist for Latinx poets beyond my “capricious borderline[s].” I have no doubt that in places like Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and each regional state of Mexico, that if I dig deeply enough, and keep a careful eye out in each pueblo and city, I might just scratch the surface of their Aztlans, their progressive tenses, their unfinalized versions of selfhood–and what is poetry if not this ability to question yourself within the context you exist? Once I reach that point, I know I’ll have approached the gateways to understanding their poets, and therefore, their people. Just as California has forever been a region for Xicano and pocho artists and poets to cultivate our strong sense of self–complete with a mythology, an ethos, a language–I want to find out how writers in other Latin American communities have come to define themselves and their ideas of selfhood and nationality through poetics.
For the next 12 months, I’ll ask and attempt to answer: What does it mean to be a Latinx poet, not just in the U.S. but especially Latin America itself? Which poets have captured the vibrations of their homes, their neighbors, their streets? How is being Latinx defined, and when does it resist and diverge? What happens when you are no longer the most “Latinx” person in the room, but are suddenly a different type of outsider? How does this re-complicate the notion about “unfinalized versions of self”? And ultimately, how does Latinx poetics help us all to heal from the ever-widening wounds of disconnect we have from ourselves, from our parents’ native countries, and from the rest of the unbridged world?
Hasta la proxima.