“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. 6: In Oaxaca, Pocho Boy Touches Roots and Studies Masks
I’m inside a papeleria, buying papel picado with my mom to build a small altar for my abuela on Dia de Muertos. Weeks earlier, I’d reached Oaxaca’s capital city–the cultural pride of our region–after a few months in South America. Compared to places like Chile and Uruguay, Mexico felt bigger, brighter, louder, spicier, and homelier–just how I’ve always remembered Mexico, the country of my parents’ births. Sin duda, there’s something undeniably unique about Mexico–an essence in the air that I don’t experience anywhere else when I travel, even throughout Latin America. It’s not just another visit on the itinerary, but a tiny constellation of planets within a galaxy of a country.
There is a haphazard carelessness and an ingenuity of spirit in Mexico that I just don’t feel in other places, a deep and profound creativity and resourcefulness to make everything work from nothing, an expression of existence like nowhere else. The feeling of life and death is more profound here, and the desperation to live creates a need to not give a fuck in the most endearing way possible. Where else have you seen someone trying to shove their motorcycle onto the back of a public bus during rush hour, while strangers help? Where can you walk down the street on the day of your arrival and happen to join a parade taking place, while lucha mask-wearing men shout “Viva Mexico” and pour you–a random foreigner–a shot of mezcal? Where else will you just sit at a food stand for an afternoon after eating a tlayuda to watch the nearby fireworks pop off as a truck of soldiers with fully-automatic machine guns circle the plaza, and smiling abuelas stroll calmly with their grandkids, and nearby group of men crack vulgar jokes in public, making you feel at peace? Everything just has a magical way of swirling into your consciousness. Really. Mexico is another planet. And depending on where you are in the country, you’ll see, taste, and hear a different side of it. Some people like the beaches and resort life; others come for the extreme adventures; some prefer the deserts with tequila; and then there’s the south, with its jungles and heat. And I happened to be in Oaxaca during Dia de Muertos–the country’s most celebrated and internationally-loved tradition of honoring deceased ancestors–looking for art and poetry.
Remember, I’m a Pocho–grew up in the States but have Mexican parents. My Spanish is good enough, and I could pass the eyeball test with my dark hair and light brown skin, but actually being in Mexico for this particular tradition was new for me, and I was just as much an outsider as the other, more overtly “faraway” visitor. Even as a dual-citizen with a Mexican mom who lives in Oaxaca, I felt very much felt like an “American”; but what Mexico does best is letting others in, and making them family with food and lots of mezcal.
In the weeks leading up to Dia de Muertos, the centro slowly bloomed from a sleepy and dusty collection of adobe buildings into an overflowing party of people from all over the world. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more proud to be Mexican-blooded, to see rivers of North American, European, Asian, and African visitors congregating in happiness, faces painted, wearing regional shirts, trying to speak Spanish, wanting to experience Mexico’s vibrancy firsthand. Sure, some of it felt like cultural appropriation and perhaps even fetishization, but I can’t knock those from places like Italy, Canada, Argentina, Algeria, Japan or wherever else the people I met were visiting from for trying to see what all the hype was about. Because at the core of it all, isn’t the point of traveling to try something new outside of your comfort zone, to be in a foreign place and learn what the local traditions are? Do it respectfully and genuinely, of course, but don’t be afraid to do it if you can–I think there are tremendous global gains to be made from these sorts of cultural interactions. Instead of sitting on a beach with a catered margarita, why not dance with the people in the streets?
So anyways, besides the partying and exploring, my mom came to stay with us, and we were inside a papeleria, on the outskirts of the centro, buying materials for an altar, and the streets outside were buzzing. Suddenly, the mom-and-pop shop owner asked where I’m from (everything in Spanish, obviously). I tell him that I’m a proud Californian Pocho, and the old man begins to talk to me about the value of Pochos–how we are able to walk among different worlds, something his generation could never do. He says I have a reason to be proud. I’m excited of course, because the OG is dropping game on me and I’m just soaking it up like a torta ahogada. I tell him about my poetry, how I’m exploring my dual-identity through writing, and he tells me about an artist from the region–a Zapotec painter named Francisco Toledo–who he thinks I’d dig. Authentically Oaxaqueño, Toledo was a painter/sculptor/graphic artist who represented his country’s indigenous heritage through visual arts, and his gallery was nearby. We checked out the gallery, and though we enjoyed it, didn’t think too much about it.
Then, serendipitously, I came across a poetry collection in a bookstore, months later: ¿Hacia dónde van los animales? (or, Where Do The Animals Go?), an anthology of poems written in honor of the Oaxacan artist by his contemporaries. Though published in 2010, it felt timeless, since the book is a “dialogue between 21 poets and Toledo’s art”–even more special now that Toledo has recently passed away. I picked out two poems that capture the richness of both Toledo and his Zapotec roots (Zapotecas are famously known for their alebrijes, or spirit animal protectors), to see what this artist’s paintings inspired from Latinx writers worldwide.
Zacatecas-based Cuban writer Fayad Jamis focused on the color animals and fauna found in alluded to in Toldeo’s work and culture. He writes: “when we see the rabbits flourishing in the fields like birds, those iguanas that illuminate the clouds with open grooves, those women running towards the river like mares or flowers; when we contemplate those paintings hanging on the walls (they are not really paintings: they are the soil after rainfall), we imagine that an autumn door opens for us… to reveal a landscape created by a man and his fire” (pg. 47, translated from Spanish). A perfect way to experience what it’s like not only to enter Mexico, but to enter Toledo’s Mexico in Oaxaca: a place of natural beauty, and exotic creatures, and land, and fire. More than anything, Mexico throws everything at us, and as artists, poets, and people, we take it and give it back as an offering.
But Oaxaca is also about masks and calavera face paint, the hiding of mortality underneath a skeleton’s disguise. Tijuana poet, Luis Cortes Bargallo, explores how Toledo’s obsession with the region’s mask wearing can be interpreted in his poem “La máscara y la noche”: “There is no theater without the mask…/ The animal who is in the mask is polished between the stitching/ of a hidden persona…/ The mouth already tired of the tireless tongue, the vision and their eyelids/ crossing through a peephole… with love songs touching the air, in the air, the truth of a face becoming clear:/ make the face, contemplate the nothingness” (111). Indeed, Mexico can just as quickly turn from being cheerful and celebratory to dark and punishing. The mask represents a side of Toledo’s Mexico that reflects both the thrill and the risk of seeking your other selves. And it is in this space, as a Pocho, that I often dwell–fighting against the “nothingness” of our daily lives by seeking out new “masks”, whether that be in poetry, in art, in travel, in family, in work. We all do this inevitable dance; however, those in Mexico do it more loudly and more openly than in, say, the U.S., where everything seems more artificial but also people seem more in denial. In Oaxaca, the approach of a death is worn on everyone’s faces, and you learn how to embrace it instead of running from it. That’s the adult version.
The kid version? Made famous in the Pixar film, Coco, much of what you might imagine about Mexico’s cultures and traditions are largely sourced from Oaxacan and Zapotec peoples. But there are limitless forms of expression that we have as Mexicanos–from pochos to paisanos–and Toledo’s is simply one version of this place. Being here, I’ve wondered: who defines Mexico, and who gets to claim it? How does the art and poetry from the different corners of this historied nation vary, and what does it communicate to the outside world? How does all this expression help us wrestle with our own mortality and create doorways into new possibilities and understandings? I haven’t found the answers, but I’m excited to chase after whatever lies ahead in Mexico.