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How poet Ariana Brown became the Afro-Latina role model she needed

Poet Ariana Brown is the role model she needed.

Growing up in San Antonio, Brown said she struggled to find other representations of herself — an Afro-Latina woman from a working class family — both in her community and literature.

“I remember reading books and being so invested in the characters and the story, and then I would get to a certain line in the story where it would describe what the character looked like. And then I would realize, this book is not talking about me,” she said. “Part of my work is to always go back for little girl Ariana and figure out what it is she needed that she didn’t get.”

In high school, Brown picked up the autobiography of Malcolm X. He was “someone who was also working class, from a poor family, a family of color, who didn’t have access to opportunities, who came from a neighborhood where you weren’t expected to excel,” she said.

Reading about the way Malcolm X used language to command attention gave her a road map for her own future, she said.

“If he could master that one thing that is accessible to everyone, then he could move an entire nation of people. That idea was really powerful for me, because I didn’t feel like I had access to anything,” she said. “I knew if I could just get this language thing right, then I could figure out a way to make it in this world.”

She began with poems that grappled with her life in a predominantly Mexican community, taking the stage at the school where she felt bullied, she said. In 2011, she won a spot on her first slam team and performed at nationals.

Brown’s poem “Inhale: The Ceremony” speaks to her relationship to her ancestors, a history that she said is often unacknowledged or disrespected. “I’m never racialized as Latina. I’m always racialized as black. My whole identity isn’t acknowledged [and] I’m assumed to be an outsider in almost every space I enter. That is a very isolating feeling,” she said.

The piece imagines Brown at a poetry reading, bolstered by the unseen force of her history. Making that history visible, for herself and for others, is an important part of her work, she said.

“The world is trying to tell me that my connections to my ancestors don’t exist,” she said. “I really want to acknowledge the intersections that history tells me aren’t there. Because I know that they’re there. The more that I dig, the more I believe that the people you’re told don’t exist in certain spaces always exist in those spaces.”

To the same end, Brown is currently working on a manuscript of poems that looks at the conquest of the Aztec empire through the lens of black politics. “A lot of the work I’ve been doing has been excavating history that was lost to me in some way, reckoning with it, confronting it, making the connection, and then hypothesizing survival from there,” she said.

You can listen to Brown read her poem or read it below.

Inhale: The Ceremony

“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” – Chinua Achebe

i take the hurtful
poem to the reading.
the one about
cortes or death
or how i am running
out of language
& there is so much
left in the story
to tell & the room
opens its skin to
its bleeding heart & i
reach in, coaxing
the flood.

someone else
is reading & the
walls shimmer
with my kin.
they burst
from the room’s
skirts, heads
pooling at
the surface,
climb in rivers
down the walls.

i can’t say
their names
so i inhale;
& everyone
is here —
swirling tulips
splashing at my feet,
bearing sweet giggles
and fresh bread, blades
in their cheeks, weather
for names. the room
bends its crooked finger,
pulls me close.

the elders brought
sage & know
everything i am
going to say.
i fall into liquid
make wet every
& nothing
is lost.
nothing was
ever lost.

there was never
any magic; there
was never this
body or its wound,
there was only
& the stories
we passed
through it.

Ariana Brown is an Afromexicana poet from San Antonio, Texas. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a member of the winning team at the 2014 national collegiate poetry slam. Ariana is currently working on her first manuscript and pursuing a degree in African & African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies at UT Austin. Her work is published in Huizache, Rattle, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and is forthcoming in ¡Manteca!: An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets from Arte Público Press.