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Poet’s haunting work recalls the ‘trauma’ of assimilation

What does it mean to assimilate? And in that process, what is lost?

Poet Vanessa Angelica Villarreal ​was born in McAllen, Texas, ​a city on the U.S.-Mexico border. Starting from a young age, she held a strong connection to her Mexican heritage, she said.

“Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, ​my very first impressions of a self were ​Mexican,” she said.​ Spanish was her first language​, and family cared for her in Matamoros and in the border towns nearby.

But then her family moved to Houston, where she said ​​her environment at school ​rewarded white children, encouraged full assimilation of immigrant children and over-disciplined racialized students.

“When I was coming of age, the message that I​ internalize​d​ was to a​spire to middle-class whiteness because that’s the only way you can make it in the world,” she said. “I was punished severely in the school system, shunned for carrying or signifying any kind of racialized identity, and rewarded for assimilationist behavior. Students of color often fell through the cracks. I was supposed to be one of them.”

That environment forced a distance between herself and her family in Mexico, she said. “I write a lot about the psychological trauma of grief and cultural assimilation,” she said. “I hold on to this incredible grief for the ways in which I have ​erased parts of my identity I’ll never get back, the ways that geographical ​and emotional ​distance has prevented a connection with these family members, and grief at their loss.”

Now, Villarreal’s poems bring her family’s history to light in narratives that draw on myth, magical realism​ ​and performance. “Halo of Beasts” explores the vulnerability and trauma that accompany Villarreal’s memories of her grandmother’s death.

These memories and the history they signify go beyond her own family, she said. Those relatives are “a blueprint for the stories that we carry in our blood and in our DNA,” she said.

Told through a fragmented, dreamlike collection of moments, the poem attempts to make sense of the strange reality of losing a family member and their stories. Her book “Beast Meridian,” which will explore more of these stories, will be published by Noemi Press in early 2017.

“I’m interested in filling the gaps not just in my memory, but in the collective memory that we share as Latin​x​s and immigrants,” she said. “There’s a lot that is not represented already in the canon, and there is a lot that’s not represented already because of erasure.”

You can read “Halo of Beasts” or hear Villarreal read it below.

Halo of Beasts


I.

lllMother sits among stacks of paper smoking at the table & she
lllbegins to float above us above the cut carrots boiling in sea water
lllabove half-full coffee cups. She ties us to her waist with a cordon
lllso that we can be saved from the rising.

lllI face the wall, anchored to her. When Father begins to float, he
lllcounts time forward & backward on his hands. The trees bend,
lllpress their branches into the glass & this is how I am pulled by
lllmy hair into the trees.

lllThe sea water boils on the stove top, begins to fill the house. A
lllblue crab crawls out of the pot.

lllDragged out. I call to someone, try to warn, but I am suspended
llltighter still, my hair tangled up in leafy branches, toenails twisted
lllinto roots.


II.



llllllllllllllllThe drawers in the room open themselves
llllllllllllllll& thick scarves unfold themselves & a
llllllllllllllllpair of chestnut castanets tie themselves
llllllllllllllllwith curry-colored yarn & bleach &
llllllllllllllllfabuloso faint on the air & a fork pierces
llllllllllllllllthe egg that swollen sun & cut potato
llllllllllllllllscorched salted on oiled edges of
llllllllllllllllabandoned plates.

llllllllllllllllCancered, a red hair felled from her head
llllllllllllllllplaces itself, like saffron, into a pot of rice.

llllllllllllllllArchaeology is like this: polished jewels in place
llllllllllllllllof hearts, threadboned ribs in some forgotten
llllllllllllllllflight.


III.

llllllllllllllllthe baby swaddled tight as
lllllllllllllllla tongue in my father’s arms
llllllllllllllllfish-cord

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllwhy is he so dark
llllllllllllllllllllllllthat darkness is not our blood

dolor, todos estos dolores

llllllllllllllllAnd not the first
llllllllllllllllto give us a stone to swallow.

llllllllllllllllOur bellies are filled
llllllllllllllllwith white stones.

llllllllllllllllI wake each day
llllllllllllllllheavier and

llllllllllllllllbrother brown fish
llllllllllllllllalso swallowing

lllllllllllllllland so I tell him,
llllllllllllllllswim up!

llllllllllllllllLift your song to the morning,
llllllllllllllllfish-cord, and

lllllllllllllllllltyphoon the world for your flight.

Vanessa Angelica Villarreal was born on the Rio Grande in McAllen, Texas. Her work has appeared in Waxwing, Caketrain, DIAGRAM, The Poetry Foundation Harriet blog, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is a CantoMundo Fellow, and her book, “Beast Meridian,” was a finalist at Nightboat, Futurepoem, Saturnalia, and Willow Books, and is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2017. She came up in Houston, Texas.

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