black & brown bodies are “illegal”: this book delves into the violence of marginalization & assimilation

June 29, 2018
By Arielle Gray, AFROPUNK contributor

I received my copy of Jose Olivarez’s “Citizen Illegal” on June 2nd, roughly a month after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. It seemed like peculiar timing- as I read “Citizen Illegal”, Western news was flooded by visuals of separated families, children detained in Walmarts, all images eerily similar to ones we’ve seen before. You feel that familiar darkening at the horizon woven into Olivarez’s work- he’s able to masterfully encapsulate the snarling teeth of white supremacy, growing cancerous in a stunted society.

But in “Citizen Illegal”, there is light too.

The book kicks off with “(Citizen)(Illegal)”, a series of questions that critique the tenuous dichotomy between being a “citizen” and being “illegal”. What does being a citizen really mean, living in a brown body? And even if you do adopt more Westernized practices, how does that change how brown bodies are viewed in a white society? Olivarez exposes and dismantles these constructions slowly throughout his chapbook, brick by brick. With a searing precision, he takes aim at the American paradigm and how “folding” oneself to fit into it is fruitless. Pieces like “Mexican American Obituary” and “Mexican American Disambiguation” unravel the insidiousness of white supremacist induced self-loathing and the silence of anti-blackness.

Olivarez has a certain type of ingenuity when using metaphors. When he approaches well-worn topics like racism and xenophobia, he uses surprising parallels to talk about them. Wolves and Wolverine make appearances in “Citizen Illegal”, apt metaphors for the anger that floods so many of us when living underneath the weight of racism. White supremacy and America become the “snow” and “cold”, uninhabitable and unwelcoming environments for both Olivarez’s family and his culture as a whole.

Many of the pieces throughout the book answer each other. Olivarez’s dad and his belt make multiple appearances in the form of two poems that explore the complicated relationship between father and son. “River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” are bookend commentaries on the simultaneous belittlement and appropriation of Mexican culture, by the United States. “Mexican Heaven”, a series of 7 poems that run throughout “Citizen Illegal”, all portray different versions of what a Mexican heaven would look like if materialized. Olivarez writes quiply, “there are white people in heaven…& (they ask) the Mexicans to speak English./i’m just kidding./ there are no white people in heaven”.

While “Citizen Illegal” is a poignant commentary on White Supremacy and racism, the chapbook is just as much a testament to growing pains, to heartbreak and to love. “You Get Fat When You’re in Love” and “Love Poem feat. Kanye West” are the type of poems that hit you hard in the chest because you’ve lived them time and time again. The stark helplessness yet the hope in “Not Love is a Season” reminds you that while pain can be all-consuming, it is only all-consuming for a short while.

What makes “Citizen Illegal” such a necessary read is the familiarity of it. As the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, I relate to the starkness of losing my culture through assimilation. It has always been illegal, in some form or another, for black and brown people to exist fully in their bodies. The United States has spent hundreds of years tearing families apart, of hypocritically claiming the gains of POC while denying us our basic human rights. Even if you are a citizen of the US, what does that mean when our bodies are disproportionately disenfranchised and used for target practice? What we consider “legal” is only a system of laws built on upholding white supremacy.

Check out “Citizen Illegal” for yourself when it drops September 4th from Haymarket Books.