This poem begins, like so many of my poems, at a workshop for Young Chicago Authors. I led a workshop for the Tuesday night open mic, Wordplay, featuring Natalie Diaz’s poem “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation.” The prompt was to write a poem that reimagines a myth of personal value. While the young people in workshop reimagined heaven and hell and Santa Claus and home, I scribbled the first stanza of A MEXICAN DREAMS OF HEAVEN.

*

When I returned to my scribbles the next day, I tried to build a narrative around the image of Mexicans sneaking into heaven, even though their names are on St. Peter’s list. I was still thinking about Natalie’s poem. I wanted to find a way to move seamlessly from one image to the next. I couldn’t find an energetic way to transition to the next image, so I started writing other flips of this heaven. Here, too, you can see Natalie’s influence. In her poem, Gabriel becomes Gabe. In my poem St. Peter becomes a drunk named Pedro. Soon, I had all of these different images and no way to connect them. The poem opened up for me when I stopped trying to force the sketches I had to fit into one seamless narrative. Instead, the poem would be composed of vignettes.

*

The third vignette, “it turns out God is one of those religious Mexicans,” comes from my family. My favorite part of sharing this poem was my brothers immediately recognizing themselves in this stanza. Yup, my brothers are the Mexicans partying in the basement while my mom pretends to not know what they are up to.

*

While writing this poem, and while writing my book, Citizen Illegal, I had to contend with the expectations placed on my writing because of my name and because of the first sentence in my bio: José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants. In college, I remember being frustrated because no matter what I wrote, my classmates would use the same language over and over again to describe my writing: “raw,” “unfiltered.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that my classmates were not reading my work; they were reading me.

At the same time, I wanted to write about my experience as the child of immigrants. My parents’ decision to migrate from Jalisco, Mexico, to Chicago, Illinois, is the most transformative event of my life. It is the rupture that made me a poet. It is the event that has shaped in numerous ways all of my relationships. So how could I write about this rupture, and how could I do it as a service to my people, and how could I do more than confirm the expectations the reader was bringing to my work?

One of my answers was to write A MEXICAN DREAMS OF HEAVEN, which is a way to talk about the relationship of my family to the United States. Is the United States Heaven? Is this heaven all it’s cracked up to be?

*

I want to tell you about how I got to the statement, “there are no white people in heaven.” Originally, the stanza ended after the second sentence. At that point, I thought the stanza was done. I was feeling myself. Even in heaven, white people can’t help but fuck up. I thought I was hilarious. Later when I came back to the poem, I realized the joke was on me. I had written a poem about Mexican Heaven and had failed to imagine an existence without gentrification and the presence of white violence. I revised the stanza by correcting my mistake: “i’m just kidding. there are no white people in heaven.”

*

Sometimes, white people wince when I read this poem at events. Sometimes, they cheer wildly. A fact is a fact.

*

The last stanza in this poem has echoes of my poem I WALK INTO EVERY ROOM AND YELL WHERE THE MEXICANS AT. The same scene inspired both.

*

When it came time to publish my book, I changed the title of the poem to MEXICAN HEAVEN because it’s more concise. I also split the poem up throughout the book. I split it up because MEXICAN HEAVEN is my favorite poem. I wanted the reader to come back to MEXICAN HEAVEN again and again. It’s the chorus of the book.

***

José Olivarez
José Olivarez

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, 'Citizen Illegal.' Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, 'The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT.' He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. He lives in Chicago.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply