Not the Right Frame, But Many Frames: A Conversation with Natalie Scenters-Zapico

Natalie Scenters-Zapico is the author of LIMA :: LIMÓN (Copper Canyon Press 2019) and THE VERGING CITIES (CLP 2015). She is a CantoMundo, Lannan, and Ruth Lilly Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Foundation Fellow. In Fall 2019 she will be joining the faculty at the University of Puget Sound.


Maria Esquinca: The Conchita Piquer “Limon Limón” song takes on such a strong and formative role within your book: it inspired the title of your book, and also opens the book. Why did this song have such a great influence on you, and when did you first hear it? 

Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Conchita Piquer’s “Lima Limón” was sung regularly in my house by my mother, while doing housework. She learned it from her mother, my abuelita, when she was still alive, and I still sing it now and then. The song tells the story of a woman who at the age of thirty isn’t married and spends her days at the window imagining the life she might have had if only a suitor had knocked at her door. The woman listens to children making fun of her in the street below, and ends with her marrying a man twenty-years her senior. The end of the song is presented as a happy one but was always very disturbing to me.

As I worked on this collection, this song kept returning to me. I was fascinated by the fact that this was a song that was largely popular in the Spanish-speaking world of the 1940s, an obscure song that had stuck with the women of my family for generations. “Lima Limón” survives in our memory probably because of its catchy tune, but perhaps also because there is a cultural warning held within. I was always struck by this song because it isn’t physically violent towards women, as other songs I mention in the book are, yet it affected me most as a child. I was so saddened by the idea that as a woman if you ended up single you wouldn’t just be lonely, but you would be viewed as a social failure. I hated the idea that as a woman you could fail for not centering the people around you, for not creating life around you, for not nurturing those around you. I worried that I was capable of that kind of failure.

And while some women today would laugh at a song like this and point to it as a relic of an abusive past, “Lima Limón” stands out in my mind because of how little things have changed. All one has to do is look at the wedding industry, the baby industry, the dating industry to see how deeply this culture hates independent women all while wearing a Forever 21 t-shirt that reads FEMINIST in bright pink Barbie font.

ME: I was really fascinated by how you furthered the use of the limón throughout the book. For example, in “Lima Limón :: Infancia” the speaker imagines herself as a lemon: “Undress me in strands of rind.” The lemon then, becomes a source of reimagined strength, desire, and empowerment for the speaker. “I want to corrode my husband’s wedding ring.” Can you talk a little bit about the use of lemons in this collection?

NSZ: Once I let the music of my childhood, “Lima Limón” in particular, guide the collection, lemons and limes started entering my poems constantly. I mostly let them because I thought there was a lot to mine there: color contrast, shape, vaginal similarities, taste, growth cycle, and how their names are so interchangeable throughout Latin America. The image, which is broken spectrally throughout the collection, is one that can be traced in a myriad of ways and can be read as both bitter advice given to young women, as well as that which helps us swallow hard truths.

ME: You also use this “::” symbol throughout your book. It’s used in all the “Macho::Hembra” poems and “Lima Limón” poems. It’s like a visual divider between two extremes. How did this symbol come about?

NSZ: The collection plays with the idea of cultural and gender binaries to an extreme. It shows how these performances of macho and hembra, as I conceive of them, are what is most violent. The use of the :: is a way to help create a visual divider that is more permeable than the long dash in that it invites the reader to engage in an imagistic equation that can be read both backward and forward.

ME: I’m also interested in how you switch between English and Spanish. At times the speaker uses lemon, and at other times limón. They provide a way to illustrate dual identities, like Mexican and American, or male and female. Can you talk about the importance of duality in your collection?

NSZ: Duality will always play a huge role in my work because I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border in a place where duality is forced on everyone culturally and governmentally. Not just in the sense of gender binaries, but also through language, physical spaces, documentation, etc. As I stated earlier, I believe that these binaries are profoundly toxic, that they are the site of violence at our core, that they are unnatural and learned. And yet, many people fight tooth and nail to remain within those binaries, teach their children those binaries, and face people who question them with impunity. I don’t view the switching between English and Spanish as a play in binaries as much as a play with a spectrum of Spanglish that counters binaries at the linguistic level.

ME: I was also fascinated by your use of “macho” and “hembra.” Because in Spanish, it’s not usually how we describe people, it’s usually a way to describe the gender of animals. There’s a very telling line in one of the “Macho:: Hembra” poems: “He smiled & petted my head like a dog. A good hembra never speaks of the violence of men.” Why was it important for you to use those words?

NSZ: Mexican pop culture re-appropriates the word hembra the way that American pop singers like Beyoncé or Rihanna re-appropriate the word “bitch” to say “I’m a bad bitch” in English. Here I think of Jenni Rivera who was always writing about strong women by using the animalistic term hembra. I wanted to do the same in this collection, to depict the violence of using terms like macho or hembra, which are animalistic because they are terms that only consider sex and reproduction. In this collection, when I use macho and/or hembra I hope to play with how these terms are used in violent gender performances of machismo and marianismo.

ME: In the collection, the father and mother are sometimes themselves complicit in perpetuating gender violence, or overlooking it. I’m thinking of “My Macho Takes Care of Me Good” and “Sonnet Dollar.” In both of these poems the parents side with abusers at the expense of their daughter. Can you talk a bit more about why you wanted to illustrate family relationships and the  condoning of violence?

NSZ: Violence and trauma are often cyclical and learned. It is not uncommon to come from a family with physical abuse and to enter a relationship that continues that physical abuse. It also makes things complicated when you are financially dependent on your partner, or in the case of the poem you mention, “My Macho Takes Care of Me Good,” you are dependent on them legally for lack of documentation. It is not uncommon for many undocumented women to have children with men who are documented and then find themselves in a situation where they cannot report abuse to the police for fear that they will be deported and have their children taken away from them. This is another side of immigration we rarely talk about because we don’t value young, often low income, women of color.

ME: I was really struck with how you were able to depict how women sometimes internalize sexism, misogyny, etc., how women are socialized to accept abuse. “I’ve let a man whistle from the table for more beer / & brought it to him with a smile.” But I was very struck when you acknowledge that sentiment later in “The Hunt” with the line: “I will not apologize for my desire to love a macho who could crush my skull with his bare fists.” Why was it important for you to have a speaker that is unapologetic about her desire for men who hurt her? And who acknowledges her desire to be mistreated?

NSZ: I confess that I have a lot of internalized misogyny that I battle with regularly. I was told from a very young age by men around me that I was pretty and sexually desired. I was taught that there was power in the patriarchy by being viewed this way. While I was growing up even dating was seen as a road to get married. If not, you were just being used by your partner and that was seen as humiliating and shameful. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a friend’s mother worry about her for not having a serious boyfriend, as though there was something wrong with her. I also learned through observing the women around me ways to make men happy, and that by bringing men happiness, you could be happy. Violence of all kinds by men was not talked about and was often ignored even by those who were supposed to take care of you. It is not uncommon to withstand being mistreated by a man for what he and his family gives to you financially and socially.

Of course, now that I am in my thirties, I still live in the wake of all this learned violence, some of which I am still trying to disentangle myself from. I think that as long as you are a part of this patriarchal, machista culture it takes a daily practice, that sometimes we succeed at and sometimes we fail at, to empower ourselves and others. I try my best to build up women and femmes around me knowing that I was taught as a child to often view them as my competition. I do a lot of this through mentorship, letter writing, fundraising outside of the literary community (where most of us are strapped for cash), etc. The older I get the less interest I have in equality with men, as much as I do a carving out more women- and femme-centered spaces.

ME: This collection is very fearless in the way it uses violence:

One night, I was done playing hembra. I asked him to stop playing macho. He pulled me by the arm to the side of the house. With one hand across my mouth, an arm across my shoulders & the weight of his body he repeatedly beat my head against brick until a faucet of blood opened from my head down my back.

Sometimes, as a writer I’m afraid to write about violence because of how it will be perceived. Was it hard for you to be graphic? Can you talk about your writing process around violence?

NSZ: The “Macho::Hembra” poem that you quote from was probably one of the most difficult pieces to write in this collection. It actually started out as a personal essay that detailed what I wanted this book to be about. In the essay I recounted a very traumatic experience of being physically assaulted by a boyfriend on the side of my house, the guilt I felt for leaving him after this, and the trauma of having to live with the knowledge of his violent murder in Juárez. As I looked at the essay, and the collection as it stood then, I realized that while I had very interesting meditations on violence, gender binaries, etc., my personal trauma was missing. So I set out to write a series of poems that chronicled these events of my young adulthood, which became the “Macho :: Hembra” poems. I confess that I worried, in writing these pieces that contain so much violence, that they would become a series on victimhood. And as we know, often our thoughts and emotions on these traumas are much more complicated than that. Part of that complication is introducing how desire, including desire for violence, is often learned when we take on toxic gender roles based on submission.

I am also interested in the way that this question is phrased, because it sort of tells on itself with the use of that verb “perceived.” I was taught most of my life not to ever tell my stories of survived violence because I wouldn’t be believed, and if I were believed, nothing would come of it other than humiliation. In light of the #MeToo movement we are still left with this dilemma as survivors. If we tell our stories at the hands of abusers, how will we be “perceived”? I do not have an answer, but I am interested in the wrestling.

ME: In the “The Women Wear Surgical Masks,” a poem about mothers engaging in a protest regarding femicides in Ciudad Juárez, there’s a volta halfway through the poem where the speaker stops describing the scene and makes a metapoetic nod to the act of writing that poem. “I don’t want to turn these women into an aesthetic.” Can you talk about the process of writing that poem? I think a lot of writers can relate to this feeling, and I’m also curious to know if that shift was organic. Did it happen unconsciously or consciously as you were writing that poem? Why did you want to address the act of writing about the mothers?

NSZ: The poem you mention was based on a series of protests in El Paso and Cd. Juarez that I was a part of as a young college student at UTEP. While trying to write poems about the protests over a period of many years, they were written about by many others, including The New York Times. Each time I read about the protests from these outside perspectives, protests that I was a part of, something felt missing. Each time I tried to write about my experiences at the protests, something felt missing. So after a few years, I decided to recognize that sometimes stripped language is what is needed in order to write about violence. Perhaps I don’t have answers, but as someone who is deeply connected to this violence, and who feels removed from it, I am always trying to inculpate myself and others in this wrestling.

ME: On the same note, you have a few poems dealing with the femicides that have happened in Ciudad Juárez. The poem poses a series of questions around the victims, and the questions that are posed are so powerful and tragic. They do so much work—this poem is heartbreaking—but you write about this content in such a respectful way. “¿Whose daughter?” Can you talk about how femicide has impacted your life as a fronteriza and a writer? And what do you want readers to take away from the poems in your book that grapple with this subject?

NSZ: I have a complicated relationship to femicide because I have felt safe in my home in El Paso, Texas, with the knowledge that girls my age were being raped and murdered en masse just a few miles from my bedroom. This kind of close but distant proximity is one that leads to a false sense of security. I think like many young women who grew up during this time in El Paso and who were surviving other kinds of violence daily, we rarely talked about the ways that these events were all connected. For example, I participated, and still participate, in globalization, high profit capitalism, and a set of governmental policies that benefit me on one side of the border. There is little to nothing I can do to escape it; my small attempts to buy local, etc. seem futile. And yet, I participate in all of these illnesses of modernity while knowing that the comforts I get from these things are killing my sisters around the world. It’s easy to ignore the other side of this issue when you are not the one who is bleeding.

And at the same time, I participate in a very heteronormative relationship with the world that is steeped in cultural values that I have to actively question if I don’t want to lose myself as a woman. In this way, despite feeling like I was “lucky” to not have to live charged with a fear of femicide in the way that maquila workers do, this violence still came to find me through the deaths of those close to me due to narco-violence. So as much as I thought I was removed from it, safe from it, it found me when I was least expecting it. If there’s one thing that I hope readers get from this collection it’s how disposable young women are on the border and how the U.S. as a neo-colonizer, as a state that views itself as exceptional to the world, pits young men of color against each other in violent displays.

ME: I’m wondering if you can also talk about “Aesthetic Translation,” another poem about femicide in which the writer Charles Bowden is described as a “collector of violence against hembras.” I interpret this poem as a critique of outsiders who come to la frontera, particularly white men, and write books, become authority speakers regarding our communities, but then leave and are not actually invested in the lives of people of the border. This poem reminds me a of another poem in your first book, Verging Cities, titled “A Journalist’s Field Notes on Ciudad Juárez,” wherein you personify a white male journalist who’s observing Ciudad Juárez and writes, “I am disappointed that nothing more violent has happened.” Can you elaborate on these phenomena and on the idea you present that violence on the border becomes “aestheticized” by outsiders?

NSZ: I am concerned by the way that border violence is aestheticized by both the U.S. and Mexico, and how this violence can then become a fetish for the reader. AlI one has to do is look at the popularity of shows and movies like Narcos, Miss Bala, Sicario, etc. I confess to have been plagued by questions of how to write about violence in both of my books, The Verging Cities and Lima :: Limon. How to write about survived personal and communal violence without denying that they could be used by some to fetishize narcoviolence and femicide. Where do I place my own work? Is it documentary, does it bear witness to, is it a counter-monument? I don’t know that I feel completely comfortable with any of these terms.

I do think there is a distinction in the many aesthetic interpretations of femicide and border violence between writers whose imaginations are captured by the darkness of the crimes that they paint an entire place as dark, and writers whose imaginations are captured by the tensions of place and recognize the light and dark stories of that place. The issue with the first kind of writer, the one whose imagination is captured by a kind of border hellscape—here I think of the work writers like Charles Bowden—is that they want to aestheticize these crimes for the reader in a way that makes the violence recognizable to a U.S. audience, that says, Look at how beautiful I have made this violent place. Don’t you feel safer knowing that you are far away from this place?

As a young woman who grew up between these two extremes, on one side of the border, the constant sensationalizing and attempts to intellectualize the lived violence of what Gayatri Spivak would call the subaltern, and on the other side the attempt to trivialize and sexualize the disposability of young women from a lower socio-economic class, I confess I have always felt like a traitor in any attempts to write about my personal and communal experiences. The irony is that even in my most intimate poems, the ones that confess to times I have not done enough, have stood idly by in the face of violence, the violence I have survived at the hands of individuals and the state, there is always a question of framing brought on by me and by those who read it. Perhaps instead of trying to constantly find the right frame, it is about acknowledging the many frames you can use to exist in experience.

ME: What inspired this project?

NSZ: This project was inspired by a very low time in my life. I was living in Salt Lake City, teaching high school full time, and running a literary magazine with high school students from the area. I had little to no time to think, write, or critically engage in the world. In order to truly engage in a project I had to steal time from everyone everywhere I went. One of my most sacred moments was the time before and after making dinner. I would write at a table I had turned into more counter space in my kitchen. Struggling for space with my blender, pots and pans, student papers, etc. made me realize how domestic my life had become. Was I really all that different than my grandmother who was a housewife, raised two daughters, and would write in journals she kept in a messy stack under her bed? Was I really all that different than my mother who worked as an elementary school Spanish teacher, cooked just about every meal for me and my siblings, took care of the house, and would keep her watercolor paintings discarded in books around the house? Had I really built a life so different than theirs, so much more radical? It didn’t seem like it to me. So I decided to write a collection that shows violence against women that existed one hundred years ago and still exists today. It is a book of my humiliations at the hands of men and of my deepest shames, those things which I was told never to talk about.

ME: I think this collection is so important and relevant, now more than ever. However, I worry that when we have these discussions around men and women, we might inadvertently overlook other people, transgender people or gender nonconforming people,  for example, who also experience gendered violence, but the language we use might not include them. Did you worry about this? And do you think there is still room for other individuals in this book?

NSZ: I am always worried about this, and I do believe there is still room for my trans sisters in this book. However, I do think that gendered violence against trans communities should come from trans writers, not from me—a straight cis-gendered woman. This is why I do my best in everything that I curate, from literary magazines to reading series, to actively search out femme voices of all kinds and let them tell their stories. They are writing about violence too, and it is my job now to lift them up as best I can, not to tell their stories for them. This book is deeply personal, so it shows the limits of my experience, much like any personal book shows the limits of any one person’s experiences. But I do believe that this collection is an indictment of the violence of binaries by showing them in all of their force.


Maria Esquinca

Maria Esquinca is an MFA candidate at the University of Miami. She is the winner of the 2018 Alfred Boas Poetry Prize, judged by Victoria Chang. Her poetry has appeared in The Florida Review, Scalawag magazine, The Acentos Review and is forthcoming from Glass: A Journal of Poetry. A fronteriza, she was born in Ciudad Juárez, México and grew up in El Paso, Texas. You can find her on Twitter @m_esquinca.

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