Tim Z. Hernandez is an award-winning author, research scholar, and performer. His work includes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays, and he is the recipient of the American Book Award, the Colorado Book Award, and the International Latino Book Award. His work has been featured in Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, C-Span, NPR’s All Things Considered, and other publications. In 2011, he was named one of sixteen New American Poets by the Poetry Society of America, and most recently, he was recognized for his research on locating the victims of the 1948 plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, the incident made famous by Woody Guthrie’s song of the same name, which is chronicled in his book, All They Will Call You. Hernandez holds a B.A. and an M.F.A. in Writing & Literature from Bennington College, and he is an Associate Professor with the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual M.F.A. in Creative Writing. He was born and raised in California’s Central Valley, but now lives in El Paso, Texas with his two children. You can find more info at www.timzhernandez.com
“True contemplation is resistance.” So said Nicaraguan priest turned poet, Ernesto Cardenal, while gazing at clouds from a jail cell. With this epigraph, Mr. Hernandez invites readers to enter his new collection of poetry, Some of the Light, featuring new and selected poems. Indeed, what follows are deep ruminations, many of them penned during the pandemic, as evidenced by titles containing dates during the contagion’s first year.
Tim Hernandez is a multi-disciplinary artist and an award-winning author of seven books, including the documentary novel, All They Will Call You, a text that mixes investigative journalism with fiction to tell the stories of the Mexican Braceros killed in a 1948 plane crash. Although the border patrol agents and the pilot were named after the accident, the deportees were not. Woody Guthrie memorialized the incident in a song, exposing the casual way in which they were forgotten. Mr. Hernandez sought to find them. The project not only became a book, but a mission to identify the individuals killed, search for their families, and thus restore dignity to their tragic deaths.
But these poems aren’t solely about living with COVID-19. His poems apply a wide-angle lens on society’s ills and challenges—the racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the harshness of detaining immigrant children at the border, and the deeply personal territory of single fatherhood, while imparting wisdom, beauty, and slivers of hope.
In February 2023, I interviewed Mr. Hernandez by email to discuss his new work. Our exchange was lightly edited for style and brevity.
Sara Campos: You are an award-winning artist whose works take many forms. You’ve worked as a visual artist, muralist, performance artist, poet, and fiction writer, and I’ve probably missed a few genres. In Some of the Light, you tackle some of our most pressing concerns. Why pour these issues through the sieve of poetry as opposed to other art forms? What is it about poetry that serves these topics well?
Tim Z. Hernandez: I don’t really see it “as opposed to other art forms,” it’s actually in collaboration with other art forms. It’s just the way I process things. As an artist, I’ve always strived toward a borderless approach to art making. If a subject speaks to me, it’ll intuitively lead me to a paint brush, or a laptop, or a stage, etc, and I surrender to that pull. Oftentimes it’ll morph: a painting will turn into a poem, or a poem will grow legs and walk onto a stage. I usually start with language though; it helps me first articulate the idea, but from there it can grow in any direction. And once I feel like I got the idea right, or said what I needed to say, then I know it’s time to let it go. And that’s when it either remains a poem, or painting, etc.
SC: In “Refraction #2,” you write: “In these halls the word love echoes like a myth. / As if years ago, in some distant land, existed two birds, who tried forging themselves into one, / but wound up resentful at the impermanent nature of flight. Right now, the parents of 14,000 children in cages / still believe in such miracles.”
The topic of immigration and its injustices appear throughout your work. In All They Will Call You, you literally unearthed the bodies as well as the stories of Mexican deportees killed in a plane crash and left nameless in a mass grave. Today, you write about incarcerated immigrant children. What is it about this issue that moves you?
TZH: To be honest, if there’s any theme at all that is consistent in all my work it’s not immigration, it’s dehumanization. That’s where my investigations are rooted. But as always, I start with where I’m at, my own community, my family, my hometown, my neighborhood, where I can have the most immediate impact. And it just so happens that I live 45 minutes away from where the children were being detained in Tornillo, Texas. It also just so happens that I can literally see the border wall from my front porch, so the evidence of these dehumanizations occur in front of me daily. That’s why I write about them now. But even that single theme isn’t something I’m loyal to. As an artist I’m led mostly by my sense of curiosity. Wherever there’s a question or a mystery that tugs at me, I can’t help but dig there, and see where it leads, and what it needs to teach me.
SC: That curiosity and tug is evident throughout your work. You notice the missing and the marginalized and your attempts to fill those gaps take you on investigative quests. In Manana Means Heaven, you did scholarly and qualitative research to find and subsequently write about the Mexican woman who appears in a chapter of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. In All They Will Call You, you interviewed countless families to learn the identities of braceros killed in a plane crash. Do you experience writing poetry as an excavation too? Are you digging and wading through layers of sentiment and memory?
TZH: Yes, you could say that. I don’t write from behind a cozy desk. That’s just not what I’m about. I need to breathe in a place, eat the food, taste its air, before I can even begin to write about it. Before I can write about a subject, I need to find a kind of spiritual or karmic permission, particularly when I’m writing about people. But yes, poetry is investigative by nature. It teaches us to pay attention. And to contemplate what we are witnessing, and to consider how we are feeling about what we’re witnessing. So, the “excavation” works both ways: it’s as much internal as it is external.
SC: In the poem titled, “12.14.20” you write, “We have lost / the parents of 545 / caged children– / yet, 5G towers / are all the rage. / But can they track down the families?” You later ask how it is possible for scientists to microchip monarch butterflies and trace them to a single tree in Bolivia, yet our government cannot locate the parents of detained immigrant children and thus unite them. Can you venture to guess why this is so? Is it neglect, callousness, or something more sinister? Perhaps an attempt to punish immigrants and thereby deter immigration?
TZH: The easiest answer would be to point our fingers in those directions. But the poem doesn’t actually say “our government.” It begins with the line “We have lost” and it’s written in the collective “we” throughout because it’s a question for all of us. Because we, as a society, are complicit in these acts. We have a dependency on technology, and yet there are children harvesting certain materials in dangerous mines, materials we need for cell phones, to keep our apps and our social media running. We are all in on this. I realize it’s an uncomfortable admission but it’s the truth. We have made the advancement of technology our top priority, more than human lives. This is why we’ll easily drop $900 on a brand new phone, but we won’t buy a $500 flight to collectively stand at the gates of child detention centers and demand they let them go. We’re hard pressed to spend any money or resources on saving humanity, but so quick to spend twice-fold on assuaging our own technological addictions. We are the reason finding families of the children isn’t a priority. We enable this to happen. And this can be applied to many of the issues I raise in this collection. The poems aren’t meant to necessarily address the external, so much as the internal. They’re an invitation for all of us to look at our own lives and actions and habits. And I begin not by pointing my finger but asking myself these very questions.
SC: You capture tender moments of single fatherhood and juxtapose them with facts about thousands of unaccompanied children held in captivity in the Tornillo, Texas detention facility. These pairings are heartbreaking. How do these stark differences affect you?
TZH: Whenever I’m within reach of being able to help another human, especially on such a large scale such as children in detention, I honestly have a hard time sleeping knowing I’m able to do something and I don’t. I look at my own children often, and it’s through the lens of a father that I find myself moved to take action. And the action almost always comes first, before the poem. For me, the poem, the art, is merely an afterthought, the documentation of what transpires in the actual. Life always comes first.
SC: You took your children to the Tornillo facility. How did they respond to it?
TZH: Tornillo closed in early 2019, and they were a bit younger then, but they knew very well what was happening. Though it was all theoretical in their eyes, just an idea, until they saw a bus filled with children pull in. Then they had questions. How long do they have to stay in there, Dad? Why are they there? Will they ever see their mom and dad again? It broke my heart to expose my children to this, but I needed them to know that WE are complicit in this. So then, what can WE do to try and right this wrong? How do we live our lives? It made them sad to see this, of course. But I told them we must take that pain and apply it to our voices and speak up. They know the kind of dad they have. And they know why. My daughter is now an undergrad studying multimedia journalism right here on the border, and my son is a rapper and musical producer, so in their own way they’re doing exactly that.
SC: Does art help? In a poem titled, “Unqualified Poem,” you write,
Have you ever been kissed by a poem? It’s true—
it cannot exist with you or I, but don’t mistake that
for caring. Because a poem has no heart.
A poem is neither alive nor dead. It lives on white sheets,
or on the breath of you and I. But a poem itself cannot breathe. It doesn’t qualify
You berate the poem for its inability to help the detained unaccompanied children. And yet, doesn’t the poem shed light on the situation? Perhaps poems do more work than we give them credit for?
TZH: Yes, a poem alone might do more work than we give it credit for. But also, a poem alone simply isn’t enough. And perhaps, in that way, we give the poem too much credit. It cannot substitute the value of the human presence. Many poems are written about many human atrocities, and yet, only a margin of their authors have dared to step foot into the situation. That’s what that poem is addressing. A poem is only an idea. And until we walk our ideas out into the world, things will remain the same.
SC: That’s what you did with the deportees, no? You acted, not only by creating art. It’s been 75 years since the tragic crash occurred near Coalinga. When did you realize you needed to do the work of searching for the victims? Do you have more work to do there?
TZH: Yes, my work continues, and I’ve made a vow to search for every last one of those families until all 32 are located and their testimonies documented. In fact, I’ve just finished the second book in that series and I’m currently seeking a publisher for it. But all this work began back in 2010, when I first read reports about the plane crash. It happened just miles from where I grew up and where my folks still live. And like I said, when something that close to home falls upon your radar, I feel it’s our duty to respond in some way, and see how we might lend a hand to correct that, using whatever resources we have at our disposal: art, poetry, money, connections, our voice, our bodies, our platforms, etc. I just didn’t anticipate that pursuing the subject of the plane crash at Los Gatos would take the rest of my life. It’s been 13 years so far and I still have another 15 families to locate.
SC: In “The Talk (Talisman for Salvador), you write,
In here, my son–
when I give you consequences, you can trust
it is from love, you can trust
it is not from hatred, or some misdirected
hostility of the angle of your cheekbones,
or because you are invisible
& therefore discardable
or because you are too visible
& therefore a threat.”
The poem, at times reminiscent of Toni Cade Bambara’s “Girl,” is the familiar “talk” that Black and Brown parents of color must give their sons—that he is loved inside his home, but once outside it, he must be mindful of potential dangers due to the color of his skin. In an age when politicians aim to ban critical race theory and forbid discussion of racism in schools, how is it that the “talk” has become a necessary conversation between parents and children of color?
TZH: Almost all the poems in this collection are about survival. “The Talk” is also about finding that balance between how much information we give our children for their own safety, and how much we leave in order to preserve their innocence, which is to say, their own sense of magic, of hopefulness, their own light. I also wrote that poem as a very real prayer and offering to the deities of fate, hoping it’ll be enough to protect my son—and all our children—in this harsh world.
SC: It is a harsh world, but you leave us with hope. In the new collection’s final poem, you speak about the darkness of the quarantine. In the same breath, you exhort the reader to remember that even with the dismal realities of daily life, we humans “still contain, / perhaps not all, but at least / —some of the light.” In fact, throughout the collection, you sprinkle commands that we remember this or that. Are you urging us to find hope and light within ourselves?
TZH: Yes, we must. We won’t find it in the external world, or in anything outside of ourselves. We are responsible for the experience we are having. If there’s anything the pandemic and being in quarantine has taught us, it’s that we must take responsibility for our own actions, for how we live, and how our individual choices affect our brothers and sisters. We must heal ourselves. And it’s imperative that we remember this.