In April 2021, a recently elected city councilman of East Palo Alto championed for local clinics to accommodate a vulnerable, often overlooked community that reaped high COVID rates and less access to vaccines, a problem which he linked to barriers of race and language: “Immigrants and folks of color often by lack of English fluency or legal status often are weary of speaking outlet (sic) alone affirm their place in line.” Poet and politician Antonio de Jesús López recognizes the utility of language in its capacity to empower and to inhibit: how we define language thus determines who has access to it. From poetry slams resisting Islamophobia to school board council meetings, López reallocates the pools of power in health, education, and community spaces. Now in his debut collection of poetry, Gentefication, the poet puts to verse what he is witnessing and actively resisting in his hometown. Both López’s title and poems reclaim “gentrification,” a word that denotes invasive land acquisition and the race-based silencing and removal of its inhabitants, and he instead inserts a populace. “Gente” is Spanish for “people,” and likewise López restores the people to the gentrification. Gentefication dialogues with and belongs on a required reading list (that does not yet exist but needs to) with books like Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language and José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal, which implicate the false consciousness of English as standard that can dismiss anything else as subpar. From anecdotal narrative poems to incisive word-play essays (or “ese,” Spanish for “that”), López deconstructs and rebuilds how we define and value language and its users.
The gentrification of education comes on trial here, as many poems are structured in the form of familiar class (particularly high school) assignments. AP exams, SAT essays, and DBQs, notably geared toward the college-bound, reappear here as self-indictments of a process that filters out the “other” by using language as a divisive weapon. In the opening poem, “A Chicano’s Self-Help Guide to Racial Trauma,” the speaker recounts “cuando I cleansed my palate / of poisonous assumptions / over who owns this language” in a school whose gringas’ “noses / crinkled at mis frijoles” and in a suburban whose affluent inhabitants cite their problems’ origin “when they came.” Defiant yet sensitive, the speaker swallows the gente’s story of past and present pain. In “la pelea,” he states:
golden boy lands a hook!
i take un trago y grito,
but spit up an english
that now tastes
like flat beer.
The youthful persona reappears as a teenager in a clumsy bathroom attempts to lose his virginity, as a Godzilla-shoed boy watching a castanet-wielding superstar on TV in a poem that juxtaposes what is Mexican with and against what is United States American. In each of these poems, the speaker reckons with filtering his cultural identity via a context that implicates his otherness by dismissal or by exoticism. The prose poem “Learning Goals” asks him to, “like his Mexican parents, tuck his body inside the essay–the vehicle for mobility into el norte’s universe/ities.” Teachers who, in other poems censored Spanish in the classroom, now celebrate the speaker’s stories of trauma as entrance-exam opportunities to escape his barrio, i.e. the people like him. In “Grading Rubric,” trauma is assessed as follows:
Formal Essays (55-65%)
Write “Children of Immigrants”—10% (double if
Write “first generation”—15%
Mention the color of the coyote’s van—10%
Keep family in the past tense—5%
Write birthplace next to its murder per capita rate—20%
Similar to the teachers “rentin brown kids for a résumé / like we’s an overdue Redbox,” his experience is thus reduced to a CV-builder. One’s rejected narrative is now subjected to hegemonic exhibitionism and sanitized scrutiny:
when the pale stranger invites his neighbors,
how they marvel at your mouth’s archeology:
when wives paw its rot & decide to form book clubs
around your grief …
In the guise of empathy, this collective voyeurism is just as distancing and othering as the blade that the pale stranger wields in the following poem, “Source B: Oral Exam”: “to fix your mouth like a Mexican cock.” In poems whose white voices assert dominance, the speaker’s Mexicanness is always cast in light of his Otherness, never inviting him to belong or even weigh in . The poems in which the speaker demands an audience makes this omission conspicuous, as he also responds in a mutilated, renegotiated hybridity of languages he has been forced to relearn and claim. “Source E: Conjugations of My Tía’s Back” adopts the structure of a pronoun chart, reducing characters to correct (or corrected) grammar constructs, in which the “Ella” column voices laments. “¿Qué hay acá para mí?” A resonant question that resurfaces in the “Yo”’s ascerbic “I workshop, they shop for work. / In this poem, / four Mexicans have already offered to fix / the stanza’s roof…”
Outside the volatile classrooms and after-school meetups are agonizing catalogues of migrants’ possessions and dispiriting encounters with border patrol, blatant racism from bullies and passersby with slurs and knives. In these extreme acts of aggression, we may be at ease in the semblance of noncomplicity, though López does not allow us to rest here. He demands of us to know why he has never had a white friend until he was sixteen, to consider the normalcy of houses his gente “only enter / with hard hats,” to answer his call for action in “Magic Forrealism” to “stop renting this tongue, / and hotwire English itself, / the vehicle for mobility / that promised salvation.” English as a mandate for self-improvement also offers the backhanded claim that other grammar, literacy, and culture are barriers to be overcome or escaped. Such is our relentless melting pot trope that asserts a rags-to-riches promise (in which the rags mean a shedding of one’s cultural identity in exchange for assimilated English and gentrified success):
(Apá, it’s learn-ed.
“¿No qué es lurn-duh?
Sí es, pero aquí,
you pronounce the
extra “ed.” ¡Ay
Into another first-generation is inculcated the notion that anyone who falls within the growing margins of “Other” must unquestioningly revoke one’s self for the sake of narrowly defined success. In “Museum of Other” López deduces: “So I am not a figure, / but the part of Anglo speech / whose hyphen betrays a chasm.” It’s a chasm he bridges with poetry that rejects highbrow rules and registers, as well as translations or italics that would otherwise distinguish the Spanish as “other” from the English.
Extending a bridge across another hyphenated chasm, López devotes a portion of his book to his Mexican Muslim identity. Chanting his Shahada recalls mariachi music and the hadith of Gabriel links boys with Pakistani flags to las chiquillas en la cancha. The speaker asks, “Akhi, what if I sang las mañanitas / to the Prophet…?” A question that never surfaces in other contexts is safe to be broached here. He neither can nor will strip away the Mexican from the Muslim, the Palo Alto resident, the American, identities that cohabit with but do not remove his self.
Signed “a lifelong resident,” the speaker of “Letter to the Editor” demands that the ribbon-cutting business providers assessing East Palo Alto as a new Silicon Valley would consider, “Más que nada, cómo te parace if you and your colleagues wrote about us, and not just the negative shit?” Here, López unearths the ancient civilization that lives like a heartbeat beneath renovated buildings, suburbans, and populace. Gentefication clears a path for the father who “offers an empire / his daily flesh,” a migrant’s “father’s sombrero that I promised / to never take off the wall” and a son’s “book of poems to hand / my father, the edges smeared / in molcajete and refried beans.” Antonio de Jesús López offers up an anthem for the generations of migrants, laborers, dreamers, sufferers; the gente that love, pray, journey, and work:
All to nurse newborn
with this vision,
Una vida mejor.
Gentefication, by Antonio de Jesús López. New York, NY: Four Way Books, September 2021. 136 pages. $16.95, paper.
Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.