“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” Neil Gaiman
Would you tell us a little about the influence of place and its context (Los Angeles, Miami, home, family, children) on your writing?
The notion of place and how it influences my work is more a state of mind than an actual geographical location. Less landscape than mindscape, place is an idea, a construct that is dependent on memory and nostalgia more than it is on cartography or global coordinates.
I am often called a “Miami poet” or a “South Florida poet” and yes, it could be argued that living in Miami has left its mark on my poetry due to my tendency to code switch, to deconstruct the Cuban-American diaspora, to document specific places in the motley city I call home. Despite these truths, however, I bristle at the thought of being pigeonholed as a certain “type” of poet because I find the label constraining and myopic. Miami does indeed present itself to me in ways that I must chronicle (in the squawk of the chatter of feral Quaker parrots that fly across my home each morning, or in news headlines that speak of racial injustice, micro and macro, local and global corruption or in the beauty of a city teeming with multi-lingual nuance, assorted flavors and colors, as well an enormous disparity between have and want) but most of the themes my work tackles could unfold anywhere. The details may change, but to quote Led Zeppelin, “the song remains the same.”
For example, the term Miami poet does not take into account that I was born in LA where, at the time, Cubans were few and far between. For the first eight years of my life, I lived a very insular existence that did not stray far from the Cuban contingency that was my family. We moved in packs. We shopped, prayed, partied together, and my time there did more to cement my Cubanness than living in Miami ever did. LA was the place where I learned to speak Spanish first, English second; the place where my pre-school days were punctuated by the clack-clack-clack of my Abuela Maria’s sewing machine; the place where the smell of the Agustin Reyes Agua de Violeta cologne my mother dabbed on my baby brother every day permeated my nose and settled into the neurons of my brain (To this day, I can sniff out a baby sporting Violeta cologne from a mile away!); it is where my legion of cousins and aunts and uncles gathered on a weekly basis for dinners that came from kitchens redolent with tabaco, café, the aroma of arroz con pollo rising in a funnel of steam from my Abuela’s cast iron cauldron. Despite having happened in California, none of these things were dependent on our location. In fact, these things were all made possible in spite of our location. In recreating all that they missed from their homeland, I learned that home was much more than locale.
Further complicating this answer is the fact that I rarely feel more Cuban than when I leave Miami. Outside of Dade County, the idiosyncrasies and characteristics that I share with my fellow Cubanos (the same ones I am sometimes supremely annoyed by) go from commonplace to sacred and our commonalities help me discern the Cubanos in my midst. I have met fellow Cubans all over the world—Dublin, Paris, Rocky Mountain National Park, Helen, GA, even while honeymooning in Bora Bora!—and every time the answer to my question, “Ustedes son Cubanos?” comes back yes, I smile and utter the same phrase, “my people are everywhere.” Because, yes, we are, and as such, my idea of place is confirmed—it’s not where we are, but how we are, whoever we are, wherever we are.
Why do you code-switch?
I like to say that I think in English, but feel in Spanish and I believe that duality is expressed in my work. I have always navigated the balance beam that exists between Cuban and American, the two cultures that shaped me, molded me, and influenced who I am today. I code switch because it is how I have always lived, my very existence predicated on the fact that I both fit and don’t fit within the two cultures that seek to define me.
The code-switching (whether on the page or within the everyday goings on in my life) is not something I really think about, it just happens. For instance, the music that makes up the soundtrack of my life is mostly in English. I don’t listen to Spanish music in the car and there are no Reggaeton channels pre-programmed on my stereo, but if I’m at a party and I hear the beginning strains of “El Negro Esta Rabioso” my hips will begin to move in a way that is so innate I don’t even realize it has begun until I’m twirling on a dance floor. Sometimes, the poem requires that I shake my hips on paper, as well, a literary Guaguanco that cannot be stopped or denied.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that my work is solely influenced by one language, one culture, one experience. If I write about my Abuela, I can’t call her Grandma, because I don’t have one of those, I have an Abuela and that term simply doesn’t translate. There is no good way to translate café con leche or fuacata or cocotazo and luckily, I don’t have to.
In Visionware, I felt the need to italicize non-English words, to set them apart, a little trick I picked up through my academic training, but I’ve since changed my mind about the practice. By italicizing las palabras en Español I set them apart, marginalized the very words I had chosen to represent me. This, of course, marginalized me (and those like me) and my experience of being Latina, of living a bilingual, bicultural life, not at all what I had set out to do. I no longer discriminate via italics because I simply don’t believe that one language supersedes the other. I am lucky to have two languages at my command, and command them I will.
In a review of your work, the reviewer notes that your abuela in one of your poems attempts to understand American culture, what does American culture mean to you?
This a huge question! One I could address in a variety of ways, because in my experience the answer is multivalenced, fluid, dependent on context for interpretation.
Growing up, I viewed America through the lens of my parent’s perspective as Cuban exiles. American culture meant freedom. It meant that they were no longer at the mercy of the dictatorship that stripped them of home, family, voice, self. They bought the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness angle hook, line and sinker and they passed along the idea that being a part of American culture meant we could live and thrive as we pleased. This also meant that they were free to talk a lot of smack about the Americanos who lived among us. From them I learned that American culture also meant dirty houses, slovenly housewives, overgrown yard, a couch on the porch, a truck in the driveway, permissive parents who let their kids run wild, American women who were too lippy, too slutty, too independent and as a result, unsuitable wives incapable of meeting the expectations placed upon the submissive archetype of a Cuban wife.
As I grew older, I coveted the freedom my American friends took for granted. I wanted to live as an American girl, which meant I could go out without a chaperone, date several boys versus settling for a nice Cuban novio my parents approved of, wear tampons, wear bikinis, go to slumber parties, go away to college, go on The Pill, have sex without feeling the weight of an entire ancestral line on my back. At that time, American culture meant freedom from my ultra-machista father’s edicts regarding what a woman was and should be, freedom from being called a whore due to the length of my skirt or a wink from a boy, freedom to be undaunted by the restrictions placed upon me due to the fact that I was a girl.
It would be wonderful to say that once I emancipated myself from my parent’s control, I was able to buy into their view of America, but if anything my definition of American culture is more complicated than ever, no longer influenced by the blind allegiance held by my family or the egocentricity of my teenaged desires. At this very moment, what American culture means to me is: Anti- LGBT laws disguised as religious liberty; the steady erosion of reproductive rights; the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the consequences that befall the most vulnerable and unrepresented women in our country; systemic and deeply ingrained racism and sexism; an obstructionist congress bought and paid for by the SCOTUS Citizen’s United decision; gerrymandering and the dismantling of voter rights; the unholy alliance between Big Pharma and AMA; Monsanto’s poisoned crops; it is the NRA; it is Wall Street abject greed; it is fracking; it is rising sea levels; it is kids saddled with outrageous student loan debt; it is unpayable consumer debt; the surprise in the eyes of most of the white people I’ve ever met (outside of Miami) who just can’t understand why I don’t have an accent, or worse, the ones who insist I do; being told I don’t “look Hispanic” because I am covered in freckles and my skin is fair; it is the very real fear that by bringing him into the world I have doomed my son to face an apocalyptic future (I’m not talking Zombies here, but rather ecological disaster).
Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. American culture is also my ability to answer this question honestly and fearlessly. American culture is my willingness to call my country out for the things that are wrong. American culture is my desire to name the things that I find untenable in an attempt to fix what’s broken. Because yes, despite the litany above, American culture is also you and I—two people engaged in ideas, dialogue, our words and thoughts working their way into the American narrative one poem, one essay, one interview at a time.
Would you please tell our readers about Visionware, what are you working on now, and what’s next for you?
Visionware was written during a time of great change in my life and I think the poems reflect the emotional whiplash I was grappling with at that point. I had just ended my sixteen year marriage to the father of my child, come out of the closet, faced down the gauntlet of my family’s shock, pity, and judgment and embarked upon my first real relationship with a woman. Through the poems that make up the book, I was able to chronicle the dismantling and rebuilding of schema regarding all I had been taught to want versus what I actually needed. Divided into two sections, the first half of the book is made up of poems that examine the Cuban milieu in terms of traditions and familial expectations in order to provide the cultural set up before the crash that comes in the second half of the book when the speaker upends all she has been trained to be in order to grapple with the effects of adultery, divorce, sexuality and reinvention. While deeply personal, I also believe the poems in Visionware speak to the experience of anyone who has ever had to reconcile what is expected against a desire for independence and authenticity.
As a chapbook, the poems in Visionware laid the groundwork for my first full length manuscript, Tortillera, which I just finished. The poems in Tortillera still seek to examine and deconstruct the personal—home, family, acculturation, sexuality, the evolution of daughter, mother, wife, lover—but now, ten years after coming out, the personal has become more political as my vision has broadened to include themes of exile, marginalization, assimilation, diaspora, in order to explore how the two intertwine and shape individual, family, and community.
My recent work documents a personal history that connects to a larger perspective, one that provides insight into the initiation, process and product of diaspora. In choosing the title, Tortillera for the book (a term that is so derogatory in the Cuban lexicon that is feels like a whip when it lands on the back of most Cuban lesbians I know) I decided that in order to dismantle the shame that came with that particular moniker I would own it, so I could disarm it, and as a result, nullify the disgrace and indignity that has afflicted so many of us “tortilleras.”
My insight as a Latina lesbian has broadened and Tortillera seeks to explore the intersections of experience in order to create a dialogue among different types of cultures, examined through various perspectives and lenses— whether it be the poem that tackles the queer experience of coming out within the traditional Cuban realm or the poem that questions US immigrant policy and the injustices that exist therein, or the poem that simply needs to speak—of love, of loss, of staying put, of letting go—things that strike a gong of recognition, capable of birthing connection, redemption, and perhaps my fondest hope, a treasured spot on the bookshelf of the reader that is moved by all it is I thought to say.
As per what’s next, I was blessed to have taken part in the Letras Latinas Pintura Palabra project (Ekphrasis: An Advanced Poetry Workshop for Latino/a Poets Institute for Latino Studies and Smithsonian Museum of American Art) facilitated by Emma Trelles and Francisco Aragón. This amazing opportunity enabled me to work with a small group of stellar Latino/poets whose talents and ideas influenced my work in new ways as we contemplated the relationship between art and verse. The concepts that were brought forth during our round table discussions that weekend have never stopped pinging in my head, and since then, I’ve slowly been working on a series of exphrastic poems based on the work of famed Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta. My focus on and passion for this subject has recently been reignited as I happened across a gallery that houses what I lovingly refer to as the Mendieta room, where I intend to camp out this summer.
Poetry by Caridad Moro-Gronlier
About the Author Caridad Moro-Gronlier is the award winning author of Visionware (2009) published by Finishing Line Press as part of their New Women’s Voices Series. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant for Poetry and a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in poetry. Recent projects include the Pintura/Palabra Project— Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art in Conjunction with The Smithsonian Institute and Letras Latinas. Her work has appeared in The Notre Dame Review, The Comstock Review, The Crab Orchard Review, MiPoesias, Lunch Ticket, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Meadowland Review, The Stonecoast Review, Storyscape Journal, Tigertail, A South Florida Poetry Annual, This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, The Lavender Review, and others. She is Editor-In-Chief of Orange Island Review, as well as an English professor at Miami Dade College and a dual-enrollment English instructor for Miami Dade Public Schools in Miami, Florida where she resides with her wife and son.