Citizen Illegal by Jose Guadalupe Olivarez

Citizen Illegal by Jose Guadalupe Olivarez
HayMarket Books 2018 – 69 pgs

How do I describe this book without being a fanboy about it? I can’t really. There is such a natural feel about the language and subjects in the poetry Olivarez writes, I am sucked in right away. 

I take measure of Jose’s craft: he’s written a masterful book in five parts. He’s pulled at form in ways that brick and mortar his voice into vital storefronts that communicate with audience – providing what is needed, as well as what is a bargain.

Jose doesn’t just provide a highlight of his life in Chicago and in New York, but he reminds you to smile as you highlight your own life.  It’s probably been mentioned before in previous reviews, but the sequence of poems that make up “Mexican Heaven”  were fruitful. He has me rollin’ – mainly because I read them in two ways – I read them first in the order as they appeared, spread out across the book and that was sheer joy, mostly because they were fast treats in between the boldness of his other pieces. They reinvigorated me and allowed me to break from the solemn elements in the other pieces.  But then I decided to take a minute and see if any of these pieces were on video – and sure enough – I ran into a #PoetsForPuertoRico vid with Jose reading the poems as one long piece, and then that’s what I did, I read all those pieces together and I laughed even louder. This element, allows for a jovial versatility in both format and punch. He is on that trail, the one that pokes fun at all the things WE, (mejicanos) laugh about: family dynamics and cultura; adapting to where we live and fight against adapting to an old world theology. Here are two examples:

        … so all the Mexicans

in heaven party in the basement while God reads

the bible and thumbs a rosary. God threatens to kick

all the Mexicans out of heaven si no paran

con las pendejadas …


there are white people in heaven, too

they build condos across the street

and ask the Mexicans to speak English.

i’m just kidding.
there are no white people in heaven.

Jose makes no apologies in these images. He speaks a want and a laughable desire – a response to the grim facts provided in generational/cultural struggles as well as the tinges of racism and erasure that colonization still brings about. But then, there are other joys and acceptance (even in adversity) – in his poem about his brother “The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted Into Grad School” :

        … he can’t afford a happy meal

& still the praise comes through: my mom thanks

god. my dad offers my brother a cold beer, which

is how my family celebrates everything: a toast.

And though this is a bittersweet poem, the juxtaposition of a moment of academic celebration on top of the Olivarez’s losing their home – there is still the image of the toast and a mother’s prayer.  Jose’s poetry reminds me of the truest idea of rasuqchismo – the ability to resist and remake things that work as we need them to work – the way WE can make anything work as we always have. Jose gives us tender understandings of this across CITIZEN ILLEGAL time and time again.

His voice is conversation on page – its poetry of words off the tongue. Jose invites you into his house, te ofrece un cafecito, and let’s you rummage through his stuff. He bears himself to the reader – even in the acknowledgements pages. That stuck with me too:

& for you, dear reader, this book is for you.

In the poem “Hecky Naw” he speaks truth to power – that the language of home never leaves the body:

I left home I kept you

under my throat

your song a basement

juke party I was born

south side juking language

I thought I left that party

drempt myself in an

Armani suit in an

Armani room with many

Armani suits

Isn’t that what Harvard
was supposed to buy

And as the rest of the poem is the speaker reconciling with the self about where they come from and where they feel at home.  And then, there in the final poem “Guapo” we’re given a tour of his body – an intimate look at how a man views himself, genetic markers and all:

I give myself all the names I like. Young Josélito,

Papi Churro, Lupe. Shout out to my hair while

I still have it. Shout out to my hairline & how

It makes me look like my dad…

I feel like this is a magnificent way to end the collection of poems, with the body, a body that accepts or is learning to accept the flows and flaws throughout. It is an image of Mejicano outside of machista that is refreshing. 

Jose directs you in how to read these poems in subtle tenderness – his use of things like the lower case “i” and the longer line in his poems gives you a moment to linger.

Olivarez leads you to a better understanding of legacy. He speaks about the places he’s been through actions and memory and this leaves us with a footprint of such remarkable images, you are left with a wanting to return. CITIZEN ILLEGAL reminds you to take a pause and wonder.

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