The first word Luz Maria ever understood was “baila.” I was reading her a bilingual book titled: “I Like it When/Me Gusta Cuando.” I flipped through the book reading each page and as I read the lines “me gusta cuando bailas conmigo” she started to sway and move back and forth. I read it again just to be sure. And again, she started dancing. We dance everyday now. Bachata in the kitchen. Merengue in the living room. We sing our ABC’s in English and in Spanish and Luz Maria sways and claps. She dances because something in her body tells her to move with joy. She dances because children understand music before they understand words. She dances because she doesn’t know yet that the world is willing and ready to cut off her feet if she oversteps.
She doesn’t know yet that brown girls can dream, but that doesn’t stop the world from being a nightmare.
So at the end of every day when we’ve danced all we can dance, I hold her close before she falls asleep and whisper poems no one else will ever hear. I run my fingertips along her belly. Connect the dots of her beauty marks and trace them in my mind because I’ve seen too much and sometimes think: what if I have to identify her body and they won’t show me her face? What if she is taken from me, like so many brown children are these days, and I have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she is mine? Perhaps if I can map the marks of her body, each scar, mole, wrinkle, dimple and curve, they will know she is mine. They will know the geographies of our bodies are connected.
I wish to spare my little Luz Maria of my thoughts. I do not want her to know the angst that colors my world blue. So at night, I read her poems and stories of brown and black girls making tamales and saving the day. I introduce her to Tafolla, Hughes, Angelou, Selena and Celia. I show her the way to music and dance, laughter and ice cream. We find where the light comes from while she plays with her shadow.
I hold my daughter, my light, and I see “whole lifetimes flooding by me.” I hold my daughter and I know her body still remembers what it was like inside my womb. I hold my daughter and I hope she understands: “they don’t love you like I love you.”
There are poets in this world that I believe are spiritually connected and always in conversation with each other. Their poems run into each other like rivers unaware of man made borders and maps. Sometimes these intersections and conversations are intentional and sometimes I believe, there is a greater energy working through the two individuals that makes them speak to each other.
I believe this to be true for the work of Natalie Diaz and Yesenia Montilla. Earlier this month, the poem-a-day that landed in my inbox was Natalie Diaz’s new poem They Don’t Love You Like I Love You. Because the title line comes directly from the song Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band I was obsessed with in my college days, I was immediately drawn into the poem.
While reading it, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems of all time (which is not an easy thing for a poet to narrow down) Maps by Yesenia Montilla. I was reminded of her poem, not just because of the sheer mention of maps, but because both Diaz and Montilla interrogate and meditate on “what is a map” and how can our black, brown and Native bodies exist and survive within these “lines drawn…always in the sand.” They question what is a map, its function and its effects. What is America if not a country on a map that has redrawn border to steal from, exclude and kill so many?
As brown and black girls, the only world we’ve known is defined by borders and maps. And these borders and maps have always served to keep us out or to trap us in. From borders between the United States and Mexico to the whites only sections in cities, buses and restaurants. Artificial lines have been drawn to try and drown us out and keep us from rising up, loving ourselves and knowing our worth.
While Diaz and Montilla each employ different forms to address this subject- Diaz’s poem is composed of fourteen tercets while Montilla’s poem is one long monostrophe- they both use repetition and interrogative techniques to address the trauma of what it is like to live as an “other.” In the first half of Diaz’s poem she wonders:
“What is the United States if not a clot
of clouds? If not spilled milk? Or blood?
If not the place we once were
in the millions? America is Maps––
Maps are ghosts: white and
layered with people and places I see through.”
The beauty of the first two lines of the first stanza above is the dual function of the verbs “clot” and “spilled” to characterize the United States. While it is the image of clouds clotting that we initially imagine , we cannot help but consider how spilled milk can clot, or how blood can both spill and clot. Diaz juxtaposes the white of clouds and the white of milk with the deep red of blood to allude to the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of white colonists, settlers and present day white Americans.
It was in this moment, as I read through these questions that I made the connection to Montilla’s poem. While the speaker in Montilla’s poem is speaking to an unknown “you”* the reader later understands or assumes the “you” is an immigrant or child of immigrants into the United States due to the reference of “el rio.” However, the general reference to a river could likely signify almost any geographical location where a river serves as a border between two lands. Regardless, Like Diaz, Montilla herself interrogates the function of a map and its borders:
“because what is a map but
a useless prison?…& what
is a map but the delusion of
& that line, there south of
el rio, how it dares to cover
up the bodies, as though we
would forget who died there
& for what?”
We can see that both Diaz and Montilla use interrogative techniques to bring us to the harrowing recognition that the only outcome or function of a map and its borders is suffering and death. Neither speaker sees maps or the artificial lines drawn on them or on the Earth as something positive. To them, maps are “ghosts,” “useless prisons,” and “the delusion of safety.” Lines on maps have been redrawn to colonize, steal from and remove Native peoples and their families from their rightful homes, keep other people out, and “ensure the safety” of those within certain borders. But Diaz and Montilla recognize that maps are a human construct, a myth and tool of the oppressor created to maintain power and assert control.
Maps and borders exist and have existed to keep daughters away from their mothers, sons away from the fathers, one beloved away from the other in order to maintain systems of oppression and violence. Maps have been drawn by the oppressor to stake a claim on stolen land and to say “this is mine, stay out.” But maps, like Diaz has said “are ghosts.” And when I read those lines, I remembered Montilla’s poem because it seemed to me that something or someone in Diaz’s poem was echoing or directly responding to the speaker and the you in Montilla’s piece.
Diaz’s lines seemed to be telling Montilla and her “you”: I see you. I hear you. These maps have no substance. And though they seek to contain and define us, they cannot hold who and what we are.
Side by side, these two poems converse, reflect, and hold each other’s hands as if one was written for the other and no one cares or remembers who started the conversation first. I found this happening throughout the poems, and while Montilla’s poem was published before Diaz’s, many of Montilla’s lines seemed to be comforting or meditating on what Diaz has said.
For example, when I read the first few stanzas of Diaz’s poem and her speaker’s desire and need to feel love and acceptance from “someone white,/some one some many who live/because so many of [hers]/have not” and how she had “been begging for them,/to lay [her] face against their white/laps, to be held in something more…” it seemed to me that Montilla’s poem responds to and comforts her with the lines:
“I wish maps would be without
borders & that we belonged
to no one & to everyone
& if I were to see you
tomorrow & everyone you
came from had disappeared
I would weep with you & drown
out any black lines that this
earth allowed us to give it–”
Whether Montilla is speaking to one “you” or to all child immigrants or children of immigrants, in these lines, Montilla like Diaz’s mother, seems to be saying: “they don’t love you like I love you, maps/America…they don’t love you like I love you.”
In this moment we have two poets speaking to each other across time, space, and memory. Two poets tackling a subject from different entry points but only to arrive at a similar end: Maps and borders may spill our blood and weigh us down, but I need you to know that I am here and we have each other.
I know this may not seem extraordinary as one could argue that poets have done this since the dawn of time, but I know that within me, something indescribably transcendent and synergistic occurred while reading these poems side by side. I realized that these manmade maps and borders are not enough to keep us from ourselves. We will keep reaching for, keep crossing over, keep weeping with each other, because in the end WE are worth fighting for.
The first time I took Luz Maria to the ocean she drew lines in the sand with her pudgy little fingers and just as quickly the waves washed them away. Over and over she’d pick up the wet mound of brown wet grains and squish it between her hands. She’d cover her legs in it and rub the sand along the sides of her thighs and giggle. As the ocean waves came and went she reached out her arms, open and closed, open and closed her little fists as if to say “more, more, come back for more.” And each time the waves came she splashed and laughed.
What if that is how we all treated the Earth and each other? What if we all beckoned the waves and hugged them and ourselves with a little more love and a little more joy each time? What if there were no boundaries between bodies of land or bodies of water? What will it take for the geographies of our own bodies to feel a little less foreign to you? When will we all feel a little less “crushed by thirst?”
Perhaps all the mothers and their children will need to be reunited first. Perhaps it will take a revolution. Perhaps it is in the quiet moments and conversations between mother and daughter, or Diaz and Montilla when the poems seem to reach out their arms and say: “ more, more, come back for more.”
*Montilla’s poem is dedicated to “Marcelo,” but I do not wish to make assumptions that the you in the poem directly refers to “Marcelo” or that the speaker in the poem is Montilla.