Stick figure bodies underneath a series of arches and a seated male with tattoos wearing a feathered headdress in a family living room

Why Dear Reader, You Should Read Chican@/x Poets Andrés Montoya and Natalie Díaz

“One day, God fell in love” sings the late, great Chicano poet, Andrés Montoya. I have taught his posthumous collection Jury of Trees (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 2017) to undergrads and graduate students for three years, and before Jury, Montoya’s American Book Award-winning The Ice Worker Sings and Other Poems (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1999). My students are consistently spellbound.

On the subjects of migration and immigration, Montoya gives us the perspective of many communal tiers made up of recent immigrants, elders who have lived in California for years but speak little English, migrant community members, first, second, third-generation Chican@/xs who may or may not speak Spanish, and those who call themselves Hispanic, which make up the Mexican and Chican@/x communities of Fresno, California.

Because they resonate with his shamed honesty about himself and his unapologetic observation of life in Fresno, California, instead a one-dimensional understanding of Montoya’s poetic subject, students (many who report they do not like poetry or are afraid they cannot understand poetry) experience the voice of a tender man railing against social injustices and Brown-on-Brown violence while also witnessing how this Chicano voice loves. Montoya conveys how a broken spirit sees love in crazed, bloody, and tortured faces; in senseless acts of systemically induced hate, desperation, and despair; and in the baggy cheap nylons covering the dear legs of his abuelita.

My students blush for such lyrical vulnerability and faith and claim Montoya their favorite poet no matter their gender, assigned race, class, sexual orientation, physical state, or political position. Written almost thirty years ago, Montoya’s poetry continues to inspire many well-known Chican@/x and non-Chican@/x poets today and he carries the names of two national awards: The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize hosted by University of Notre Dame, and The Andrés Montoya Memorial Scholarship awarded to students of California State University, Fresno, his alma mater.

Equally, my students say they are mesmerized by the intellectual and emotional intelligence poet Natalie Díaz leavens in the density of her images, critiques, and interconnected times. Díaz lyricizes by the soma or raw body subjectivity I argue elsewhere—hers, a capacious poetic voice who perceives the strife of others while keeping her eye squarely on her own experience. I’ve taught Díaz’s American Book Award-winning collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2012) to the same populations and soon, my students will have the opportunity to read her just-released collection Postcolonial Love Poem (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2020).

Both of Díaz’s collections give seldom-heard voice to a sister’s anger, disgust, jealousy, and grief for the way her family lives and each day, dies—the suffering caused them by her drug-addicted brother that sidelines her anguish. Díaz’s lyricism is at once adoring, respectful but also biting with resentment and melancholy for her brother, felled by a system that effectively attacks this family economically with psychological, social, and physical impacts. In contest to prejudicial immigration narratives, Díaz soulfully weaves an oblique commentary of the family’s plight by warp of Western chronology for the confluence of times and familial geographies of their ancestral Mexican and North American indigeneities. In line 24 of “I, Minotaur,” Díaz writes: “A head like mine was shaped on thirst” in an ingenious materialization of the effects they legacy in her most intimate encounters: the poetic I’s amorous life, her relationships with her brothers, and in her challenge to Western ontologies, all recurring themes in her 2020 collection. Díaz’s poems exposit these layered colonialisms in images of a dispiriting labyrinth structuring their struggles where to survive, she admonishes, one should “go forward, always down” (“Asterion’s Lament,” 2020, line 7).

What should we read instead of mainstream cultural texts that weaken the presentation of the Chican@/x community in trite depictions of downtrodden Chican@/x families, addiction, poverty, and gangs? There are many, but here I suggest the poetry of Andrés Montoya and Natalie Díaz that make visible the beautiful and terrible of human connection amid the colonized quartering of love, desire, power, shame, rage, and violence.

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