A Black Belt in Words, Ivelisse Rodriguez Interviews Jose B. Gonzalez

Ivelisse Rodriguez:  For over a 100 hundred years and still today, the overwhelming majority of U.S. Latino/a literature has focused on Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, and Cuban-Americans.  In recent years, there have been new literary voices from other Latino/a diasporic communities.  Your debut poetry collection, Toys Made of Rock (Bilingual Review Press, 2015), focuses on the experiences of an El Salvadorian family who immigrates to the U.S., and your poetry focuses on Latinos/as from New England, two narratives not often told.  So with these two distinctions, what do you hope that an El Salvadorian-American voice from New England can add to the oeuvre of U.S. Latino/a literature?

José B. González:  I hope it adds a new rhythmic but loud beat to our collective Latino/a songs. There is a theme of determination in many of our Latino/a works, and I’d like readers to be able to get a sense of what that means for a Salvadoran growing up around projects and pine trees.  Salvadorans are now the third largest Latino/a group in the U.S.  There is this conception at times that Latino/a immigration doesn’t go beyond the New York border, but the fact is that the history of Latino/as in New England is vibrant and includes authors who have had this unique and oftentimes segregated experience.  I know that was the case for me, growing up in a city that was nowhere near as urban as New York City and certainly not as warm as the Southwest.  What that in turn means is that the sense of community for Salvadorans like me and many other New England Latinos/as was partly shaped by these types of New England fences that Frost liked as neighbors but that sometimes kept us from being a part of larger communities. 

Ivelisse:  In the titular poem “Toys Made of Rock,” you write “long before I got hurt playing with my/ first, English, I used rocks as toys.”  It is the English language that hurts.  Meanwhile, rocks offer comfort as when “carved into my palms felt/ like cotton comforting….”  In your view, what is the function of language being weaponized in your poetry?

José:  Language is the most peaceful and effective weapon we can possibly carry.  I sometimes refer to my Ph.D. in English as a Black Belt in Words, and that’s because I have been defeated so many times—physically and emotionally—that my primary source of strength has been my words.  I got beat up on an almost daily basis in my first year in the U.S.  A lightweight like me had no chance.  I couldn’t defend myself from black eyes, but little by little, I could find strength in words.  What I didn’t realize as a child is that academia would be another fight.  And in that case, it was a matter of intellectuals defending their turf.  My poetry has been a way to express my frustrations, but it also has been a way for me to get the last word and to demonstrate that when words are used as weapons, they can break down walls. 

Ivelisse:  Throughout your poetry, images of war are intertwined with everyday objects or occurrences.  “Traffic signs…./once stood like soldiers,/ firing warnings to yield.”  In your view, once through a war, does the individual feel constantly under siege and then his/her world is colored by the tropes of war?  What does war as the everyday signify in your poetry? 

José:  What strikes me the most about those who live in war-torn countries is how violence becomes a natural part of their everyday lives.  Amidst battles and killings, they have to continue working, going to school, and doing so much that we in the U.S. take for granted.  War doesn’t pause for them.  In the case of El Salvador, an estimated 75,000 people were killed in a twelve-year period, so there was no way of getting away from that violence.  Such experiences colored survivors’ worlds by making them somewhat numb to the brutality—poetry helps me capture that dichotomy.  After all, how can we use rational terms to explain the brutality of war?  How do we explain that life goes on other than by providing images of children playing in the backdrop of cadavers?  The answer for me is in poetry.

Ivelisse:  Several personas in your poetry, like in “Football for the First Time” and “In Graduate School,” are bullied and mistreated and what pulls them back from the brink/from dissolving into presumably self-pity is a comparison of violence to what someone else experienced in the past.  Do you think that is a useful technique for an immigrant to deal with discrimination in a new land?  Violence can often lead to trauma, bad memories, but memories of violence fortify some of your narrators.  For these narrators, past violence strengthens them rather than traumatizes.  In the comparison of past violence with present violence, the past violence always wins, it’s always worse.  Do you think that seeing the past violence as worse is part of the narrative of “what was left behind is always worse,” that no matter what, America is still the dream? 

José:  So much of what immigrants experience in the U.S. pales in comparison to what they and their families have faced in their mother countries.  Although the U.S. may not always be willing to put down its barriers to the American Dream, it still offers variations of that dream.  And that’s so much more than what many other countries can offer.  Those who grow up around violence don’t always see it in the same light as those who live in peaceful communities.  And in the case of El Salvador, the brutality that involved death squads and mass killings was exceptionally tragic and traumatizing.  When compared to the U.S., it is undeniably, always worse.  I’m not trying to minimize the problems that immigrants face in the U.S., but rather, I’m trying to provide the fuller picture that is too-often forgotten by those who are critical of immigrants.  The Salvadoran immigrant narrative is always filled with a violent past.  In Toys Made of Rock, I try to detail the contrast between what many immigrant parents and their children experience.  As someone whose father worked in the streets of El Salvador and as someone whose mother had to quit school in second grade in order to help her family, I can say that the U.S. offered me a dream that would not have been attainable in civil-war ridden El Salvador.  And to say that being bullied was worse than any of their or any of my family members’ experiences in El Salvador would be a lie. 

Ivelisse:  Some feminist scholars, like Hélène Cixous, propose that for women to author themselves, they should turn to the pre-symbolic order—the mode of communication before language (e.g. sounds).  In your poem “Chronic,” the mother’s mode of “speech” is coughing.  Though the mother and the son are in a doctor’s office, the son has to “translate” his mother’s cough.  In “Dirtied Gauzes,” a woman who has just given birth screams and screams but is ignored by the nurses until her screams have to be translated by the janitor.  One would presume that the only translation needed should be from Spanish to English.  But here, it seems like the two mothers’ method of communication (the pre-symbolic order) is so unknowable that it is untranslatable.  This takes the issue of translation for an immigrant to a new level.  In your view, is the immigrant viewed as so “other” that what should be universal, pre-symbolic communication, still has to be translated when the immigrant articulates it? 

José:  Yes, absolutely.  The process of translating goes beyond words.  Even when we translate from Spanish to English, we have to consider the cultural root of the Spanish—is it Castilian?  Salvadoran and so forth?  For immigrants, translating means being fully multicultural, and when we break it down in terms of gender, it also means having an understanding of kinesics.  In both poems, the translations are problematic because they raise the question: how does one translate physical or emotional pain?  And how is such pain communicated to someone who is skeptical of the degree of pain?  The rite of passage for many bilingual children is being in the position of navigating through their immigrant parents’ words, being faithful to those words, and to a certain degree, being in a position to defend them.  In the world of health care, where mostly male, monolingual doctors are the ones listening and diagnosing, the role of translating for immigrant women or mothers invariably falls on children who I would say know the weight of the responsibility but aren’t always capable of fully translating everything they need to.  

Ivelisse:  In your poetry, the salvation of books and education is ever-present, along with the ongoing failure of teachers.  So in thinking about Malcolm X’s “Learning to Read,” he teaches himself to read by using a dictionary; he becomes his own teacher and constructs his own form of education.  While your narrators have formal education, how do they ultimately teach themselves when teachers have been such failures?  

José:  This is a question that too many Latino/as in the U.S. have to ask themselves.  In Toys Made of Rock, the motivation to learn comes from being rejected by insensitive, incompetent teachers, but at the same time, that motivation comes from those teachers who are able to shed even the smallest ray of light into a dark world.  Toys Made of Rock also revisits the question of books and their role in educational and soulful growth and salvation.  In other words, when learning doesn’t come from real-life educational experiences, it can still be inspired by reading fiction, poetry, or drama.  The book is based on my life, and in my case, I found inspiration in reading and learning about characters like Shakespeare’s Caliban, a colonized half-human who wanted to learn but had magical and real obstacles in his way.  Given the fact that Latino/a literature has not been mainstreamed in U.S. classrooms, I hope that my book makes its way into the hands of students who are in danger of becoming a statistic of systematic educational failure, and I also hope that it lands in the hands of those who will be in positions of improving our educational system.