In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.
If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters
on his black belt spell Sangrón . Once, borracho ,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.
Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed
into a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.
Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets
oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. …
The full poem is available online via Poetry Magazine, but treat yourself: listen to Corral read it at the Strand Bookstore, if for nothing else, for his commentary on language: “I do code switching in my work… If language is one way of viewing the world, I refuse to privilege one way of viewing the world over another.”
This creates a challenge, of course, for those of us who aren’t familiar with Spanish. And the Spanish in the poem isn’t of the Junot Diaz variety, where you can just assume the Dominican slang has a sexual or racial connotation and keep reading; this is stuff that seems important, at least to me as a reader who lacks code-switching ability.
For example, it seems like the speaker is talking to someone he refers to twice as “borracho” – which translates to “drunkard.” For me, this raises the question, who is this borracho he’s talking to? Is this a word you’d use with an acquaintance at a weekend cookout while you’re knocking back a few beers, comparing your life with your father’s? At a wake, or some more informal ceremonial leave-taking gathering, with fellow mourners? Or with some guy at a bar when you’re drowning your sorrows and some busboy loaded with a tray of dirty dishes passes by, or a song on the radio reminds you of your dad? Or is it more the sort of word you’d use with a compatriot in a drunk tank as you commiserate your mutual conditions and pass the time until morning? Of course, these questions have nothing to do with the word being in Spanish, but it makes an interesting companion query to the process of reader orientation: in the poem, who is speaking, about what, and why?
And that’s all before we get to, About what is the who speaking? About his father, of course (and I’ve made the assumption the speaker is male; more on this in a bit), but is he speaking with affection, respect, hostility, sadness, love? All of the above? He starts off recounting some of the stereotyping his father endured, but then moves to the goldfish story: does the son recall this with appreciation, that Dad had nothing but his own phlegm to give and gave it freely (and, for that matter, was Dad sick? Do many fathers find themselves possessed of sufficient phlegm to hawk up a goldfish at will?), or with disappointment that Dad devalued his need with a scornful act?
But the Spanish truly comes in on other questions: the repeated refrain, “Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba.” “Arriba” is one of those words that can be translated in many ways: “Above”, “up,” “viva” (as in, “Viva Durango!”), or, less frequently it seems, “Arrive”. Is the speaker saying this refrain, or hearing it? Is he travelling, by bus or train, through Mexico, perhaps on a personal family mission of some kind, sitting next to a borracho to whom he’s telling his story as he hears stops called out? Is he hearing cheers for these cities, sports teams, displaced residents remembering them and the family still there? Is it a way of saying, “North of Mexico”, something like, “We’re not in Kansas any more”?
Clothing is central to the poem. It’s bracketed by the speaker borrowing Dad’s clothes at the beginning, then wearing his shirt through the desert at the end: the son literally taking up the mantle of his father.
Dad’s favorite belt buckle: “an águila perched on a nopal.” This is the coat of arms on the Mexican flag, symbolizing the Aztec legend of the gods telling them to build their city, now Mexico City, where they found an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth; the Mexican-Europeans interpreted it as the triumph of good over evil. Code-switching, indeed. But think of yet another eagle prominent on a coat of arms: the American eagle. Now perch him on a cactus with bitter thorns: the epithets sprinkled through the poem, and the killer lines, “Bugs Bunny wants to deport him. César Chávez// wants to deport him.”
Now that I think about it: does the speaker of the poem even know what the belt buckle represents? He doesn’t say, “his favorite belt buckle is from the Mexican flag”, just a straight description. Is this part of the code-switching, another nuance lost to the casual reader? I would have missed it, after all, would’ve missed the additional implications, had I not gone looking for art…
Why does Dad wear a belt with silver letters spelling “Sangrón”? This seems to translate to “arrogant, stuck-up”; that doesn’t sound like the father I’m reading about here. Then Urban Dictionary (which often includes very individualized interpretations of little relevance to general usage) also lists a meaning of “overbearing and effeminate… excessive softness, delicacy and self-indulgence”. That doesn’t sound like the father I’m reading about here, either. This is the risk of using online translators.
It’s a risk of any communicative effort; no one can ever know all a speaker knows, all a speaker means. It’s a risk intrinsic to the poetic experience in particular; no reader/hearer knows a poet’s every reference or picks up the nuance of every word choice. It’s an increased risk with code switching, a risk Corral, and the speaker in the poem, understand: “The snake hisses. The snake is torn.” It’s a risk, in this case, with great payback, a risk that’s enabled me to get a dozen poems out of this one thing: a son loves his father. And love is always, always, complicated.