Ms. Muse: Jessica Helen Lopez on Writing like a Xingona, Poetry as Medicine and the True Honey of Freedom

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“Poetry is coming out of our radio in our car. Poetry is coming out in conversation, in our slang, and our colloquial dialects,” Jessica Helen Lopez said as the featured poet on the New Mexico PBS show ¡COLORES!, a weekly art series for which she is now a host. In her life and work, Lopez reveals how poetry, language and identity are intimately connected—not a braid that can be unbraided.

“I always wear my identities quite brazenly and with as much pride and/or exploration that I can pursue within my writing as a woman of color, as a Chicana, as a feminist,” she noted on ¡COLORES!, “and I often identify as a ‘radical feminist’ but sometimes just saying you’re a feminist is radical enough in a room. It’s dropping the f-bomb, literally.”

Lopez is the founder of La Palabra: The Word is a Woman, a collective created for and by women, and a member of the Macondo Foundation, an association founded by Sandra Cisneros for socially-engaged master’s level writers working to advance creativity, foster generosity and serve community. Her first collection of poetry, Always Messing with Them Boys (West End Press, 2011), made the Southwest Book of the Year reading list and received the Zia Book Award presented by New Mexico Press Women; her second, Cunt. Bomb., was published by Swimming with Elephants Publication in 2014, and her third, The Language of Bleeding: Poems for the International Poetry Festival, Nicaragua (SWEP) is a limited release in honor of her ambassadorial visit to Granada, Nicaragua.

Lopez is a nationally recognized slam poet and was the 2012 and 2014 Women of the World City of ABQ Champion and the Albuquerque Poet Laureate Emeritus and Poet-In-Residence for the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History from 2014-16.

More recently, she also served as co-(f)emcee for the 2017 Santa Fe Women’s March on Washington. While speaking and performing a poem on that cold day, her passionate, riveting voice appears to transfix her boisterous audience. Watching her makes me wish she’d run for public office. We’ll elect actors and reality TV stars—it’s time to elect poets!

In this installment of Ms. Muse, Lopez shares a new poem—and talks to Ms. about jumping out of the shower to write, writing as reclamation and thriving between languages.

Jessica Helen Lopez (Adam Rubenstein)

The Poem

I Have Many Names / Tengo Muchos Nombres

You may call me Malinche, goddess of grass
Indigena woman
of the kidnapped clan

Rosetta Stone[1] tongue
of glassy, rain-soaked, imperial jade,

Moctezuma’s poisoned
trade with the white-skinned transgressor,
Quetzalcoatl
-cloaked Cortes.

You may call me
flesh over the forged heat of Spanish, Dutch, and French blade.

The Mulatto/the Mestiza/Africana,
raped daughters of the Doctrine
of Discovery[2]

You may call me the descendent
of the deceased.

The disappeared. The Pillaged.
The blood-quantum, kick-back treaty fed by the belly-fat
of land-grant lies.

I have many names,
thousands years’ old names.
Ancient, mighty names.

Today you may call me
seven generations missing from my grandmother

Tonatzin. Malinalli. Tlatzoteotl. Ometeol

I am the blood-lineage, sacrificial ancestor,
progeny of the gone-missing women.

Call me Maquiladora, flower of the factories
Woman of Juarez[3]
twice-bit and betrayed
by my own kin and the foreign rapist

You may call me rage.
Righteous.
Vengeful.

Tengo muchos nombres

You may call me soldadera, matriarch of the Mexicana Revolution.
I was never anyone’s lover,
no Pancho Villa bed warmer.
Bullets and braids, hands thick like the skin of tamal.
This is what you may call me.
No yo soy Joaquin.[4]

You may call me Llorrona, shape-shifter, picket-line provocateur.
Brown beret, skin-walker,
woman of the field.

Hands of callus,
picker of fresa, chile, cebolla and the grape on the vine.
We the legions of farm workers bent at the spine,
fingers deep into the dark earth.

Today they call me wet nurse,
wetback, paid under-the-table
brown nanny,
breast milk by proxy.

But I birth me
in the shape of me—

Blade-sharp
obsidian, flint and fired stone.
I am the bloodletting and the baptismal.

I have many names—
Tengo
muchos
muchos
nombres

But you may invoke me as brown-skinned Puta[5]
Xola Xingona[6]
spelled with an X like the Mexica.

My ancestors run wild in my blood—
my mixed, colonized and triumphant blood.

You may call me double-tongued and code-switcher,[7]
river crosser, water diviner,
border dweller and burnt sage.

You know me as #metoo,
the bridged hair of Frida’s brow—
snapped spinal column survivor.

The late-night mariachi howl. Eater of filth.

You may call me Pocha[8], Jota[9], Bruja[10] and lit-from-within.
My name an anglicized
stain

A deloused campesino[11]
somewhere in the middle of Indio,
California—fruit basket of the world.

But now
you may invoke me
with Dolores, Lorna, Sandra, Maria, Josefina, Gloria, Diana the Huntress,
Emma Gonzalez and Alicia Garza

Patrisse,
Opal,
Audre
Lorde, writer and patron saint who watches over us all

You may call me
la Cazadora,
huntress
with no regrets.

I am the Keeper of the Dead

Tengo muchos nombres

You may call me Thought Woman, carrier of stories,
jeweled egg of a diaphanous web.
My children spring forth from me, silver-headed
and spindle-soft, ready to re-create the world.
Seventh generation rising.

I am un mal flora,
the bad flower who grew despite
your attempt
to re-name that
which is nameless.

[1] “The first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times.” (Wikipedia)
[2] “In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.” (Source.)
[3] “Hundreds of young women have disappeared from the Mexican border city since 1993—many of them teenagers who came to Juarez to work in the town’s foreign-owned factories, known as “maquilladoras.” (Source.)
[4] No, I am Joaquin.
[5] bitch, whore, slut, hooker, prostitute, tart, tramp, hustler, dyke. (translated with Google.)
[6] Translated from “Chola Chingona.” Latinas/Chicanas use the “X” as reclamation (as in Chicanx or Latinx). Brenda Gonzales-Richards, director of the California regional office for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, says “Chingona” means “Badass…someone who is not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, somebody that’s happy to shake things up when needed. Chingonas, she says, get things done.”
[7] “In linguistics, code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation.” (Wikipedia)
[8] “A term used by Mexicans (frequently pejoratively) to describe Chicanos and those who have left Mexico. Stereotypically, Pochos speak English and lack fluency in Spanish.” (Wikipedia)
[9] A derogative word for “gay” that is being reclaimed.
[10] witch
[11] peasant farmer

The Interview

Can you tell me about your process in writing “I Have Many Names / Tengo Muchos Nombres“? What do you remember about the poem’s birth? Were there particular challenges in writing and revising? 

Don’t laugh. But I was in the shower and washing my hair. I had been feeling the itch to write a new poem and had been recently inspired by some of the most Xingona local poets here in Albuquerque, especially Mercedez Holtry, Women of the World Poetry ABQ Champ and national finalist, and Eva Marisol Crespin, author of Morena, Swimming with Elephants Publication. I jumped out of the shower, still slick with soap and hurried to my journal. There I wrote some of the first lines of “I Have Many Names.”

I like to experiment with different aesthetics in my poetry. For some time I was enamored with persona pieces. Oftentimes I write confessionally, other times about current and relevant topics of struggles that POC [people of color] and Native people continuously battle. This time around, I sought to write a celebratory but truthful experience of Woman.

Later that night, I sat with the poem and wrote it in under an hour. Usually, I edit by performing my pieces. I read it the very next week at an International Women’s Day poetry reading at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Since, I’ve performed it a variety of spaces, including the UNM Chicanx Studies Department’s “Pachanga” fundraisers, a local favorite artisan showcase, “I’ll Drink to That” and more.

What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry? 

I am a Pocha. I do not speak Spanish fluently. My mother’s first tongue was Spanish. As a child, she was punished—sometimes physically, mostly shamed—in school for speaking Spanish. By the time she birthed me and my brothers, she thought it best not to speak to us in Spanish. She wanted us to succeed in the Anglo world.

I don’t blame her. She was doing what she thought best for us. To this day I speak in “Spanglish.” But I also incorporate Indigenous words such as Nahuatl (Aztec) into my writing. I have a long way to go in achieving the fluency I would like in both of these tongues. I am quite aware that Spanish is the colonizer’s language, but it is inherent in my rich identity formation as Chicanx.

I also am quite comfortable in code-switching my “street language” with the idea of “academic speak.” I grew up with a rich colloquialism of “Chola” verbiage and double negatives. I know when I say, “ain’t no thang but a chicken wang, que no (not)” in a collegiate environment that I am enacting a deliberate revolution. I can also get down with a mean academic syntax. Mostly, it was hip-hop, rap and jazz that contributed to my love of language. That, and being poor.

A library card goes a long way in freeing a young person’s mind. I could travel anywhere by reading a book. Storytelling and fiction were my first loves.

Do you seek out poetry by women and non-binary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

When I was a college freshman at New Mexico State University—I did not graduate from there, rather dropped out, twice—I “saved” a copy of Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman from being thrown away. Someone was moving out of the dorm and handed me a box of random items such as half-burnt candles, tampons and books. I had never heard of Sandra Cisnero, much less her widely-acclaimed and radical collection of Chicana feminist poetry. I sat with that book as the sun went down. I read it from cover to cover and was changed forever.

I did not know that women writers like Cisneros existed. I went on to discover the works of Anna Castillo, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherie Morraga, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton and other amazing WOC [women of color] writers. But my high school classrooms never offered them. And my college language arts courses never included them.

When I first read Sandra Cisneros’ “You Bring out the Mexican in Me,” all of the synaptic cells in my brain fired at the same time. She taught me how to write like a Xingona. These days I am enamored by poets such as Siarra Freeman, Danez Smith, Rachel Camacho McKibbens, Jenn Givhan, Sharon Olds, Juan Felipe-Herrera, Fatima Asghar, Denise Frohman, Joy Harjo and others. As a spoken word artist—I have been slamming since 2005—there is no differentiation between “page” and “stage” poets. And some of the best rappers, singers, songwriters—like Kendric Lamar, Ice Cube and Lila Downs—are favorite poets.

What groundbreaking or ancient works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest and/or concern you?

Slam poetry or spoken word is poetry for the gente (people). It is a democratization of verse. No longer do poets need to be canonized, white, cis, male or dead to achieve acclaim. Raul Salinas, the late great Xicanindio poeta said, “poesia esta en la calle” (poetry is on the street). Joy Harjo wrote: “The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world. Each family of trees, animals, wind, stones needed a poet.”

Poetry is medicine, and everyone can access this form of healing.

As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies, and actions can/could make a direct difference for you—and for other women & women writers you know?

Honestly? I need time, resources and money. It’s a luxury to write. It’s a luxury I cultivate. I must cultivate the craft of writing while also balancing four jobs—yes, I have four jobs—parenting and activism and community organizing.

It’s hard. It’s emotional work. It’s healing and necessary but also taxing. We need more funding for the arts, for art-based grants, for residencies for women, women of color, queer writers. I am a teacher and I am constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel for opportunities for my student writers—but also time and resources so that I, too, can carry on as a writer.

What are your four other jobs? What is the activism and community organizing that you do?

I have worked at the Native American Community Academy Inspired Schools Network (NISN) for several years. For a while I was a guest artist, then a sixth-grade teacher at NACA for a couple of years teaching Indigenous History, Philosophy and Thought—humanities. I also taught a poetry elective at the middle school and now teach a dual enrollment class for the NACA High School; dual enrollment means that students are also earning collegiate credit.

The work I do with NISN is centered in reforming education and helping to start Indigenous community-based schools. We have schools in New Mexico—Pueblos such as Santa Domingo and Navajo, etcetera—South Dakota, Oklahoma, others just starting out in Denver and even along the U.S./Mexico border. I also work for the University of New Mexico Chicanx Studies Department and the Institute of American Indian arts as an instructor. Recently, I was hired to host the long-running ¡COLORES! show that highlights artists and leaders in the Southwest.

As an activist, I work to create awareness around issues such as immigration justice, intersectional feminism and youth advocacy.

What’s next? What upcoming plans or projects excite you?

I am honored to coach and mentor an Indigenous youth poetry collective, RezSpit, comprised of woke young Native women and queer writers. I teach college poetry classes through the lens of critically analyzing and responding to issues around race, class and gender and sexual orientation. I continue my work as an instructor at the University of New Mexico Chicana and Chicano Studies Department.

I was the City of Albuquerque Poet Laureate, and that has opened doors for me to continue my work as a feminist Chicanx writer. I’ll be the (f)emcee of our upcoming TEDx in Albuquerque, a speaker for a domestic violence conference and featured poet for a reframing of the epic Chicanx poem, “Yo Soy Joaquin,” that reclaims the presence of mujeres (women) in the long history of Mexican/Mexian-American resistance. I work with Native American Community Academy and continuously learn from our Indigenous relatives of Indian Country/Turtle Island.

What do you rarely get asked?                                                       

Do I write in other genres? (Yes. I have a love for non-fiction, fiction, screenwriting, essays and blogs.) Also, no one ever asks me how I identify. (I’ve come out of the closet. It was latent. But here I am, bisexual and proud.)

When did you come out?

I came out in slow increments. Mostly through my poetry and then conversations with family and friends. I wish I would have sooner but the powers that be—oppression and shame—kept me from admitting that I was bisexual, even though I had known this most of my life. I just don’t give a shit anymore about others’ judgements. I have a lot of queer friends and allies. It’s refreshing. I’m married to a cis man, and this confuses people sometimes, but my woke friends aren’t bothered. I can be queer and be in love with a male partner.

Are there other questions you would like to be asked? Something else you want to talk about?

The legacy I will leave to my daughter, who is now 16 years old and on the cusp of adulthood, is that I hope she breaks all the rules, just as I attempt to do through my writing. I want her to read my work when I am long gone and know that I loved her fiercely, though not perfectly, and that made my love for her authentic and true. I want her to know she has a ferociously loyal mother, but that I am also an erratic soul who did her best to pass along the survival skills my daughter needs to be healthy and happy.

Mostly, though, I want her to be free of any expectations of how she should live her life. I want her to experience the true honey of freedom.

She is the best poem I have ever writ.

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.

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