Marisol Baca: On Writing the Stories that Raised Her, Surviving 2020 and Feminism

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of female resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.


Descended from lifetimes of being forced to forget, Chicana/Latinx poet Marisol Baca works to remember what was lost long ago, writing stories that she grew up hearing from the women in her family.

Baca is hungry for “stories of our own” just like her maternal great-grandmother, Manuela, affectionally called Manuelita, and her great aunts, Teresita and Rosita, when they were young girls.

Marisol Baca. (Curtis Messer)

In Baca’s poem titled “The Gutiérrez Sisters in Grand Junction Boarding School, Colorado,” the narrator describes how these sisters long to “hold our people’s songs” that have been “untied from us, unspooled and unraveled…” Baca describes the lives of these three sisters: taken from their families and their hair cut short, they must work hard with their hands, sewing and canning. But when Manuelita finds time to play the mandolin, her sisters don’t get in her way despite the fact that:

This is stolen time
between writing inky letters home
classes on Anglo customs
and work for white farmers

The sisters lose their culture and endure years-long separations from their parents, resulting in what Baca calls “cultural amnesia.” The girls’ mother (Baca’s great-great-grandmother) can rarely visit her daughters but finds a remarkable way to touch their lives despite the great distance. She, too, steals moments from her grueling workdays to collect small gifts for her girls:

green felted velvet ribbon, black satin,
pink satin, red taffeta silk, brown velvet, lace
and egg shell white,
guipure roses hand-stitched on chocolate frosted ribbon
round pearl, oat pearl,
ribbons with sequins, and amethyst silk

Unable to embrace her three daughters, she caresses the ribbon with her fingers and the back of her nail. She imagines the ribbons adorning her girls’ hair, brightening their dresses, wrapped about their wrists. Come Christmas, she sends a parcel filled with “one hundred ribbons” which the girls use to decorate a Christmas tree for all the children, thereby finding a way to share this gift of seemingly infinite possibilities.

In contrast, the two poems that follow pay homage to the poet’s maternal great-grandmother, Manuelita, and paternal grandmother, Helena, at the very end of their lives. While American culture tends to shy away from focusing on the realities of death, especially grief, Baca courageously explores the loss of two beloved matriarchs. The poet reimagines and, in “Manuela,” enters, the stories that raised her.  

Poet Laureate of Fresno, Calif., since 2019, Marisol Baca is the first woman, the first woman of color, and the first Chicana/Latinx poet to hold this appointment. The city chose her poem, “The Origin of Certain Place Names”—which centers the voices of three young women—to be Fresno’s official poem.

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baca says she was raised in a multigenerational family in an “an old adobe house in the valley” before the family moved to Fresno, California. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from Cornell University and is now an English professor at Fresno City College. Winner of the Robert Chasen poetry award, Baca founded Women Writers of Color Central Valley, a Fresno-based collective that “celebrates women writers, their work, and their community.”


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For Dia de Los Muertos, Ms. Muse returns with this installment featuring two poems from Marisol Baca’s award-winning debut collection, Tremor (Three Mile Harbor Press, 2018). Baca speaks with Ms. about “trying to survive” this time in history and how she learned about feminism from family, heartache, and literature. Baca remembers, as a child, making ofrendas (offerings) for her ancestors and other family members when they died. May this homage to two matriarchs in Marisol Baca’s family be another kind of offering for Dia de Los Muertos.

THE POEMS

Manuela    

For my great-grandmother and my sister
who told me the story of her death
Your coffin is open and it floats
along the current, breaking into splinters.
There are calla lilies in your hands,
and your blue flower dress tears at the hem;
your hair has yellowed and, like a web,
come undone; the tips frayed
they wave about in the black water.
 
Your skin sinks deeply into bones
exaggerating your skeleton
like a wax-paper flower.
Your rosary is in the river; the crushed
rose beads hold
a thousand Hail Marys—
they sink past my clutch.
The wide-mouth New Mexico sky is storming.
Feet covered in mud, I enter the flood—
black with mossy fish
and long yellow leaves. Oh, I see you,
Manuela, and all of your life is swelling
in the cottonwood coffin,
exploding like alfalfa in the fields.
I am screaming your name,
calling you like a lonely wolf
through the mountains,
afraid that without you I will starve,
become as empty as an ancient arroyo
by the Rio Grande.
Your name comes out
Like a hail of storm from my throat.
 
And gathering like many tiny raindrops
I become one flood,
hiding the source deep in the caves
of those mountains.
Wading through the water,
chairs and branches floating past me,
I see your closed eyes.
I imagine the way they used to look
before the flood,
before the cracked shells of dirt,
of this desert, held the water no more.
Before the mountains began to call you back home.
Before the river began to swell,
and the scent of rain made your hair spill
loose from those tight silver braids.
 
There is water in this dream, Manuela,
and it is part of us:
the river flood that swallowed Third Street,
feeding the parched red clay,
the adobe we make our homes from,
the old horno, and the ducks,
the cherry tree, and the wine bottles—
all of them, and you, Manuela,
floating away and I stand and wait for the sun.

Helena

My grandmother’s face
centered in a storm
watches a roadrunner from her window
the cigarette stapled
to her index and middle
She calls me
three thousand miles
You don’t need a man to take care of you.
Her voice filled with weeds,
her voice, remember
the overwhelming river beneath the Sandias
open space before urban sprawl
the anger fixed in her eyes
the rumbling, mujer
from my grandfather’s mouth
She wished to run
far into the llano
the sound of bees in her ears
 
How when she died, 
she was found lodged between
the table and wall
standing despite her own death,
sentineled in the wake
of a great splitting
 
Marisol Baca. (LeeAnn DiCicco)

THE INTERVIEW

Chivas Sandage: Can you tell me about your process of writing these poems? Were there particular challenges in writing and revising?

Marisol Baca: I was young when Manuela, my maternal great-grandmother, passed away, but with her death came a shift and a ripple in the family. She was a tether to the older world that my family belonged to, and I have been working to collect stories about that time in my family’s history.

The poem comes from a story that haunted me growing up. All of Third Street in Alameda—a small area in Albuquerque where my family lived for generations—flooded. It is in the natural flooding area near the Rio Grande River, and my great-grandmother experienced it.

I wanted to honor her and her life near the river in Albuquerque, so I wrote a poem that felt like an epigraph with visual elements from the flood. I have written about that flood a few times, and this poem feels like the mouth of those poems.

I was interested in her hair because, as a child, I would watch my grandmother take her hair down and brush it and put it up into braids for the evening. It became an important moment for me for so many reasons, and mostly I wanted to live in that moment of familial comfort and care-taking when, later on, things seemed more complicated and distant.

Helena is my paternal grandmother and I spent a lot of time with her and became very close to her later in my adulthood. The last time I was with her, she told me that she was proud of how I had worked so hard to be able to take care of myself. She had always wanted to be independent and wanted me to know that part of her heart. But she was poor and the world she lived in didn’t allow a woman that kind of independence.

She died while I was away in graduate school, and I wanted to crystalize that moment. The verb—to run—is central in the poem. There is always movement, and then the ending, it just stops. That’s the way it felt to lose her. It was disturbing to know that she passed while standing. My grandmother had a stroke. She was found by her son, my uncle. This poem was once much longer, so in revisions it began to feel like a photo or a portrait. It was important for me to get that right and to stay true to the reality of her death.

When I dream of her, I see her at the window pretty much all of the time.

CS: I’d like to share with our readers what you wrote to me about your stanza breaks in “Helena.” You said: “When I wrote and worked on the poem, I had two stanzas—a long and short. These two stanzas split at the moment–-the image—of her death. This is a visual representation of her splitting. The sound of bees is a sound of danger, and I intentionally placed the sound before the stanza break. I tried the poem in broken stanzas, but I always went back to the two stanza form—top heavy and lopsided because, emotionally, it went with the severity and awkwardness of the image of her death.

What childhood experience/s with language informed your relationship with poetry?

MB: My love of language is sincerely and deeply planted in my relationship to my family. My paternal grandfather loved poetry and worked on translations of poet Federico Garcia Lorca for his Master’s degree. He was the one who saw poetry in me at a young age, and he was instrumental to my learning to read and love poetry. I grew up loving poetry and books, and was lucky to have poetry teachers early in life–Carmen Tafolla and Jean Janzen who made incredible impressions on me and my writing early on.

CS: What early experiences with feminism informed your relationship to feminism?

MB: In my family, we were always somewhere between the very traditional and the something else. We grew up strict Catholics, but my father was analytical and scientific and resisted restrictive ways of thinking. He was a feminist and he recognized the strength and autonomy in the feminist movement from my mother. She helped him learn how feminism could help her and our family and community. He supported and urged her to get an education so she could get paid for the work that she did and have a career, and he wanted his daughters to have opportunities available to them.

My mother is my teacher. She has helped to guide me to become the woman that I am in the world. I have learned about “la lucha” (the struggle) from her—be generous and kind but stand up for yourself.

I was informed by them, and I was intrinsically informed through the women in my past who were good teachers. I learned what I didn’t like from a systemic and institutionalized system of religion, patriarchal systems (including television and advertisements), school, and family. I also remember moving from New Mexico to California and being one of the only young women of color in my school.

That time could have destroyed my self-esteem because of racist bullying, but it didn’t. I say this because the racism that I experienced was also very attached to sexism—as it usually is. I learned to write at that time and focused on the friends that I had. And I relied on my family.

Then, I began to read and discover writers like bell hooks who seemed to speak of a feminism that included women who looked and lived more like me, and Gloria Anzaldua, Ana Castillo, and I found Lorna Dee Cervantes and read about her life through her poems and her brave spirit that called out racism, sexism and injustice in poems. Cervantes’ Emplumada was very important to me as a young Chicana poet without a posse. So, I guess Feminism came first through family, and next from heartache, and then through literature.

CS: Do you seek out poetry by women and nonbinary writers? If so, since when and why? How has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

MB: I owe so much to writers like Helena Viramontes, Carmen Tafolla, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Lucille Clifton, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Lyra Van Cleiff Stephanon, Joy Harjo and also through poets and writers that I seek out now like Randa Jarrar’s “A Map of Home,” Xochitl Julisa Bermejo’s Posada, Jasminne Mendez’s “Blooming Jazmin(n)e,” ire’ne lara silva’s “CUICACALLI/House of Song,” Cynthia Guardado’s “Endeavor,” Monique Quintana’s “Cenote City,” and Rivers Soloman, Jennifer Givann, Sara Borjas, Terese Mailhot, Tacey M. Atsitty.

I have always looked for women writers and poets who hold power in their writing. Now we are hearing more voices that would not have found publishers before. We need to hear more. I look for publishers who actively seek and publish women of color. My publisher Three Mile Harbor Press believed in my work and this has been instrumental in my growth as a poet.

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

MB: It’s not ancient, but I’ve been interested in working with surrealist poetry as well as surrealist painting, and I have been writing poems about the artist, Remedios Varo.

CS: How have you been affected as a woman and/or writer by: the current president and political divide in the U.S., the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and/or climate change?

MB: I am trying to survive as a woman of color, and educator, and an artist during these current times. It has been a very isolating and lonely time. Sometimes writing is my respite, but many times it’s not enough. I have been trying to remain active and support movements like Black Lives Matter. I think showing up and remaining vocal helps to keep the momentum.

I have also been working on a poet laureate project that gives funding support for those affected by wildfires. It is called Cloud Writings: Poems for Fire Relief. I remain active in hiring at the college where I work to try and create a diverse workplace where my students can see women of color represented as educators. Being a part of all these things during the pandemic has been challenging. I worry for my students who are adversely affected and may not be getting the resources they need to be successful in college. I stay active and have to speak my mind and be vigilant in my professional life. Being the first Chicana/Latina as Fresno, California’s poet laureate has given me agency, and it helps young women of color to see and get to know an artist of color who is recognized. Fresno has a rich history of poetry, but it is a community that has not, in the past, celebrated many women poets or women poets of color.

CS: 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?

MB: I feel privileged to have the job that I do. It has given me financial stability and a rewarding work experience. I did not have that for a long time. I was an adjunct for almost a decade. I couldn’t afford healthcare and didn’t go to a doctor for years. I struggled to make money and wasn’t able to save. I know that the ability to have access to good health care is so important. Without the worry of illness or underlying health conditions, I have been able to work on my writing. I want that for all artists.

As an adjunct, I didn’t have a place where I felt I belonged, or where I was an integral part of the educational experience. The adjunct’s situation is demoralizing, and I see so many teachers/artists struggle in this broken system.

Lately, also, it feels like women of color are overly taxed with work and pressure to make large systemic changes. I am asked to do so many things, and I worry that I won’t have time to devote to my writing. It is a reality that the brunt of the difficult work is many times placed on the shoulders of women of color. More support and resources for women artists to continue their own work would be so very helpful.

CS: What’s next? What upcoming plans/projects excite you? 

MB: I am working on my second book of poetry. I am excited to continue my work with the collective I started—Women Writers of Color Central Valley. I’m excited about an album that features me reading one of my poems along with a live jazz band. It’s called, The Poets are Gathering and has live poems with music from poets around the United States including former U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. I love collaborating with different artists and art forms, and it was such an honor to be asked to contribute. During my second and final year as poet laureate of Fresno, I want to reach out to children—these are the years when they are ready to fall in love with poetry.

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About

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. The Massachusetts Cultural Council awarded Sandage a 2020 artist grant for her work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.