Why is poetry necessary? What does it mean for people to find connection? How true are our perceptions of our heritage and identities? In From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer, former Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez searches for answers to these questions and more through the exploration of his own identity. In the book’s 12 essays, the author ranges from forthright discussions of his own violent past to celebrations of Xicanx cultural achievement. Rodriguez’s collection belies the myths of borders and emphasizes the complexity of Xicanx identity.
Rodriguez, who writes, “I belong anywhere,” sees himself as a citizen of the world, and he proposes that we embrace and share his outlook through the common languages of myth and poetry.
Civic society should provide more opportunities to listen to poets. For example, why don’t we have poetry at graduations, celebrations, rallies, sports events, or commemorations? Unfortunately, we’re in a country that marginalizes poetry, yet elsewhere all over the world poetry is written, memorized, and recited, even in the most deprived areas… Poetry, like all art, needs to be at the center of our culture. Our country is deprived for lack of enriched expression, powerful performance, compelling language.
Alta caught up with Luis J. Rodriguez via email to ask him questions about From Our Land to Our Land.
What central question does your work ask?
When the practical and real “normalities” of life are absurd, maddening, and detrimental, how do we imagine another way to go as a community, as a country, as the world?
What inspires your writing?
I draw from so many resources, internal and external. But when I’m writing, it’s through the prism of my life, my experiences, my doubts, my certainties, my muse, my lack of muse.
What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
The essays cover a lot of ground. I’m aware that aspects of what I wrote in From Our Land to Our Land, my first book of essays, also appear in my two memoirs, but they are important to go over again. There are other angles I’m seeing my life from in the essays. Many once-told stories reimagined and told again. After looking back at my life, I’ve stumbled upon patterns I wasn’t aware of. I’ve completed various levels of a growth spiral to the present. Again, some conscious, some intuitively, but mostly without a clue. What energies have I carried, discovered, fallen into, or ignored, and how this has shaped who I am today—and will be tomorrow.
Can you explain how Native is different from tribal? Which do you identify with the most?
Tribe is an anthropological term, first used to distinguish modern ethnic groups or so-called races in the 1500s, particularly to distinguish “barbaric” peoples from “civilized.” Most Native peoples see themselves as “the People”—or People of the Corn, People of the Mountains, People of the Waters, or some similar inference. I identify with indigenous, with Native, with First Peoples. My mother’s Native ties are with the Rarámuri (also known as the Tarahumara) in Chihuahua, Mexico. The Fleet-Footed People. But she never grew up traditional. Her grandmother and mother were kidnapped by the Catholic Church when they left the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican Revolution to escape starvation. My mother was born in the Tarahumara ghetto of Chihuahua City in 1925 and then raised in Ciudad Juárez, as a Catholic Mexican. Her father was a blue-eyed Mexican who was an alcoholic when my mother was young—according to her, he dragged my grandmother by the hair in his alcohol-induced rages. Yet he was apparently much beloved because of his eyes (colorism in Mexican culture). I know I have DNA from all over the world. But the vast majority, almost half, is Native American. In the long run, the DNA doesn’t matter—plus those tests are far from accurate. What matters is my honoring of indigenous cosmology, songs, ceremonies, and stories and my relationships to nature, our nature, to others, and the divine. At the same time, I understand and respect the sovereignty of existing peoples, which Native Americans have fought for since the European invasion.
What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
The fact a discipline is connected to understanding the innate laws of things to move forward in that discipline. It’s about alignment. It’s about understanding what needs to be done to achieve what one wants to be done. Music, when I feel it, experience it, does this for me. Just like most art. You are only free as long as you understand the limitations you must abide by to move into that freedom.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
I’m always looking for new voices, new stories, new ways people are using language, imagery, and story. So my to-be-read list includes those interesting, compelling, and risky works that new writers are publishing now. Some succeed, some don’t, but I’m interested in all of it.
Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
Ancestral knowledge, from the beginnings of the wise, complicated, and connected indigenous mind, is still the most powerful knowledge to access as we move through the present crisis and uncertainties into a future moved by our imaginations to be fuller, larger, and more complete for everyone.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Susan Straight for Alta Asks.
- By Luis J. Rodriguez
- Seven Stories Press, 224 pages, $18.95
- An excerpt from From Our Land to Our Land, “Monsters of Our Own Making,” was published in Alta, Spring 2020.
- “Three Questions for Luis J. Rodriguez,” in Alta, Spring 2020.
- “Make a Poem Cry,” in Alta, Summer 2019.