The Body of Contemporary Latina/o/x Poetry

Edited by Francisco E. Robles and William Orchard

The Body of Contemporary Latina/o/x Poetry

William Orchard and Francisco E. Robles

Afro-Boricua Archives: Paperless People and Photo/Poetics as Resistance

Yomaira C. Figueroa

Poetry, Pulse, and the Anthology

Amanda Torres and William Orchard

Slow Encounter

Dominique Vargas

Black Latina Girlhood Poetics of the Body: Church, Sexuality and Dispossession

Omaris Z. Zamora

The Border’s Bright Dead Things: On Ada Limón’s Embodied Poetics

Cristina Pérez Jiménez

Lamentation, Remembrance, the Body

Francisco E. Robles


Among scholars and teachers of Latina/o/x literature, it has become commonplace in recent years to speak about the vitality of poetry, which has long been subordinated to narrative in research and on syllabi. Contemporary Latina/o/x poetry demonstrates a remarkable ability to respond to the urgencies of the present, revealing the heterogeneity of Latinidad by contesting representations that circulate in the popular imagination and by providing a space to give voice to the emergent and silenced bodies that reside within Latina/o/x communities. This forum examines this body of literature and the bodies it makes visible to us: the migrating body, the disappeared body, the sexual body, the desiring body, the racialized body, the incarcerated body, the liberated body, the harmed body, the protesting body, the communal body, the joyous body. As a whole, contemporary Latina/o/x poetry is rapidly expanding and diversifying, even as it is revealing long-held tensions undergirding race, class, language, and gender. Indeed, this forum invites us to consider what this body of Latina/o/x poetry might look like, if we approach it through multiplicity and open-endedness in the first place.

The term "Latina/o/x" signifies the quickly changing nature of these bodies. The recent shift to "Latinx" is intended, in part, to bring trans*, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming persons into visibility at a moment when their lives and rights are under heavy assault. If "X" first designated specific embodiments of Latinidad, Alan Pelaez Lopez draws our attention to how these embodiments are imbricated with the intersecting violences of colonialism, antiblackness, misogyny, and transphobia. While the field's quick adoption of "Latinx" demonstrates solidarity regarding these concerns, Richard T. Rodriguez cautions against a generalized usage in which "the initial subversive intent" of the term "runs the risk of co-optation" by neoliberal projects of inclusion that obscure the very bodies and politics Latinx was meant to make visible.1

If conversations about "Latinx" raise questions about how to reimagine the field so that it is more capable of talking about the connectedness of race, gender, sexuality, class, and coloniality, these are only the most conspicuous in a recent series of intellectual interventions that have created a fertile ground for Latina/o/x poets and poetry. In recent decades, one could point to the rise of historical methodologies as a response to the material discovered by the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage project as precipitating a need to qualify and update the conceptual vocabulary of the ethno-nationalist formations Chicano, Puerto Rican, Dominican, etc. that established the field's foundations. While historical approaches still dominate the field, queer Latinx scholars of the early twenty-first century opened pathways for thinking about the aesthetic, the forms of feeling and sensation that constitute collectivities in ways that elude historical reckoning.2 Simultaneously, scholars of Afro-Latina/o/x Studies and Critical Latinx Indigeneities have contested the erasures of Blackness and Indigeneity in certain discourses of mestizaje and racial whitening, insisting not only on the presence of Black and Indigenous bodies within Latina/o/x communities but also on how the meanings of those bodies is affected by overlapping systems of racialization connected with different colonial, national, and migratory histories.3 These scholars have also introduced decolonial perspectives into the field that stimulated an engagement with philosophical questions related to epistemology and phenomenology. Taken together, these developments have multiplied our understandings of Latinidad, and draw our attention to the formal practices that shape Latina/o/x cultural production, asking us to think in new ways about knowing and being.

It is always a challenge to provide dates for the contemporary. Following Chela Sandoval and Sylvia Wynter, we might start the contemporary at 1492, and to see the present moment as continuous with the long history of coloniality, but recent scholarship in Latina/o/x literary studies has located January 1, 1994, when NAFTA began its intrusion into Latina/o/x communities, as one possibility for the beginning of Latina/o/x contemporaneity. NAFTA reflects neoliberalism's4 devotion to free trade, private property, deregulation, and the extension of economic thinking to all regions of social and political life.5 It marked a shift after which Latina/o/x literature understood precarity as a precondition and condition of migration and movement.6 Before this, Latina/o/x literature certainly understood movement and migration as important national and transnational concepts, specifically in the wake of the nation state's revolutionary emergence in the Americas. But the precarity of post-NAFTA literature, highlighting a consolidating world that fragmented local life-worlds through globalization and trade integration, took on new literary forms and new attentions. Narrative forms, metaphorical tendencies, and political attention coalesced into texts that bear witness to injustice, particularly as a means to bring to light the struggles of migrants and refugees.7 And, perhaps inspired by the Zapatistas' revolutionary response to NAFTA, Latina/o/x writers imagined forms of freedom beyond those figured by neoliberal and financialized capitalism.8 At the same time, Latina/o/x communities were beginning to take shape as a market.9 In literature, Latina/o/x writers in the 1990s had to negotiate the demands of the market to produce legibly ethnic writing with their own desires to continue the activist projects of their predecessors.10 This imperative was perhaps felt strongest in fiction writing. For poets, whose work did not rely on major publishers in the same way, the situation rapidly opened onto possibility. According to a survey of poetry of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Latina/o/x poets have been less encumbered by the imperatives of the market because there are now a larger range of venues for publication, from established literary journals and presses to small presses and internet publications to performance spaces and digital video distribution. While Latina/o/x poets continue to encounter gatekeepers who may misunderstand their work or ask it to conform to reified notions of Latinidad, the larger possibilities for publication have resulted in experimental works that broaden our understandings of Latinidad "beyond the marked and marketable Latina/o identities demanded by the state and corporate apparatuses."11 The result is a body of writing that is not only responsive to the "deracinating effects of a global, neoliberal economy" but that articulates new forms of being not typically associated with Latinidad.12

In the last decade, poets and scholars have built institutions to cultivate and accelerate the writing of poetry. For instance, in 2009, Norma E. Cantú, Celeste Mendoza, Pablo Miguel Martínez, Deborah Paredez, and Carmen Tafolla founded CantoMundo. Modeled on Cave Canem and Kundiman, which provide similar opportunities for African American and Asian American poets, respectively, CantoMundo sponsors Latinx writers as fellows, connects them to a larger network of new and established writers, and provides them spaces to develop their craft. Javier Zamora, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Christopher Soto established Undocupoets in 2015 to protest poetry contests that excluded undocumented applicants. Although the three founders are Latinx, Undocupoets has sponsored poets from places as various as Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, and China.

In 2011, Francisco Aragón, founder of the Letras Latinas initiative at the University of Notre Dame, collaborated with the Poetry Society of America to host a years-long digital forum of Latinx poets, "Latino/a Poets Roundtable," which culminated with the 2014 publication of the anthology Angels of the Americlypse and an October 2015 reading at the University of Notre Dame. Following Letras Latinas's commitment to publishing, discussing, and hosting readings of Latina/o/x poetry, the forum featured more than twenty poets,13 all of whom demonstrated the enormous lineage of influences and ideas they bring to bear on poetics. In this online roundtable, the poets and scholars considered their work and the work that preceded them from the vantage of their distinct commitments to  lyricism, linguistic play,  confessional poetry,  testimony, and politics. Melding traditions considered separate to the US and Latin America, these poets affirmed an openness of Latina/o/x poetry and poetics.

In part because of the networks and opportunities institutions like CantoMundo, Undocupoets, and Letras Latinas have nurtured, poetry is the genre of Latina/o/x writing that is most responsive to the rapid changes in social, political and cultural discourse. Latinx poems responding to current events such as Christopher Soto's searing response to the Pulse Orlando massacre, "All the Dead Boys Look Like Me," can appear mere days following an event. Poems can be easily shared on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, without relying on the publishing industry. Corridos ballads of enormous importance to Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been described as a form of journalism, bringing news to a public in music and verse.14 Days after the August 3 shooting in El Paso, musicians took to the streets to perform corridos, expressing mourning and grief, as well as condemning white supremacy and its violence against non-white bodies.

And while poetry nimbly responds to an ever shifting and often hostile present, it retains a connection to the past, adjusting our relationship to history. Javier Zamora's 2017 collection, Unaccompanied, builds spiritual and bodily connections in the midst of precarity and crisis for El Salvadoran and other Central American migrants. He poetically blends a multitude of events, moments, relationships, conversations, and thoughts by grafting his lyric consciousness to the testimony and witness of relatives, friends, and people encountered while crossing the border. One of Zamora's most touching poems, "Second Attempt Crossing," is a thank you, as well as a despedida to Chino, a former MS-13 member: "Farewell / your brown arms that shielded me then, / that shield me now, from La Migra."15 Wrapping testimony with lyricism, Zamora's poem remembers and reincarnates Chino, even as it lays bare the terror of running from La Migra as a young, unaccompanied child. Zamora's presentation of Chino's care confronts the anti-immigrant ideologies of white supremacy, which imagine members of MS-13 as atavistic ogres hell-bent on violence. Chino's tattooed, brown arms, throughout the poem, carry and care for the lyric speaker, keeping him from harm. "Then" and "now," Chino shields the poet.

But invocations of the body need not only be reactive: they can also establish new forms of solidarity across the hemisphere or Global South, articulate news forms of desire, and generate unexpected sources of political power. A vivid example of this happened in July 2019 when Puerto Ricans burst into the streets of San Juan and demanded the resignation of Ricardo Roselló as governor of the island. Journalists at the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo released a trove of vicious messages between Roselló and his inner circle that attacked the physical and social bodies of persons in Puerto Rico and beyond. Within the 889-page compendium of messages, one encounters a widespread use of misogyny and transphobia, raucous homophobia, antiblack racism, fatphobia, and classism to assert a single and authoritarian system of thought. Among the most galling of these messages were those that mocked the bodies of those who died during and after Hurricane Maria. For Puerto Ricans still reeling from the effects of Maria and contending with the forced austerity imposed by a federal oversight board, a limit was breached, and bodies of all sorts came forth to demand justice, oppose corruption, and insist upon sovereignty. One of the more inventive forms of demonstration involved the dancing of the perreo, the dance style of reggaeton. As Vanessa Davila and Marisol LeBron explain, queer, trans, and non-binary youth danced a perreo combativo on the steps of San Juan's cathedral "to create a sensuous and liberated communal space that generated political power.” This example reveals that a desiring body that indulges in pleasure can also be a resource for politics, coalitions, transformation, and lyricism.

These examples come from performance, which is ephemeral and site-specific. Latina/o/x poetry has been closely associated with performance traditions, ranging from slam events to the choreopoems of an artist like Josefina Báez to Adrian H. Molina's spoken word video chapbook, Bronze Futures: Letters for 2045.16 Poetry possesses an ability to respond to new embodied performances in durable forms, whether through infusing known closed poetic forms with new content or by reshaping form to give voice to new kinds of embodiment. For instance, the Eritrean-Puerto Rican-African American poet Aracelis Girmay opens her recent collection the black maria (2016) with a work titled "elelegy," combining the elegy with the kind of ululation discovered in African languages, something that impresses bodily difference into a familiar form.

The six of our contributions, written by seven Latina/o/x scholars of Latina/o/x literature, take up several poets and artists: Ada Limón, Aracelis Girmay, Natalie Diaz, Elizabeth Acevedo, Alejandro Arbona and Wilfredo Torres, Roy Guzmán, Maya Chinchilla, Frank Espada, and John Murillo. There were so many poets whom we love, though, that aren't discussed in our forum; or, like Javier Zamora and Christopher Soto, who appear in our introduction but not in the forum essays. We hope that these contributions inspire essays and readings of poets such as Raquel Salas Rivera, Oliver Baez-Bendorf, Rossy Evelin Lima, Ariana Brown, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, J. Michael Martinez, Alejandro Albarrán Polanco, Edyka Chilomé, Daniel Borzutzky, Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Sonia Guiñascaca, Sheryl Luna, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Gina Franco, Farid Matuk, Sarah A. Chavez, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Yosimar Reyes, José Olivarez, Enriqueta Lunez, Edgar García, and Felicia Zamora. This is in addition to long-established poets and writers to whom we continually return to, like Rigoberto González, Mayra Santos-Febres, Juan Felipe Herrera, Gabriel Gomez, Francisco Aragón, Richard Blanco, Orlando Menes, Eduardo C. Corral, Norma Elia Cantú, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, as well as deeply missed poets, such as Francisco X. Alarcón, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Andres Montoya. To be clear, this lengthy list is nowhere near representative of the efflorescence of Latina/o/x poetry in even the past twenty years. This curtailed list, as with the pieces in the forum, is shaped by our experiences, our histories, and our reading practicesexperiences, histories, and reading practices that will continue to expand and amplify as we continue our work as scholars of Latina/o/x literatures.

The essays in this forum similarly speak to poetry's ability to document the body, marking its presence against the various ways it is has been erased within Latinidad, the nation, and beyond. Yomaira Figueroa's essay explores how Frank Espada's documentary photographs and Aracelis Girmay's poem "You Are Who I Love" produce an Afro-Boricua archive to remedy the condition of what literary critic Lisa Sánchez González calls  "paperlessness." Espada's photographs chronicle Puerto Rican life on the island and in the diaspora, and form one attempt to produce paper to document Boricua lives and to indict coloniality and erasure. Girmay's poem, which describes everyday moments of resistance to hatred, also attempts to recuperate bodies erased from the record and render them through "the lens of love, celebration, and dignity." William Orchard and Amanda Torres's essay on anthologies commemorating the 2016 Pulse massacre also examines erasure, in this case the erasure of queer and trans* Latinx bodies from remembrances of that event. In the comics anthology Love is Love and Roy G. Guzmán and Miguel M. Morales's poetry anthology Pulse/ Pulso, Orchard and Torres consider how the poems collected both insist on the specificity of the lives lost while also imagining new forms of collectivity. By bringing together a diverse group of writers, the anthology embodies this coalition, revealing itself as a vehicle for political action as well as for utopian thinking.

The authors and artists discussed in these essays turn to intimate spacesthe spaces of everyday life or sexualityin order to locate those who have been rendered invisible. Encounters with intimate spheres, though, need not only be about recovering lost bodies, they can also produce new ways of knowing. Dominique Vargas examines the poetry of Natalie Diaz and Ada Limón to locate a "project of critical cartography" that revises the settler colonial map's understanding of space. In doing so, Vargas sees Diaz and Limón generating forms of communal selfhood by putting their poetry in dialogue. As Vargas evocatively puts it: in itself, "Slow encounter is a critical geography." Examining the instances of slow encounter in the work of both writers, Vargas arrives finally at "Envelopes in Air," an exchange of poem-letters between Diaz and Limón published in The New Yorker in 2018, arguing that these poems stage a slow encounter that presages a "a critical re-imagining of the Americas." In her essay, Omaris Zamora credits an encounter with Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X with returning her to writing poetry. In recognizing herself in Acevedo's fifteen-year-old Black Latina protagonist who negotiates the demands of conservative Dominican immigrant parents with her own desires for self-expression, Zamora also identifies in Xiomara's poetry an instance of an "embodied archive." By this, Zamora means writing that emanates from black women's bodies and that questions the frameworks imposed upon those bodies by authorities like the church, the family, and the neighborhood. In Xiomara's narrative, Zamora discerns a Black girl confronting gender and anti-black violence and inventing new ways of beingspecifically, lyrical and poetic ways of beingin the world that contribute to her flourishing.

Cristina Pérez Jiménez recounts her response to the June 2019 photograph of the drowned bodies of 26-year-old Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter Valeria, and discovers in Ada Limón's poetry an imperative "to make their livesnot just their deathsheard." Reading across Limón's four volumes of poetry, Pérez Jiménez reveals how Limón's verse attempts to restore the humanity of Latina/o/x bodies by attending not only to the different ways racialized bodies are commodified, reified, and stereotyped but also to the "body alive, which, while finite and mortal, is never abject." This sense of poetry's ability to embody how Latino/a/x bodies live in contradictionand how they live a humanity that bridges histories and intertwines with othersis also apparent in Francisco Robles's essay on lamentation in the work of John Murillo and Aracelis Girmay. In the work of both of these writers, remembrance and lament imagine bodies that constitute Afrolatinidades that intersect and exceed current conceptions of that category. For Robles, lamentation is not simply a mode that mourns loss, but is also expansive and hospitable, inviting us into the intimate histories that hurt in order to forge new connections and understandings.

Perhaps this is what contemporary Latina/o/x poetry does: it invites us into situations that are unsettled and sometimes unsettling, asking us to join in the work imagining better worlds where we are all accounted for. This may also be another way of thinking about poetry's relationship to the X in Latinx. If X, as we suggested at the opening, marks occluded histories and the presence of unacknowledged bodies, it also marks a place of coming together to solve for X. This effort at solving need not reduce to a solution; rather, it can and should initiate an ongoing process of producing richer accounts of Latinidad that reveal the fullness of who we are. Contemporary Latina/o/x poetry invites into this deliberation, as do the essays in this forum.


  1. Richard T. Rodriguez, "X Marks the Spot," Cultural Dynamics 29, no. 3 (2017), 207. []
  2. See, for example, José Esteban Muñoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), Antonio Viego's Dead Subjects: Towards a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), and Joshua Guzman and Cristina Leon's introduction to a 2015 special issue of Women and Performance, "Cuts and Impressions: The Aesthetic Work of Lingering in Latinidad."  []
  3. The scholarship on these topics is vast, but would include work by Lorgia García-Peña, Miriam Jiménez Román, Juan Flores, Dixa Ramírez, Yomaira Figueroa, Omaris Zamora, Maylei Blackwell, and María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo. []
  4. See Michael Dowdy, Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Reponses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013), and Urayoán Noel, "Bodies That Antimatter: Locating U.S. Latina/o Poetry, 2000-2009," Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011), 852-882. []
  5. The last insight is one of the arguments of Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015). []
  6. See Marta Caminero-Santangelo, Documenting the Undocumented: Latina/o Narratives and Social Justice in the Era of Operation Gatekeeper (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2016), and John D. "Rio" Riofrio, Continental Shifts: Migration, Representation, and the Stuggle for Justice in Latin(o) America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015). []
  7. See Caminero-Santangelo and Riofrio. []
  8. The first chapter of Broken Souths examines Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada's Zapatista poems, in which he presents poetry as a collective rather than private form. Throughout Broken Souths, Dowdy is attentive to the various aesthetic, political, personal, and historical circumstances that connect Latina/o poets to Latin America. Dowdy, Broken Souths, 9.[]
  9. On the emergence of the Latino market, see Arlene Davila's Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). []
  10. Raphael Dalleo and Elena Machado Sáez, The Latina/o Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2007).[]
  11. Noel, "Bodies That Antimatter," 854. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. The wide range of practitioners and scholars included Aragón, Rosa Alcalá, Eduardo C. Corral, Aracelis Girmay, Maria Melendez, Juan Morales, Raina J. Leon, Hope Maxwell Snyder, Roberto Tejada, elena minor, Mark Smith-Soto, Emma Trelles, Lauro Vazquez, Rigoberto González, Zochiquetzal Candelaria, Lorena Duarte, J. Michael Martínez, Carmen Giménez Smith, Lauren Espinoza, Blas Falconer, and John Murillo.[]
  14. On the history of the corrido and its relationship to contemporary Chicana/o/x poetics, see José Limón's classic Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican Social Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). []
  15. Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press): 10. []
  16. Here we would like to acknowledge Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and its influence on a wide range of textual practices, which has led us to use the term choreopoem here.[]

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