Small Press Spotlight: John Olivares Espinoza

by Rigoberto González | Mar-30-2009


The Date Fruit Elegies, Bilingual Press, 2009.

John Olivares Espinoza’s first book is The Date Fruit Elegies, which inaugurated Bilingual Press’s new poetry series Canto Cosas in 2008. Espinoza has studied creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and at Arizona State University. He teaches writing, literature, and is a retention specialist at The National Hispanic University in San Jose, California, where he lives with his wife.

A recurring trope in this collection is the coin. There is the “metal rain [of nickels and dimes] inside the small slot” of the recycling center’s vending machine, the dropping of “a little bit of our souls/ like loose pennies” at the danger-ridden hangouts of youth, and then those “twenty-five cent stories”—what you call the series of prose poems that make up part three of your book. Pocket change, what many take for granted, has value here. How is this connected to the larger project of the book—a portrait of a community in Southern California, a portrait of a young man growing up in a family of Mexican landscapers?

Coins and pocket change are indeed a recurring motif in the book. Early in the life of the speaker coins and change pop up and anchor themselves during the speaker’s most heightened experiences, whether it’s the compassion he feels toward “the old soul slumped against the wall” when the young John “place[s] the coins into his cupped hands” in the poem “Economics at Gemco,” or the embarrassment he feels in “CA Redemption” when he and his mother are recycling cans for nickels and dimes to by lunch. By the next poem, “Contemporary American Hunger,” it’s the mother who’s embarrassed for having to pay for two cheeseburgers with change, and it’s the John of the book who’s witnessing his mother hold on to her dignity. So by the time the reader gets to the poems where the speaker is older and more reflective and he states “places where we dropped/ A little bit of our souls/ like loose pennies/ from our pockets,” coins have then transcended a monetary value to enter a more emotional value.

The Southern California that you and I know is not the image and myth of SoCal that Hollywood produces, thus the one that dominates the imagination of non-natives. I see deep class divisions in the state, yet it is not part of a larger conversation because that would mean that our California Dream has slipped into a more unsettling dream. In The Date Fruit Elegies, it’s not subtle that the less-do-well are distinguished by coins and the well-to-do are associated with hundred-dollar bills as in “Aching Knees in Palm Springs.”

Two poems near the end of this collection, “My Father’s Ways of Getting His Jobs Done” and “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved About Southern California” navigate two very complex relationships the speaker has with his childhood homes. It takes his growing up and return after going away to appreciate the experience of his complicated younger years. Latino letters—and Chicano literature in particular—engages this “prodigal son” narrative, which is intimately connected to the first generation American’s coming-of-age journey. José Antonio Villarreal wrote about it in his 1950s novel Pocho, so did Sandra Cisneros twenty-five years ago with The House on Mango Street, as did Junot Díaz in his Pultizer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Why is this story timeless and particularly relevant to Latino writers? How do you see your book contributing to this body of work and how is it offering something different?

This theme of home, finding a home, or returning home like a “prodigal son” is timeless, isn’t it? I feel it has much to do with Mexican and Chicano history. After 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe the lines of demarcation shifted creating “strangers in their own land” for Mexicans and Californios. Yes, this has happened over a hundred and sixty years ago but the mentality still prevails. To Mexican Americans the U.S. is home to them, but they are made to feel as if they don’t fit in. When you don’t fit in, then you don’t “feel at home,” hence you are in a perpetual search for a home. It is especially true for Generations 1.5 Mexicans and first-generation, native-born Mexican Americans (Chicanos). They are likely to have been raised in areas where they lack resources and quality public education. If these generations do not wish to perpetuate their poverty and disadvantage, then they must leave “home” to pursue an education and/or better economic opportunities.

When they go off to college to the big city they may find that they don’t fit out there either. Perhaps they may feel they have turned their backs on their origins. Eventually there comes a longing for home, but the return means having to resolve conflicts and ease strained relationships. You see this in “My Father’s Ways of Getting His Jobs Done.”

To talk further about home (and exile) in Latino Letters would warrant a dissertation. However, The Date Fruit Elegies contributes something different to this body of work because the speaker has come to terms with his Chicano and American identity (Superman’s his hero) in order to be settled in America, particularly the West. He’s here to stay, whether he’s wanted (hopefully) or not. Neither he nor his parents, whose underlying identity is that of Mexican immigrants, show a desire to return to la Madre Patria, or Motherland.

The landscape and language of Mexican labor in The Date Fruit Elegies will remind readers of the work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the recent recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. You are both California Chicanos and the cultural legacy of the Mexican community thrives in your poetry. (This is even evident in your book cover, a re-imagining of the Mexican lotería!) Where do you see the next generation of Chicano poets moving in their work? Do you think Herrera’s accolade will change the reception of Chicano poetry in the literary industry?

Recognizing Juan Felipe Herrera’s work at such a prestigious level is long overdue. He is one of the few prolific Chicano poets we have. When a poet like Herrera wins something, I feel I win something, too. We all do.

I believe the reception of Chicano poetry has changed for the better in the last 10+ years. In 1995 and 2002 The National Book Awards named Gary Soto and Alberto Ríos, respectively, finalists. The seven-year cycle is up so maybe they will recognize another Chicano soon?

Just in the 2000s I’ve seen a boom in Chicano and Latino poetry publishing. I hope that’s the result of greater quality of writing coming from us, than something this is en vogue. Bilingual Press, who has been recognizing our literary and artistic merits for decades, has stepped up their efforts by introducing the Canto Cosas poetry series, of which I’m the inaugural poet, to continue their “commitment to producing high-quality poetry.” But certainly I am happy to see that fine presses like Tupelo, Southern Illinois University, and Carnegie-Mellon have started publishing Chicano and Latino poets.

Chicano writers today will continue writing about what is relevant to their communities. Chicago poet Paul Martínez Pompa writes about police brutality, whereas Arizona poet Eduardo C. Corral writes about border crossing. Some Chicano and Latino poets, like Steven Cordova, are going beyond the tradition because they now have the license to do so. Cordova, a Canto Cosas poet, was born in San Antonio, but is a long-time NYC resident. His first book deals with his identity as a male living with HIV. We need both these types of writers to show the literary world the full gamut of our talents.

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