I met Raquel Salas-Rivera the way many people with similar interests meet in the age of the internet: on Facebook. What I immediately loved about Raquel was her refusal to accept the idea of art as autonomous & not responsible to the world it engages. Looking at the work of poets like Kenneth Goldsmith & Vanessa Place, she insisted on the accountability of the artist, the writer, the poet. Despite the challenges presented by this position to herself as a poet, with intelligence & earnestness, she stood her ground. When I was finally able to sit down with Raquel’s work, upon the publication of her book oropel/tinsel in May, I was again stunned, this time by the energy of her unabashedly politicized poetry. I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed, especially in the wake of recent events in Puerto Rico--the place she calls home.
Over the last couple of months, Raquel & I have gone back & forth over email to bring this interview together. In that time, I have found her insights into contemporary politics (especially around queerness, decolonization & anti-racism) & poetry & the relationship between the two fortifying. I am grateful to be able to share these insights with a wider audience.
Wendy: With the recent shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I want to start this interview by asking how you are holding up & how you feel about the mainstream media's coverage of the tragedy, especially with so many of the queer Latinx killed being Puerto Rican?
Raquel: I want to start my answer by saying thank you to all my cuir and queer family. Thank you Alli, Oki, Gaddo, Tim, Emma, Lena, Jazmín, Evelyn, Trayce, Jenn, Leone, Max, Ángel, Abdiel, Lissette, Mel, Bea, Ericka, Raquel A., Mon, Sam, Amalle, Tina, Ginger, Colette, Chloe, Lou, and all of you who were there crying and showing love for me and each other, texting me, going with me to the club and to the vigil, and asking how I was holding up. If it weren’t for you and for the poetry, it would have been even harder to get through June.
There were so many people affected by the shooting. Many of the victims were Boricuas. Some weren’t. Some were undocumented latinx. I can only speak to the way I was broken apart. Walter Benjamin talked about how a translation should touch an original poem “just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point”. This is the way our differing griefs should touch.
As for the mainstream media: I’m angry. As usual, most news outlets have spent exorbitant amounts of time creating cruel and horrifying “gays kill gays” headlines; blaming ISIS; sending out rallying cries for an imperialist, homonationalist response; and zero time taking responsibility for creating a racist, transphobic, and homophobic world. Then there are confusing narratives circulating, which present the U.S. as a haven for latinxs migrating from homophobic countries. I have no idea how someone can spin that narrative out of a massacre in which latinxs who emigrated were killed after having moved to the U.S. It also runs contrary to my own experience and to the experiences of many of my Puerto Rican cuir/queer friends who had their first cuir/queer experiences in gay clubs like Nova Ley, during political struggles such as the 2010 student strike at the University of Puerto Rico, or in cuir/queer colloquiums such as the Coloquio del Otro L’ao. Rather than reinforce the civilization-barbarism binary by talking about how accepting and open the United States has been in opposition to the countries the U.S. government has colonized, there should be a mediatic discussion about how tragic it is that colonized peoples migrate to the U.S. out of economic need, only to find themselves shut out of U.S. “freedom.”
Wendy: I understand the complexity of the current situation in Puerto Rico requires way more attention than we can give it in this interview, but could you give readers an idea of the economic & political context for young Puerto Ricans moving to places like Florida in search of work?
Raquel: Since the Puerto Rican bonds were devalued and since the “debt crisis” began, I have been writing poem after poem about what it means to lose and keep losing in ways that seem unquantifiable. After Orlando, that feeling has become overwhelming. Two days before the shooting, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that it would no longer monitor water resources in Puerto Rico because the Puerto Rican government owes it $2 million. By July 1, 177 of the island’s hydrologic stations were set to stop operating. On june 29, the U.S. Senate passed the PROMESA/PROMISE bill, which establishes that a Control Board will run the country (or as the bill states the “territory”) and the minimum wage for people under 25 will be lowered to $4.25 an hour. It is not coincidence that the Puerto Ricans who went to Pulse on June 12 had recently migrated from Ponce in search of better living conditions.
My friends back in Puerto Rico are hustling. They were always hustling. They hustled under Aníbal Acevedo Vilá’s administration when he imposed a 7% (now 11.5%) tax on consumer goods (Impuesto sobre las Ventas y Uso or IVU) while refusing to adequately tax the rich. They hustled under Luis Fortuño’s administration when he fired more than 17,000 government workers because there was a “crisis” (a word we are very familiar with because it always precedes a raid on our already limited resources). They are hustling now in Mayagüez, in San Juan, in New York, in Chicago. They are doing shady shit to earn enough to eat; they are hustling in order to get the access they need to testosteron; they are writing poems they never publish; they are falling in love when they can’t afford to go to the movies; they are hustling for weeks and miles to get tested; they are protesting with signs that say LA DEUDA NO ES NUESTRA/QUE LA PAGUEN LOS RICOS (THE DEBT ISN’T OURS/LET THE RICH PAY IT); they are searching for news about Puerto Rico from wherever they are, calling their families on the island, asking them to send coffee and love; and they are going to clubs like Pulse because it reminds them of clubs like Nova. I know because when I used to go to Nova, I’d meet jawns from Ponce who would drive to Mayagüez pal jangeo.
I can’t speak about every migration experience. I can only talk about my own displacement and what it feels like to make a cuir/queer family through constant disidentification. No one teaches cuir/queer Boricuas how to come together, love ourselves and love each other. Perhaps for this reason, we often fail at these three things, but I’m ok with trying and failing, especially because our clubs are built on quicksand.
My friend, José Iván Trinidad Cotto, died last August. Even though the circumstances surrounding his death indicated that he might have been killed for being queer, the police refused to investigate. I miss him so much. His death came after a major crisis in my life and I was devastated that I couldn’t immediately go to Puerto Rico and mourn with our friends. Instead, I sat in my living room in Philadelphia crying for weeks.
In December, Sophia Isabel Marrero Cruz, an incredible Puerto Rican activist that fought for the rights of people of trans experience, passed away. Like many people of trans experience, even after her passing she was subjected to violent erasure, since her family insisted on burying her dressed as a man. During this time, my friend/sister, activist, and close friend of Sophia’s, E., was living with my partner, Allison, and myself. Alli, E. and I spent day after day talking about what it means to be a Puerto Rican person of trans experience. Our home became a space of cuir/queer mourning. In this space of mourning, I began to change my gender expression. I cut off my hair, I bought new clothes, I stopped wanting to be touched in certain ways, and I began moving away from the binary. The more precarious my existence felt, the more I wanted to create community and live as who/how I felt I was. This is what I want to remember most about this period of grief: how a Philly dyke, a Boricua non-binary person, and a Boricua of trans experience mourned a Puerto Rican trans rights activist.
Wendy: You talk about how your friends in Puerto Rico are hustling & about how they are struggling in the United States, too. It makes me wonder: at this juncture what does it mean to be queer in Puerto Rico & is that different from what it means to be queer in the United States? If it is different, how does this difference inform your recent book oropel/tinsel?
Raquel: In a 1991 interview, the writer Manuel Ramos Otero stated “I constantly repeat that for me, in Puerto Rico it was easier to be Puerto Rican than homosexual, and in New York it was easier to be homosexual than Puerto Rican".* First of all, I’m a Ramos Otero fan and everyone should read him. That said, in the four years I’ve lived in Philadelphia, this quote has haunted me. It makes a distinction between “Puerto Rican” and “homosexual” that I’m not sure I’ve experienced. I never felt more cuir than when I was queer in Puerto Rico. I never felt more Puerto Rican than when I was Boricua in Puerto Rico. I never felt more Boricua than when I was Puerto Rican in Philly. I never felt more Puerto Rican than when I was cuir in Puerto Rico. I never felt more queer than when I was Puerto Rican in Philly. “100% del país.” That said, living in Philadelphia and Puerto Rico is painfully different, whether that is because I’m a cuir Boricua or a Boricua cuir.
“Being cuir in Puerto Rico” and being “being queer in the U.S.” respectively account for such radically different experiences that it feels unethical for me to speak about queerness as if it were more constitutive than race or class, or even as if there was a common definition of what it means to be cuir/queer. The same can be said of being Puerto Rican, and yet I cling to both these identifications because they are rooted in commonalities I am not prepared to relinquish. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak to my definition of cuir/queerness, a definition informed by a commitment to the decolonization of Puerto Rico, all forms of struggle against neoliberalism, and a celebration of supplementarity. I came into queer theory and my queerness while I was an undergraduate in Mayagüez. I had spent a significant portion of my adolescence and early adulthood participating in a series of large-scale social movements as part of a political organization that taught me about organizing in Puerto Rico, but didn’t leave much room for me to rethink the relationship between “primary” and “secondary” political priorities. At the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, I met the person who would become my mentor, Christopher Powers. At the time, I was already reading Samuel R. Delany and some queer theory, but it was Powers who told me to read Fred Moten, Robert Reid-Pharr and José Esteban Muñoz. It was through their work that I became familiar with Derrida, not the other way around. In other words, I came to understand supplementarity through cuir decoloniality.
To circle back and answer your question “how does this difference inform your recent book oropel / tinsel?” My book is about the untranslatability and loss that make translation/identity possible. I’d rather think of the poems in English as traslados instead of traducciones. Trasladar is to move or translate something from one place to another. oropel/tinsel is about how such movement erases as it recontextualizes and opens fissures as it cements.
Wendy: I like that: traslados instead of traducciones. Among poets, translation is often discussed as an activity of political import. Would you agree that it is? If so, how does trasladar fit into your politics? How does the activity inform or how is it informed by your vision for the world? If you don’t agree with the idea of translation having political import, how would you describe the activity? What drew you to it?
Raquel: Necessity “drew” me to translation. I felt the need to be understood. While I often celebrate illegibility in my work and the work of the poets I study, I still wanted to be able to connect in some ways to the place I was living (Philly) and that meant making myself somewhat legible. I have a hard time accepting Avant-Garde poetics that romanticize complete rupture. The last thing I want to do is celebrate the idea that poets are visionaries, prophets, or a literary vanguard. Spanish is the language I write in, but English is the language most accessible to a great deal of people in Philadelphia, so rather than choose, I decided to use translation as a means to talk about impossible choices that always leave traces of loss. Trasladar is to move without changing, to displace and replace something that remains intact, like water from a container to a larger container, maybe the ocean. Nothing can be trasladado, but this is the word most people use to describe changing jobs or moving. It is an contained term for a metamorphosis.
I don’t know if I can answer broad questions about all translation and its political character, but I can say that language has political stakes in Puerto Rico. It has been at the center of debates about nationhood. The U.S. government attempted to impose English as the official language after the 1898 invasion, but was unsuccessful. There was what I can best describe as a collective refusal to learn English. The term cultural nationalism is used to describe a discourse that placed the creation of a national culture at the center of the struggle for independence. Tracing its history here would be impossible, but I will say that there are two significant problems with cultural nationalism. The first is that it is rooted in a racist, classist, linguistic purism, which posits that Puerto Ricans that don’t speak a standardized version of Spanish (the ex-colonizer’s dialect), have been infiltrated by the forces of U.S. imperialism. For example, working class Boricuas that migrated back to Puerto Rico in the 80s were seen as imperialist and uncultured by a cultural nationalist class. The second is the idea that only the privileged few who have the best notion of what the nation should be, will lead us into an independent future.
I’ve been very critical of cultural nationalism, but I’m not interested in some of the neoliberal alternatives that have been offered by many of its critics. I become infuriated when English is championed as the language of business that students must learn to speak if they are to compete in a capitalist market, or when writers and linguists argue that one day we will all speak a universal language. Statements like this are reminiscent of colonial processes through which entire languages have been wiped out to make room for a new world order. These aren’t universal categories. No language is intrinsically colonial or anti-colonial. You have to look at linguistic relations in their context. I take issue with is the imposition of a language, whether that imposition be state-sponsored or ruled by the free market.
Even this interview is a traslado. My summary of a lifetime’s worth of experiences (and then some) is constituted by unquantifiable losses, but by presenting my traslados as punctured, I hope to destabilize the conditions for my legibility, even as I extend an opening fist.
Wendy: You recently published oropel / tinsel with Lark Books & Writing Studio. I really love the poems in this book, especially the title poem that seems to weave between the present & past, from family history to the speaker in the present orienting her political self through a series of disavowals. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the significance of oropel, or tinsel, in this poem.
Raquel: I made sure to open all the closets in my house before I wrote oropel/tinsel. It includes: my hollowed-out self as a makeshift home (“moriviví/moriviví”); the experience of coming out to my grandmother in a family still haunted by its patriarch (“si acaso da poemas/if by chance it gives poems”); time out of joint/ colonial time in transit (“¿qué bien qué bien?/ that’s great just great?”); purification through the drowning of Salcedo (“¡qué rico!/ ¡qué rico!”) asking my love to move back to Puerto Rico with me (“mi amor/ mi love”); the inherited trauma of political persecution (“carpeta #1985/ carpeta #1985”); the dismantling of the idea that migration=progress (“en la metropolis soñada/in the dream metropolis”); and most importantly, a manifesto-ish poem, in which I distance myself from a self I could have become (“oropel/tinsel”).
oropel/tinsel was my way of renewing my vows by choosing tinsel over gold; I chose it, not for its use value or its exchange value, but for its shimmer. I can’t eat it, I can’t use it, it won’t be worth nearly as much as gold if I sell it, but the lights on its surfaces open all my pores like gills. I’m with Audre Lorde when she says in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” that it “is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing”.
These are my vows, this the oropel:
traidora para siempre de la blancura (aunque sea aquella blanquita para siempre traidora)
traidora para siempre del poder (usando palabras decimonónicas sin querer quemar el puente entre mi patería y mi pueblo libre sin nación y sin inversión libre)
traidora para nunca de la nada
traidora en nada del éxito de la perfección de lo cuadraíto
traitor forever to whiteness (even while being that forever treacherous blanquita)
traitor forever to power (using 19th century words without burning the bridge between my queerness and my free puerto rico without nation and without investment free)
traitor never of nothingness
traitor in nothingness to success to perfection to squared away things
Wendy: There is such urgency in your work to address the present & all its crises. As someone who feels that urgency, I wonder what the writing process is like for you. Are there specific things you do to help you write? What are some things that inspire you to keep writing?
Erizopoéticas del quizás.
Lately I’ve been reading and rereading:
Poeta en Nueva York by Federico García Lorca
Vía crucis de la otredad by Gaddiel F. Ruiz Rivera
Animal fiero y tierno by Anjelamaría Dávila
La novelabingo by Manuel Ramos Otero
“This Cave” by Ginger Ko
“A Field of Onions: Brown Study” by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
“Buscapié” by Cezanne Cardona Morales
Trilce by César Vallejo
Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri
“Our Lady of Perpetual Help” by Sandra Simonds
Poema en veinte surcos by Julia de Burgos
“Loriella is Dead” by Jennifer McCauley
La noche y otras flores eléctricas by Marigloria Palma
La mandarina y el fuego by Luis Cartañá
Underglazy by Oki Sogumi
Arcadian Boutique by Mara Pastor
And, of course, everything else.
Raquel Salas-Rivera has published poetry and essays in anthologies and journals such as Los rostros de la Hidra, Cachaperismos, Tonguas, En la Orilla, Arsempi, Claridad, Quaint, Queen Mob's Teahouse, #gorgonpoetics, and La Revista del ICP. In 2010 she won first place in two literary contests: El Decimosexto certamen literario de la Universidad Politécnica de Puerto Rico and El Certamen de Poesía del Festival Cultural Queer de Mayagüez. Her first book, Caneca de anhelos turbios (2011), was published by Editora Educación Emergente. Her chapbook, oropel/tinsel (2016), was published by Lark Books & Writing Studio. Currently, she is a Contributing Editor at The Wanderer. She was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.
Wendy Trevino is a writer born & raised in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. She currently lives & works in San Francisco. Her chapbook BRAZILIAN IS NOT A RACE was published by Commune Editions in May 2016. Krupskaya Books will publish her chapbook Cruel Work in the fall.
*"Constantemente repito que para mí, en Puerto Rico siempre fue más fácil ser puertorriqueño que homosexual, y en Nueva York es más fácil ser homosexual que puertorriqueño.”
Benjamin, Walter. "The Task of the Translator." Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Ed. Marcus Paul Bullock and Michael William Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002. 253-63. Print.
Lorde, Audre. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. 53-65. Print.
Ramos Otero, Manuel and Marithelma Costa. "Entrevista: Manuel Ramos Otero." Interview by Marithelma Costa. Hispamérica Aug. 1991: 59-66. Print.