Then, Now, 1980s, Contemporary Hunger



The Wind Shifts is a collection of contemporary Latino poetry. Each poet presents a variety of poetic forms depicting a wide range of environments and lives. The poets included in The Wind Shifts use avante guard free verse to describe scenes of suburban and city life as well as sonnets and sestinas to depict life on the border or supporting a family on well fare. Any claim of consistency between the authors seems relate back to a portrayal of their “latinidad”. However, this generic umbrella over all the pieces can sometimes forces certain themes, such as the loss of body or forced cultural mobilization, erasing the speaker’s subjective presence in the poem.


John Olivares Espinoza’s poem “Contemporary American Hunger” is a good example of contemporary latina/o poetry: it makes use of the subjective experience (the splitting of the burgers between the speaker and his brother) as well as the shared “American” experience (eating McDonald’s food and playing in ball pits). In the first line Espinoza recognizes the commonplaceness of his situation, labeling his family as, “…the newest broke Mexicans to settle in Indio”. The remainder of the first stanza details speaker’s childlike perceptive as being, “unaware of our budget” but nevertheless, still drawn to the fast food, “For what our TV eyes believed to be the best lunch in town”. I wonder how Espinoza imagines children. The characters in “Contemprorary American Hunger” seem to be passive and uncritical: not that kids have much inclination to act as such, but it is told from the child’s point of view. The ignorance if the situation is very childish but the speaker seems to be responding to the event much later in life. Although “Contemporary American Hunger” takes place in the past (evident by the price of the burgers) the speaker’s want for McD’s is one established by the same commercialism still used today. As a “hip-high” child, the speaker cannot see the conditions making his wishes so difficult to achieve. The speaker and his brother’s desire for McDonald’s is placed in their imagination by the television ads that cause a Pavlov’s dog reaction of “salivating as we thought of the Argentine beef”. The burgers act as“American” supplements for “potato tacos” the speaker’s family usually has on Saturday night. The McD burgers fall short of nutrition but exceed the family’s financial means. The speaker claims satisfaction in the final stanza: “Satisfied, we ventured through a rainbow/ of tubes and balls with other kids,/ Their stomaches full of BigMacs or Happy Meals./ But we we’re happy too” (26-9). By eating at McDonald’s the speaker is allowed access to a certain American content normally unavailable to him through his common Saturday meal of potato tacos. The poem points the reader’s attention towards the aspect emotional satisfaction by questioning it from the point of view the person paying for the speaker’s joy: his mother. The speaker states, “Did Mom sit there and watch us play?” to ask the reader about the cost of the simple pleasure of a cheeseburger. The final observation reveals the retrospective opinion of the speaker, “I only remember her fingers neatly wrapping/The remaining half in the greasy red and yellow paper,/ Then tucking the lump away in her purse, sustenance for later.” The final description of the mother saving the two burger halves changes the reader’s perception from that of the speaker to his mother; while he and his brother imagine MacDonald’s as a welcomed luxury serving the purpose of satisfying their hunger, the mother tucks the lump into her purse as sustenance. The speaker’s childhood delight in the burgers in the last stanza is seen in contrast to the mother’s recognition of the burgers as more than an indulgence, but a much needed food resource needed to sustain her boys later. The hunger in the poem is contemporary because the satisfaction the speaker seeks is immediate while the mother’s preservation of the burgers as “sustenance for later” makes the American luxury necessary for survival.

The ending to this poem I find very interesting. “Contemporary American Hunger” makes great use of the child speaker as well as the speaker’s sardonic jokes that are reflective on his childhood. The undefined age of the speaker frees the poem from time, allowing it to focus on ideology instead of structure. However, the last line is an observation, not an call to arms, or anything that would force people to take notice (unless you already noticed). What does presenting an observation at the end of a highly politicized poem mean for all the content that precedes it? How does this leave the poem open? How does it close off the poem from the reader? I believe Espinoza’s poem “Contemporary American Hunger” asks many questions, one of the most important is about visibility. The final scene of “Contemporary American Hunger” is in someways a very intimate one between the speaker and his mother. There is no mentioning of other witnesses to the speaker’s mother’s actions. Because of her sons’ desire for immediate satisfaction (the expensive burgers) the mother of the speaker takes them to McDonald’s to fulfill their dreams and stomachs. However she knew that her sons would be hungry later and need food. Just like in America the luxury has become the standard. I feel like the poem also questions the idea of “contemporary” by using it in the title of a poem about a past event. The distortion of time in “Contemporary American Hunger” gives it temporal ambiguity but the poem is also dated by the price of the burgers. The co-existence of these two elements in the same poem is what makes it my favorite example of contemporary Latino/a poetry.



“Subject on Trial” and “illegal”s in the Collegian

The chapter titled “The Subject on Trial” in Queer Latinidad tells the story of, “… Marcelo Tenório, who was granted political asylum on the basis of sexual persecution in his country of origin” (Rodriguez, 84). The chapter illuminates the inherent paradox of the US legal system which attempts to establish an objective precedent using a subject, such as Tenório, who becomes the victim of diverse intersecting systems of oppression. The author using the court transcript, which includes Tenório’s testimonio, as the primary text demonstrates how a subject’s desires and identity are lost in the restrictive discursive space of a immigration courtroom. Tenório, who speaks only Portuguese at the time of his trial, has his testimonio as well as his name translated into English in the court’s transcript. Through the process of translation as well as having to adhering to the strict boundaries of legal discourse, the subject of Tenório is effectively displaced from the transcript causing, “The stories behind In re Tenório… like those presented in literary works, to exceed the limits of the written records that contain them” (Rodriguez, 87).

I liked how this chapter demonstrated the limits of law; the inability of the US justice system to accurately process Tenorio’s case reflects a subject who, in actuality and outside the confines of being identified as a proper precedent, defies the state’s set parameters of law. It reminds me of an article written in the Collegian a couple months ago concerning immigration. The article did a delicate job discussing the phrase, “illegal immigrant” which the author identifies as biggest issue in the immigration debate. The author’s conclusion was a half-hearted qualification of the judicial system and telling of the writer’s legal leanings: there must be a distinction between “illegal” and “legal”. Knowing the author personally, I was purview to the criticizing email s/he received after the article was published. The author derided the criticism as being over blown and unreasonable. “There are rules” the author told me.

My perceptive on this incident is that the two parties are viewing the issue of immigration in different ways; the author is invested (and directed by the genre of “Opinion”) in coming to a definitive conclusion on the subject of/in immigration. The author’s critic on the other hand cites the very real dilemma that pervades every government system of identification: the state has a desire to view a person’s identity objectively while the title of “citizen” (especially in the United States) is meant to be permeable and is far too dynamic to be quantified simply. I think both the author and the critic seek a different intent: one to preserve a system and the other the lives of people. While the ideological choice is simple, the lack of a “different” judicial system that can accurately translate a subject into law makes the enactment of such ideologies seem difficult, if not impossible. I’m not taking sides in the argument between the two: I think they are both wrong. One lacks aspiration to change or truly critique the status quo of law, while the other view does not acknowledge the confines of the established legal system. Ironically, it seems to me that the conflict between these two is conservative and liberal: the author grips the law tightly as a fundamental structure and the critic, in their disregard for the current system, is free from the parameters of law.

The translation of subjects into legal narratives is fails because it attempts to create a stagnant image out of a dynamic life. Everyone should be free to be (with) who they want to be, no exceptions. However, that’s impossible: the state wants us to identify in someway with it and because of this force, most of the ways we identify ourselves are either a conformation or rejection of the state’s pressure. From what I have experienced of Western culture, it is held together by the fictional balancing and equal weighing of a binary decision. In any manifestation, this is a false dichotomy meant to inspire competition and antagonism between subjects who approach the same but come to different conclusions. If the author and the critic weren’t so bent on proving the other one wrong they may be able to help understand each other and possibly come up with a solution through hybridizing efforts. From what I can see the issue stems first from ignorance and then from complacency. Some people are upset by today’s society but lack the data needed to form a original and critical stance. Other people are aware of the inhumane tragedies and are too invested in their continuation to want to change anything (both CEOs and consumers). Although the system is imperfect it is all we have now and does have the ability to be refined if a bunch of old people in robes deem the alteration acceptable. I wonder what other tribunals are available (I am only aware of the American form of justice, which seems skewed to say the least). I would be interested in seeing a new form of law that uses “difference” in identity as an ideological foundation. Yes, queer law is what I want.