The first time I met José Olivarez was in 2018, while organizing with Brown and Proud Press. BPP hosted a series of events we called “Cumbia & Stanzas” where poets shared the stage with DJs. We were so excited to welcome Olivarez, who graciously agreed to be a part of our Pilsen DIY event; this was right before the release of his Citizen Illegal book. I remember Olivarez reading “Mexican Heaven”:
there are white people in heaven, too.
they build condos across the street
& ask the Mexicans to speak English.
i’m just kidding.
there are no white people in heaven.
The crowd, made up of mostly Black and Brown people, laughed so loud! Fast-forward five years: it is 2023, and I am on a flight back to my homeland of southern California to visit my family and homies. I am reading Olivarez’s new book, Promises of Gold, and I am CRYING. Don’t get me wrong, Olivarez also made me laugh again, but Promises of Gold is a collection of poetry that came out of the pandemic, which may have affected us all, but hit people of color across barrios the hardest.
Olivarez writes in the author’s note, “I wish I could have written you a straightforward book of love poems. I wish healing was as easy as putting a Band-Aid over a wound & watching it close. If I wrote that book, I’d be ignoring all the contradictions & messiness of the world we live in, all the ways in which love is complicated by forces larger than our hearts. I choose to bring the world & its chaos into these poems.” And to say he brought it is an understatement. His Spanglish poetry is reminiscent of Gary Soto, Julia Alvarez, and Sandra Cisneros, but what makes it stand apart is its Brown boy magic, hip-hop influence, and south-side Chicago energy—Olivarez’s words hit different.
Promises of Gold is written in 11 sections: Folk Tales, Ojalá Ojalá Ojalá, Gold, Untranslatable, Receding, Ojalá Ojalá Ojalá, God, Before Monday Arrives Like A Fist, Glory, Glory, Glory—all of which take the reader through a journey of love, loss, pain, pandemic, memories, Mexicanidad, machismo, cariño, Calumet City, Harlem, and into our hearts made of gold. I cried because Olivarez created a space I have never experienced before while reading poetry. With his poetic verses, Olivarez instigates Mexicano men to cry, no drink or boleros needed (OK, they might pair perfectly while reading). The poems take me, a first-generation Chicana, into a memory that I’ve lived but never dared to write before.
it has to hurt—
those basement parties
where even the worm
at the bottom of the bottle
was singing full hearted
about some love they fucked up.
i should apologize—
it’s true my dad stopped hugging me,
but I never say the other part:
i stopped hugging him too.
those basement parties
where the men would drink
& then drink some more—
they only sang when they were drunk—
they only hugged when they sang—they only cried when they hugged—
The reader is transported into a nostalgic place that smells of tortillas made by a woman who is tired from working at the warehouse but still comes home to cook, where one hears the Bulls game with a grito of disapproval from the man in the house who is also so tired, where a brother or primo is making a bad joke outside while smoking a J and wearing them too: a Mexican household in Chicago.
I am also crying because I, like so many transplants, have migrated far far away from my fam. Choosing to leave them behind for the sake of my art and to find trabajo, just like they did when they left Mexico for Estados Unidos. Latinx migrants cultivate a new belonging in cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Lorain, New York City, and Chicago. There is something so special about finding your people in lands far away from them. It is why I live in Pilsen and why the poems of Promises of Gold are important. They force us to be seen amidst and beyond the struggle.
Olivarez, who grew up in the south suburb of Calumet City, wrote this book while living in Harlem. He experienced the heartache of being 800 miles away from what home used to be and from the people who raised you, in a time when being close was prohibited. It is a love letter to our folks, our homies, the nice shoes we keep clean because the streets are dirty, to madres with dreams unspoken, to the lovers who get to experience our familias and their bad jokes, to the ongoing search for hope in a country that upholds a system uglier than our ugly brother, Mexican Heavens, and yes, tortillas too.
Citizen Illegal started with a quote by Jay-Z, “Not bad, huh, for some immigrants.” In Promises of Gold Olivarez includes two, one of which is a well-known quote from a Vicente Fernández song, “Yo sé perder/Yo sé perder,” a great epigraph that sets the mood for his second collection of poetry.
oldies on the speaker
& my love asleep on the couch.
all my uncles rise from their graves
or from basement bars—
all those years they used to sing
the saddest songs:
it wasn’t a mourning.
it was a cleansing
Despite the pain we encounter in loving and losing, Olivarez gifts us with a promise of hope disguised in gold. He is handing us a mirror and inviting us to remember who we are, who is holding it down for us, and where we come from, no matter where we choose to be. This book reads like an ode to people of color who are handed a broom, assumed to be the help, when in reality we are equal. He’s rewriting the history of colonization and challenging us to unlearn its impacts one poem at a time.
Promises of Gold by José Olivarez
Henry Holt and Co., hardcover, 320 pp., $24.99, us.macmillan.com/books
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