Excerpts from Z is for Zapatazo by Ruben Rivera published by Atmosphere Press
Z is for Zapatazo
I started learning my ABC’s before I could even read. The first lesson involved a woman collapsed in the back lot of the Bronx tenement where we lived. Something had scared her nearly to death. There in the pouring rain she lay writhing and screaming out her wits while neighbors watched from the covered balconies and fire escapes. R is for Rat.
Another lesson was connected to chickens in that time when “children should be seen and not heard.” The Spanish version had, as usual, more syllables as well as color: “Los niños hablan cuando las gallinas mean.” “Children talk when the chickens pee.” Those who relate to chicken only in conveniently dismembered extra crispy form may ask when or how often do chickens pee? Never. We Nuyoricans, Spanglish-speaking Gothamites, who had never seen a chicken except when it arrived steaming aromatically on a plate with rice and beans, nevertheless knew well that chickens don’t relieve themselves like little boys and girls. C is for Chickens.
We moved to California, that hub of social contradictions. There I was raised on breezy primetime shows, punctuated by interruptions about some protest march, police suppression, riot, space-race launch, cold war threat, assassination, or other scary event. For a while it seemed like “We Interrupt This Program” was part of the regular TV line up. Maybe that’s why there were so many sitcoms and family shows – diversions from the worry and sheer terror. The shows conveyed placid American suburbs lined with houses that never needed painting, populated by families like the Andersons, the Nelsons, and the Cleavers, lovingly and rationally ruled by parents that never yelled or hit or even had sex.
Meanwhile, on this side of the fourth wall, verbal and physical discipline was natural. So natural in fact that it was conveyed in a Spanish-language ABC book for children. The benign English version that the Cleavers read had, “A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat” and so on, to the last letter, “Z is for Zoo.” A logical entry for the Spanish Zeta (Z) would have been Zapato (Shoe), something every Latino child would know. But instead it read, “Z esporZapatazo” (paraphrased: Z is for Shoe Missile). The expounded letter was accompanied by a drawing of a dark-haired child with its wincing face cocked to the side from the impact of a flying shoe. A friend recalled the book to me years later and we responded with equal parts laughter and loathing at the kind of mentality that would include such a casually violent lesson in what is perhaps the most basic childhood introduction to an intelligible world.
History reminds me, however, that Anglo American ways of child rearing were not so idyllic as the TV shows portrayed. In colonial New England, a child’s education went hand in hand with physical discipline. The 1691 edition of The New England Primer for children had ABC lessons that included: “F: The idle FOOL is whipt at school,” and “J: JOB feels the rod, yet blesses God.” And even as the belt-free world of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” was being beamed into televisions across North America, teachers in schools who looked just like Robert Young and Barbara Billingsley blistered our tender behinds with every device imaginable, from ping pong paddles to a cricket bat perforated in wood shop by one particularly sadistic misanthrope to cut wind resistance.
I can at least affirm that I advanced in my ABC’s fairly early in the game – my older brother, not so much. If I say that too frequently I followed a crowd of kids to an afterschool fight only to discover that my brother was one of the young gladiators, you’ll understand what I mean. The same feckless pugnacity repeatedly got him into needless trouble at home, where there was no immunity of non-combatants. K is for Knucklehead.
Years later, my mom and stepdad divorced. (My birth father I knew only through an old wedding photograph and mom’s spectacularly imaginative comparisons to our misbehavior.) By then I was married, living at the other end of the country and going to seminary. I did not know the degree to which their split had affected me. Then one evening, after my wife had gone to bed and I stayed up studying, I sank into an abyss of grief, crying and shaking uncontrollably.
Gone were the family parties when we kids listened to music and played while our parents did…whatever parents did at parties, until the sensuous Puerto Rican food appeared miraculously on the table to be gobbled up by gangly calorie-burning urchins, leaving the mess to be cleaned up by elves while we slept soundly wherever our bodies happened to land. Gone was the Monorail, and the Matterhorn, It’s A Small World, and the Adventure Thru Inner Space courtesy of Monsanto. Gone Knott’s berry pie. Gone the excursions to Pacific Ocean Park, Redondo Beach, and Newport Dunes, the broiling burgers, the quenching watermelon.
Gone the chilly early hours of Christmas when we’d sneak out of our beds to peek at the gift-wrapped silhouettes under the tree and imagine they were what we wanted. Gone a mother’s tender ministrations when any of us kids were sick. Gone her tears when she saw mine after a broken wrist ended high school gymnastics. Gone the rosary prayer circles and sleepless nights when my brother was in hospital with brain tumors. Gone the frantic calling for my sister lost in a Tijuana bazaar. Gone the tears of joy when she was found. Gone the dreaded daily tablespoon of cod liver oil and the sting of Mercurochrome on scraped knees and elbows.
Gone dad’s brutal six-day workweek that underwrote our lives. Gone when the family sat around the only television in the house after eating dinner at the same table, at the same time, and the wild symphony of everyone talking at once. Gone the laughter, I’m talking Puerto Rican laughter, the world series of laughter, now only faint bells in the distant steeple of my memory. Z is for Zapatazo.
The Fall of Middle Earth
One day, I went to that land between home and school, shocked to find it invaded. The scene looked like a horde of dragons, their plated skin clattering, their movement stuttering like some Harryhausean nightmare, and generals commanding troops in white helmets from blue paper battle plans. The noise cracked the sky’s thin blue shell and soot from organ pipe nostrils nearly blocked out the running yolk of the sun. Mandibles dropped open dripping an earthy stew then clammed shut with the metallic squeal of lightning, like colossal hinges on the gates of Mordor, maws of these steel-veined horrors engorging and disgorging dirt, rocks, grasses, trees, nests, warrens, dens and cloisters, secret gardens, fens and shires. Fangorn, Moria, Rivendell...
How I started hating conspiracy theories
How often the truth is just not sexy enough. But the lie? Now that’s an orgy. In the fifth grade I caught the flu so bad I missed two weeks of school. When I returned my teacher got down on one knee to look me in the eyes and said: “Ruben, are you OK? I heard you got in trouble with the law and went to juvenile detention.” “Home with the flu,” I said. “Nearly died. Didn’t you get mom’s letter?” “I heard you were really in juvie.” “Nope. Home sick. Nearly died.” He walked away disappointed, in the same way dogs find catching cars disappointing. That year I was “Juvie Rubie,” hang all my protestations for truth. Even today, I’m Juvie Rubie.
I Don’t Mean
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but why doesn’t it make you good to me?
I don’t mean to question your scriptures but why are the sweet parts applied to you and the harsh parts to me?
I don’t mean to be aloof but why does god love you unconditionally but me conditionally?
I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic but why does the god of the universe bless America over other nations, and before that Rome, or France, or Germany, or Spain, then England?
I don’t mean to risk your wrath but why does god look and act like the latest rulers?
I don’t mean to appear radical but why does god favor your race over mine?
I don’t mean to feel cheated, but why does god answer your prayers and not mine – when you got the job I didn’t, and the traffic lights you believe worked for you made me miss my friend’s last moments?
I don’t mean to impugn your justice but why does god love sinners like you more than sinners like me?
I don’t mean to question your motives but why does accepting your religion put me and mine under you and yours?
I don’t mean to sound bitter but why is there no room for me in the land, the neighborhood, your family, your heart?
I don’t mean to dislike your god of grace but why gift the one truth to you and leave others in damning ignorance?
I don’t mean to be impertinent but how come god welcomes prayer in any language but only English can be spoken here?
I don’t mean to be skeptical about the universality of your religion but why do I have to amputate my culture but you get to keep yours?
I don’t mean to be in your face but why can’t you see me?
I don’t mean to speak so loudly but why can’t you hear me?
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but why doesn’t it make you good to me?
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Ruben Rivera is Emeritus VP for DE&I and Associate Professor of History at Bethel University in Saint Paul, MN. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Anita. Although his poetry has won awards in various contests, Z is for Zapatazo is Ruben’s first published collection.
Book Review of April On Olympia by Lorna Dee Cervantes (Marsh Hawk Press, 2021)
by Rosa Martha Villarreal
—you and I are old; Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done[.]
—“Ulysses,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The theme of Lorna Dee Cervantes’s latest book of poetry is implicit in the title, April on Olympia. When the artist reaches the summit of the mountain, she is faced with her own mortality. Just so that the reader is clear, she includes a section to allude to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” April is the cruelest month because it reminds us that the natural cycles of rebirth and death will continue without us. But, as Tomás Rivera said in his existentialist novel …and the earth did not devour him, not yet. The earth has not devoured this poet yet, and there is something still left: the untarnished spirit of youth now imprisoned in an ageing body. There is still something left to do, a final journey of creative consciousness, the gift of a spiritual inheritance to kindred souls who await their conception and birth.
Gardens, seeds, memory, and regeneration are recurring ideas and symbols in this collection. The mountain, both a symbol of total dissolution and proximity to the heavens, is where the seeds of fifty years of Cervantes’s artistic career—losses, loves, and quest for social justice—are taken to be planted in the fertile minds of future poets, much like the seed of her mother’s essence and memory in “Unimagined Title” bore fruit in her mind.
On my murdered mom’s birthday: light rain on expired seed; new garden, mine.
Cervantes conjures the ghosts of her literary and artistic godparents, guides of the subconscious mind’s nights of darkness, the givers of the word/logos, which orders the chaos of imagination just as the gardener organizes the fecundity of nature. The artists: Theodore Roethke, Gil Scott Heron, Billie Holliday, Federico García Lorca, Allen Ginsberg. The social warriors who shaped her sensibilities and gave definition to her indignation: César Chávez, Nestora Salgado, Carlos Almaráz. She elaborates in “River: for my murdered mother” that the inheritance of remembrance, sorrow, and the continuum of thought and passion through time are vehicles of freedom because the quest for justice takes longer than one lifetime.
I remember the river. Word you didn’t want me to use. Meaning Freedom. Meaning liberation from the flame.
I remember the fire. The lap of genius dissolving it all, the light of the dying leaves, bare fall of it all. I remember.
River of vein in the brain, the great artery of culture weaving it together with threads, conversations. River of immense sorrow.
River of forgiveness. River of the riven fallen. River of the gasping. River of icy grasp. Fierce river. Fleet river. Saltless self-revealed in the sunlight.
I remember the river: word you didn’t want me to speak. Word I free you. Word in your ancient reveal. The word river, a substitute for desire.
Nothing is ever destroyed. Desire deferred is but a dormant seed of ancient tree waiting to be born once again. Encased in the stillness of stones, even the collective memories of an entire people seemingly dead await their rebirth. This concept is not mere fancy but an empirical reality because memory is an energy field. Energy is never destroyed, said Newton; can never be destroyed. Matter is energy in another form, birthed in the human mind, reimagined, re-arranged as Cervantes says in “Olmecan Eyes”:
Olmecan eyes reborn. The infant stone unfurling in our navels. Another civilization reconquers the wilderness of today. Sun devouring Earth, we are shadows of the way we were, beneath the shifting planets, the comets, the desolate inconsolable moon.
The ghosts of people from Cervantes’s past appear to her throughout this volume, not just her mother’s but other beloved ones, friends and lovers. “On Feinberg’s Theory of Physics: another for John,” Cervantes continues with the imagery of gardens, rivers, the rebirth and transforms the language of quantum science. An invisible sorrow evokes that same you, says Cervantes: the ever constant in the chaos, “circling aimlessly around some / nowhere no one’s planet loneliness.” The title is an allusion to the theory of retro-causality. After a life is lived, can the summation of experience, the culmination of passion and loss act like a subatomic particle assert itself in time-space and deflect the path of the past?
It would be inaccurate to quantify this collection of poetry as solely one individual’s existential reflection. Lorna Dee Cervantes has and continues to be a warrior for human dignity. The imagery of nature and its cycles of decay and regeneration is likewise expressed in political themes, which resonate as strongly as they did in her previous books of poetry. The opening poem “The River Doesn’t Want a Wall” clearly alludes to a former U.S. president’s incendiary rhetoric on a never-built wall that was meant to run along the U.S.-Mexican border. The wall would have done more than just to keep out people; it would have created an artificial, disruptive barrier in the natural world. Nature is not divided. Division is a human construct that is simultaneously a tool for functional organization and an instrument of oppression. Freedom, however, is a natural phenomenon. It is not a coincidence that Thomas Jefferson calls liberty an “unalienable right.” Resistance to oppression is endemic to animal life, of which we are but one species. The rivers of freedom will flood and wipe away the vanity of humans. “The river doesn’t want the Wall. / The land won’t let it. / The floods won’t cede.”
In “Poem for Black Lives Matter,” Cervantes asserts that love and memory are weapons of liberation from the false division of societal construct of so-called “race.” (Speaking as a person trained as a biologist, I can assure my readers that there is but one human race. The other human species that existed as late as 16,000-35,000 years ago have died off or been absorbed into our race.)
Love is a force greater than fear a presence
and a present a prescience sense a nuclear subatomic
The historical division of people by “race” spawned a loathing for the offspring of miscegenation, los desdichados, the undesirables, who were exiled to the margins of society. The center of society, governed and possessed by those who had pre-privileged themselves as “the right people,” dictated who was what, who was worthy of their right to self-determination and who was not. (“College isn’t meant for your people.” “This neighborhood isn’t meant for your people.”) But the center cannot hold forever as Yeats said in “The Second Coming.” However, what is being reborn isn’t Yeats’s horrific beast of darkness slouching towards modernity creating chaos and despair. Rather it is a spiritual re-embracing of what was exiled, new possibilities of being, an aroused consciousness, an awareness that we are part of nature not its rulers. In “What IS XicanX,” Cervantes posits such a return to the one People, the source from which we first became human. Carlos Fuentes said in La región más transparente del aire, that the original is the impure with physical and symbolic miscegenation. The rebirth of a new era begins here with this new people recombined, returned from the exiles of division. XicanX, the mixed ethnic people, represents the inevitable. X encompasses all. Humanity is re-integrated, and we become “The People (and I birth) / in any language.”
Let me conclude where I began, with Tennyson’s poem: “[B]ut something ere the end. Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” For the for the visionary warrior—the poet Cervantes—the noble work is the invocation of memory, rebirth, and the quest for enlightened morality. The beauty of Cervantes’s poetry lures us into the realm of primal dreams and a reality that can only be discerned in metaphors. That said, there is just too much packed into each poem for a single review to do this book justice. Lorna Dee Cervantes made us wait since her last book, but it was worth it.
Click here to buy a copy of April On Olympia from Small Press Distribution.
Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Native Californian (Chumash), is an award winning author of six books of poetry. The former Professor of English at CU Boulder, Creative Writing Program, lives and writes in Seattle.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a Chicana novelist and essayist, is a descendant of the 16th century Spanish and Tlaxcatecan settlers of Nuevo Leon, Mexico. She drew upon her family history in her critically acclaimed novels Doctor Magdalena, Chronicles of Air and Dreams: A Novel of Mexico, and The Stillness of Love and Exile, the latter a recipient of the Josephine Miles PEN Literary Award and a Silver Medalist in the Independent Publishers Book Award (2008). She writes a column, “Tertullian’s Corner,” for Somos en escrito Magazine.
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: single poems, short stories, memoirs, and the like.
the body is as solid as the thought that holds it in place
by Carlos Schröder
this was the love of perfect form the verb the nerve the web colliding ensuring the demise of muscles tissues the melting into you mouths speaking in tongues never until now then understood the meaning leaning towards the light like plants unconscious barely
and words and words and more than what i ever wanted and more than what i ever got
this is the love of perfect form these are the loves of perfect form a conjugation mispronunciation the name is changed
the body is dreamed.
this is the occasion of language of changing from utterance to word from sound to meaning
this is the hour when the sun sets down reassuring our instincts and betraying the scientific certainties
and it is this sun sinking obliterating itself in the promise of a day following this one ceasing that gives us hope a glimpse of what we are a structure upon which to fall as the lover falls into the arms of the receiving lover who holds tightly waiting for his turn to fall to be held to be had to be over.
the body is as solid as the thought that holds it in place
the torturer knows this and lets the victim know that he can think of the body as chapters in a book independent from each other yet connected
then tears the pages one by one.
Carlos Schröder has taught English courses at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Virginia, since 2004 and before then, taught at the University of Maryland. A native of Argentina, his creative work, mostly poetry, has appeared in publications both in the US and Argentina in English and Spanish and he has had a play produced in Buenos Aires. He is an active member of the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (APDH), http://www.apdh-argentina.org.ar, and with local groups in Washington DC, where he resides.