A Conversation with Rigoberto Gonzàlez

Rigoberto González was born in Bakersfield, California, and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. He is the author of several poetry books, including So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (1999), a National Poetry Series selection; Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (2006); Black Blossoms (2011); and Unpeopled Eden (2013), winner of a Lambda Literary Award. He has also written two bilingual children’s books, Soledad Sigh-Sighs (2003) and Antonio’s Card (2005); a novel, Crossing Vines (2003), winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Fiction Book of the Year Award; a memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (2006); and a book of stories, Men without Bliss (2008).

González earned a BA from the University of California, Riverside and graduate degrees from University of California, Davis and Arizona State University. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and of various international artist residencies, González writes a Latino book column for the El Paso Times of Texas. In 2014, he was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize by the Academy of American Poets. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers, on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and on the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta, a collective of Chicano/Latino activist writers.

Art Editor Kadin Herring caught up with González via email to discuss Unpeopled Eden, authorship, and identity.

STREET: Throughout the book, it is apparent that you have dealt with xenophobic behavior while living in America. Reading your book, I came to feel isolated and recalled my experiences growing up in the suburban south. Might you explain some of the hardships that you faced when you first moved here? Were the problems you faced similar to the ones new immigrants are going through today?

GONZÀLEZ: The moments of hostility and feelings of anxiety that most stand out for me have to do with the stories I heard as a child. These were always cautionary tales and dire illustrations of the dangers of straying from home or community; to move alone was to be vulnerable, which is why preserving a family unit was essential. This helps explain why immigrants tend to cluster with their own tribe—for safety, for reassurance. When I was ten years old, my family arrived to a small Southern California town, and immediately we were the outsiders. At school, we were taunted by the other Mexican kids whose families had arrived before ours. Our parents talked about how threatened other adults were that they were the fresh competition for work. We took up a large apartment, even if there were nineteen of us living there. It seemed as if the newest immigrant was always on the receiving end of derision and ridicule—our clothes, our foods, even the music we listened to. It made us huddle together even tighter, but that brought its own set of problems: claustrophobia, a lack of freedom. We remained at the bottom of the hierarchy until the next immigrant family moved into town, and I remember how even we felt superior to them, how we recognized their initial ignorance of things American, how their foreignness made them stand out in unflattering ways. I like to believe that we also built some sense of empathy for the newcomers—in the way my mother invited the new neighbor’s children to our birthday parties—but the truth was that it’s such a human impulse to unleash one’s frustrations on others. We participated in the prejudices against the poorer, the ones with a different immigrant status. The negative encounters with white people, with whiteness, were few and far between in our Mexican community. I wouldn’t understand the warnings and the fears embedded into those stories I had been hearing all along until I moved into a mostly white space, which was the American university. But it was a much different way of negotiating conflict for me than the stories that still haunted me, that prepared me for a journey as an unskilled laborer that I did not take. So when I wrote this book about my community and my family, those experiences that my cousins ended up having became the emotional plane that my imagination inhabited.

STREET: Did the Chicano movement influence you to become a writer or focus your art in speaking out about the injustices faced by Mexican and other Central American immigrants?

GONZÀLEZ: I have to credit college for this political journey. I came from two generations of card-carrying members of the United Farm Workers Union. Conversations about strikes and boycotts were not new to me, or even abstract. I did not learn about them in textbooks, but by watching my grandmother make flags and my mother stand at picket lines. There’s a photograph I cherish in which I am about two years old and marching with my grandmother at a rally. (I was born in Bakersfield and shortly after that photograph was taken, my family returned to Mexico. We came back to the U.S. when I was ten.) But as a student at the University of California, Riverside, I began to be curious about this Chicano thing. It was everywhere I looked, and it came across as a beautiful community that instilled pride in identity and history. It was exactly what I needed to avoid feeling lonely and isolated in this mostly white space. Soon after joining a few of the Chicano clubs, I discovered Chicano literature, and that was the beginning of what I understood was going to be my path. The voices in the books reminded me of the voices at home—celebrating the homeland, the past, and holding on to memory as the most valuable possession we had, because it told us who we were and how far we had traveled. I would not be a writer if it did not build a relationship to politics. And being a Chicano, being a Mexican or a Latino or an immigrant in this country, is a political act. It’s political because we are always fighting against policies and loudmouths that want to define our experience, control the narratives that shape the way people see us, the way we see ourselves. Chicano/Latino/immigrant literature is at the center, not at the margins, where some would have us be.

STREET: With the publication of this book, Unpeopled Eden, you received two literary awards. The first was the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. What is your response to receiving this award?

GONZÀLEZ: I’m extremely proud of the Lambda Literary Award. I believe my book is about intersectionality: I identify as a gay writer, I also identity as a Chicano/Latino writer, and my subject matter always speaks to multiple communities. I don’t have a choice. And neither can my work be seen through a single lens—it’s queer, through and through, as much as it’s also filtered through ethnic identity and an immigrant experience. Some of us embody the many political planes we inhabit and make art of that existence.

I just finished writing an essay about two young queer immigrant writers, Rajiv Mohabir (The Taxidermist’s Cut) and Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds). Their forthcoming books will show us that there is no one way to express that intersectionality of identities. That queerness particularly can also be a conversation about fathers and sons, about masculinity, about community, and not just about sexual desire or gay sex or homophobia, though those too are important components of the queer experience. I have been so pleased with the way the Lambda Literary Foundation has made a notable effort to include in their conversations about art and writing the range of voices and experiences from the many gay communities. Queer rights are as important to me as immigrant rights, so I am very humbled and flattered to have been recognized by an organization that has helped me find my way toward my complex identity.

STREET: Throughout the book, it was clear that you observed the growing tension between immigrants (dark-skinned immigrants, really) and middle-class Americans. In the poem “Unpeopled Eden,” you recall the plane crash when thirty-two people died, but only four names were recorded, and the rest were listed as deportees. As a writer, do you believe it is your responsibility to inform the public of social or political injustices? Is that even something that you are aware of while you writing, or is it simply an unconscious action?

GONZÀLEZ: As an artist, I don’t think my role is to inform but to illuminate. Just as it is not the role of poetry to explain, but to contextualize. My responsibility is solely to the impulse of shaping experience, observation, and imagination into writing that communicates with the reader. My work is political because the people I write about are inhabiting bodies that make them subject to suspicion, vilification, and hostility. I happen to be such a body, and if I turn my attention toward political landscapes it’s because I’m trying to understand the worlds I live in. I do not exist outside of the experiences I write about; I exist beside them, and that’s an important assertion to make because it’s not necessarily a responsibility that guides to subject matter me but an inevitability. Responsibility makes it sound as if I am less intimate with oppressions and conflict. I am not a savior, I am a survivor. And certainly I’m aware of what I set out to explore or mine, but the surprise is always in what I unearth or discover.

In other words: It’s not an agenda, it’s a drive, and I don’t have everything mapped out ahead of time. If I did, I would enjoy the pleasures of moving through the writing of a poem or a story. Additionally, I respond to the times. In my next book, I’ve even more explicitly and deliberately political because that’s what the world is provoking in me. Maybe that’s my journey as an artist, moving from the intensely personal in my early work to a more public forum. So much of that is experience and maturity, my ability to travel more and to develop a confidence in my work to speak louder. I’m no longer timid. I’m now tackling larger landscapes and global tensions fearlessly in my work.

STREET: Now that you live in New York, revered for diversity and a liberal, progressive atmosphere, what drew you into writing a book that highlighted frequently the U.S. border and Mexico conflict and the many problems immigrants face moving to this country?

GONZÀLEZ: Although I call myself a New Yorker—have been one since I moved here in 1998—I brought the U.S.-Mexico border with me. It’s so much part of my imagination that when I sit down to write a new project, it immediately becomes my canvas. And I don’t fight it, because I love it; it’s a rich territory that has inspired so many writers that are part of my education. And there are still many stories left to tell. And since Unpeopled Eden is also a book about my father, who lives in my memories of the border, I wasn’t going to push against it. On the contrary, I embraced it even more. Plus, it’s going to be hard to shake the Mexican immigrant experience out of my work because I see it everyday in NYC. By 2025, Mexicans will outnumber Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. What a pleasant surprise to have Mexico catch up with me after all. If anything, I am now beginning to think about the Nuyorexican experience. I feel the strong pull to write about that, but I’m not quite there yet. I still have a few projects, set on the border, that I need to complete before I explore this new Mexican space I have been living in for the last seventeen years.

STREET: When I was reading your book, I began to think of the great myth that America promised to all who came to live and work here, like my mother, who left the Caribbean to pursue the “American Dream.” Before you moved to the United States, did you see the United States as this wonderland of opportunities?

GONZÀLEZ: Absolutely! I think it’s irresistible to latch on to the negative perceptions of immigrant life in the U.S. Part of me suspects there’s this big conspiracy to paint a terrible portrait for immigrants in order to dissuade them from coming (or staying). When I write about tragedy and loss and heartache, it’s not as the end of any story—it’s only the middle. The journey continues; it only ends when the world ends. But until then, we survive, we thrive, we encounter other obstacles and drawbacks, and we work to get through those as well. Being a teacher and mentor has helped me keep that positive perspective. I can’t believe that dreams are no longer useful when I stand in front of young people, when I sit to talk with young writers. That’s incredibly selfish and not very kind. It’s our job to keep the doors open, to make sure that others have similar opportunities. I teach at Rutgers-Newark, a campus full of immigrants. They inspire me as much as I hope I inspire them. And whenever I have any doubt that the American Dream is dead, I simply look at my own journey, which is an extension of my parents’ journeys: They were migrant farmworkers who were barely literate, whose English was limited to a few words, and yet they had a son who became a college professor and an author. Those astounding leaps forward are still happening and will continue to be possible.