Speaking from One Heart

Poets Against Walls and Cages

By Viktoria Valenzuela

September 2019 Issue 

Peace has been hard to find for families being separated at the border. As people seek a safe and sustainable life here in the United States, they are criminalized for making the attempt to cross the United States border, and Texas poets across the state are calling for justice. On any given day, immigration policy will change at the drop of a tweet, and families are separated at the border without dignity, knowledge of their rights, or simple hope. As a Chicana poet organizer and Unitarian Universalist, I believe it is vital that people of faith stop allowing the criminalization of black and brown bodies marked as "alien," "illegal," "outsider."

I believe poetry has a duty to be the first call for justice. In my community, I gather political poets annually in contribution to the 100 Thousand Poets for Change global poetry reading. Participating poets have called for social justice, peace, and sustainability. Many have collaborated on actions such as enlisting our current mayor to sign into action the Compassionate San Antonio Resolution.

Poetry has a duty to be the first call for justice.

San Antonio playwright, performance artist, and professor Marisela Barrera has taken it upon herself to attend court hearings in McAllen, Texas for migrants from the detention centers. Barrera has been a vigilant political performance artist for many years. She has recently performed a gut-wrenching list poem about a single group hearing that leaves the room silent because these kinds of group hearings happen every single day. The names of the detainees form a tragic litany:

Magistrate’s Court; McAllen, TX
March 13, 2019

Eleazar, 36-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Laredo
Abel, 18-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Omar, 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Carlos, 24-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Donna
Jose, 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Antonio, 21-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Roma
Joel, 32-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Hidalgo
Martin, 44-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Donna
Francis, 24-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Adan, 46-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Nina, 28-year-old woman from Honduras. Point of Entry: Hidalgo
Fidel, 20-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Emilio, 29-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Rio Grande City
Elian, 35-year-old man from El Salvador. Point of Entry: Hidalgo
Carlos, 41-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Los Ebanos
Juan, 34-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Luis, 37-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Roma
Pancho, 22-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Jose, 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Ollin, 18-year-old man from Mexico. Point of Entry: Roma
Alex, 29-year-old man from Guatemala. Point of Entry: Donna
Abigail, 24-year-old woman from Mexico. Point of Entry: Los Ebanos
Orlando, 26-year-old man from Honduras. Point of Entry: Donna

Along the Rio Grande Valley, poets are writing the most important poetry of our time. “Poets Against Walls” is made up of poets from the Rio Grande Valley and all over Texas. They have organized readings along the border wall and the sharing of poetry in resistance to the border wall, the vile immigration laws that separate families, and the racism that fuels those laws. Poets Against Walls have been witness to the destruction of sacred and familial land as the wall is being built through The National Butterfly Center in South Texas, a home to more than one hundred wild butterfly species, a number of which are considered threatened or endangered, and are actively resisting the wall being built.

The borderline isn't a divide, it's a scar on one heart. Poetry speaks to this woundedness, this scar we all carry.

The Tex-Mex border has a connection that can only be described as In Lak'Ech, a Mayan concept that is translated as, “You are the other me.” It means that if we do harm to another creature, we are only doing harm to ourselves. This is why it is vital to recognize that the borderline isn't a divide, it's a scar on one heart. Poetry speaks to this woundedness, this scar we all carry.

Texas 2020 Poet Laureate, Emmy Peréz, is a member of Poets Against Walls who recently shared an excerpt of a poem-in-progress that witnesses this shared pain:

These past few days, I’ve been visualizing all that is beautiful in the land as well, as we can take solace in outdoor spaces. I thought about the burrowing owl nests in the old section of the Ysleta cemetery where many of my ancestors are buried and the spadefoot toads that love the summer monsoon rain. The Chihuahuan desert ecosystem and plants that continue to help sustain life in the region are also diminished at times by stereotypes and ignorance from people who don’t know the desert or the people.

I mourn for all who lost loved ones, for children suddenly without their parent or parents, for people possibly harmed by the attack and now in fear of ICE, for everyone in that Walmart last Saturday morning... During my last visit to El Paso, when I was driving the border highway, I saw a family with small children holding hands after they must have run across the trickle of river, no doubt exhausted by impossible and deliberate lines on bridges caused by this administration. I saw them reach the border fences and wait for border patrol, hopeful for eventual asylum. Few who are hateful acknowledge their indigeneity, call most immigrants crossing our borders Mexican and say it as if our culture is a dirty word. They don’t know any of us or our histories. The hate that comes from their minds, hearts, and tongues, their fingers when they manifesto, Tweet, and pull gun triggers. Their [words and policies and] guns are pointing at our beauty. I try hard to remember that they were once beautiful too when they were born, when they were small children, beautiful as El Paso. Because hate is learned. El Paso has never ceased to be beautiful because there has always been much more love in its heart.

I recognize the inadequacy of these words, and I vow to continue to counter the harmful rhetoric and misinformation about our borderlands that contributes to hateful violence, border walls, and militarization.

César De León, an outspoken poet activist and organizer for Poets Against Walls, brings attention to the spiritual connection native people have to the land and one another:

Ghost Flower

something surviving
in this body yearns for river
water and the hum of green
distilled through a ribcage of mud
i would chastise until black
the scab on my chest
but who has time for a body
that has forgotten how to be
who has time for generous chasms
scored into vertebrae
like invocations
to fixed-jawed angels
lips of bone
tongues of thorn

Another member of Poets Against Walls, Dr. Carolina Monsiváis, speaks in a poem-in-progress from a place of resistance as a citizen and witness to the inhumane propaganda surrounding the migrant narrative:


I hear surge
as if to hook terror
I hear why would they
come with their children
I hear my parents came
the right way  

I hear we can’t handle this surge and I hear them
attach illegal
to their bodies
their families 

but not to the separation
of children from parents
or their cries 

not to the overcrowded spaces beneath a bridge
or the floor
of cold cells  

I hear surge
and families are stripped of names
and faces
and stories 

… the real surge is the chatter
around an invented crisis
the real surge is investors
disguised as politicians or buying politicians
salivating for the profits the crisis promises

the real surge is the fear stoked by this manufactured crisis
the real surge are the claps and cheers for a president
who wears his brand like a crown
on a stage as flimsy
as any wall he will ever build.

Finally, Rodney Gomez, McAllen Poet Laureate (2020) and Poets Against Walls member, shocks us with, “the cages, your god,” evoking an emotional response to knowing that innocent children are being lawfully detained in cages:

the cages, your god

the cages, your god triumphant, tiny smirking no means yes
yes means anal god, platinum glimmering god from beyond
the Bay of Campeche

 the cages, your flexing muscle god, your cover model
god, insulin-dependent price-gouging pharmaceutical god,
virtue of selfishness god who speaks only one dead language  

your welfare queen and self-deport Caucasian god,
your pain purifies so embrace the trickle down god,
derivatives and other weapons of mass destruction god, flim flam

 colonial fetishist god, the pulled over for driving brown god,
and then you’ll be a felon and then you can’t vote
but come to a revival and repent god  

the cages, children like fat-breasted toppling over unable
to walk Tyson chicken god, right to work god,
the life is inviolate except when born south of the wall god,  

the old god vindictive not at all god



Photo Credits:
Featured Photo: Jonathan McIntosh, "Desert Memorial" (September 15, 2009). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.
Photo #1: Jonathan McIntosh, "Wall of Crosses in Nogales" (September 17, 2009). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.
Photo #2: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, "McAllen, Texas Detention Center" (June 17, 2018). Via Wiki Commons. CC0 license.