Meet José Olivarez, the Poet Fighting to Preserve Chicago’s Place as a Hub for Chicano Literature

Photo courtesy of José Olivarez

Chicago-based poet and author, José Olivarez, recounts the moment that made him want to start writing poems with great enthusiasm. It dates back to his teenage years in Calumet City, situated about 30 minutes outside of Chicago, when a group of students performed slam poetry during a school assembly. The group had remarkable stage presence, the kind that immediately demands the attention of everyone in the room.

“It was the first time that I saw teenagers tell their own stories,” he says. “It was the first time I realized that power was fluid, that I could do more in school than sit and learn everything that was given to me, that I could challenge that. I knew I wanted to write. I wanted to be vocal. As someone who was very quiet and shy in that moment…when I saw the performance, I knew that that was a way for me to go beyond that shyness.”

Today, Olivarez works for Young Chicago Authors (YCA), a non-profit organization that provides a variety of literary arts and writing workshops to students much like those who inspired him all those years ago. The launchpad for some of Chicago’s brightest young talents, YCA is where artists like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Jamila Woods and Mick Jenkins honed some of their earliest work, and where Olivarez serves as the organization’s Marketing Manager. Now, he is on the verge of releasing his debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, due out in September.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez’s work shines a spotlight on the often-overlooked stories of Mexican-Americans in the Midwest. This identity is illustrated throughout Citizen Ilegal in all of its complexities—the connections between Mexican-Americans and labor (“Mexican Heaven”) and the all too familiar feeling of being ni de aqui, ni de alla (not from here, nor there) in poems like “If Anything is Missing, Then It’s Nothing Big Enough to Remember,” where Olivarez writes:

…only it’s hard for one body to contain two countries
the countries go to war & it’s hard to remember you are loved by both
sides or any sides, mostly you belong to the river that divides your countries…

…& it is beautiful sometimes like on birthdays
when the whole yard is full of dancing & the kitchen is hot
with tortillas y tacos, here you are safe & whole & there is no
Rio Grande splitting you, mostly you scissor yourself along the lines,
you choose a side, you cut & cut & one day you wake up & the
voice in your head speaks English, you stop coming around here…

Citizen Illegal is rich with imagery associated with Latinx culture like juke jams and the magical healing powers of Vicks Vaporub. But in them you’ll also find the shores of Lake Michigan, biting winters of Calumet City and it’s now-closed steel mills, images just as essential to the Midwest-Chicano geography.

“I was trying to think about how to add to the catalogue of Mexican symbols and geographies,” he says. “The challenge was to try to figure out different symbols, not just appropriate the images and symbols seen in California and New York. There is no one narrative. There’s not just one truth, there’s many truths.”

Citizen Illegal is also reflective of the increasingly difficult climate Latinx communities and communities of color across Chicago are having to navigate, including displacement due as the result of fast-paced gentrification, like Rahm Emmanuel’s push for a $95 million police academy, and the rise in ICE raids despite Chicago’s status as a sanctuary city.

“As a poet, what I’m trying to do is play with the world that I’ve inherited—the political worlds, the personal worlds,” Olivarez adds. “[I] try to shape them into poems that show me the truth of those moments, as well as show me the possibilities that exist and the world that we can create.” Poems like “Gentefication” speak to Latinx resilience, power in the continuation of cultural traditions, and the value of community (“the whole block is alive/ & not for sale,” he muses).

Olivarez says that while YCA has served as a designated creative space among black and brown youth for nearly 17 years, he’s noted a slight uptick in a number of young Latinx people taking up poetry as way of sharing their experiences with xenophobia, surveillance and living in a world where many family members face the constant threat of deportation. For many of the youth, the performances double as a sort of catharsis.

“I can see the relief on their faces when they share a poem at an open mic and they get that affirmation back. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’ All of us are being threatened by the same cloud storm right now.”

Despite the uphill battles in preserving the cultural histories in various neighborhoods across Chicago, Olivarez’s part in working to keep Chicago as a hub for Chicano literature amid of gentrification—along with other artist and writing collectives—stays true to the tradition of Chicago writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Sandra Cisneros. There’s also a touch of the “nothing about us without us” ethos propelling their work. Some of his favorite projects include Brown and Proud Press, a collective of local “intersectional creatives,” writers, illustrators and photographers (“[They] make these DIY zines that are really radical and great,” he states) and Las Topo Chicas, a Southside Chicago-based femme and queer people of color artist collective that plays a key role in “holding a space for each other and queer Latinx young people.”

“What’s powerful is not the neighborhood itself. What’s powerful is the people that make that space so beautiful. Everywhere we go, we gente-fy the space.”