Remezcla Reads: With Bilingual Poetry Book ‘While They Sleep,’ Raquel Salas Rivera Reverses the Colonizer’s Gaze

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

In Raquel Salas Rivera’s stunning new collection of poetry while they sleep (under the bed is another country), the nonbinary Puerto Rican author spotlights the struggle of translation to magnify the gaps in experiences between the colonizer and the colonized. Each line in English is accompanied by a footnote in Spanish that does not translate the English at the top of the page but instead critiques it or provides a counter-view. By doing so, the author challenges false perceptions and sentiments about the archipelago and reverses the gaze of the colonizer.

The beginning of the book immediately sets readers up for this dialogue with two epigraphs. The first is from the Puerto Rican-fronted band Hurray for the Riff Raff’s song “Pa’lante:” “I look for you, my friend, but do you look for me?” At the bottom of the page, Salas Rivera positions a lyric from Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny’s “Soy Peor” in a biting, almost comical response: “Sigue tu camino que sin ti me va mejor.”

The author challenges false perceptions and sentiments about the archipelago and reverses the gaze of the colonizer.

The book then proceeds using this same form, the poetry arranged in short, brief lines of English at the top of the page with footnotes in Spanish at the bottom. This layout, and the use of extensive white space, dramatizes the power differential between those two languages and their speakers in the United States.

On one page, Salas Rivera writes, “the airlines offer tickets for $50/if you wanted to leave home /forever,” and at the bottom notes, “no existe un mundo poshuracan.” The combination of these lines is pointing toward a century of Puerto Rican exile and migration. In addition, they seem to suggest that now the U.S. is using 2017’s devastating Hurricane María as one more ploy to empty the island of its people by not sufficiently providing aid and, as Salas Rivera notes in Spanish, trying to convince them that “the world cannot exist after the hurricane.”

On another page, Salas Rivera refers to President Donald Trump’s disrespectful and painful visit to Puerto Rico after the Category 4 storm hit. They write, “he threw paper towels into the crowd/as a humanitarian gesture.” Then in Spanish, they foot-note, “no es un vida normal,” portraying the absurd indignities Puerto Ricans faced as they tried to access help.

Alternatively, sometimes the speaker at the top of the page is a survivor struggling to represent their experience in English: “that time we existed because we were dying.” Here, Salas Rivera is referring to how many U.S. citizens only became aware of the history of Puerto Rico because of the hurricane. They write at the bottom of the page in Spanish: “abrió plaza las americas.” The Plaza they refer to is a large shopping mall in San Juan used to attract tourists. With these lines, Salas Rivera shows the cruel irony of capitalism and how tourism and profit were prioritized over the welfare of humans. Yes, people are still dying and the rates of suicide have skyrocketed since María, but the Plaza, and Puerto Rico, is open for business.

Focusing on language and the trauma inherited from colonialism, as well as interrogating the colonizer’s troubled perspective of the archipelago, while they sleep (under the bed is another country) seems to organically grow out of Salas Rivera’s previous poetry collection lo terciario/the tertiary.

while they sleep (under the bed is another country) by Raquel Salas Rivera
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In that text, published in 2018, Salas Rivera juxtaposes selections of Pedro Scaron’s translation of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital next to the concrete stories of people on the archipelago who are living through the horrific consequences of Hurricane María and the man-made disaster of U.S. colonization.

Salas Rivera contrasts the combination of the abstract language of Marxism and the real-life stories of people who are currently and directly being impacted by capitalism. Written in both Spanish and English, the reader can physically flip the book around to access a translation of the text in either language. But the choice to write in both English and Spanish is one that Salas Rivera does not take lightly. U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico has always threatened to strip the island of the Spanish language, albeit another tongue that was forced on the people of Borikén by its first European colonizer. Today, the publishing industry and literary community often privilege authors who write in English, if not requiring the language for submissions to its journals and literary competitions.

One of the most important poetry books in Puerto Rican literature this decade.

However, during a recent reading at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Salas Rivera explained that the choice to write in English was not a capitulation to that demand but rather an effort to reach out to other audiences of color. “I translate my own work into English. Why did I do that? Because I was going to spaces with many people of color or people who were Puerto Rican and didn’t speak Spanish, and I realized there was something slightly protectionist about not translating it,” they said. “That protectionism can be conservative in a certain context, or not. I had to find a way to connect with people without giving the impression or the illusion that everything about me is accessible.”

Their latest poetry collection explores this struggle. In one passage from while they sleep that crystalizes the project, Salas Rivera writes:

to translate is not to communicate, nor to reach the post office
mailbox without a key nor pack oneself for a domestic rate
(with the exception of puerto rico). it isn’t giving up, diving
into the freezing lake, or believing in the current. to translate
is to be the illegible witness of oneself. it is to explain things
enough so that they think they understand, but to know that in
the end they won’t understand our (hi)stories. it is what juan
bobo tells the pig and what the pig

Without a doubt, while they sleep (under the bed is another country) joins lo terciario as one of the most important poetry books in Puerto Rican literature this decade and proves that Salas Rivera is their own force to be reckoned with.