Admixed with the joy is undeniable sorrow and anger, for the book is an act of emotional and intellectual rigor, one that makes an unsparing examination of race, gender and class, particularly as such categories relate to the struggles and complexities of immigration and gentrification ... Olivarez is far from subtle in his interrogations, as one can tell simply by flipping through his table of contents, populated by such arresting titles as 'My Therapist Says Make Friends With Your Monsters' ... There are hard arguments in here that might be difficult for some, but they need to be hard and they need to be heard. Olivarez has just the right voice—compassionate, dynamic and irreverent—to deliver them.
José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection, Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018), is a poetic assault on these state and cultural processes that continue to stamp out empathy and humanity within the rise of today’s migratory drift and its management by the state. Olivarez’s critique so often begins with his own self-inquiries, and much of this book can be read as both a theoretical rumination on language-as-discourse and a first-generation coming-of-age lyrical narrative ... Citizen Illegal moves best when it transgresses its own boundaries, moving from overly familiar moments...and towards something unexpected, pliable, unconstrained, as when Olivarez responds to another brutalization by the ICE by becoming wolverine...or when he moves from reimagining his own childhood to re-entering his mother’s ... Olivarez is keenly aware of the ways in which we, too, other immigrants and children of immigrants, are often implicated in the same structures that hold us down, forcing us to reckon with our own complacency, especially the structure of racism within Latinx/Latinidad communities ... If one purpose or promise of poetry is the reinvention of myth then we need to start by rethinking our own origin stories, the names we use and the ways we are represented and the ways in which we represent our community. Likewise, it is revealing that Olivarez ends his sprawling, startling debut on 'Guapo' and its ritualistic observation and exultation of the body: '… it is my new name. it is my old name. / it is my only name.'
Olivarez constructs an otherworldly paradise for his people in recognition that the world he lives in must be reinvented, not renovated, to include them. It’s clear though, that for the poet, magic is everywhere, not just a power to be wielded by the special. Often, we find the speaker in awe of the miracles that manifest independent of him ... Another powerful element of Citizen Illegal is Olivarez’s seemingly limitless capacity for multiplicity. The book finds the speaker at an intersection of so many identities—Mexican but not, American but not, a Chicagoan but from Calumet City (a town outside of Chicago), a Harvard grad but a guy from the hood. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this is that Olivarez denies no part of himself: not his anger or his sadness or his violent urges or his smallness, not his joy, or his love of himself, or his mother, or his family. He rejects any attempt to integrate the parts of himself or reduce them to a singular ... Olivarez offers his readers a place where differences are allowed to exist together, alongside each other, within one another ... Olivarez understands that this change in our perception of difference is at least one key to dismantling power structures like nationalism, racism, sexism, and heteronormativity that suffocate so many. So much of this book is about valuing differences—even antitheses—without ranking them, about creating a sense of integration without loss ... Throughout the book, Olivarez demonstrates his mastery through the simple, yet precise rearrangement of common phrases in order to highlight realities often obscured by our language.
There is a new voice that has arisen from the Burning Phoenix of The Chicano/a/Latinx ashes to claim a glory that has hereto been denied to this group of minority members here in America ... Olivarez has established himself as not only a voice to be reckoned with and mindful of, but also one that deserves to be respected. Here we have a poetic-people’s-champ confidently displaying the musicality of his unique and distinct metres through the streets and alleyways that the masses traverse. It’s almost as if Olivarez, in utilizing an elusive punctuality, has arrived to strike the most gorgeous chords that will signal his coronation to claim the Golden Laurel that is justly his. A poet never arrives ahead or behind schedule, but rather at just the right moment ... when it comes to employing his formidable arsenal comprised of the spectrum of alphabetical letters, Olivarez does not shy away from attacking our current American political administration ... There is a common theme that ties the entire book together. It is comprised of a pure Spirituality that is meshed with a sheer vibrancy and immediacy, calling not just the observer, but the public as a whole, to stand up, to do something, anything in this most fragile and uncertain of times.
You feel that familiar darkening at the horizon woven into Olivarez's work—he's able to masterfully encapsulate the snarling teeth of white supremacy, growing cancerous in a stunted society ... there is light, too ... Olivarez has a certain type of ingenuity when using metaphors. When he approaches well-worn topics like racism and xenophobia, he uses surprising parallels to talk about them ... Wolves and Wolverinze make appearances...apt metaphors for the anger that floods so many of us when living underneath the weight of racism ... What makes Citizen Illegal such a necessary read is the familiarity of it ... What we consider 'legal' is only a system of laws built on upholding white supremacy.
Issues of identity and race are explored in language imbued with humor, frustration, and grace. But threaded in and out of the collection is also a desire to shed the self and become something or someone new ... The book’s back cover calls the language of this book 'everyday,' but the author’s skill with language is far from common. With odes to cheese fries, basement parties, and Scottie Pippen, and nods to Vapo-rub, Wolverine, and Kanye West, Olivarez certainly does not shy away from pop culture or its vernacular. However, moments of extraordinary tenderness and beauty are found throughout the collection as well ... repetitions or reinventions function as refrains to love songs of growing up in two cultures. Whether addressing serious issues of gentrification and erasure or exploring personal love and loss, Olivarez speaks in a voice that moves always toward belonging.
Olivarez’ work is so powerful...because of its personal anecdotes and its commentary on how our national contradictions complicate and muddle everyday life for immigrants and their children ... While the commodification and economic exploitation of marginalized and oppressed populations is nothing new in American life, its ugly and harmful impacts are too often ignored. Not so in Citizen Illegal. Olivarez forces his audience to confront them head-on by pushing us to consider the experience of Mexican teens wandering around a mall, grappling with a country that simultaneously rejects them and profits off of their existence ... Olivarez’ nuanced narratives, and others like them, are vital ... Olivarez’ work is strong and vulnerable, sad and funny. It is a true work of art that leaves the reader in a state of deep thought and reflection on this country’s approach to immigration, the power of community, and the importance of rejecting a monolithic, generalized cultural narrative.
...a high-octane take on the rhythms and contradictions of life as a first-generation child of Mexican parents ... his poems occupy spaces of liminality between law and crime, English and Spanish, hard work and higher education ... A compelling work that embodies the immediacy of live performance, to be read alongside Chinaka Hodge’s Dated Emcees (2016) and the anthology The End of Chiraq (2018).