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.