Poet, educator, and author of the award-winning book “Citizen Illegal” José Olivarez engaged the Andover community in a poetry reading at last Friday’s All-School Meeting (ASM). Through his poems, Olivarez discussed his Latine background and its ties to his relationship with his father, his education, and geography in his connections to both Mexico and Chicago.
Born into the intersection of two marginalized communities, Oliverez was exposed to a limited variety of literature that shaped his perception of writing. After encountering poetry, he described how his perception of literature and what it could encompass changed.
“My dad worked at a steel mill, my mom worked as a janitor. Not only did I grow up in a Latine household, but in a working class household. All of the books that I read took place in middle class or upper class America, or England, or worldwide. It wasn’t until the first time I heard poetry, which was [from] my classmates, that I realized that you didn’t have to be from a fancy place to write poems, that the stories of our parents, and of our schools, our communities, were already musical. They already had poetry in them, and if you listened, you could pick out those moments,” said Olivarez.
Olivarez continued, “I wanted to make sure when I wrote poems I wasn’t just repeating, re-describing the things they show on television. You don’t need to read my poems to tell you what CNN says. I wanted my poems to have a different texture, feeling, and emotion than those kinds of reports and stories.”
Magdalena Mercado ’26 expressed her similarities to Olivarez. Mercado commented on the ability of Olivarez’s writing to extend to a wider demographic.
“Although I do not identify as Latine, I did connect very much to the cultural aspect of his poetry. As someone who did grow up in a very much marginalized community and was surrounded by other people of the working class, it was something that I could very much connect to. The themes behind his poetry have broad demographic topics across all people of the working-class or who have experienced those things,” said Mercado.
Similarly, Arjun Shah ’25 shared his experience of grappling with more than one identity. Being a third generation American immigrant, Shah understood Olivarez’s feelings of being disconnected from both aspects of his identity.
“My grandparents were immigrants from India, so when he talked about the struggles around immigration, that stood out to me as a similarity: how Jose Olivarez feels somewhat American and connected to that identity, but somewhat disconnected because his family is ‘exotic’ and from a different place. I also feel disconnected from my homeland, India, and from America. I feel somewhere stuck between those two worlds,” said Shah.
Frustration towards the singular narrative of Latine people portrayed in the news drove Olivarez to authentically record the people he has always been surrounded by. Thus, Olivarez hopes to shine light on aspects of the Latine community often excluded from or misrepresented in the media.
“One of the reasons that I write my poems this way is because growing up, the only time I saw Latine people on television was in cartel shows or when there was a devastating crisis at the border. That was so not aligned with my experience of Latinidad, where my parents had parties every weekend…. It was weird that people talked about us like we were tragic and invisible people when at the same time, as those incidents were happening, we were always there to take care of each other. These moments are precious and worthy of poetry to me as much as our wounds and tragedies are,” said Olivarez.
Cris Ramnath ’23 related to Olivarez’s motivation to write and the lack of an accurate portrayal of the Latine community. Ramnath noted that he has continued to explore his identity here at Andover and found agency through writing.
“Through writing, [Olivarez was] able to write about what Latinidad meant to him, under his own terms. He had mentioned how he’s not writing it to please people, he’s not writing it to necessarily educate people, but more so doing it to really understand his life and depict his life in a way that’s real. I really related to that because even at Andover, I feel like I’m still trying to learn what being Latine means and through writing, I, myself, [have] found my own definition of that and have decided to depict it in my own ways,” said Ramnath.