Raúl Niño and Poetic Explorations

Raúl Niño and Poetic Explorations

(Part I)

1. Introduction

With his one full-length book Breathing Light (1991), followed several years later by a chapbook, The Book of Mornings, and other poems, Raúl Niño positioned himself as an emergent Chicago Chicano poet, one committed to exploring dimensions of individual experience and intimacy, cultural as opposed to more specifically social and political concerns. Perhaps the least public and extroverted of the Mexican poets one could call “Chicano” in Chicago (there are “saloon” performance Chicano poets writing mainly in English, plus many recent immigrants from Mexico—above all the self-named Generación mojada, or “Wetback Generation” writing in Spanish), he came to represent an important dimension of Chicago and national Chicano writing as it moved from its more political thrust stemming from its militant roots and uses in the 1960s.

2. Biographical Details[1]

A consideration of Niño’s background goes a long way to explaining the kind of poetry he would come to write; it also helps in understand some particulars of his work.

Niño’s mother, Teresa, was born in a small San Luis Potosí rancho “in a house with a roof made of cactus leaves and walls made of dry mud bricks.” She was brought up mainly by her sister and brother, who Raúl would later come to know as Tía Marcelina and Tío Chon. As a young woman, she left the rancho with her best girlfriend to find work in a Monterrey cookie factory; and then found a job as a domestic servant in the house of a wealthy industrialist. His father was Ramón Ferreyraa, a young man of Portuguese parentage who had grown up in Veracruz and who then moved on to Mexico City and then Monterrey, where he found work as an auto mechanic, and then met Teresa, getting her pregnant (as described in “Monterrey Sketches”). Soon after Raúl was born, in March 1961, Ramón left Raúl’s mother for another woman; and when Raúl was three or four months old, Teresa began to travel with him back and forth across the border, from Monterrey or her old rancho to San Antonio, Corpus Cristi and Houston, finding work sometimes on her own and sometimes with rancho girlfriends and relatives, attempting to establish a new life or at least minimally financing her old. Settling for a time in San Antonio, she worked mainly as a maid, but took Raúl back and forth across the border so many times that the border became a kind of “mythical space” for Raúl, one he would cross in memory and poetry, even though his returns as an adult from the north would be sporadic.

In 1967, Teresa was told her son must go to school; but for him to get in, she would have to come up with a birth certificate. Afraid of the Migra, she moved back to Monterrey, where the boy, now over seven, finally began first grade. Niño remembers school in Mexico: his book bag, the anthem, even the songs of the revolution; the segregation of boys and the uniform they wore. “I remember who were the rich and the poor boys,” he says. “I was in the middle, there were kids poorer than me.”

His mother worked as a street vendor selling clothes on her own and then for some one. Unable to make it in Mexico, she went to stay with her childhood friend Panchi in Houston and then the Corpus Christi area, where she found work and brought Raúl in 1968. Niño remembers Corpus “as a beat of its own.” Above all, he remembers Panchi’s husband Andrés, a career navy man who’d been a zootsuit wearing pachuco; he remembers the smell of cherry tomatoes in a rural town near Corpus; and he remembers how in the summer of 1968, he met death. “I was wading in the water in the shallows, walked toward the deep end and almost drowned. My mother was making tortillas, and they told her I’d drowned.... I remember a bee hive. Busy bees, mom crying. And then I was alive again.”

Teresa apparently decided to move “as far away from the watering hole as she could.” The word was that good paying work could still be found in Chicago; and she, like increasing numbers of Mexicans, had relatives in the Chicago area. So she moved there, an abandoned woman who would eventually date a couple of Anglo men but who would never remarry.

At first she worked for a landscaper in Woodridge, in Dupage County, a Chicago suburb, where Raúl had to repeat first grade because of his English, but where he lived in a huge mansion “near a forest, creek, river and golf course.” Almost all of the next several years of his life would be spent in well-to-do surroundings, but always as the son of the housemaid. From 1968 to 1972 they lived in Woodridge. Then in the summer of 1972 they moved to Northfield, on Chicago’s wealthy north shore, where the median income was “more than I can make in ten years.” So while almost all of Niño’s Chicago area experience was abundance and privilege, they were lived and felt as discrepancy, difference, inauthenticity, absence, marginality, lack. “I was a permanent guest in other people’s mansions,” he says. “I swam in pools, and went to school with kids who were so wealthy, they got Camaros and gas cards at age 16.”

To be sure, there was a brief hiatus between suburbs that may have had a decisive effect on his later development. In 1972, after Woodridge and before the North Shore, he and his mother moved to a coachhouse at 26th Street at California Avenue, smack in the heart of a key Chicago barrio. His mother moved there “because a relative needed some one to share the rent. My mom made it completely spotless as usual, and we moved in.” But she was away most of the time working in a broom factory, and he lived most of the time there by himself. To this day he remembers his days at 26th and California as a “walk on the wild side.” Before he knew it he was sniffing glue and toking pot with the neighborhood kids. The sniffing led to a beating, and the pot led to trouble with the police. And then lo and behold

A guardian angel stopped me. I was in tears and this cop shook me, telling me never to mess with drugs again, and I never did. Then I remember putting graffiti on a garage wall. And a cop car stopped me and they balled me out. But we went to my mom, who talked to them in Spanish. And my mom agreed to have me scrub the graffiti off.

Again Teresa was determined to save her son from drowning. His route to Chicano identity would not be by becoming a vato loco. Nor was his story a “house on Mango Street” Before he could grow creative and rise out of the urban wasteland, Teresa got another maid’s job and whisked him off to Northfield, Illinois, where he would grow up and work through his Mexican otherness for the next several years.

Again he was the only Mexican kid, and the other kids let him know what that meant as quickly as possible.

I knew I was not like these other people. As a child you’re innocent, and you don’t see much difference between what your mother tells you and what is. The other kids taught me about racism and prejudice. I was different, and the kids put me in my place. I can remember people throwing garbage at me, laughing, running away. Sometimes I’ve run away. But I’ve always come back, too.

He was a Mexican kid, and what’s more he was a fat and dark Mexican, different by definition, without even having to earn the label, but inevitably “differentiated” by the labeling process. At first he would spend his free time in the garden, playing GI Joe and Space Invaders. But in the sixth grade he was all but automatically placed on the school football team, a stranger in a strange land wanting to be a part, playing along up through the eighth grade.

The suburban ambience generated standards, expectations and desires that were beyond his reach. There were the inevitable unrequited crushes, the many teenage parties to which he wasn’t invited. But Niño insists that much of what he went through was at least partially unconscious, and that it wasn’t until high school that he achieved some kind of political awareness of his otherness. At some point it all registered:

The house wasn’t mine, the pool wasn’t mine, I couldn’t invite kids to spend the night. I had only three friends through high school, but they couldn’t stay over. You are an invited guest, you can’t invite some one over to a place to a place that isn’t yours. I owned nothing, I still own nothing.

His refuge and release came to be in reading and writing. His mother had begun his acculturation into the world of the word. Because she worked in other people’s houses, she had to give him something to do. Even though she could barely read English, “she’d sit me in the corner with women’s mags and books.” As he grew older he would always love having a desk with papers and photographs on it.

His seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Roth, made all the students write something every day and she read everything they wrote.

One day she said we should put together an anthology of the class’s writings, and told us to write a short story, essay or poem. I knew poems were shorter, so I thought I’d try one. It was a spontaneous poem, and she loved it, told me it was like Whitman. She published it. I was published at 14! 

When he was sixteen, he began to work all over the north shore. He earned money by cutting lawns on his own or working with a landscaper watering garden trees, rotating the sprinklers. But he had already begun writing on his own, never telling any one he wrote, not even his mom, always ashamed of his grammar, spelling and syntax. Over the years he smoked a lot of dope. And realizing he was not a suitable suiter, he tried his hand at being his high school’s taboo sexual object, the exotic Latino male providing pre-year abroad experience to young north shore debutantes.

Graduating from Hanaka High School in 1980, he was at a loss in thinking about the future. 

My mom wanted me to go to college because that’s what the young people did where we lived. But I wasn’t really one of them. I was a burnout. I had a horrendous GTE score, terrible grades except English. And my grammar and spelling were always a nightmare for my special ed. teachers.”

So instead of college, he bummed around for a year, riding the Greyhound down to Texas, hanging out with relatives in Corpus Cristi. All the time “I was writing in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to do something different, I was intellectually inclined. I went out of my way to get books and mags, even ones beyond my capacity to understand.” Out of money, he came back to the Chicago area, finding work in a jewelry factory. It was time to decide if he would go to school after all.

Even though I’d gone to a very good school, I’d had bad test scores, and I had no money. The only way I could go to college would be through a minority student program, and I got an interview with the one at Loyola University.

And who should interview him but a young aspiring Chicana writer, Sandra Cisneros, recently out of the Iowa Writing Program and soon to publish her first book.

The interview was really informal. She asked me about myself, school, and so on. “What do you like to do?” she asked me, and I told her the magic words: “I like to write poetry.” She was thrilled, and so was I, because she was so bright and enthusiastic about me, and I’d already confessed to her what I hadn’t told many others. She asked me all kinds of questions and kind of took me under her wing like a younger brother. She recommended my entrance into Loyola. She lent me Borges’s Dream Tiger and García Márquez’s Leaf Storm. She introduced me to visiting writers, Borges included. I went to a poetry reading of hers—the first I can remember going to. She also introduced me to gin and tonic. 

At first his academic career went well enough. But he couldn’t keep in focus. He found himself pursuing Eastern religious philosophies: varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism, Zen above all. He also found himself pursuing women. He went from woman to woman, class to class, never finding a steady or declaring a major. Even his focus on poetry became sporadic, and he just audited a Latino community writing workshop Cisneros held without fully participating. He knew he wanted to write, saw himself as a writer in the making. But the question of an ethnic inflection or dimension, the notion of Latino writing as opposed to a Latino writing, was something not even his contact with the young Cisneros or her writing activities fully conveyed to him. Rather it was his friendship with Carlos Cumpián that was decisive in this regard.

He initially met Cumpián through Cisneros, barhopped with them, listened to the two debate what Chicano writers should be doing, then lost touch with him and finally ended up rooming with him when he dropped out of Loyola. Through this friendship, Niño received his indoctrination in Chicano literature and poetry; he met Carlos Cortez, the Chicano artists producing their work throughout the city, the Puerto Rican, American Indian and Black writers who were also part of the scene. By 1983, he had joined the Movimiento Artístico Chicano and began to write with greater discipline.

Over the next few years, Niño, known as the younger, up and coming MARCH poet, would work on MARCH book promotions and presentations and would develop as a reader of his own work. Following the lead of Cumpián, he tried college again, at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he took English literature and Creative Writing classes, and an introduction to Latino literature with Marc Zimmerman (he wrote on Omar Salinas, interviewed and studied Chicago Cuban writer Achy Obejas). But again he had trouble with focus, and his finances finally pushed him out of school. His good fortune was to find work as a researcher and sometime reviewer for the American Library Association. There he had a chance to extend his knowledge of the book and publishing business, to see and review the latest books in many fields and make the living that enabled him to rewrite and rework his poems.

From the late 1990s on, Niño came to some national attention as his work appeared in book form and was included in anthologies, such as Shards of Light/ Astillas de Luz (Tia Chucha Press, 1998) Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex (Tia Chucha Press, 1999) Emergency Tacos (March Abrazo Press, 1989) and Chuck Tatum’s New Chicana/Chicano Writing (University of Arizona Press, 1992 & 1993). He has also appeared in the literary journals, Revista Apple, After DarkHammers, The Guadalupe ReviewTonantzin, and Ecos.

 The publication of Breathing Light led to presentations at Chicago’s Randolph Gallery and other places, perhaps most significantly, a presentation at the Guadalajara Book Fair. It also led to some further notice, in Zimmerman’s U. S. Latino Literature (1992) and elsewhere. Niño has served as the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Sister Cities Poetry Ambassador to Mexico City. In 1993, Niño was also recognized as a Significant Illinois Poet by the Illinois Poet Laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks. Subsequently, he hosted workshops and readings at many of the Chicago Public Library neighborhood branches, as well as the National Museum of Mexican Arts in Chicago. He has worked in various libraries, and currently resides in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, painter Kim Johnson and their son. Over the years, he has continued writing short book reviews and exploring new directions in poetry and fiction for the American Library Association. While his first book, subsequent chapbook and published individual poems received some positive critical comment and several of the poems have been anthologized, still a long-overdue second, more complete book to assure Niño’s continuing place in the Chicago and national Chicano literary scene.


3. Linguistic, Family and Chicano Identity in Niño’s Breathing Light

As Niño notes, very few of his first poems had Chicano, Mexican or Latino themes. “My only connection seemed to be my birth,” he says, “because I was raised in Mexico.” Part of his disconnectedness stems from his language problems as they have affected his sense of ethnic, family and personal identity. “My English and Spanish are both shaky,” he says.

I’ve always talked to my mother in Spanish. I owe my Spanish to her. But I can’t speak Spanish very well, even though I can understand everything. I love the English language, even though it seems foreign to me and to this day I have trouble with my spelling, my reading. But English is more democratic than its native speakers—the language accepts the alien, the foreign: but people accept tacos before me.

He relates the language question directly to ones of prejudice.

The way I speak is one reason I’ve been called a spic, and maybe I’ve wanted to write to shove English back in their faces. Maybe that’s why I don’t write in any Chicano vernacular, but try to write sometimes even the most elegant, beautiful English I can. I’m trying to write over and through all my problems with the language. I’ve only gradually brought Spanish into my writing—it’s as if it’s sought me out and demanded to speak through me, in spite of all my limitations in the language, as if it won’t let me go or let English kill it. 

In a sense, the maid’s son was fatherless, sibbling-less, alienated from his Mexican language and roots as well as from the affluent Anglo world in which he grew up, unevenly acculturated into some dimensions of mainstream U.S. and Western culture and literature: such consecrated countercultural figures like Whitman or Bukowsky, such non-U.S. westerners like Dylan Thomas or Rimbaud—or a writer like Joseph Brodsky, one of his favorites. He enjoys reading and writing about exile life and feelings, Chicano, Mexican or otherwise. The effort to portray alienation but to seek modes of connection, to cross geographical, ethnic and identity borders, to explore the uncrossable or incommensurable, would seem to be at the heart of his life and work.

He only met his father once—the first time in Monterrey, when he was a child. Then for his 25th birthday, in 1986, he crossed the mythical border for the first time in years, went to Monterrey and looked him up in phone book. “There he was, his name might as well have been in bold print. I thought about calling him but I didn’t. I don’t feel close to him.” Was he then to be forever fatherless? Who were his fathers, his kin? On this same trip to Mexico, he visited his mother’s San Luis Potosí rancho, where he met the brother and sister who had raised his mother: Tío Chon and Tía Marcelina. “I realized that my mother’s whole moral structure and outlook was based on her rancho upbringing and I guess I’m trying to do some of the same things with my son,” Niño reflects. [2]

However, by the time of his 1986 Mexican trip, Niño had found some of the Chicago people who would be family for his life as an adult poet. 

I’ve had the rare opportunity to pick my relatives. I’ve chosen people to be my sisters and brothers. I still see Sandra Cisneros as a sister. I guess I’m just one of her many brothers, but I still see her success as something very close to me. Carlos Cumpián has been an older brother who I sometimes try to throw off and sometimes turn to. Carlos Cortez has been my father figure, or maybe my grandfather. As a visual and literary artist, he’s been a good model. And now I guess Kim and my son and life itself are taking me in new directions.

The directions involve movements relating Mexican roots to new urban, U.S. connections, explorations of past identities and relationships, experiments in capturing everyday life and imagination, mythic sources and emergent, multiple identifications. The fact that so many Mexican and Chicano figures remain among the key figures of his created family suggests that no matter how varied and multi-directed his poetic work may become, it will maintain a core Chicano identity, with Mexican and Anglo ambivalences, conflicts and syncretisms. With respect to the Mexican dimension, Niño says:

I’m a writer who happens to fit into a certain group. I don’t deny it, though I want that fact to deepen my work, not limit it. When I went to the Guadalajara book fair, I tried to speak in Spanish, but I realized how separated I was. I felt like an outsider, a pocho. And yet here, the Anglos see me as Latino or mexicano. I know it’s contradictory, I’m still trying to connect, plug in, see where I fit. But it’s not easy.

In a sense Breathing Light is the poetic autobiography of Niño’s early and young adult experiences, feelings and imaginings, “a documentation,” he says, “of different phases and aspects of my becoming”—but above all, a record and laboratory of his personal and literary identity struggles. To be sure, the book presents little by way of narrative, and perhaps stands somewhat in the same relation to Niño’s unwritten life narrative as do the poems of Cisneros’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways to The House on Mango Street. For better or worse, there are few direct reflections on childhood or teenage years, few attempts to create sub-groupings of poems as in Cisneros’s first book of poetry. What the book does, as the one published critique of his work states, is evokes the poet’s “respect for the beauty and power of the life-giving elements that govern us” (1992: 11). This elemental quality is perhaps the book’s strongest dimension, justifying the descriptions that grace the back cover of his book (their emphasis on his lyrical and romantic qualities [Sandra Cisneros], their sense of discovery which enables readers to relate to their own humanity [Luis J. Rodríguez], their “spiraling energy . . . wrapped within the sensual serape of his poetry” [Carlos Cumpián]).

Clearly among the predominant themes are ones centered on young adult life and dream, love and fantasy, on place (Chicago, its neighborhoods, its trains and suburbs, Monterrey, its hills, dry winds and factories), on climate, on poetry, memory and questions of being. A variety of forms appear in the volume, as if there are several experiments in poetic expression to be set out for display in one sampler. Most predominant are slender, short-lined lyrics, etching out situations, feelings and moods with a minimum of words. But there are others which take other kinds of risks, with broader lines more narrative in feel, more difficult to sustain lyrically, perhaps. And we even have one extended prose poem effort, his “Monterrey Sketches,” a work which joins with a “February on 18th Street,” “Hijo de la Malinche” and “Querido Lenguaje Mío” as the pieces most overtly focused at least somewhat on questions of Mexican or Chicano identity and expression. But there are ethnic questions may in fact underlie the other themes and be more central in understanding the book as whole than might first appear to be the case. So, for example, in speaking of his interest in weather and nature in his poems, Niño notes

The natural world affects my work, maybe because I live in an urban environment, and yet I spent so many years in the suburbs, though maybe my feeling for cities comes as much from my mother’s rancho world. So in my poems, I watch the clouds and report the weather, I isolate everyday experiences, with as much detail as I can, trying to find beauty in the gang-infested streets, the cold and dust of cities.

Elaborating on this theme, the anonymous reviewer in Howl notes how

Figurative and literal references to the wind, rain, sun flowers, daybreak and dusk throughout his poems remind us of our mortality—the universal framework of which we are all a part, that endures all human struggles and experiences. Through beauty, he sends a humbling and sobering message that keeps daily life in perspective. [11]

Addressing this question, Niño argues that

People expend a lot of energy trying to control all aspects of their life, including the weather, the passing of time and death. The sky, the elements have always been here and always will, knowing no politics, no injustice, no religion. . . . Whether we have democracy or dictatorship, whether we live or die, the sun will shine. It was still rain. Mondays will always be dreary. Governments will continue to rise and fall over environmental issues. In the end, we are subject to the elements. They affect each of us. [ibid.]

This perspective on the elements suggests how the total range of possible ethnic significations to be found in Niño’s book may be somewhat obscured by his overt focus on love and sensual exploration. The title poem portrays and perhaps is a “clever little victory” of love and poetry over “finite bodies,” over maps which are “no longer needed,” over alienation and language (“hardly a word exchanged) and over time and death itself as we leave the lovers “breathing in the light” (15). “Veiled Night” presents an exploration “tender to/ the coarseness/ of uncertainty/ hidden within/ the night” (10)—an uncertainty that reaches some kind of resolve in the daybreak of “Mist” and then the “late morning hour” of the title poem. In “Colors of Time,” the morning sun transforms the walls into “a mural of suggestions,” as a “circus of light” strikes the lovers’ bodies “with colors of time” (17). In “Untitled,” the lover recites German words of love to his “dreaming señorita” which have never sounded more Spanish as they do on her sleeping brow (20). Is the señorita Latina, or is the poet “latinizing” a German woman here, a gypsy (is she really?) in “Rimbaud in Evanston,” and so on? So it follows that Niño’s “Phantom Fraülein,” so “insane with desire to travel,” the “spring board” of the poet’s “mania/ Drenching all reason/ Leaving [him] panting,/ Wanting and Blind” (21), may be German or she may be Latina, just as the señorita of “Untitled” may have been who knows what? In “Sleep Hermosa,” Spanish lends the deepest intimacy to the loved one in whom “the center holds/ the climate of [the] hour” (16).

“Mist” would seem to be the richest and yet most ambiguous poem in this intimate sequence. Here light and seed answer night and infertility. An “ancient navigation” brings the lover to a “nocturnal port,” searching for the loved one, the lover becomes “foliage/ Turned to vine.” Surprisingly, the lover says, “Unlike a seed in the wind/ I have “not travelled far/ To have landed” in the loved one’s “fertile soil.” The ambiguous syntax of the final verse evokes a “bowing to the sun/ Awaiting the harvest.” The poem seems traditionalist in seeing the woman as land to be planted. But there is no specificity of he or she, of gender or even species: the traditional imagery may be recoded by an equally traditional inversion, in which the intimate represents relations with nature, and the alienated urban dweller returns to earth. It would seem that the “ancient navigation” of love has cut the vast distance separating humans from each other and the earth, the vast distance separating the urban “pocho” from Mexican or any fertile space, the Mexicano from the non-Latin woman.

Chicago’s horrendous winters recur in several poems. In “February on Eighteenth Street,” we see lovers taking a winter walk through the heart of Chicago’s most recognizable Mexican barrio (formerly an Eastern European enclave), holding hands as they stare with longing at a map of Mexico in a store window, and the poet’s companion recalls her days in San José del Cabo, so distant in time and in space from a Chicago in which “obstinate shadows” and a “current of dying” are incapable of overcoming the “lovers’ communion … within the chill [in] that season of ice.” In another February evocation, “The Sun Was Out”, “a wayward breeze/from the Golf of Mexico” sends the poet to Chicago’s lakefront, where, with “a sundial/ marking time, looking east,” he hears dogs bark and watches children, adults and lovers, as “Winter’s ice [is] melting” (24). Then in “Dead Yellow Flowers,” the poet again bemoans Chicago’s wintry springs and learns from a compadre that a mutual “vato” friend’s declaration that he’ll move to Texas “con la raza ese!” is just a February ritual to keep him going. The compadre fills the poet’s “pinche apartamento” with flowers, attempts to bring air and color to the poet’s life and, it would seem, his art.

“The poems that touch on Latino themes just come out,” Niño says. However ambiguous or apparently slight, the Latino references in his work are no accident; they bring color, life and depth to his poems, providing them with dynamic tension, with possibilities for new subjective identifications. It would certainly require the most complex extrapolations to bring out Latino dimensions in several of his poems. In “Rimbaud in Evanston,” we might ask why should a Chicano heterosexual poet identify with a gay French poet who abandoned his great poetic gifts to become a slave runner? In “My Digression,” the maps, grafitti, and apple picking seem untouched by migrant, barrio or farmworker associations.

We would have to go far to make home refer to Mexico or Atzlán in his pantheistic “Forest Echoes”; we would be at a loss to find Mexican reference in “Sailor’s Thoughts,” where the writer could rather easily refer to pre-Conquest Mexico as well as to Venice—but doesn’t. We would have to explain the weather references in “October” and so many poems already cited in function of a nostalgia for warm weather Atzláns or San José del Cabos. So promising a title like “People like Me” heads a poem involving a confrontation with death in the street that seems to stir no Chicano or Latino connection at all, even when touching on early school memories or Vietnam. And how are we to make ethnic allusions out of “Untitled,” in which every day life and (implicitly) such matters as ethnic culture and identity are negated in a fantasy of pure being, as the poet wishes to be “as calm as snow” (35)? And then, what about his most-cited fantasy, “Ten-Second Romance”?:

I was reading
I looked up
I saw her
I fell in love
We made love
We got married
We had children
Something went wrong
We got divorced
I looked down
I kept on reading

Surely we can point to “inverse ethnic relations”: the poet who dreams of throwing off the burden of race and class, the poet whose disenchantment is all the greater because of his rootedness in a culture marked by Quixote, in a culture of sun, earth, sky and spirit, in a conservative culture involving norms of marriage, stability and even arranged as opposed to chance relationships, a poet who sees all and even whose turn toward eastern religion, comes at least in part as a reaction to his cultural norms being distorted, thwarted or denied by contemporary Anglicized urban life; a poet whose ethnic experiences of discrimination and marginalization have given him some sense of negative anticipation. Perhaps in the long run such perspectives on Niño’s first volume speak to a core beyond the most direct and fully developed Mexicano/Chicano emphases tied to his negative memories of Monterrey, his song of immigrant protest (“Hijos de la Malinche”) and his poem on language itself (“Querido lenguaje mío”) are more interesting than ones stemming from the most directly Mexican/Chicano poems of his text.

“Monterrey Sketches” is a four-part prose-poem meditation not so much on his city of birth, but on his attitudes about this city he loves and hates so acutely. In the first part, the core basis of his ambivalence rings forth, for this is the city where his mother is seduced watching Marlon Brando’s Sayonara, and is later to be the “woman whose future was becoming solitude.” In part II, the poet remembers Monterrey’s dry winds and sulphureous factories, the shantytowns and “sad buses that carry the hungry into more hunger”—far from any Mexican paradise, any subject of warm nostalgia. “When I turn to you there is no poetry,” he writes in prose. If we wonder at the lack of full flown Mexican affirmation in Niño’s writing, we are finding major reasons right here. Tellingly, he says,

I am filled with rage because I have no other means of expression towards you other than meanness. I know that you are ambivalent, what’s another expatriate to you? But remember this, though I may be far away, I will always make room for you, between my pain and happiness. [30]

But how much room, what kind of room? Part III deals with the poet crossing “borders backwards into memory.” He evokes his mother’s crossings, himself as “sleeping contraband tight to her breast.” He remembers his one meeting with his father at age 10—their “first and only conversation.” The father gives him some change, tells him to “be good.” Part IV refers to dreams of Monterrey, of a green mountain and the dog people who 

wandered south to the valley, long before the tribes became nations, long before stones were chiseled into pyramids and calendars, long before the sun became ravenous for beating hearts, long before the bearded ones on horses begot my people. [32]

The poet evokes the lights of the city, the rains, the factories, the card-board houses, “the mural of muted color and awful beauty” he sees when (quite often, it would seem) he dreams of Monterrey.

In “Hijo de la Malinche,” the poet affirms his “American” identity. But is he defining the term as most Anglos would have it? Indeed, years before Proposition 187, he is intent on reminding his “fellow Americans,” that “We are all immigrants/ fallen from the same sky/onto a land claimed/ long before Columbus.” He affirms his mestizo origins, but does the Malinche reference euphemize or deny his designation as “hijo de la chingada?”—something confirmed in the Monterrey poem. Quite defiantly he argues, “La historia de mi raza/ is older than this colonized nation/ my blood runs in rivers/ no border can divide,/ in me oppressor and oppressed/ drink from the same cup.” He goes on to point to the taking of Mexican lands, and concludes by reaffirming that all those of the Americas are Americanos, and he more than most: (America!/ If I am illegal,/ then we are all illegal!

In this same poem, Niño says that his ancestors passed onto him “the language of the sun in an immigrant’s voice.” And there is no doubt that Niño’s English is marked by his original and partially lost Spanish—from whence the solemnity and formality of his tone and form, the limited number of contractions, the twists and turns of a syntax the poet must use without a sure hold. Caught between languages, he devotes a whole poem, in which the images of light and seed are linked to words and come back to express his perhaps richest sense of Latino identity. Even the question of identity is posed here in Spanish: ¿Quién soy yo?” he asks at the start of his poem. He’s not a piñata waiting for a blind swipe,” he says, but “maíz,” “frijoles,” “pulque,” the smell of “velas” used in prayer. And here the “Hijo de la Malinche” speaks of his language as his mother:

Querido lenguaje,
soy tu hijo
alone on these English leaves of grass,
my blood refusing to thicken
through this syntax of amnesia
the texture of my voice
clings to you,
from song to silence
in hushed communications
through the din of assimilation.

He listens to the all the languages descended from Babel,

“the original Word corrupted/
tossed into the melting pot/
bribed to forget.” 

And he tells his beloved mother tongue, that though some of her sons have forgotten her and some never knew “the quality of her intonations,/ you are the mirror/ I the tone that sinks into you.

Then, triumphantly, doing his all now to master the Spanish with which he is so insecure: 

Esta es noche y
la voz nos dio la luz
tú eres la tierra y
mis palabras las semillas. [45]

Logically this poem linking the poet’s relation to his mother, his mother language, his adopted country and his expressive identity should culminate this first book of a poems by a young writer finding his way. The fact that the book actually concludes with a rather unfocused poem, “Zeb and His Mistress,” raises some questions about the young poet’s capacity for self-criticism, but also about his ultimate attitude toward Mexican themes in his work. Ironic allusions to “conquistadores” and “Atzlán” in a poem about a dog seen as the “legitimate inheritor/ to a race of chiefs” hardly reinforce or point to deep ethnic commitments and identifications. And indeed, since publishing Breathing Light, Niño has been asked to write specifically ethnic and “raza” poems in the line of “Hijo de la Malinche” and he admits he’s sometimes been tempted, especially when he’s had difficulty finding themes. He had even embarked on a whole volume on Mexican identity, The Flowery War, based on Aztec campaigns and struggles. But, he says,

the materials were not serious enough to me. Poetry is truth to me, I can’t sit down and write a dishonest poem. I destroyed these poems because they were not true to me. I was trying to be the Mexican poet living in the U.S. I don’t want to abandon the project, but I didn’t know enough to write about it. My trip to Mexico helped: the visit to Trotsky’s house, Tenochtitlan and other places. But I need to go back again, with more time. I want to go to Veracruz, the birth city of my father, to Laredo, to Corpus, now as an adult, as a writer…



[1] Unless otherwise noted, personal details in this part of the essay are based on interview sessions with Niño during the summer of 1994.

[2] For a consideration of ranchero individualism as a distinct Mexican identity important in understanding at least a sector Chicago’s Mexican population, see Farr, 2006.


Raúl Niño and Poetic Explorations (Part II)

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes. Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature in El BeiSMan, and has recently published his third and fourth books of fictionLa penisola non trovata (a version to appear in English as The Italian Daze and Lines on the Border). Moorpark, CA. Floricanto Press 2017.


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