Navigating Chicana Identity Through Poetry
Sara Borjas, author of "Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff," on finding inspiration at home and building a Latinx community
When I began reading Sara Borjas’ debut collection of poetry, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff, I related to the way that she wrote about family, cycles of misogyny and abuse, and the struggle to find accountability and healing when conversations around these cyclical systemic problems are confined only to the page. This had been my experience for most of my life—that if those who hurt us won’t listen, then writing was the only way to grow, and heal. My grandmother Ines was an unpublished poet who wrote about her grief at losing her son in Vietnam, about my grandfather’s infidelities, and about the love she had for her children. I learned from her that sometimes writing poetry is the best means of survival.
I recognized in the poems the navigation of being Chicana, which means living as women of Mexican-American descent, but also the work Borjas does to use political Chicana discourse to reflect on the systems that would limit us. Even in her reclamation of the word “pocha,” referring to Chicanx peoples who don’t speak Spanish and who are thought to be disconnected from their Mexican culture, the poet illustrates that there is power in seeing oneself for who they are without judgement or shame.
Sara Borjas and I recently spoke about how writing about love, home, and the wounds that remain open like a broken window have helped her to claim an identity as a “pocha” poet that crosses boundaries and opens doors.
Leticia Urieta: I’d like to start by asking where this book, as a first collection, began for you?
Sara Borjas: I feel like this book had multiple beginnings. The first beginning was the questions I had about how to love people and what kind of love is healthy but also circumstantial. I was trying to investigate relationships with a boyfriend, with my parents, with other women and what is progressive. Part of this was understanding where I am at and how to move forward as an individual and as part of a community and a culture. When I started working on the book more seriously with Carmen Jimenez Smith and Blas Falconer, I began to ask myself, “what am I accountable for?” As a woman, as a Chicana woman, what am I accountable for in my actions and my own relationships, but also what am I capable of, what am I not capable of, and what can I ask others to do that is reasonable, given the circumstances? I telescoped in the further I went along.
LU: I think that does speak to what is naturally coming through in the book. In the epigraphs, you reference Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga, two writers who have addressed oppression in the lives of women of color. The quote from Cherrie Moraga, “Home is a place, for better or worse, we learn to love,” seems to speak to the struggles that this collection is in conversation with. Specifically, I was thinking of “We Are Too Big For This House,” which takes on one of the more experimental forms in the collection. Can you talk about how that poem, and others in the collection, address this contentious relationship with home?
SB: When Juan Felipe Herrera blurbed the book I found it interesting that he said,”it’s not nostalgia.” It’s a returning but not a returning. It’s coming through and saying what things really are. There’s a lot of coded language that we use in our familial homes that we use to protect each other but I think what we are ultimately protecting are these oppressive systems like Audre Lorde says.
When I think about going home in the book, or trespassing on my home, or going into my mother’s life or beyond her, it’s a way of showing respect to the struggle. That’s why I say that the first beginning of this book was a false beginning because I was not holding my home accountable and so the push and pull is necessary for clarity and respect, for accountability, and in the name of love. You have to go back to clean up each act you do. I wasn’t going back to say, “we’re all fucked up!” I was going back to see what happened to my mom and dad and what they are capable of confronting right now and moving forward from there. I’ve learned writing the book, and through therapy, that it is not beneficial to call someone out. Because of that, I think the push and pull of the collection is trying to find a way to evolve and be a better family, a better daughter and a better partner.
LU: Let’s talk about the word “pocha.” Mexican American and Chicanx folks often have a contentious relationship with the word “pocha” because it is often associated with shame. It comes up several times throughout the collection, including in “Pocha Cafe,” where being “pocha” is a label that is wrapped in shame, despite the realities of this identity. However, in “Pocha Heaven,” which I felt was a wonderful mirror of “Pocha Cafe,” that poem addresses the sexism that often goes unspoken in Mexican American homes. I wondered, what does being “pocha” mean to you as a poet?
SB: [Pocha] is the only identity that feels real. I wish it was a scholarly move that I was making, but it’s really the only reality that I have ever had and it is the closest word that I have to work with. When I started using it, I never did feel intense shame around it. The only reason I think that is is because the person who called me a “pocha,” was a friend who I loved, and for two years I never even knew what it meant. I didn’t speak Spanish well enough and I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant. When I finally learned what it meant I thought, “well, she’s not wrong.” In the moment it didn’t feel like shame because I knew that my friend loved me, and also because she’s kind of pocha. This is why I emphasize going back and examining things in my past so that I can reconfigure that foundation to go forward. When I do that with the word “pocha,” I consider that these are folks who were colonized, whose indigenous language was erased and replaced with the colonizer’s language, and now they are shaming me for not speaking what I think is the colonizer’s language. I am not ashamed of that. I’ve had to find ways to say that to people who are really proud to be Mexican, or who are proud to speak Spanish in a way that is respectful to them, but also to insist that they not shame me.
LU: Do you feel like that aids you as a poet?
SB: It aids me in that the only place that I feel comfortable is not knowing anything. I think that is a good thing for a poet in this stage of my life to know and accept. For so long, I was trying to say what I knew. Now, I reach younger poets and they are writing poems that are so self-righteous when in reality, they are bad poems, and I was writing bad poems too. The fact that “pocha” is such a place of nothing, of crossings and that is my root and identity as a poet makes me feel good. I’m always going to be looking-I’m never going to be confirming or affirming or satisfied with answers. As a poet, it is good to be pocha in that I am not idealizing craft, which I sometimes think is code for “whiteness,” and I am not rejecting it either, but rather I want to examine how these tools are being used. We have to turn them inside out and wield these tools that is more than mimicry.
LU: The speaker in several of the poems mourns the relationships with men that could have been. I really appreciated that there were several poems that did the opposite, or that illustrated the solidarity and protection that women can find with one another, such as in “Pocha Heaven” and “The Island of Raped Women.” Why was this something you were interested in addressing?
SB: I think that some of the poems, like “Imagined Variation on Order” and “Love Triptych” were from the first beginning. And so the poems about the relationships between the speaker and men were old ways to that I used to love people. As I wrote, and loved, I realized that there was such a power imbalance and imbalance in respect, not just between couples, but between friends and family. In Chicanx families, we value labor. If you are not putting in labor, you are not worthy of respect. I had to look at those relationships and what ideas they were rooted in so that I didn’t perform that way. I feel most validated when I am in a room with a bunch of women and they are not gaslighting you, but listening to. It wasn’t a conscious choice to balance those two conflicting sensibilities, but I think it was an organic evolution of insight that being with women creates.
LU: Some of these poems also imagine what it would be like to not have to worry about having relationships with men. One of the series of poems that I found most interesting in the collection were the Narcissus poems. Could you talk about why you gravitated towards this Greek myth and why you chose to feminize the character?
SB: I started thinking about self-annihilation in a class I took about Sufi mysticism and poetry with Reza Aslan. I was very interested in the idea of dying to become a true living being. Along the way, it reminded me of Narcissus. I imagined if Narcissus were a poet. Narcissus died because he thought he was so cute, but as poets we are always looking inward and I felt that when I had this introspection, parts of me were dying, such as ideas I had or the way I did things. And rightly so. I’m glad that I moved on. That’s why I gravitated towards that myth, and also because I was experimenting with making European stuff “pocha;” not mimicking it, but playing with gender and other elements of the story. I am not sure that Narcissus is a woman in these poems. I use the pronouns “she” but I have never been strictly feminine, and so I don’t think they are either. I’ve always been hard in a lot of ways and this always made me feel outside of women but also shared with women. I liked the idea of using a traditionally male character and feminizing him and not really having to choose. There’s a lot of Narcissus poems that didn’t make it into the book, but I also liked the idea that Narcissus gets stuck by seeing themself in water. In the myths, his mother is a river; talking about alcoholism, about dying in water, about this system that is continually flowing was very appealing to me. This was a device that I was able to use to reveal energy transfers that were already going on. Sometimes you choose a metaphor because it sounds cute, but sometimes it helps you see things you couldn’t see before.
LU: Mirrors and reflections come up a number of times in this collection, and also windows—which can be mirrors, but also doors. These motifs played a number of roles.
SB: When I think of where my poetic landscape is, I consider, “is it nature?” But no, it isn’t. My poetic landscape is the house. It’s the kitchen, the linoleum floor, the grout my mother can’t get clean. I’m not trying to change that. That’s why I like the organic flow of the Narcissus myth and the river as reflection, which does mirror the house, which is the landscape that I am most comfortable in. It expands the scope of the tensions happening through those doors, and through those openings.
LU: You have talked about how other poets have been instrumental to the development of your work. How has being a part of a poetic community like CantoMundo [an organization that supports Latinx poets] been important in shaping your work?
SB: I didn’t feel that I was doing anything real until I had people around me who won’t lie to you. CantoMundo is not a place where everyone goes to perform. Everyone is just trying to shed. So when you go into that space where everyone is shedding something, you are able to have exchanges that make you feel real, and like your most exposed self. Going to CantoMundo and talking with that group for writers was affirming for me. No one said, “go out there and write a book!” It was more like, “go out there and stop lying to yourself!” Everyone asks “what is your relationship to Latinidad?” I got to see a lot of different ways to be Latinx and that was very nurturing, and really empowering, especially because it is cross generational-some poets are older, younger, have no books, have ten books, from all over the place, and that range made me feel more possible.
Now I’m having a conversation with other Latinx poets to see how we can proliferate these resources to use what we gain from these spaces for others. I have been thinking about how, if we use tools of whiteness in the same way, then they will continue to function in the same way. Building community means to uplift our own people wherever we are.