Mount Vernon High School (MVHS) and Kenyon College students came together on Dec. 1 to present Living Latino Literature at the Mount Vernon Public Library. Part of a larger “Living Literature” project to discuss texts by contemporary Latino writers, the event featured poems by Latino poets Eduardo Corral, Richard Blanco, Juan Felipe Herrera and Pedro Pietri. Kenyon and MVHS students collaborated to present each poet.
Living Latino Literature was designed to unite Gambier and Mount Vernon residents as well as Americans of all ethnicities. In addition to presenting the texts, student presenters also discussed their own experiences with cultural differences at Kenyon and MVHS. Many of them spoke about their limited exposure to Latinx culture, and how reading these poems has helped give them a broader understanding of immigrant life.
Blanco’s “America,” one of the featured poems, describes Blanco’s childhood as a Cuban-American immigrant in the 1950s and 1960s. Presenters discussed how the poem portrayed Blanco’s childhood isolation, which stemmed from the cultural differences between his family and the white families around him. “America” contains lines about Blanco’s family and their traditions that further differentiate Cuban culture from American culture. One line read, “We didn’t live in a two story house/ With a maid named Alice/ Like the Brady Bunch.” The speakers explained that Blanco felt alienated by traditional ideas about the American family.
The next presentation turned to Herrera’s book, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border. Herrera is the first Latino-American poet laureate, a position he ascended to in 2015. The presentation was focused on his poem “Mexican Differences Mexican Similarities.” Like Blanco’s work, this poem focuses on the alienation that immigrants face due to cultural differences. Lines such as as, “You chew tobacco we chew cacti,” reinforce this theme in his work.
The final poem read at the event, Corral’s “Immigration and Naturalization Service Report #46,” is meant to sound like a border patrol service report regarding the discovery of a corpse by two patrolmen. The presenters explained that the poem’s ambiguity and brevity are due to perceptions about how border patrol operates. When finding the corpse, one patrolman in the poem says, “This guy had it nice, sleeping on a pelt for days.”
Before reading the poem, the students displayed an image of the U.S.-Mexico border and asked viewers which side is America. Most people in the crowd assumed it was the urban side on the right, but it was the desolate left side that belongs to America. This slide and the poem that accompanied it were both criticisms of the government’s handling of immigration issues.
The speakers focused on contemporary poetry relevant to current social issues regarding immigration. The students also shared their own thoughts and opinions on the poems. The Kenyon and MVHS students held similar views on the poems, and they used them to describe the difficulties of immigration and assimilation. The presenters were sympathetic towards the struggles immigrants face and chose poetry meant to elicit sympathy from listeners.