Land: Tierra

I want to write about tierra, which means soil or earth to my people, maybe dirt, or land, which, in turn, means something very precise and precious.

By writing, I tell the world I am a brown man. Where I am from. What I am. Not boxes to mark some form, but blood knowledge, what has passed to me and through me, what I pass along. A knowing that comes from having my hands in dirt and nopales, from knowing wind in my mouth, the feel of it pushing my teeth. A knowing that hums from pain in my ear, from learning to burn a cone rolled of newspaper, the pointy grey tip perched inside me for air. Yes, we eat the smoke like we eat a plate of root, a bowl of stomach, a corn husk filled with manteca and deer.

Inside each of us there is a story only we can tell.

Am I allowed to write in another voice, a voice not belonging to a brown queer man? Of course. Of course. But do I want to? Why would I want to shed the skin of my voice, deny it its magic?

It’s the fact a story doesn’t have teeth and a heartbeat and eyes that open to look forward or over its back, that’s how its truer than anything I can make with my hands. Some days, there really is only enough space and time for true things.

Yesterday, I wrote about cotton. About the fields near the little town I am from on the South Texas coast where I spent many afternoons staring at the orderliness of the rows, before the harvest, after, thinking what I would do with my life. Where would I go?

It is hard not to believe we are the centers of the universe, that what we say carries weight greater than air. We are Americans, after all, too.

From here, I can say I have my moments where a thing I write might be understood or embraced by people unlike me, and I will not disavow this connection. Everyday I am moved by something written by someone so unlike me. and Who am I to say my writing cannot move another?

But from here, I can also say there are things we write which are magic. Not everyone will wield this magic or is willing to suffer the work that allows it to fill the body like the very first fire, like the moon summoning all of her pieces, like the moans of trees. And if you do not believe in magic, then, perhaps that is because you have never had to.

The one thing no one will tell you when you pick up a pen is that you are not the center. The language in your head is not what everyone else in the world speaks. And after awhile, this may defeat you. After a while, you may want to adopt another tongue, or cut your own out, or be fine with the parts of it, your tongue, that have been cauterized or splintered off, worse. This may spur a great sadness inside you like a dirge or a well or maybe like a marvelous dragon or a hole full of magma, too.

Do you know the story of the first fire? Do you know the story about the mountain of knowing they burned when they got here? It’s the story I am telling you now. It’s the story of our bones, in them. It’s the story I light in the window, a long fat rope for a wick, my teeth and my fists and a wax made of coraje and words. Do you know how long a story made of forgetting can burn? How long a poem built of missing will smolder?

Even if a great many people reject your voice, even if you don’t craft what is popular or “necessary” or what writers like you should be writing to get published these days, write. That is, make things you find beautiful. Make them because they are yours. Make them because there is someone like you, out there, who needs to hear what you’re saying. This isn’t at all to say you can’t learn, that you should be satisfied only by what you are making today. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t craft better and read and listen and talk, which means we will have to learn to differentiate between a solid, fair critique of work and a critique rooted in bullshit like white supremacy and stereotype and classism and patriarchy. Not everyone has to do this work. But you do.

Of course, in the meantime, I am humbled. Think of the thousands of people in the world who also have things to say about life but cannot. Why don’t they write? Why don’t they just pick up a pencil and tell it like it is? I assure you not everyone is as lazy or checked-out as the machine would like us to believe. As much as writing saves your life, as much as writing is not a luxury, it is a privilege to have time to sit at a table or have books or a computer or to know another poet like you. Some people are just trying to survive. Some people do not have our luxuries.

Once, I asked God what he thinks about poetry, and He sighed. I am okay with a sigh. It’s air He’s giving us. Even a laugh. And so I am okay with a laugh like I am okay with rolled eyes and journals and gatekeepers that do not believe in our voices. All fire needs a little air in order to breathe.

But when I think of joy and when I think of power, I call to la tierra, to the people who are home, to ancestors both passed and those who have yet to be born. Some days I find myself very alone even when I am at a grocery store or the gym or at home, with my dogs, because there are people who should still be here and are not. I will spend all my life listening for them to call back. Perhaps this is the story I am telling. Over and over again.

In other words we can write brownness without using Spanish or la Virgen and calaveras, without conjuring a great grey stone molcajete and a kitchen whose comal burns hot enough to fire up all the brownness in our hearts. We choose. We are born. Sometimes, the brownness we write is loneliness is Love is a cyborg in a desert trying to undie his lover while the forces launch their torpedoes, their renegade harpoons, their bombs. Sometimes, the brownness we build is a horse in a lake or a grandfather upholding a great field on his dark shoulders as blue-winged crows pick at the seeds in his ears.

Perhaps you are like me. Or perhaps you are rolling your eyes. Perhaps you have found yours, that tierra, the people with whom kinship is not blood-bond but blood-thought, the symmetry of ideas about Love and justice and kindness and who we are and who we are not, what we need to be doing to kindle goodness in the world’s fires, to keep them stoked and glowing and forever. Perhaps we are of the same land, a million miles away, separated by rivers, split by mountains, or a hundred miles, a whole city, a thousand little towns bound only by water and air and soil and trees.

And now, it comes to this: the decision of to whom we speak. Some people don’t have to decide this, as it has been decided for us, their voices automatically privileged with the belief to speak to every man, woman, child, even if they don’t, not really, because in this world, some pens are born with authority. Others of us, we have to decide. Others of us, we intervene. So do I write for a people that may not understand what I say and why? Do I write to make my mothafuckin feria? Do I write like a man I am not or the man I want to become? As for me, I write for my brothers and sisters yet to be born, who, in 500 years or in fifty or the next one to come, will look at our words, find pieces of themselves in who we were, who we are, who we are becoming.

By writing, I tell the world I am a brown queer man who believes in tierra. If you do not believe in magic, then, perhaps that is because you’ve never had to. Or maybe I should tell you there are others words for magic, which is difficult, because only you will be able to find those synonyms.

I once watched a little blue heron hold his body very still. In the salt marsh he did this. I must have been twelve. And then I was 36. I never knew it possible to hold one’s body so still. I never knew it possible to unlearn how I listen, to place my body on the shore like a part of the land—indivisible, inextricable.

Then comes a day when you hold a story in your hand or a poem or a letter, maybe a prize, and the door that is open pries open just enough to let one of you in. What do you do? Do you squeeze through without looking back? What kind of noise will you carry in your eyes as you run, crossing that threshold wearing red pain over your lashes and around your neck like a tie? Or will you walk in, quietly, courteously, take a seat and make no commotion, smile, just listen, just eat what you’ve been given? Do you share?

A whistle, an airhorn, a long anthem of gritos and beatboxes and accordions—whatever sound the land you’re in uses, listen. Its teeth sing of magic. As for me, I listen for owls and waterbirds, for conches and old howls. Because I am brown I listen to land. Because I am queer I listen to land. And I am no one to tell you what to do except to maybe love the tierra that you come from. By tierra I mean blood I mean language I mean fire I mean body I mean us.

Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016).  Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize. The short film “El Abuelo,” based on Jiménez’s poem, has been screened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, France, Argentina, Ireland, England, and the US. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops.  His writing has recently appeared in Entropy and Drunken Boat.