Book review and interview with Ire’ne Lara Silva, poet and author based in Austin, Texas
Recently, we at Xica Nation had the opportunity to read Cuicacalli / House of Song by Ire’ne Lara Silva, renown poet and author based in Austin, Texas. We had the pleasure of interviewing Ire’ne about this full collection of poetry, her own story, and the poetic journey she embarked on to document indigenous MeXicanx life in the borderlands. Below is the interview, followed by our official review of the book.
Interview with Ire’ne Lara Silva
What is your name? How do you identify? Where are you from/at?
My first identity is indigena. That is the truest thing. Everything after that is a compromise, is a way of connecting to the communities I belong to. Mexicana de este lado next. Then Tejana. Then Xicana. I’m fine with Chicana, with Latina, with Mexican American. Hispanic is not my preference, but I remember claiming it when I was eight years old and it was all I had to counter the kids who called me wetback.
I was born in Texas. My parents were born in Texas. One of my grandparents was Huichol from the area around San Luis Potosi. My mother said we were part Comanche, part other nations, but those names and the specific ties are lost. I am the product of generations of Texan-Mexicans who were ashamed of their indigenous heritage and sought to erase it every way they could.
I wasn’t born in the Rio Grande Valley, but it’s the space that most inhabits my imagination. I’ve lived in Austin for the past twenty years, but to me Austin is still part of la frontera, of the border. I am always a border dweller. The border and the river and my awareness of them always name who I am. When the border lives in you, I don’t think it matters where you live. When the land lives in you, it doesn’t matter where you go. They’re always with you.
What was your prayer/intention/vision behind Cuicacalli: House of Song?
The great majority of the poems came in a rush—I’ve never written a book of poetry—a book of anything—the way I wrote Cuicacalli. I had no intention of writing a collection of poetry last year. 2018 was supposed to be the year I was going to finish my first novel. Instead I found a torrent of poems bursting out of me. All of these questions and ideas that had preoccupied me greatly over the last decade and more were all clamoring to be articulated. And so I think of Cuicacalli as a gift. As a moment that coalesced because I was ready to listen and ready to speak.
The intention of all of my work is to heal. To heal myself. To model healing. To begin a discussion about healing. More and more it’s also about what comes after the wound, after the healing. How do we speak strength into being? How do we recognize our power and live in it? How do we connect heart to body to soul to others in a way that honors who we are and what we come from? What does it mean to acknowledge our indigeneity—not only as a part of our history or our culture or our aesthetics….but in real time, in our very real bodies, in our lives? What does that acknowledgment mean to how we live and think and create? What does it mean to our spirits to not deny what we know about who we are? And not that we know it because of history books or our family stories, but what the truth we know in our bodies, in our bones, about who we are and our connection to this land and our connection to each other? For all the knowledge and names that have been denied us—what do we name what remains in us?
I needed to speak to all of this. Because we have centuries of shame to shed. Because we cannot deny the truth of who we are. Because to deny our indigeneity is to deny the knowledge of our own healing. What our Xicanx/Chicanx/Mexican-American culture understands about healing comes from the part of it that is indigenous. What connects us to other is shared indigeneity.
The central vision for Cuicacalli is that it is a space for existing in indigeneity when you do not have the proof, the documentation, the names, the specific history that the U.S. would require to name us Native. It is a space in which I attempted to show the unity of what is perceived to be disparate parts. It is a space, a house, of song that never surrenders, never relents, never goes silent. I wanted to say, we are song and we are the singing. I wanted to say remember this.
Who is the audience you were thinking of when you wrote Cuicacalli?
I hope that everyone, anyone can find something that speaks to them. But with every book, I always think of what Toni Morrison said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
So I started there, and as always, figure that if I needed it, then there had to be somebody else that also needed it. Last spring, I read and visited a class at the University of Oklahoma at the kind invitation of Dr. Kimberly Wieser. While there, I met Dr. Gabriela Rios and Amanda Cuellar. Conversations with the three of them helped me to feel that there really was an underlying coherence to this collection of poems that had to do with spirit, with indigeneity, with identity/history/community, and personal experience. And also, that I wasn’t the only one working through these ideas.
For me, to think of audience is to think of specific people. My brother, first and foremost, always. Who always understands what I want to say and who knows how to push me so that I come closer to saying it. For this book, Kim and Gabi and Amanda were always in my mind’s front row. Because I felt that these poem, this book, would matter to them. From there to my community of poets. And then outward and outward, to whoever was willing to listen.
I wrote the book as who I am, a queer indigena Xicanx Latina born of Texas, born of the Americas. Ultimately, I wrote this for anyone willing to listen.
Why did you feel it was important to describe and put words to your/our connection to the land in this book?
It would be impossible to count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m from. And I’ve been asked by all kinds of people who have assumed whatever they’ve wanted to about who I am. Asked by people who followed that question with more questions—as if they doubted my answer.
So many assumptions especially that I must be foreign. Even immigrants assume I’m an immigrant. But Texas/Tejas is my land. This is my land. I don’t have any other home. This is my land. This earth is my flesh. This sky, this everything is part of who I am. For many reasons, I am not what people imagine when they think Texan. But that is what I am. I grew up speaking Spanish even though my parents were born here. I grew up in an indigenized form of Catholicism. That was the only form of Catholicism we knew. I grew up with the understanding that Americano meant white people. And that we were Mexicanos de este lado. Mexicans on this side of the river. And so Mexicanos was never about nationality. It was about identity. It was about being indigenous and brown-skinned.
My parents were farmworkers and then migrant truckdrivers. They followed the harvest seasons in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, driving produce from the fields to the processing plants. Every year, we followed the same cycle of crops, drove the same roads, worked the same land. It left me feeling that I had many homes, that the roads knew me as well as I knew them, that I could wake up anywhere and recognize instantly where I was.
I don’t know who or what we are as people when we feel disconnected from the land. When the land is no part of who we are or how we live. Land is home and solace and my reflection.
What was your prayer/intention/vision behind “Walking the Chupacabra”?
“Walking the Chupacabra” was an accidental poem. I am rarely ever inspired by prompts, but I saw a FB post from my friend, the poet Deborah Miranda, about how she’d started calling her skinny, bat-eared German Shepherd “Chupacabra.” Her wife asked her one morning if she was going to walk the chupacabra. Deborah offered this up as a poem prompt, and I was so taken by this I wrote something on the spot. It took several revisions to get it to its final form. It surprised me in many ways. I hadn’t known the idea/metaphor would provide me with a vehicle that could carry so much. That it could speak to the constant dread and fear, the low/medium/high-level of tension, that we live in every moment. For the destructive capacities of the world, within and without. For the compromises of action and conscience we negotiate in order to be safe. For what we feed and house when we would rather much run as fast as possible in the other direction. And the fact that all of these things we do to live with violence, oppression, colonization, racism, homophobia, poverty, etc. are all performed in public, in plain view of other people. Many of them walking their own chupacabras. The thing is, most of them choose to believe they’re only walking dogs. How many of us are willing to be conscious of all the ways we are endangered—and all the ways we are complicit?
Why did you choose poetry as your vehicle to deliver the messages woven into Cuicacalli?
I write in multiple genres because each genre gives me unique opportunities to focus on different issues and process them in different ways. I always go to poetry when I need to articulate what is happening in my heart, in my almacuerpomentecorazon. I needed the concentrated language and the freedom of space in poetry to work out what I wanted to say about song and the way it lives in me, the way it lives in us.
When/where can folks buy your book and support your work?
CUICACALLI/House of Song will be officially released on April 2, 2019. You’ll find it everywhere online—Amazon and indie booksellers— or at your local bookstore (please ask them to order it if they don’t have it!). I’ll have early copies on hand at the book release in Austin on March 23, 2019 and in San Antonio on March 26, 2019.
Official book review by Iris Rodriguez
Cuicacalli: House of Song is a breath of fresh air to the decolonizing Xicanx / Mexican American and Tejanx soul.
She dances on the thread between the present and the past, the lingering deep connection between the body and the land that sits at the forefront of the Texanx/MeXicanx psyche – a bond to a simultaneous indigenous past and present that that multiple waves of colonization could not sever.
Her poetry reaches far back to connect to an indigenous tongue and language that has been ripped out of our mouths.
As she gracefully moves across and through “the river” and through Texas landscapes, her words walk inside and beside the shadows of the physical and metaphorical borderlands, naming and poetically describing the psychological and genetic connection and disconnection between the land, the ancestors, and the colonized.
Her poem, “Walking the Chupacabra” stands out as one of the most terrifying and pungent pieces of the collection. This piece puts into words the way in which those inside of the confines of American colonization are psychologically trapped into keeping it alive and perpetuating it forward to continue feeding off human blood.
She evokes and brings to the forefront the current and historical genocide against indigenous peoples, and reminds us that the enslaved Central American children are a result of the same settler system. She reminds us of our connections to the land, ourselves and each other.
In her final piece, written in one breath, she courageously writes that “we cede nothing. forget nothing. the voices are here. the voices are with us. within us.” The voices she speaks of can be heard in the minds and hearts of Xicanx/MeXicanx Tejanx peoples who are aware of their time and place as original peoples of the land inside the belly of the American beast and side of the river. Her final closing evokes a sense of both wailing and canto, a song with “all the voices of the universe singing at once” that defiantly stands firm in both the pain and persistence of her/our existence.
“this is a house of song and in this house of song singing does not end the singing does not end the singing does not end the singing does not end the singing does not end the singing does not end the singing does not end the song never ends.”