In a world consumed by curated appearances, Jacqueline Balderrama sheds light on the disconcerting reality. Now in Color (Perugia Press, 2020), Balderrama’s newest poetry collection, speaks of life as a transplant, a speaker who has left their homeland and immigrated to the United States, and all that comes with it. Through a blend of culture, history, and reflection, Balderrama moves the reader through a life of contradiction, an existence lived as one and portrayed as another. The collection is sectioned off in poems built from Spanish words and defined through their connection to the theme: “oscuro”, “relato”, “salvaje”, “sonar”, “rueda”, “cenote”, “arroyo”, “criatura”, “huerta”, “estela”, “hablar”, “panza”. Littered with references to beloved film representations of Mexican life and culture and the Latine stars that have found fame in the United States, Balderrama tackles the tension between fact and fiction when supplanted narratives become popular.
Balderrama opens the collection with “Now in Color”, which immediately strips reality down to its bare bones: “Agents dress us in the terms of their casting calls— / anonymous beneath the sombrero, or fiery Latina, or gardener, / or alien, or drug lord.” She calls upon the repeated stereotypes used for Latine characters in media, emphasizing the erasure of their humanity in word choice such as “their casting calls” and “anonymous”. From this first poem, Balderrama establishes the themes of dehumanization and erasure that are central throughout the collection. Her illustration is masterful in its simplicity, contrasting two dissimilar images while emphasizing their disparity. “The television like an escape portal streams color / through undraped windows. / But inside we are still here”. While their lives exist on television, on the news, sensationalized for public consumption, Balderrama reminds us of the voyeuristic implications of such, of the people that exist between the curtain that has been created to eclipse the brute dehumanization taking place underneath.
In “Mexico as Mexico, 1914”, Balderrama expands on this tension, with references to The Life of General Villa and The Birth of a Nation, films that take on the Mexican Revolution and United States’ enslavement of Black people during Lincoln’s presidency. The speaker says, “for The Life of General Villa, except the bullets are real / and there’s nothing special about effects.” This juxtaposition is jarring for the reader, as Balderrama rips the veil away and offers up the reality of the Mexican Revolution during 1914. The tension created between life and art, stories made for movie screens and the chilling dose of actuality, is the strength of this collection. Balderrama recontextualizes these works of historical fiction, presenting them alongside their factual counterparts, to illustrate the humanity that is erased in translation. This contrast highlights the performance element that exists in films of historical fiction. While they pull from real life events, the artistry is often given power to eclipse reality and present a false narrative to the public.
“Fragmented Apology, 2006” takes on the Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program. Balderrama experiments with form and style to create dissonance throughout the piece, where the use of enjambment lives up to the poem’s title as “fragmented”. The cut-offs are purposeful in tone and mood as they express the disjointedness of the repatriation program, the confusion, fear, and loss that swept over hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans who were targeted. The speaker contrasts the imagery of the vans lying in wait with the one of children at school: “In raids / hundreds at La Placita Park / detained / for papers / vans idling in the peripheries / while their children at school / wait”. The ominous image of vans waiting to detain and deport functions in tension with the innocent image of schoolchildren, underscoring the shock and terror that this created for Mexican families in the United States.
Balderrama draws strength from her use of language. Her poems appears simple yet comprehensive, where each word feels carefully chosen to elucidate meaning beyond what is literally said. Her use of Spanish weaves nicely into the collection to situate the words in a cultural and personal context. For example, in “Spanish Language Film House, 1930s”, the lyrics, “Sueño con el pasado que añoro, / el tiempo viejo que lloro y que nunca volverá” are used to convey feelings of loss and longing for the past. The italicization of these lines, contextualized with the rest of the italics in the poem, indicate that Balderrama uses Spanish to evoke emotion, and English to reference American pop culture, such as “Hollywood”, “James Garner”, and “Edmond O’Brien”. Balderrama’s choice to switch between Spanish and English speaks to a larger message: of defining this life of adjustment, struggling to acclimate around preconceived notions, and calling out pop culture that the majority would be familiar with in order to ground the reality of assimilation. Ultimately, this use of language illustrates the way immigration to the United States symbolizes a loss of language and culture as American pop culture takes over. Balderrama’s poetry is visceral in its juxtaposition between appearance and reality, powered by media references that are redefined through the many that have suffered due to TV and film exaggeration and stereotypes. Above all, Balderrama’s poetry colors the experiences trapped behind movie screens, the ones that have been wrung dry for their riches and then forgotten due to the optics of their authenticity.
Neha Peri holds a BA in English from Rutgers University. In her senior year, she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the university’s oldest literary magazine, The Anthologist. While at Rutgers, she also tutored for the Rutgers Writing Program, completed internships with the Rutgers English Department and the University of Mississippi Press, and wrote an honors thesis. Her work has been featured in The Anthologist. Currently, she works as an intern at Princeton University Press.
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