Valentín Sandoval is a true son of the frontera, this US/Mexico borderland of the Juárez and El Paso area. The opposite of the often repeated lament of a Chicano, ni de aquí y ni de allá, “neither from here nor from there,” he is unequivocally from both sides of the border. In Sandoval’s hands, his two cities and his land become as vivid as any character drawn by a skilled novelist. Imagery shimmers under the glaring sun. The air is filled with redolence of cilantro and creosote. The music of corridos, the bounce of basketballs on pavement, the eeriness of dogs barking in moonlit nights resound throughout the book. Each poem reflects that reality, provided in both Spanish and English.
The book’s first poem sets the context for Sandoval’s bi-national life experience, like that led by a majority of people here, with El Paso and Juárez separated only by a river. This poem explains that Sandoval’s mother crossed the river into the United States, risking her life because of the desperation causing most immigrants to leave Mexico for the US, “for the opportunity/to fulfill her desire, her dreams.” That first poem also introduces themes of the poet having been born of this landscape with its prickly nopales, chiseled mountains, and earth baked by a brutal sun, the indivisibility of El Paso and Juárez, both “bathed in the/dry peach orange sunset” of the Chihuahua Desert, and the overwhelming prevalence of death.
The poetry is unambiguously grounded in the land and culture of the frontera, the borderlands of Juárez/El Paso, and the people Sandoval writes about are the gente of the frontera, the mestizaje, people with roots in Mexico, la raza cosmica combining the Spanish Catholic and Mestizo Indian shamanic traditions. Yet these poems also speak to the immigrant culture of the US as a whole. The mother Sandoval writes about could be any immigrant whose husband died leaving her with young children to support, whether Mexican, Irish, Italian, Slavic, European or Mediterranean Jews, or any other group who sought a better life in the US and who had to overcome the stigma and challenges of being “other” than the dominant culture. While representing the historic immigrant experience, the collection is still an autobiographical cycle of poetry, bookended by two poems, each called “India.” While some might translate the word as “Indian” or “indigenous,” Sandoval has explained that his mother used “India” to express an awareness of self as disconnected from acceptable or dominant cultural mores, while yet being empowered and recognizing the beauty found within that marginalization.
Sherman Ascher Publishing, Santa Fe 2014
Many poems in the collection praise the poet’s mother, and other Mexican mothers she symbolizes, whose lives are sacrificed to a harsh and demanding work world in order to provide their families food and shelter. As in most families, however, Sandoval’s parent is more complex than a saintly maternal figure. “Open Range” describes egregious neglect and abuse, a child locked out of the house in the rain both cold and hungry, and being beaten with a leg from a broken table that “left the body/patched with red stains/. . ./as the blows tore my skin,/where I stored/the burning fury/of each strike.” The last poem of the collection, also named “India,” clarifies that Sandoval’s love of his mother, as of this harsh and dangerous land, is not merely a form of nostalgia. He describes a confrontation in which he asks why she had beat him so cruelly, leaving him with a “darkness” that “shrouds” his memories with anger, which he was forced to sublimate to grow to find success beyond the hardships of the desert and the poverty and violence that plague the streets of his two cities.
While imperfect, the mother Sandoval describes in his poems, like so many immigrant mothers, instilled the drive to achieve more than what might be predicted based on the socio-economic cards dealt at her children’s birth. The poem, “Seeking,” quoted here in full, succinctly and pointedly makes this point.
bleed in the deep dishwater
she’s been immersed in
for thirty years,
serving food to schoolchildren.
She used to tell me,
“My son, look at my hands,
so much time in dishwater,
imagine what you can accomplish
with your mind.”
Sandoval succeeded in fulfilling the dream that caused his mother to leave her country and cross that dangerous river. He became a successful and well-educated professional who does not have to toil with his body, but rather depends on his mind to attain his achievements. His success, while a result of his own talent and intellect, is still in large part a product of his mother’s desires for him. The poem “Grit” acknowledges “The tears of my mom/crying because the dream of life/had been ripped from her.//The past . . . almost broke her,/but still leaving deep inside/the smallest torch/to remind her children/of the light within the heavy darkness.” While Sandoval was left with no father to guide him, and does not have his own children, in “Concrete and Rain,” he has found a type of peace, “the night rain is my/forefather and my son.”
Like his devotion for his mother and the harsh yet beautiful landscape, Sandoval’s love for El Paso and Juárez is much more than mere nostalgia and is more complex, blackened as it is by the violence of the drug trafficking culture. He uses the neologism “narcopreneur” for the drug lords who make their millions both from the blood of low level drug dealers caught up in turf wars and the lives of those whose addictions are manipulated and fed by the contraband. The potential of young men is squelched by the truths of life described in “Young Refuge” as “a world premised/off the culture/of souls downtrodden/into the sociological/realms of hell.” In “Desert Cold Again,” Sandoval captures this tragedy and its symptoms: “Yet these young men,/with the broken hearts and spirits,/they arise from broken homes./Their bloody wounds of maimed romantics/caused them to move slower,/drinking became a twisted type of cathartic experience.”
Sandoval’s life, like so many people here, has been haunted by death, beginning with fathers who die before they have the chance to father, grandparents die leaving their children and grandchildren bereft, friends who die before becoming men, people who drown in the river crossing into the US. These deaths and resulting grief are found in poem after poem in the collection. In “Shrub,” the poet reflects this truth, saying “that/death comes like a sunrise and sunset.” In the same poem, the poet reminds us that this community comprises laborers “plowing,/picking, sewing, building.” The life of the working class is inarguably punishing and takes a toll in physical pain and abbreviated life spans. Yet in the prose ending of his final poem, Sandoval speaks of “benevolent sunrays . . . made tender through the layers of diffusing the heat and pain, that would devour our existence otherwise . . . to bring about this sublime lucidity.” This poet’s ability to recognize beauty in a dangerous and austere world, his soulfulness of writing, are the foremost strengths of South Sun Rises. No doubt Sandoval’s reputation will continue to grow and his voice will be heard far beyond the borderlands he loves so well.
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Believing that to give voice is an inherently political act, Donna Snyder offers free, weekly writing workshops through the Tumblewords Project which she founded in 1995. Until recently, she worked as an activist attorney on behalf of indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with disabilities. Snyder has read her work in Alaska, Boston, New York City, Colorado, Los Angeles, and throughout Texas and New Mexico. In 2014, Chimbarazu Press released her collection Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal and Virgogray Press reissued her 2010 chapbook, I Am South, as a paperback book. Three Sides of the Same Moon is due from NeoPoiesis Press in 2015. She is a contributing poetry editor for Return to Mago.