Donna Snyder: Poet Sandoval’s collection shows love for, and darkness of, El Paso-Juárez border
Valentin Sandoval is a true son of la frontera, this U.S.-Mexican 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 his book “South Sun Rises.”
The collection is an autobiographical cycle of poetry bookended by two poems, each called “India.” While some might translate the Spanish 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.
The 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. It explains that Sandoval’s mother crossed the river, risking her life, because of the desperation causing most immigrants to leave Mexico for the United States, “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.
Many poems in the collection praise the poet’s mother — and other Mexican mothers she symbolizes — sacrificed to labor in factories or fields or forced into prostitution 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 clarifies that Sandoval’s love of his mother, as of this harsh and dangerous land, is not merely 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 and find success beyond the hardships of the desert and the poverty and violence that plague the streets of his two cities.
Like his devotion for his mother and the landscape, Sandoval’s love for El Paso and Juárez is blackened by the violence of the drug trafficking culture. He uses the term “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, friends who die before becoming men, people who drown in the river crossing into the United States.
In “Shrub,” the poet reminds us that this community is made of laborers “plowing, picking, sewing, building.” The life of the working class is grueling 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 Rising.”
No doubt Sandoval’s reputation will continue to grow and his voice will be heard far beyond the borderlands he loves so well.