Book Review: ‘Things to Pack on the Way to Everywhere’

in Culture by

Things to Pack on the Way to Everywhere
By Grisel Yolanda Acosta
Get Fresh Books: 75 pages

 

On one of their most incendiary tracks, “That’s Right We’re That Spic Band,” the influential Latino punk band Los Crudos turn their critique from U.S. colonialism, neoliberalism, and anti-immigrant sentiment onto the punk scene itself. Their only song that features lyrics in English, Los Crudos do not hold back on calling out those who claim to be punks but use racist rhetoric when referring to the band, supporting U.S. regimes of oppression and marginalization.

Martin Sorrendeguy venomously delivers an indictment of punk’s racism, punctuated with a gang shout of “BULLSHIT!” from the other band members:

You say you call yourselves punk?
BULLSHIT!
You’re just a closeted fucking nazi.
You’re BULLSHIT!
You just don’t understand us?
BULLSHIT!
You just fucking fear us.
You’re BULLSHIT!

This song came to my mind as soon as I finished reading Grisel Yolanda Acosta’s book of poems Things to Pack on the Way to Everywhere. Throughout the collection, Acosta shows that she is punk as fuck.

As a movement, punk was conceived of as anti-mainstream, anti-authoritarian, a haven for those who questioned the status quo others passively accepted. For Acosta, as an Afro-Latina in the U.S., she has always embodied this idea of punk: that which doesn’t conform to the strictures and norms dictated by American society, nor to those expectations of what it means to be Latinx and Black.

In the poem “Textbook on the Desegregation of an Afro-Latinx,” Acosta touches beautifully on the difficult road she had to traverse in order to integrate her bifurcated identity. Throughout the piece, Acosta traces the ways her identity has been subject to near erasure, and it didn’t start with her. “Abuelito boycotts the wedding porque Papi is too black,” she writes. “It will be 20 years before Mami speaks to Abuelito again/ no one voices the silence at home, so you stay mute, too.”

Colorism creates a generational trauma that results in silence, one that, even as her parents subvert racial taboos, they continue to uphold its silencing: “so you go home and ask Mami, ‘Am I Black?’/ Mami and Papi look at each other and say nothing.”

It’s through punk that Acosta finds a way to voice her critique of white supremacy and its delimiting of identity. While discovering punk bands like the Dead Kennedys singing of the horrific U.S. bombing of Cambodia, Acosta is empowered by Afro-punk Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, who reminds Acosta that “your identity does not lie in a false, gendered mirror.”

Wearing “black boots and lipstick/ and blue and purple bruises from slamdancing with shaved head Mexicans from La Villita,” Acosta shows how she bucks the stereotypes of punk and Latinidad, proclaiming, “I am clearly Black” at 22 years old, finally able to fill the void of the “black and white fissure, like marble stone” that tried to divide her identity, finally intertwined and enmeshed like marble. She ends the poem standing proud in her Afro-Latinidad, feeling tied to her Blackness and Latina identity, knowing that she isn’t alone.

What is striking is that Acosta describes her immersion into Blackness, of being empowered by claiming what has been erased by family and culture, as “a sparkling, multi-hued, crashing/ wave with no begginingendseparation.” Using this image of crashing, of an amorphous ebb and flow, sounds a lot like the mosh pits where she slam danced, becoming one with other punks in a chaotic furor. Accepting her Afro-Latinidad, celebrating what has been silenced for so long, is what defines punk.

“Pelibre Latinx” is another highlight of the collection, based around her father creating a portmanteau of peligro (dangerous) and libre (freedom). Acosta highlights the ways freedom is demonized or dismissed when it’s exercised by people of color. She writes “Pelibre is the ability to study/ in a country that is angry when you are at the head of the classroom.”

Courtesy of Get Fresh Books

We all know about the persistent rhetoric in this country about the opportunities that the U.S. offers, which it claims are unprecedented anywhere else, like getting an education. But this freedom becomes dangerous when marginalized folks like Acosta use this freedom to excel and elevate to positions of power. This threatens the negative stereotypes some people hold of Latinx and Afro-Latinx people. Freedom is dangerous when it’s used to uplift marginalized voices that can then threaten white supremacy and class structures that have upheld American society. It changes the “game,” so to speak, allowing new folks to play who might change the rules.

And Acosta does not play. In “Games” she proclaims, “I refuse to play chess/ memorizing the paths of others for the purpose of conquering,” refusing to take part in a system that, while she has found success in it, is predicated on the trampling of others.

She also likens academia to a game where the deck is always stacked against her for being a Black Latina woman. “Master of Academia” uses the metaphor of a doll that is dressed up, controlled, and lacks freedom to describe the way Acosta has been treated in her academic career: “despite tenure, I am an adjunct, a non-essential part, an accessory/ ready to be dismissed by the child who grew bored with its toy.”

Despite these struggles, Acosta will not let up, not give in and surrender. She doubles down on being the “hardcore punk chica” that she was born to be. In the last, eponymous poem, Acosta runs through the things necessary for her travel, for her journey, of being herself completely, unhindered by expectations. Amongst them, she lists palo santo, bollo de yuca y arroz con leche, and a carving of her lover’s eyelashes. She carries her world in this bag, one that is “small, light/ contain[s] unseen subuniverses/ that, on occasion, will emit their own luminescence.”

Acosta treasures all of the elements of her identity; they are all the “subuniverses” that fit into the bag that is her being—no one will take these from her. She also carries matches in her bag—the last item she lists on her inventor—ready to set fire to anything or anyone that will try to take them away from her.

What is more punk than that?

 

Featured image courtesy of Grisel Yolanda Acosta

Alexander Lalama is an Assistant Professor of English at Bradley University. Born and raised in the Inland Empire, California, he studied literature at Claremont Graduate University and spent several years working in Rhode Island and Massachusetts before settling in the Midwest. His interests lie in outsider subcultures such as punks, goths, metalheads, nerds, and brujo/a/xs. He can be often be found listening to punk records or reading while drinking copious amounts of coffee.

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