Alan Chazaro


Alan Chazaro is a high school teacher at the Oakland School for the Arts, the former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco, and a June Jordan Poetry for the People alum at UC Berkeley. His debut collection, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album, was winner of the 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition and is now available for pre-order at His second book, Piñata Theory, is also forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press.

Sara Borjas Writes Poems Like Your Abuela Makes Tamales

If you’ve ever witnessed anyone’s abuela preparing tamales, you know how much love a Latina’s fingertips can hold without always receiving comfort in return. It’s from this process of laboring for others--a life’s long and painstaking work above a hot stove--that a familia can stay together “for better or for worse,” drinking chelas, cracking jokes and recalling those embarrassingly true stories about each other until midnight arrives and tamales are served as soulful restoration.

In Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff, Sara Borjas makes tamales, except her tamales are actually poems; and she is your woke millennial proudly-Pocha sister; and she might cuss you out if you tell her to fetch you anything; but you’ll be damned if you’ve never tasted poems with such an intensive love and family history packed into them. Borjas’s poems remind us how ingredients can be shaped to satisfy a complex appetite for multiple generations of mouths in a room; how memories, both painful and joyous, can be wrapped carefully with wet cornhusks to be served and re-served for future friends and guests; how a woman’s sacrifice can fill an entire pot of steaming goodness, only to be fed first to men sitting silently at a kitchen table, never giving thanks; how the invisible pains and labors of cooking inside the homes of our bodies can easily become the darkest hunger that feeds us. Borjas’s poems peel back the layers of herself, ranging in topics from tender love letters written about her hometown Fresno, to the imaginings of a mythical island occupied by female rape victims trying to redefine their humanity after sexual assaults, and even to the humor of self-deprecating Pochismos. Her versatile writing fearlessly excavates the body, mind, and spirit of a Chicanx woman surviving in the 21st century, but just as gracefully moves beyond her singular experience and into the universal by asking readers what it means to define the self, stubbornly challenging how we all select memories from the kitchens of our minds to cook up ideas about who we once were, who we think we are, and who we want to become.

Though there is mention of tamales and cooking in her book, it is less about the literal ingredients we put in our bodies and more about the shit we go through in life that fills us to the ribs until we can longer hold it all inside. Perhaps the most singularly essential, daring, and revealing poem in the collection, titled “We Are Too Big for this House,” looks at what happens to a body when it can no longer hold itself together. The physical representation of the poem--written in a visually sprawling manner with words in different font sizes filling each margin space in-between and on-the-borders of every line and stanza--creates a visceral sensation of being “too big” to chew in one mouthful with language that over-stuffs your eyespace. Because of its sheer size and multi-dimensionality, the poem (and indeed, the entire book) demands close attention; you must be willing to walk through it patiently like a house with too many rooms scattered with family truths and dark secrets. Family truths like: “My mother’s old body couldn’t hold / what her older body could after her / gastric bypass. I wonder if we can hold / all of ourselves. Embrace the bodies / we come from and our own at the / same time.” This memory of her mother’s surgery represents the limits of the body and psyche, how we choose to alter ourselves in order to alter our self-perceptions, and how we feel a need to constantly change who we are. At the root, Borjas seems to question how many bodies and identities we can hold in ourselves before we simply cannot hold anything else. And when you think you’ve found the answer, the poem suddenly unfolds onto another path, revealing more depths, because the longer you stay in the poem, the more you begin to find its privacies tucked away in the smallest bellies of text, providing insight into the vast physiologies of our multiple selves. One of these layered details is captured on a ‘90s VCR tape, written in tiny words off to the side of the page, in which the poet recalls: “Once, I heard my / dad call my mother / fat whale in a home / video. He was / always… documenting / playing recorder, / narrator. He denies / ever saying it.” Here we begin to see that the mother’s deteriorating sense of self is not simply a reflection of her own cynicism, but of a male machista’s harshly imposed standards, showing how there is often a dominant male voice lingering in the background of a woman’s experience. This theme is carried throughout the book and throughout the most influential Chicanx literature, placing it in a tradition of poetics set by writers like Gloria Anzaldua and Sandra Cisneros, in which Borjas is rightfully claiming her place.

Yet Borjas is not simply repeating what has been done before her. What most separates this book from merely a poetic retelling of family conflict or a search for healing, is how the poet is not only skeptical of the imperfect dimensions around her, but also how she is authentically engaged in the constant practice of self-invention and self-awareness, fearlessly and endlessly digging into her own bone marrow to unearth her most vulnerable fears, violences, and shortcomings--then stretching them out for the reader to touch in all their tender and bleeding realness. Besides using and redefining many Chicanx myths and traditions and inverting stereotypes (such as the purity of Aztlan or the innocence of playing Loteria), Borjas also mastertfully implements various poetic tools to map out the complex and ever-evolving territories of herself, using her craft with precision. Specifically, through the introduction of a few alter-egos such as the “Pocha” and “Narcissus” versions of the self, she is able to reflect on her identity from multiple angles, revealing the stratified and dirty mess about what it means to be a Chicanx woman more honestly than most poetry collections I can recall.

As a Chicanx Pocho male, “Pocha Cafe” is a poem that had me not only laughing out loud, but also sighing deeply along with Borjas’s insecurities of not being Mexican enough, of being a sell-out, a cultural traitor--something every pocho or pocha has to deal with at some point in their lives. She is ruthlessly open about her failings as a Mexican-American daughter, lover, and intellectual, commenting on things such as being “resentful” for never having had a quinceanera, mistaking other Latino friends for being Mexican, or calling primos named Miguel “Mike.” It’s the type of poem that had me wishing I’d written it, and left me feeling somehow more confident in exploring my own shameful Pocho secrets. Rarely have I seen a Chicanx poet delve so intensely into their own un-Mexicanness, which Borjas does multiple times throughout the book, even calling herself out at one point for a self-serving use of family members, like writing about her cousins who are in prison but never actually visiting them. It’s as if she’s pointing a finger at larger social injustices with one hand while also pointing a finger towards her own complicity with what’s wrong in our world with the other, never letting herself off the hook. It is this unrelenting interrogation of herself that holds readers in their seat, awaiting her next searing revelation.

In many ways, her book is a declaration of love despite past and present disasters of self-history, a recipe for how to look in the mirror and embrace your best and worst selves, never omitting shame from pride. The poet creates a sense of gratitude for being able to “reclaim” an identity for herself, taking her ugliest moments and combining them with her most beautiful memories to create a whole body. And most impressively, she does this as a communal act rather than a private one, inviting readers to take part in her performance of re-membrance. Most of her poems take place in bars, kitchens, cafes, and neighborhoods, always grounded in relation to home, family, and friends, reminding us that we can never understand ourselves without embracing those around us. And perhaps this is what I most value about the book: that it has the bravery to not only “document” and “narrate” the lives of others--like her father in those family video tapes--but to turn the camera inward and broadcast who she is, blemishes and all, without filter, out of love for herself and her people, a modern Narcissus who knows that she must drown in a dangerous pool of reflection in order to emerge with a refreshed body and spirit, defined not only by those around her but by her own chingona self tambien. It is a true act of writing to understand the potential for future selves, a shape-shifting transformation that this Chicana poet has mastered out of necessity and experience.

With Sara Borjas’s debut collection of poetry, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff, you’ll come for the tamales she writes about, but you’ll stay for the family chisme in between each bite; for the memory of laughter and pain in each carefully prepared metaphor; for the earthy smell of orchards and hot pavement on summer nights in Fresno; for the life advice you never thought you needed from your Pocha sister, until you did; for a transformative reading experience you can only get when watching a poet eat herself off the bone with nothing but the sharpest knives and a hunger like you’ve never known, only to be told how truth really tastes on the tongue. In the closing poem of the book, “There Are Tamales Here,” Borjas declares, “I don’t want / to share tamales with anyone I don’t love.” After reading this book, you’ll leave her house feeling not only loved, but like you’ve earned some place at her table, having shared much more than any tamale can feed you.


[Published March 15, 2019 by Noemi Press. 91 pages, $15 paperback]


© The Acentos Review 2019