Cumbia by Ariana Brown

My friend asks if I know how to cumbia


Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican American poet from the Southside of San Antonio, TX, with a B.A. in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies from UT Austin. She is a 2014 collegiate national poetry slam champion and a survivor of the Poetry MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. Ariana does not believe in Latinidad or nationhood as a concept or useful organizing tool; she finds refuge and community among Afro-Indigenous and Afrocaribbean folks. Ariana is lowkey a curandera and highkey the yungest abuela you will ever meet. Follow her work online at and on Twitter & Instagram @arianathepoet. 

& offers his hand on the dance floor.

I’m an introvert, baby caterpillar, little bug

who forgets she has a body. Sometimes.

I think of my grandmother, who’s always trying

to get me to dance, always speaking to me in Spanish

hoping I’ll understand, who wants me

to be as free as I deserve, in this lifetime.

I think I’ve been to three quinceañeras in my life.

One Mexican wedding. Countless parties at my tía’s house,

chapel of red cups & swaying blood.

My friend asks if I know how to cumbia

& I remember the shuffled feet, sudden turns,

bodies dripping slow as smoke onto shoulders,

drinking in memories of better days, linked kneecaps

holding up what they’ve got left to give to the music.

Or, I remember couples who move like warm honey,

fast as an argument,

stilted swagger,

banter pattern,

like they’re chasing each other toward the last bit of love

at the corner of the backyard.


My mom taught me to cumbia once.

Cleared a space big enough for my father’s ghost

to join us & put Pandora on shuffle. Here goes.

At first, she danced alone, to show me the steps.

Then her hands were invitations

& our knees were locked & safe between each other,

& we stumbled & stitched a memory

into the living room carpet.

I know she would have liked to hold my father this way.

But this was a kind of joy, too, forged

by pressing into the body what words cannot do,

& you can’t tell me there aren’t many ways to be religious.

To have found a spirit & woke the limbs

for a precious visit. I bore my heels into the floor

& danced with my mother,

who in another life is dancing with my father,

& when she spins me around

she is turning back time

to remember the woman she is,

the woman she was before.

It is those who dance who best keep memory alive.

When my friend asked if I knew how to cumbia,

in the moment, I’d been out of practice.

I’d forgotten the lesson a loved one,

my mother the sun, had taught me.

& so I danced with him the way wallflowers dance—

quiet & timid, my blood only barely flickering,

wishing it was flame.


Later, another friend sends me an article

that says there’s a reason cumbia

is one of the easiest dances to learn.

That though it is popular everywhere, it originates in Colombia.

The first people to do it, did so in chains.

Enslaved Black folk couldn’t lift shackled feet,

so instead they shuffled

& invented the cumbia—

& you can’t tell me there aren’t many ways to survive,

to remember the dead,

to make a freedom where there isn’t one.

The Acentos Review 2019