A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to come
A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to get us hermana
Pero qué hicimos but what did we do
Speak in English come on
Nomás sé unas pocas palabras I just know a few words

You’d better figure it out hermana the guard is right there
See the bus driver

Tantos días y ni sabíamos para donde íbamos
So many days and we didn’t even know where we were headed

I know where we’re going
Where we always go
To some detention center to some fingerprinting hall or cube
Some warehouse warehouse after warehouse

Pero ya nos investigaron ya cruzamos ya nos cacharon
Los federales del bordo qué más quieren
But they already questioned us we already crossed over they
already grabbed us the Border Patrol what more do they want

We are on the bus now
that is all

A dónde vamos te digo salí desde Honduras
No hemos comido nada y dónde vamos a dormer
Where are we going I am telling you I came from Honduras
We haven’t eaten anything and where are we going to sleep

I don’t want to talk about it just tell them
That you came from nowhere
I came from nowhere
And we crossed the border from nowhere
And now you and me and everybody else here is
On a bus to nowhere you got it?

Pero pore so nos venimos para salir de la nada
But that’s why we came to leave all that nothing behind

When the bus tops there will be more nothing
We’re here hermana

Y esas gentes quiénes son
No quieren que siga el camion
No quieren que sigamos
Están bloqueando el bus
A dónde vamos ahora
Those people there who are they
they don’t want the bus to keep going
they don’t want us to keep going
now they are blocking the bus
so where do we go


He tardado 47 días para llegar acá no fue fácil hermana
45 días desde Honduras con los coyotes los que se – bueno
ya sabes lo que les hicieron a las chicas allí mero en frente
de nosotros per qué íbamos a hacer y los trenes los trenes
cómo dire hermana cientos de
nosotros como gallinas como topos en jaulas y verduras
pudriendóse en los trenes de miles me oyes de miles y se resbalaban
de los techos y los desiertos de Arizona de Tejas sed y hambre
sed y hambre dos cosas sed y hambre día tras día hermana
y ahora aquí en este camion y quién sabe a dónde
vamos hermana fíjate vengo desde Brownsville dónde nos amarraron
y ahora California per todavía no entramos y todavía el bordo
está por delante
It took me 47 days to get here it wasn’t easy hermana
45 days from Honduras with the coyotes the ones – well
you know what they did to las chicas
right there in front of us so what were we supposed
to do and the trains how can I tell you hermana hundreds
of us like chickens like gophers in cages and vegetables
rotting on the trains of thousands you hear me thousands and they slid
from the rooftops and the deserts of Arizona and Texas thirst and hunger
thirst and hunger two things thirst and hunger day after day hermana
and now here on this bus of who-knows-where we are going
hermana listen I come from Brownsville where they tied us up
and now in California but still we’re not inside and still the border
lies ahead of us

I told you to speak in English even un poquito
the guard is going to think we are doing something
people are screaming outside
they want to push the bus back

Pero para dónde les damos hermana
pore so me vine
le quebraron las piernas a mi padre
las pandillas mataron a mi hijo
solo quiero que estemos juntos
tantos años hermana
But where do we go hermana
that’s why I came here
they broke my father’s legs
gangs killed my son
I just want us to be together
so many years hermana
pulled apart


Mi madre me dijo que lo más importante
es la libertad la bondad y la buenas acciones
con el prójimo
My mother told me that the most important thing
is freedom kindness and doing good
for others

What are you talking about?
I told you to be quiet

La libertad viene desde muy adentro
allí reside todo el dolor de todo el mundo
el momento en que purguemos ese dolor de nuestras
seremos libres y en ese momento tenemos que
llenarnos de todo el dolor de todos los seres
Freedom comes from deep inside
all the pain of the world lives there
the second we cleanse that pain from our guts
we shall be free and in that moment we have to
fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings
to free them – all of them

The guard is coming well
now what maybe they’ll take us
to another detention center we’ll eat we’ll have a floor
a blanket toilets water and each other
for awhile

No somos nada y venimos de la nada
pero esa nada lo es todo si la nutres de amor
por eso venceremos
We are nothing and we come from nothing
but that nothing is everything, if you feed it with love
that is why we will triumph

We are everything hermana
Because we come from everything

— Juan Felipe Herrera

The son of Mexican migrant workers, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. As a young man, he became involved street and spoken-word performances as part of the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from high school in San Diego, he earned a B.A. in Social Anthropology from UCLA, a Masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. He is a Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside and CSU-Fresno.

[Research note: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Borderbus,” Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2015), pp. 59-63]

How Do You Raise A Black Child?

— Cortney Lamar Charleston

American poet Cortney Lamar Charleston grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He earned a BA in Urban Studies and a BS in Economics from University of Pennsylvania (Wharton School). His poetry frequently deals with the intersection of race, class, and heteronormativity.

[Research note: text of poem available at:; see also Cortney Lamar Charleston’s website]

The Grand Silos of the Sacramento

From a distance, at night, they seem to be
industries — all lit up but not on the map;
or, in this scientific age, they could be
installations for launching rocket ships —
so solid, and with such security, are they . . .
Ah, but up close, by the light of day,
we see, not “pads” but actual paddies —
for these are simply silos in ricefields,
structures to hold the harvested grain.
Still, they’re the tallest things around,
and, by night or day, you’d have to say
they’re ample for what they do: storage.
And, if you amble around from your car,
you can lean up against one in the sun,
feeling warmth on your cheek as you spread
out your arms, holding on to the whole world
around you, to the shores of other lands
where the laborers launched their lives
to arrive and plant and harvest this grain
of history — as you hold and look, look
up, up, up, and whisper: “Grandfather!”

— Lawson Fusao Inada

American poet Lawson Fusao Inada was born in 1938 in Fresno, California. He was four years old when he was incarcerated with his family by the U.S government. Together with more than 5,000 other Japanese-Americans from Fresno, the Inada family was imprisoned at the county fairgrounds before being forcibly relocated to concentration camps.

Migratory Birds

you were born
to gypsies
though you didn’t
want to be
every spring
when orange blossom’s
filled the air
your world was packed
into a few bundles
then your family
was off
living in tents
dirt floor shacks
you were born
to nomads
though you didn’t
want to be
longed to live with
the settled and the straight
work in the five and dime
go to school
play tennis
but every time
you found a friend
it was time to go
another town
another round
in a world
that made
you dizzy

you were born
to migrants
though you didn’t
want to be
from Texas to Illinois
living a blur
out a car window
roads endless
as fields of crops
to be picked
by the piece
never making enough
to eat
let alone
for the trip back home
pleading for the
traveling to stop
words in the wind
whooshing by ears
of the gypsy king

you were born
to wanderers
though you didn’t
want to be
when you got the chance
you planted
in concrete
and steel
to make sure
you or your
branch out
too far
from home
you were

I was born
to a life of never change
though I didn’t
want to be
same familiar streets
same people
year after year
until one sweltering
Chicago summer night
the moon full
color of sun
reflecting off
fields of green
and the sweet scent
of lilacs from
our back yard
helped me sprout wings
so that I
could fly

— Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Poet and activist Odilia Galván Rodríguez was born in Texas and raised in Chicago. She’s published four volumes of poetry and co-edited Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice (University of Arizona, 2016) with Francisco X. Alarcón.

[Research note: Claudia D. Hernández, Interview with Odilia Galván Rodríguez, posted February 17, 2015]

Colorado Plateau, Spring 1999

This place comes from a time where no formula exists
Its measure of time courses through my veins
If I choose to observe the plateau like my grandfathers before . . .

My color reflects the land
My shiny Oakley sunglasses are lost in the mass of
related pigments
Natural vision is best in the peak hours of observation
I take companion in my reptile relations
I breathe in the dry heat and
my soul is quieted once again.

It feels good to leave my hair in the crags of this sandstone
My sit-bones are planted into ancestral land
My early spring fly calls attention to the forecast
Whose home do I snuggle?
The impression of my bones are not new to this landscape

I learn to acknowledge the unsaid and
I learn of its presence
both are possible
variables exist
to sit at this place of emergence . . .

I have not told you how the extensions of my brain
wander aimlessly
along the path I leave
My lack of discipline places me

There is a place
Sandstone grit can filer pollution accumulated from birth
Is it only my body that resits such solid a foundation?

It is the memory of my origin
existing in the grooves of my finger tips
and canyons of my blood
and the twisted curves of my skull

I will be swatted as a pest at your ear
I remain gripped by my tongue
My landscape nursing a thirst
like rocks in my pocket
sand in my shoes
transporting my home on my being.

— Esther Belin

 Artist and poet Esther Belin grew up in Los Angeles and describes herself as a U.R.I., or Urban-Raised Indian, “one of the myriad indigenous peoples on the planet to survive in urbanized areas.” Her parents were relocated from the Diné (Navajo) country (father: Birdsprings, AZ; mother, Torreon, NM) in the 1950s as part of the U.S. Federal Indian Relocation Policy.

Ing Grish

“You need to speak Singlish to express a Singaporean feeling.”
Catherine Liu

I never learned Singlish

I cannot speak Taglish, but I have registered
the tonal shifts of Dumglish, Bumglish, and Scumglish

I do not know Ing Grish, but I will study it down to its
black and broken bones

I do not know Ing Gwish, but I speak dung and dungaree,
satrap and claptrap

Today I speak barbecue and canoe

Today I speak running dog and yellow dog

I do not know Spin Gloss, but I hear humdrum and humdinger,
bugaboo and jigaboo

I do not know Ang Grish, but I can tell you that my last name
consists of three letters, and that technically all of them are vowels

I do not know Um Glish, but I do know how to eat with two sticks

Oh but I do know English because my father’s mother was English
and because my father was born in New York in 1921
and was able to return to America in 1949
and become a citizen

I no speak Chinee, Chanel, or Cheyenne

I do know English because I am able to tell others
that I am not who they think I am

I do not know Chinese because my mother said that I refused to learn it
from the moment I was born, and that my refusal
was one of the greatest sorrows of her life,
the other being the birth of my brother

I do know Chinese because I understood what my mother’s friend told her
one Sunday morning, shortly after she sat down for tea:
“I hope you don’t that I parked my helicopter on your roof.”

Because I do not know Chinese I have been told that means
I am not Chinese by a man who translates from the Spanish.
He said that he had studied Chinese and was therefore closer
To being Chinese than I could ever be. No one publicly disagreed with him,
Which, according to the rules of English, means he is right

I do know English and I know that knowing it means
that I don’t always believe it

The fact that I disagree with the man who translates from the Spanish
is further proof that I am not Chinese because all the Chinese
living in America are hardworking and earnest
and would never disagree with someone who is right.
This proves I even know how to behave in English

I do not know English because I got divorced and therefore
I must have misunderstood the vows I made at City Hall

I do know English because the second time I made a marriage vow
I had to repeat it in Hebrew

I do know English because I know what “fortune cookie” means
when it is said of a Chinese woman

The authority on poetry announced that I discovered that I was Chinese
when it was to my advantage to do so

My father was afraid that if I did not speak English properly
I would be condemned to work as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant.
My mother, however, said that this was impossible because
I didn’t speak Cantonese, because the only language
waiters in Chinese restaurants know how to speak was Cantonese

I do not know either Cantonese or English, Ang Glish or Ing Grish

Anguish is a language everyone can speak, but no one listens to it

I do know English because my father’s mother was Ivy Hillier
She was born and died in Liverpool, after living in America and China,
and claimed to be a descendant of the Huguenots

I do know English because I misheard my grandmother and thought
she said that I was a descendant of the Argonauts

I do know English because I remember what “Made in Japan” meant
when I was a child

I learn over and over again that I do not know Chinese
Yesterday a man asked me how to write my last name in Chinese,
because he was sure that I had been mispronouncing it,
and that if this was how my father pronounced it,
then the poor man had been wrong all his life

I do not know Chinese even though my parents conversed in it every day
I do know English because I had to ask the nurses not to put my mother
in a straitjacket, and reassure them that I would be willing to stay with her
until the doctor came the next morning

I do know English because I left the room when the doctor told me
I had no business being there

I do not know Chinese because during the Vietnam War
I was called a gook instead of a chink and realized
that I had managed to change my spots without meaning to

I do not know English because when father said that he would
like to see me dead, I was never sure quite what he meant

I do not know Chinese because I never slept with a woman
whose vagina slanted like my mother’s eyes

I do not know either English or Chinese and, because of that,
I did not put a gravestone at the head of my parents’ graves
as I felt no language mirrored the ones they spoke

— John Yau

American art critic and poet John Yau was born to Chinese-American parents in Lynn, Massachusetts. His creative work (especially his earlier work) played with different facets of immigration, language, and heritage. (Art historians are probably more familiar with his work on Jasper Johns.)

[Research Note: John Yau and Thomas Nozkowski, Ing Grish (Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia, 2005)]

Family of Scatterable Mines

Suitcases of dried limes, dried figs, pomegranate paste,
parsley laid in the sun, burnt honey, sugar cubes hardened
on a baking sheet. Suitcases of practical underwear,
hand-washed, dried on a door handle, stuffed into boxes
from Bazaar-e Vakeel, making use of the smallest spaces,
an Arcoroc tea glass. One carries laminated prayers
for safe travel. I stand still when she smokes
esfand and fans away an evil eye. And when she asks
does this mean he will die? I say yes
without worrying it will break her. Suitcases
of fruit knives, of embossed boxes
with gold coins inside, the gaudiest earrings
brought for me, yellow, loud as these big women rolling meatballs
on the kitchen floor, lifting lit coals
with their fingers onto a head of tobacco.
Shisha comes from shisheh, which means glass.
Jigaram, they call me, which means my liver.
Suitcases they unpack and repack
over Iranian radio, between calls passing gossip,
the report on the brother’s liver: it’s failing, and he
doesn’t want the sisters around because they will pray
and cry over him like he’s already dead. Sisters unfurl
black shawls from suitcases to drape over their heads.
I carry trays of dates before the men, offer little
square napkins, thank their condolences, hold the matriarchs
while they rock. I answered yes when one asked,
does that mean he’s going to die?

— Solmaz Sharif

American poet Solmaz Sharif was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents. She holds degrees from UC Berkeley and New York University. Family of Scatterable Mines takes its title from U.S. military systems for mine warfare.

[Research note: Solmaz Sharif, LOOK (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 2016): 38]

Indian Boarding School: The Runaways

Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
The rails, old lacerations that we love,
shoot parallel across the face and break
just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.

The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.

All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub
the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work.
Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs
and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark
face before it hardened, pale, remembering
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.

—Louise Erdrich

Author and poet Louise Erdrich was born and raised in Minnesota. Her parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Dear America

If you were a tree, I would be a bud,
clenching a feral secret.
If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep.
If you were a mountain, I would be a pebble,
a fulcrum, your pivot.
If you were a water cannon, I would be
ice on a braid of gray.
If you were tear gas, I would weep for you.
If you were a wall, I would be a dreamer
yearning to breathe free.
If you were an oil well, I would be a cup of water.
If you were a power grid, I would be sunlight
on a child’s hand.
If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable.
If you were an empire, I would be the remote village
keeping to the old ways.
If you were a grandmother, I would be the child
who brings you tea.
If you were a billionaire, I would be a simple gift.
If you were a legend, I would be the minor character
the hero sees standing by the road in witness.
If you were a patriotic song, I would be the late verse
remembered only by the elders, hummed at evening.
If you were a prison guard, I would be Mandela’s
slow step, setting the pace in spite of chains.
If you were a long migration, I would be a seed
to sustain two wings.
If you were the great change, I would be one
of the myriad beginnings.
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.
If you were in recovery, I would leave food on your step.
If you were a grand parade, I would be one
of the unseen singers.
If you were a war, I would bring food to the widows.
If you were a tyranny, I would vote for kindness.
If you were the arc of history, I would bend
my life toward justice.
If you were a declaration of independence,
I would pledge allegiance to interdependence.
If you pursued happiness for a few, I would ask about the many.
If you were a tower, I would be a pilgrim’s tent.
If you were a bold proclamation, I would be a whispered testament.
If you were a phone, I would be a voice to make it matter.
If you were the greed of one generation, I would be the need
of the seventh generation.
If you were the way it was, I would be the way it could be.
If you were a disaster, we could count our blessings.
And if you thought you were my enemy, I would ask
about your children.

— Kim Stafford

Kim Stafford, son of the poet William Stafford, is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

The Sign in My Father’s Hands

—for Frank Espada

The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.

In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.

Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.

That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.

— Martín Espada

breadPoet and activist Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Frank Espada, was active in the labor and civil rights movement. Much of Espada’s poetry focuses on immigration, Latino rights, and the working class experience in the United States.

[Research note: Martín Espada, “The Sign in My Father’s Hands,” Imagine the Angels of Bread (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996)]