According to feminist poet Audre Lorde, “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Lorde’s words call us to question our role in this tumultuous world. She invites poets – and by association, all writers – to use words as instruments for accessing readers’ emotions and altering their consciousness. This is what activist poet Xochtil-Julisa Bermejo does with her writing.
Xochitl-Julisa has been relentless in her publication of poems that create awareness about the treatment of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Through her work with No More Deaths in Tucson, Arizona, she has given countless hours and provided donated resources to the people crossing the border. Her manuscript, POSADA: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, which features poems highlighting her activism, was published October, 2016 by Sundress Publications. It was a finalist for the 2014 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and a short dramatization of her poem, "Our Lady of the Water Gallons," directed by Hollywood director and Chicano activist, Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. Her work has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Award, and her poem “The Boys of Summer” was named one of the Best Poems of 2014 by La Bloga. Her work has also been published in The American Poetry Review, The Los Angeles Review, Cultural Weekly, PALABRA, The Acentos Review, and crazyhorse.
TR: Juan Felipe Herrera is described by Rigoberto Gonzalez as an activist poet. I would use the same term to characterize you and the poems you write. How do you feel about this label being placed on you?
X-JB: I am honored. I first got into poetry because it feeds my activist passions. I cared about social justice as a teen and was teased because I cared too much. When I went to San Francisco for college, I was excited to find others who cared about the issues as much as I do. I also discovered Carolyn Forché’s anthology, Against Forgetting, and realized writing poetry of witness could be a way to fulfill my desire to do something.
TR: What is your earliest recollection of being an activist?
X-JB: When I saw the musical Newsies (1992), I fell in love with the idea of kids fighting for a cause. It was based on real events, children’s and worker’s rights during the Industrial Revolution. After that, I sought those stories. In high school, I read about Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez and looked for more books like that. My friends called me “Brown Pride” and when I found Teatro Campesino in San Francisco, I learned how art can be a form of activism and I was especially interested in immigrants’ rights because my parents are immigrants.
TR: How did the two – poet and activist – come together for you?
X-JB: In my early work, in grad school, I wrote persona poems about the Chinese Immigrants at Angel Island and graffiti poems. My master’s thesis focused on Guantanamo Bay and the Japanese Internment. My mentor, Eloise Klein Healy, pushed me to tell my own story. That’s when I went to the desert for work with No More Deaths. My main thought was to speak from my own point of view, but keeping my parents in mind and respecting other people’s stories.
TR: How do you get to a place where you can write about the volunteer experience with No More Deaths once you are back in the safety of Los Angeles?
X-JB: It is a much longer process than I expected. When I was out there, I journaled every night. Once I had wifi, I transcribed those onto my blog. After providing direct aid in the desert, I stayed in Tucson to write but I couldn’t. Instead, I spent six months watching television and not thinking about it. I understand why long-term volunteers don’t write because reflecting is too hard, better for them to stay numb.
TR: What was your inspiration for the format of “Things to Know for Comp@neros: A No More Deaths Volunteer Guide”?
X-JB: The information came from a 3-day training as a desert aid worker. This was a later poem in the series I wrote, inspired by Kate Durbin’s experimental book The Ravenous Audience (Black Goat 2009). Hers resembles a pastiche, including a small chapbook within, notes from Amelia Earhart, and really cool, found fictional piece within a piece. I wanted mine to feel like a desert guide and made it a handy, pocket-sized booklet. (It can be purchased on Xochitl’s website)
TR: What do you think makes your poetry accessible to readers who aren’t poets?
X-JB: Hopefully, there is enough emotion to hook non-poet readers. I write poetry because I want to connect with people. My most recent revision of the collection reflects my reading of Michelle Serros’s Chicana Falsa. I read the book after she passed away and found it both relatable and beautiful. I want to be as self assured and down-to-earth in my own work. When I write poetry of witness or social justice poetry, I think about how to hook people. It is hard to make people concerned if they are not personally connected. If I had not gone to the desert, I couldn’t have written those poems from such a personal point of view.
TR: What can you recommend to poets who don’t write about social justice because of fear or emotional difficulty, but who want their work to reflect crucial social issues of today?
X-JB: There are two things I do. First, I use experimental forms. To avoid looking straight at the topic, I play a game with the words. This makes the poem more dynamic and surprising for the reader and makes it easier for me as a writer. One of the poems, “Meditation for the Lost and Found,” recently published in crazyhorse, is an example of that. I used an experimental form to play tricks on my mind. It looks like a spiral/labyrinth and I cut words in places to make readers focus on specific ideas, like a meditation. The reader goes on a journey while reading this poem, like a person crossing the border into this country. Second, I find personal connections to hook readers to the subject. There is a huge difference between our privileged lives here in LA, in the US and what is happening on the border, in Mexico, and in Central America. Martin Espada is great at this, and I studied his poetry. He uses symbols and allegory, allowing readers to make connections.
TR: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers about being an activist poet?
X-JB: I encourage people to challenge themselves and write about their passions. A lot of people are scared they’ll say the wrong thing. They ask, Am I not sensitive enough? Is there a point of view I’m not considering? We have to keep bringing up the issues. We can’t be so afraid we stop talking about them. So find your trick, use experimental forms, play games with the words.
Tisha Reichle is a Chicana Feminist and former Rodeo Queen. She is an AROHO Retreat alum, a member of Macondo Writers Workshop, Las Dos Brujas, and curates the facebook page for WomenWho Submit. For almost 20 years, she engaged high school students with socially conscious literature. Now she is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at USC.
No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona. Their mission is to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights. Since 2004, No More Deaths has maintained a humanitarian presence in the 262-square-mile corridor where over half of known migrant deaths in recent years have occurred. This militarized region, deemed the “Tucson Sector” and treated as a war zone by the Department of Homeland Security, disproportionately plays host to the mass migration without papers of people from the Americas.
Note: This interview originally appeared in the Fall, 2016 issue of Border Senses