Accidental Critic: Citizen Illegal

Citizen Illegal
By José Olivarez
Haymarket Books, 2018
BreakBeat Poets series

I’m a couple generations away from the immigrant experience. My grandparents on one side emigrated from Sweden in the early 1900s, met and married in this country. On the other side, my ancestors trace back to Daniel Boone; we’ve been here a long time.

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants, a first-generation Mexican-American raised in Chicago. And he brings that experience to his poems. What I find magical about Citizen Illegal is that it bridges the gap in time and space and generations, and makes immigration and assimilation real and immediate—regardless how long ago my ancestors migrated. Despite being filled with very specific details of Olivarez’s family and life, the story these poems tell is universal.

you are born where you are born, south side, Chicago & you are born
where your parents were born, Cañadas de Obregon, México
& when you are born, your parents kiss in Chicago, & in Cañadas
your grandparents kiss. you are here & here.

That’s from “If Anything Is Missing, Then it’s Nothing Big Enough to Remember,” which goes on to break my heart with this:

you are born both places, celebration cigars
here & here, only it’s hard for one body to contain both countries,
the countries go to war & it’s hard to remember you are loved by both
sides or any sides

That’s not the only poem that broke my heart in this book. “I Tried to be a Good Mexican Son” offers up this:

I tried to be a good Mexican son. went to a good college & learned depression
isn’t just for white people…

But this is not by any means a heartbreaking book. It’s filled with love and humor (including a series of short poems sprinkled throughout the book with the same title: “Mexican Heaven”), and is simultaneously about the struggle for identity and the affirmation of identity.

The book opens this way, in “(Citizen) (Illegal)”:

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)
have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
is the baby more Mexican or American?

“Mexican American Disambiguation” explores the labels given to immigrant groups, both by others and by themselves:

my parents are Mexican who are not
to be confused with Mexican Americans
or Chicanos. I am a Chicano from Chicago
which means I am a Mexican American
with a fancy college degree & a few tattoos.

But did I mention love? And joy? The book is filled with those, too. Perhaps my favorite poem is “On My Mom’s 50th Birthday,” a love song to the woman who gave birth to the poet and whom he gifts with a night out on her birthday…

so for the next few hours she will not worry
about me & my brothers, so for the next few hours
all she will have to worry about is the color of her lips
and the handsome men admiring them.


In that same poem, Olivarez writes, “I am unbraiding our DNA, unknotting our lives.” I love this DNA image, and it seems apt for the book itself. This is an exploration of identity and self and family and roots, and despite being deeply personal it’s also universal, immediate and timeless.

While it opens with a question, it ends with an affirmation:

Guapo, i say. it is my new name. it is my old name.
it is my only name.

The book itself is, I think, an act of affirmation. I saw/heard Olivarez read from it recently at my local library, and I stood in line to get my copy signed afterward. He signed it this way: “To Kim” ¡Sin Vergüenza Siempre!” – Always without shame. Yes. An affirmation.

José Olivarez’s Website

José Olivarez Reads from Citizen Illegal  at the Book Launch




Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at

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