Ascension is Luivette Resto's second book of poetry and the best I have read in 2013. Ascension begins and ends in heartbreak, reflecting on beauty, disappointment, and the contradictions of Latino identity and modern life. Resto describes her poetry as “socio-political” – the tone varies from nostalgic to angry, drawing full pictures of love, heartbreak, anguish, joy, and wisdom. Truly a mujer con ganas, a voice of outrage without all the usual clichés of an angry woman, Resto often plays with and pokes fun at the hybridity of culture and language, mixing satire and Spanglish in a manner that is critical, endearing, and thoughtful.
Her poem, “Thank You Ricky Martin,” pokes fun at headlines from the late nineties that claimed to “discover” Latino culture: “The Legacy of Generation Ñ” and “Latino America: Hispanics are hip, hot, and making history.” Suddenly it’s cool to grow up Puerto Rican American, wearing a “Menudo T-shirt” and “rolling r’s.” But Resto’s “Perfect Attendance” paints a different portrait of immigrant experiences, weaving together the working class struggles of young troubled but determined immigrants, toiling multiple jobs, suffering from PTSD, and escaping a life of gang violence:
They leave in silence
intimidated by the syllabus,
amazed at the price of textbooks,
determined to return the next day.
These verses capture the eagerness and determination of immigrants to succeed in this country, not letting setbacks, language boundaries, or lack of resources become detriments to success. Throughout Ascension Resto challenges the notion that success in America is defined by assimilation: she presents a football star from El Monte who dreams of going to college; Guadalupe, who works two jobs and supports her family; and Eun, who is called a F.O.B. by classmates and is quiet in class. Resto’s collection beautifully shows that despite setbacks and struggles, people everywhere are still striving for a better life and working hard to achieve their dreams.
Ascension also includes more politically critical poems. “No More Tacos in Gwinnett County” speaks directly to xenophobia, hypocrisy, and racism toward undocumented and Latino immigrants in the United States. Resto draws connections between the Chicano student walkouts of the 1960’s to 2006 and the recent struggles of Latino immigrants who have become the targets of racist local laws and policies:
No more dollar corn tortillas
satiating the appetites of
housekeepers, gardeners, waiters,
peach pickers, janitors, nannies.
Giving them all a five-minute taste of Juarez...
Paranoia and sign making spread to the Midwest
where a Butler County, Ohio, jail
had a sign pointed to it
“Illegal Aliens Here.”
The steel bars shivered
because hunger for
revolution and absolution
only existed here.
Resto’s sass is her poetic strength; her sharp and critical wit, built through imagery, weaves together dialects of Spanish, street slang, and poetic styles to create rich, textured portraits of everyday life. Resto’s bittersweet poem “Sweatshop Tiffany’s” recalls the love and labor of immigrant Latina women working in a sweatshop, noting their unique strength and sadness:
Everything under the table
including the half hour homemade lunches
eaten in a storage room substituting as a cafeteria
mixed with the smells of sweat, exploitation, and arroz con pollo.
Ten years later I entered into my first Tiffany’s
filled with smiles on women’s faces, empty pockets of remorseful
commission quotas being met, surprise engagements.
As I touched a velvet turquoise bag,
the cash registers sang
y hubo alguien
Through Puerto Rican singer Marc Anthony’s romantic song “Y Hubo Alguien”, “And there was somebody,” this poem recalls the idea of America as a place where you can become someone or a “somebody”; but the material reality of these immigrant women’s lives proves otherwise.
What I related to the most in this collection, however, were the poems on interpersonal relationships, family values, and personal reflections and struggles. In “Christmas Lies,” we see a mother’s struggle to explain to her child the existence of Santa Claus; in “The Pendeja Syndrome,” a women struggles to let go of her ex-boyfriend; and students organize against racism in “A Poem for the Students of UCSD.” “A Poem for Me” explores the narrator's insecurities, wishing she could play the piano and better deal with her emotions, but finding her whole imperfect self as a muse for her poetry. These poems are introspective -- they encourage us to look at our flaws and mistakes as a way to define our identity and values.
Luivette Resto’s Ascension really hit home for me. Resto needs to be read as an influential and relevant writer of our time, recognized for her depth and insight. She breaks apart the myth of post-racial America and turns the critical gaze on American life, discovering unexpected truths. These powerful personal poems will inspire future Latino poets.
--Vileana de la Rosa
Vileana returned to her home in California last week and graduates tomorrow from the University of California-Irvine. Here at Split This Rock we miss her already! We're so proud of her and grateful for all she gave us in her months in DC. Watch out, world!