In Vickie Vértiz’s newest collection Auto/Body, Southeast LA shines like the rim of a ’61 Ford Sunliner. Vértiz uses the language of auto mechanics and the Latinx context of Southeast Los Angeles to deconstruct patriarchy. Like a car at the repair shop, Southeast LA is elevated not only to examine its inner problems but also to reveal the role of the Latinx queer in reclaiming power.
As a Latinx immigrant who lives in one of the Gateway neighborhoods of Southeast LA, I was invested from the first page.
The collection is divided in three parts — “Alternator,” “Distributor” and “Transmission.” All three are vital parts of the vehicle and not easy to replace. Together with the motor, these components of auto mechanics speak about endurance, power structure, distribution of power and adaptability of the individual represented in the collection, which focuses on the specific geographical and gender identity that the book attempts to deconstruct.
The simplicity of language stands out. This is poetry for the laypeople: a multicultural community of blue-collar workers who lives in the Gateway Cities area of Los Angeles County. There are no complicated poetic devices. The structure of the book is the metaphor.
By placing the “Alternator” first in the collection, Vértiz reclaims agency. With a confrontational tone in a bilingual context the poet seems to extend an invitation for square the balance in a community that has seen too much injustice: “a gathering of claimants,” “Voy a hacer que me pidas perdón. Botarás sangre por mi puro capricho,” “hagamos un Cielo en el infierno.”
The poet describes the community as “diamonds: hard, shiny.” “We don’t infest, pendejo. We invest.” And then proceeds to deconstruct it by examining old vehicle models. Vértiz starts with the low rider “’60 Chevy Impala” to take a first look at the patriarchy: “teaches me to look out, to give men nasty looks.”
Then Vértiz goes after the role immigration played — still does — in this predominantly Latinx community of Southeast LA. Like a tight belt in the alternator, immigration raids asphyxiated the community in the ’80s. “Let me be crystal clear: You are a rat-poison excuse for thought.”
Concrete form poems further establish East and Southeast LA identity as the backdrop for the collection: Catholic, Mexican, and queer. In a poem shaped as a church, the poet pays homage to the mother-daughter bond through the hardship in their life and further denounces the patriarchal oppression of the women in the community. “I can’t work any harder than I do.”
The East LA Mexican parade has been a staple of this community for decades. In “Desfile,” the reader understands that the joy of the community is not for sale. A pocha anchor describing the parade says, “I feel like I am part of a community,” as if tokenizing identity in exchange for viewers. We can almost see the Mexican dancers and the low, pimped-up rides, slowly moving through Cesar Chavez Blvd. In “Disco,” Southeast LA queer appears flashy. The speaker realizes her courage and decides to come out: “if this bald head can be gay, so can I.”
Then, the role of queer community in reclaiming agency is introduced in poems that are sensual, erotic, and passionate. “Dejame un pedacito de ti: pegajoso y fragrante, como vello entre tus piernas.” These poems speak about unrequited love and the frustration of those romantic relationships when too much is expected. “I can’t love any different than me.” Above all the queer identity in Auto/Body, like many other aspects of the Southeast LA community, is bold and fierce. “I can be cumbia riot. I am not a player.”
After the identity has been outlined, Alternator moves on to denounce the ailments in this predominantly Latinx part of Los Angeles. It also signals where power needs to be reclaimed.
“’61 Ford Sunliner” — a persona poem as a car — becomes a metaphor for gentrification. “When they put a sign on my back window, I won’t be down and glittered blue.” But it is the ekphrasis “Happiness is going to pieces” that gives the collection its regional identity. A question makes it all about the Latinx community in Boyle Heights. “Tell me about balance. How do you hold it and Boyle Heights.” It also makes clear that righting the wrongs will take more than individual efforts: “Will we still have to do a lot of back-seat fucking with the funk spunk?”
The second part — “Distributor” — expresses the nostalgia for bygone years in Southeast LA before gentrification threatened the community with erasure. I can feel this nostalgia watching rows after rows of mid-century houses. The Latinx character fits with this image. We — Latinx — are a bit old fashioned in our manners. The reader opens a family album and the queer tía narrates the picture, reclaiming identity. As an immigrant who longs for her homeland, I understand the poet’s reminiscence for a bygone era captured in small rectangles. The picture is not glossy. Without sentimentality, “Distributor” holds the neighborhood’s bilingual energy to ensure the spark is evenly spread to everyone.
Vértiz seems to imply that the reclaimed energy be distributed to the queer first. Thus, the poet suggests that to preserve Southeast LA, power distribution needs to include the strong Latinx Queer community. “I am a doe, like a doe is a buck /Horns sprout /Safe and saged among the /Wolves.” In “La Corona,” the poet uses Spanglish in irreverent and funny ways, thus emphasizing the role of fierce women across generations.
“Amá wasn’t a queen but she
Sharpens eyeliners with razor blades.
The duchess of slaughter.”
By continuing the parade of vintage cars, the poet sprinkles nostalgia and the smell of tires in Auto/Body. “’70 Chevy El Camino” presents the setting with longing without hiding the discomfort of a young girl experiencing the patriarchy. The uncomfortable relationship with the father like “pebbles on the knees,” “words crack teeth,” “screeches of metal” in a box. From the father, the tomboy girl learns mechanics and how to change a tire. In “’85 Chevy El Camino,” the discomfort shifts to reaffirm gender identity, “I came out to stay out,” and expresses a need for gentleness, “my life did not have to be razors in coat pockets.” Despite the contradiction, the poet remains ready to use writing as a weapon of defense. “we used the Ink, . . . More pens, . . .each and every one: A blade”
In the third and final part, “Transmission,” the poet changes gear. Like a clutch, the change in tone ensures engagement. Without its heritage the community can run, but it won’t move. In this part of the book, the imagery carries the weight of the poetic voice in communicating the outrage, pointing at what needs to be spared to overcome the dangers of gentrification and government surveillance.
For instance, in poetic prose form, “Dictation” shows how Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) — now dissolved — terrorized the Latinx families of Southeast LA. The poem emphasizes the systemic terror that molded the character of a generation in the ‘80s. Their disruptive presence in the community forced the individual to become a workhorse to escape the stereotypical male the “anuses” were looking for. “Chuy waited so long that he turned himself into a Mustang, a workhorse,” especially on Sundays. Until the community resolves not to welcome them anymore: “Next time, said my lover, we don’t have to let them in.”
After the poet has dissected her community, she offers a solution: “We Have to Become Doves: An American Sonnet.” This poem is a testimony to the solidarity between people who have been exiled, or are refugees, and their similarities with immigrants. “I am sorry you cannot return.” It points out “survival as privilege.” It goes on to denounce bureaucracy as “missile necklaces and barbed paperwork.” It also presents the survival mantra of the immigrant:
“Home is inside and cannot, will not,
could not be taken away.”
Immigration and gender politics intersect more clearly in “Transmission” than in any other part of the book.
“We too were left on the land
Femme bodies slip into
Secrets and oaks.”
Spanish is used to point at ailments within the community. “Aquí ando en esta jotería ¿Qué te parece?” The TV show host refers to her tight dress, thus using queerness as a token to gain viewers.
In the final poems, the speaker takes a much more intimate voice and praises her own queerness and role as a writer.
“I have a mild acidic condition. So I guess I am a sour ass motherfucker. A servant in service of my writing.”
With fierceness, the poet drives the father’s car revealing resentment for abuse and secrets the speaker holds. Again, the patriarchy is the target of strong confrontational lines:
“To show my father and so many men like mine to leave
Women and girls the fuck alone. I do this before the Impala wrecks.”
This last piece is a declaration of queerness and a manifestation of self-love. The message is presented both in Spanish and English; thus, the poet closes the collection with identity affirmation and the understanding that the individual portrayed in the collection is no victim: Queer Latinx from Southeast LA.
“yo no soy la que siente. La que sufre. Yo hago y
deshago. Muelo violadores y me los trago.”
. . .
“I am no monster. I trust myself. In the beginning in the end. Me quiero a mi misma.”
As a reader and immigrant, I dove into the nostalgic tone and enjoyed discovering the past of the community where I live. I will cherish this collection. Next time I see a low rider cruising around in Southeast LA, I will know what it represents.
Vickie Vértiz uses concrete poems, bilingualism, persona poems and ekphrasis to convey meaning. In its simplicity, the powerful language can reach the people it describes. Auto/Body elevates Southeast LA to ask fundamental questions about where to channel the anger and what is worth preserving. When gentrification and immigration raids threaten this iconic community, Vickie Vértiz suggests holding dear onto bilingualism, queerness, the colorful ‘80s vibe of low riders and disco, and to “crack misogyny with the crack of a rifle.”