By the Time I Get To Arizona (2)

Even though U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton has blocked most of the provisions in SB 1070, the law is still in effect. For activists, this means there is little time to celebrate this victory since folks like Sheriff Joe Arpaio are all set to put as much of the law into effect. With Sheriff Joe’s record, that means he’ll probably go past the letter and spirit of the law and continue his efforts to make Arizona a police state where brown folks are the siege targets.

I can’t think of a more prophetic poem than Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans.” I remember reading this poem back in 2001 and loving the directness of the poem. In fact, the directness of the poem is so jarring that the end of the poem completely took me off guard and for years it was a great poetic mystery for me. Where was the metaphor? Where was the open ended ambiguous mystery of poetry? What, no gift wrapping and shiny bow at the end to summarize the poem for me?

I’m not sure when I finally got it but when this poem finally clicked for me, it was like a hammer upside my head and cemented a key concept of poetry for me—the purpose of poetic language isn’t to dance around a touchy subject with smart line breaks and clever simile. No, the purpose of poetic language is to lure people into uncomfortable situations and show them the truth in the world around them.

In this case, it’s the after effects of short sighted policies like SB 1070 and other legislation that seeks to demonize any segment of US society. The end of his poem eschews flowery language and transforms directly into the voice of Sheriff Joe with all his vitriol and hypocrisy in full display for the reader to judge.

And like SB1070, the readers judge in all kinds of ways. I’ve heard as much praise for this poem as I’ve heard disdain. I’ve heard this poem called racist, that it paints all gringos in a negative light, and outrage that the poet uses the word gringo. And, in the name of poetic dialogue, these are all good things. It’s better to know what is in the heart of people around you and nothing brings that heart out faster than a good poem.

So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans

O Yes? Do they come on horses
with rifles, and say,
Ese gringo, gimmee your job?

And do you, gringo, take off your ring,
drop your wallet into a blanket
spread over the ground, and walk away?

I hear Mexicans are taking your jobs away.
Do they sneak into town at night,
and as you’re walking home with a whore,
do they mug you, a knife at your throat,
saying, I want your job?

Even on TV, an asthmatic leader
crawls turtle heavy, leaning on an assistant,
and from a nest of wrinkles on his face,
a tongue paddles through flashing waves
of lightbulbs, of cameramen, rasping
“They’re taking our jobs away.”

Well, I’ve gone about trying to find them,
asking just where the hell are these fighters.

The rifles I hear sound in the night
are white farmers shooting blacks and browns
whose ribs I see jutting out
and starving children,
I see the poor marching for a little work,
I see small white farmers selling out
to clean-suited farmers living in New York,
who’ve never been on a farm,
don’t know the look of a hoof or the smell
of a woman’s body bending all day long in fields.

I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.

Below that cool green sea of money,
millions and millions of people fight to live,
search for pearls in the darkest depths
of their dreams, hold their breath for years
trying to cross poverty to just having something.

The children are dead already. We are killing them,
that is what America should be saying;
on TV, in the streets, in offices, should be saying,
“We aren’t giving the children a chance to live.”

Mexicans are taking our jobs, they say instead.
What they really say is, let them die,
and the children too.

© Jimmy Santiago Baca
Reprinted with permission of the author.