JULY 29, 2022
“THIS BROWN BODY in repose is never quite in repose, always in question of who will see it, and they will be a threat — do I die today, like this? — this body fully of colonization-dystrophy with its instinct to feed upon the flesh of my oppressor?” writes Angel Dominguez in their book of poems, Desgraciado (The Collected Letters). “How are you supposed to politely reject your suffering? Genocide is not a matter of opinion.” Written as a series of letters to Diego de Landa, a friar who in the 16th century enslaved, tortured, and murdered the Maya people in Yucatán and killed their codices, Dominguez’s engagement with the past evils of colonization extends to the present as they ask, “Do I die today, like this?” A Brown body that “is never quite in repose” speaks to the uneasiness that accompanies people of color because everyday acts such as shopping (at a supermarket in Buffalo) and praying (at a church in Laguna Woods) reveal the always-present violence of white supremacy and colonization that permeates life in the United States.
As Raquel Salas Rivera notes in his foreword to the collection, desgraciado can mean a number of things, including “despicable.” “¡Eres un desgraciado! was a terrible insult for my grandmother’s generation,” he explains. Through the letters that unfold across the collection, Dominguez points to many despicable things, from the atrocities committed by Spanish colonizers such as de Landa to the world we currently live in where “the system of systems […] perpetuates this death cult of capital.” Yet, painfully — and uncomfortably — the letters also speak to a desire for the colonizer. “I need you in my bed to understand you. I house you in my body. I lick the language between us; spit up blood,” the speaker says before asking, “If I threw you into a fire would you burn? Auto-de-fé — and act-of-faith — a — Fire. A fire. A fire between us.” Referencing the act-of-faith in which de Landa written manuscripts and skulls on July 12, 1562, in Maní Yucatán, the speaker moves from the suggestive space of the bed to “a fire between us,” signaling not the fire of desire that the bed would imply, but the fire that will forever stand between the speaker and de Landa, preventing them from coming together.
Such a back-and-forth — between desire and revulsion, history and the present — characterizes Desgraciado as exemplified by the variety of forms the letters take. Rivera describes them as not only “poems, letters, [and] prose poems,” but “seances, curses, [and] prayers.” The speaker of the poems curses de Landa with the following:
I’d wish a shift in the service industry on you. Back to back opening shifts. I wish call centers and construction jobs and all the white people on you. I wish overdraft fees and late rent worries upon you. I wish the weight of the world’s whiteness on you […] I wish every late paycheck and lack of food stamps on you. I wish GRE tests on you. I wish the critique of the fucking institution on you. I wish the alabaster architecture of academia on you.
While the curses may seem to fall short with respect to the tortures de Landa orchestrated, including how he “strung up my ancestors from their wrists with their arms tied behind their back and burnt their flesh with boiling pig’s fat,” the speaker insists that their The list of tortures will make de Landa “die a little every day with that, and you still have to press on.” What the speaker is really pointing out, after all, are the structural barriers in place to make sure people of color can never get ahead, from overdraft fees to underpaid wages. Most significantly, they curse de Landa with “the alabaster architecture of academia on you,” pointing to how education is far from a social equalizer; Rather, it runs people of color into the ground. Explicitly stated and also subtending the curses is the fact that the real curse here is the curse of whiteness — the daily confrontation of whiteness and white systems built for white people is the death by a thousand cuts that the speaker wishes de Landa.
The affect that permeates Desgraciado is anger as the speaker of the poems works to contend with a horrific historical past and a bleak present. Dominguez’s anger creates a generative bridge between the two as, in Sara Ahmed’s brilliant formulation, “Anger against objects or events, directed against this or that moves feminism into a bigger critique of ‘what is’, as a critique that loses an object, and opens itself up to possibilities that cannot be simply located or found in the present.” Framing anger as a feminist attachment, Ahmed allows us to see how the particulars of the speaker’s anger lead to “a bigger critique of ‘what is.’” The danger of Desgraciado is that in writing to de Landa, the speaker would seem to never lose the object and thus manifest the “possibilities that cannot be simply located or found in the present.” However, as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Anger is useful to help clarify our differences, but in the long run, strength that is bred by anger alone is a blind force which cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past.” In creating a series of letters to de Landa, then, Dominguez works to demolish the past; However, rather than operating as a blind force, Dominguez’s anger toward white supremacy creates an opening through which to not only imagine Indigenous and Latinx survival, but also our ability to thrive despite the world we live in.
Part of that thriving — for Latinxs at least — is contending with the fact that our ancestors were also colonizers like de Landa. Such themes imbue our literature; a famous work of Chicanx poetry, for example, is I Am Joaquín (1967) by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. A history of Chicanx history told in lyric form, the speaker tells us, “I was both tyrant and slave,” and,
I have been the Bloody Revolution,
I have killed
and been killed.
I am despots
and the apostle of democracy
In Gonzales’s hands, Chicanx survival, made famous by the final lines — “I SHALL ENDURE! / I WILL ENDURE” — cannot be imagined without acknowledging the colonizer blood that runs through us. Thus, Gonzales creates a form of Chicano pride that does not erase this history — to do so would mean to also erase attrocities — but puts that history in service of a longer narrative of survival and endurance. I read Dominguez as engaging with this literary tradition and building on it to center Indigenous Latinxs and foreground the political agency that attends the anger permeating their work. While Chicano pride was necessary during the Civil Rights movement, Dominguez illuminates that pride is not enough; we need anger to open up possibilities that would not be available to us otherwise. As the speaker of Desgraciado reminds us, we cannot politely reject our suffering.
“Hatred is the fury of those who don’t share our goals, and its object is death and destruction,” Lorde declares, outlining how hatred is something the oppressor feels for us while anger is something we feel toward them. Yet unlike hatred, anger can help the oppressed create a future in a world where futurity seems foreclosed. As the speaker of Desgraciado says, “I keep trying to imbue these poems with schematics of a different future.” In contrast to how “hatred is a deathwish for the hated” according to Lorde, Dominguez offers us lifewishes. While the speaker endlessly talks of revenge, the speaker also admits, “I know that ultimately there are things more important than revenge. Like, liberation. Education is a form of liberation.” Yet rather than simply naming a protest slogan, the speaker talks about how liberation “is a constant reassessment and recalibration of yourself and your tools. It’s understanding that you can be wrong.” In other words, the speaker’s education is not within “the alabaster architecture of academia”; in fact, it exists in contradistinction to it. A “self-made seraphim of the middle passage,” the speaker reminds us that liberation involves “[s]staying mad. Remaining vigilant. Until everyone is free.”
In Desgraciado, Dominguez takes a clear-eyed approach to histories of colonization and the ongoing threat of white supremacy. By creating a series of letters to de Landa, they highlight the new power deferential: de Landa is the one who is dead and cannot speak back, much less understand the language the letters are written in. But most of all, Dominguez testifies to the atrocities de Landa committed such that those who did not know about him and his role in the genocide of the Yucatec Maya now do. In contrast to de Landa’s own trial before the Spanish crown in which he was tried “for utilizing inquisitional tactics without the consent of the crown,” Dominguez’s poems try the friar for the atrocities committed against their people. In doing so, Dominguez exorcises de Landa from Mexican and Chicanx history so that “despite the hoards of white history, we remain. We continue to bloom for us. Until we are once again the sky.”
Renee Hudson is an assistant professor of English at Chapman University, where she specializes in Latinx and Multiethnic American literature.