Xánath Caraza sings this line in Nahuatl when she reads her poem “Storm.” She does not translate it into Spanish, though she knows that most of her readers do not speak Nahuatl. Sandra Kingery, Caraza’s English translator, also leaves the verse in the indigenous language. The poem’s title and images provide enough context for the reader to understand that the verse refers to some aspect of a storm: water, wind, movement.
Uala atl uan ehecatl, literally translated, means “with the water comes the wind.” Caraza’s work is full of references to water, which is perhaps not surprising given that she was born in Xalapa in the coastal state of Veracruz, Mexico and now lives in landlocked Kansas City, Missouri. The figures that populate her writing are immigrants, tourists, refugees, slaves, and mythical creatures. For many of them, water represents a way to return home and is a symbol of nostalgia. At moments, however, water is a destructive and disorienting force. Characters lose possessions, memories, languages, and in one case even a name, as they cross bodies of water. In “What the Tide Brings,” the title story in Caraza’s first collection of short stories, the protagonist, a young woman named Perla, watches her parents disappear in a storm. In another story, “Water Passes through My House, It Comes to My House to Dream,” the water is “slow but constant, demanding possession,” as it erases parts of the narrator’s past, her sense of self, and the limits she knows. In these moments where identities seem to dissolve, Caraza’s language is fluid: “water passes through my house, not a drop to drink; there is no drop, it’s my house, it comes to my house to dream, don’t you see, water passes through my house, it passed through my house, it’s everywhere, it’s just water.” In her poetry as well as in her prose, the sea consumes language and identity. The writer feels that her words are “imprisoned in the depths of the sea” and she drops nets into the water to retrieve them.
Yet while water steals words and memories, waves also crash onto shores—both literal and metaphoric—carrying unexpected treasures, and allowing characters to return to their origins. In “What the Tide Brings,” a fishing boat washes into the port years after Perla’s parents have disappeared. When she sees that the boat is carrying her father’s hat, Perla gets in and begins rowing. She then drops the oars and gives herself over to the sea. For Caraza’s characters, almost all of whom are women, memory is closely linked to water. When they think of their countries of origin—Mexico, Guatemala, Chile—they picture the sea.
Caraza is principally a poet, with seven collections of poetry published and another forthcoming. Her work has been translated into Hindi, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Portuguese, Nahuatl, and English. She publishes her poetry in bilingual (Spanish/English) editions, or trilingual (with Nahuatl) where possible. Caraza had a role in translating some of her earlier collections with Stephen Holland-Wempe, but now has Sandra Kingery translate her work. Thinking about the effects of translation while she is writing in Spanish, Caraza told me, alters the way she writes. So now she relies on Kingery, who has translated Caraza’s most recent collections of poetry: Syllables of Wind, Ocelocíhuatl, Black Ink, and Where the Light Is Violet.
Caraza’s geographical and cultural references are wide-ranging. She describes a café in China, a sunset in Barcelona, and the Bay of Tangier. Her most recent book, Where the Light Is Violet, is a poetic travel diary of her time in Italy. “What is a border?” the poet asks in Black Ink. The characters in her poetry and prose are continually transported, sometimes through sensory experiences such as the smell of mango or the taste of coffee. The protagonist in “After the Bridges” imagines that she is listening to marimbas in a town square, though she is thousands of miles from home. Others find themselves in strange borderlands, trapped between places, between eras, between dreams and reality. One is haunted by a Maya rain song and visions of a young girl, and travels to Guatemala in order to reconcile her dream world with her conscious life. In another story, Venus dissolves into the words of the pre-Columbian ruler and poet Nezahualcoyotl, whom she meets at a café near a Roman cemetery. Caraza further blurs the lines between fiction and reality, action and anticipation: a narrator begins reading a book in which she appears, and a writer receives a mysterious package which contains the completed version of the story she is struggling to complete.
In a poem in Black Ink, Caraza refers to the “north that is [her] south.” Through all the border crossing, Mexico is her guiding star, the force that orients her work. Indigenous cultures feature prominently in her books and her poetry includes many words with Nahuatl roots. Kingery often leaves these terms untranslated, even when an English equivalent exists. In Syllables of Wind, for example, the poet describes herself as the “daughter of the light with the song of the cenzontle falling across [her] chest.” Kingery could have translated cenzontle as mockingbird, but opts for the indigenous word. The translator’s choice is in keeping with the images in Caraza’s poetry, which include Tecuichpo (a female descendent of Moctezuma) and Nezahualcoyotl (a political leader and poet), as well as pre-Columbian carvings such as the Olmec heads and chacmool. Her poetry contains echoes of indigenous literatures in other ways too. Take, for example, her poem “Equinox”:
When night and day become one
Earth sings in unison—the Feathered
Serpent descends alongside its shadow
The feathered serpent, also known as Quetzalcoatl, is a powerful figure in a number of Meso-American mythologies. The duality expressed in this poem is reminiscent of many Aztec and Maya poems, both ancient and contemporary.
At times, the poet is faithful in her representation of historical and mythological figures, whom she calls upon to guide or protect her characters. In other moments, however, she modernizes these references. One of her books is titled Ocelocíhuatl, a compound word she invented by merging the Nahuatl words “ocelotl” [jaguar] and “cihuatl” [woman]. The Aztec jaguar warriors were all male, but the fighter in this book is a jaguar woman: an “ocelocíhuatl.” In the preface to this book, Lucha Corpi notes that a number of indigenous groups in Meso-America revered jaguars as creatures “able to move between worlds—environments—with ease” and that shamans called upon the animal’s spirit “to protect themselves from evil doers” and “to preserve that which is sacred.” Caraza calls on the ocelocíhuatl to channel historical and cultural memory:
Breathe deeply Ocelocíhuatl
jaguar woman of the black jungle
the scent of those no longer here.
Because she can exist in two realms at once, this mythical creature is able to carry the voices of those lost into the present.
Ocelocíhuatl opens with a poem titled “Bleeding Foam,” a lament for the forty-three students that disappeared from Ayotzinapa in 2014. The theme is personal for Caraza. In a recent interview, she mentioned that one of her uncles graduated from a teacher’s college similar to the school in Ayotzinapa. In this poem, the infinite sound of waves crashing will preserve the memory of the students and encourage us to keep fighting injustice. She asks the sea to “roar their names / For eternity.” This plea is immediately followed by a poem for Michael Brown. Caraza was traveling to St. Louis at the time of the protests following the jury’s decision not to charge the white police officer who had shot Brown with murder. She refers to Brown as “43 + 1,” connecting him to the students who disappeared from Ayotzinapa. She describes events in various parts of the world, but she is always drawn back to her native country. In her poem “Kansas City,” for example, she refers to Japan’s 2011 nuclear crisis and to war in Libya, but these international tragedies exist alongside a Maya deity and the sounds of Nahuatl. The figures that give voice to the victims of injustice are almost always Mexican.
Since Caraza’s poetry is so often political, I asked her about the connections between her activism and her art. “A woman writing is always a political act,” she told me. Most of the prominent voices in her work are female and, in keeping with Caraza’s cosmopolitan approach, come from diverse regions. Whether the story is set in contemporary China or in colonial Mexico, these women are active and challenge society’s demands on women. For example, when the narrator in “Café on Huanjue Xiang Street” feels a man watching her, rather than looking away, she turns her gaze on him. It is her pleasure that is emphasized in this story, not his. Caraza also rewrites the story of Catarina de San Juan, a seventeenth-century slave turned saint known as the China Poblana. Catarina (originally named Mirra) was taken from her family in India and, after some years in the Philippines, sold in Mexico as a slave. After her master died, she entered a convent and began having visions of the Virgin Mary. She was worshipped as a saint until the Inquisition forbade the practice. Caraza devotes a poem in Syllables of Wind to Catarina as well as a short story in What the Tide Brings. In Caraza’s version of the legend, which challenges the narrative that the China Poblana was a truly devout, fully assimilated character, Catarina is not merely a passive recipient of religious visions. Rather, she willfully calls apparitions forth because “it was a sure way of making a little money.” Observers pay to watch her perform miracles. Like so many of Caraza’s other characters, Catarina has been separated from her homeland and is trying to reconstruct her identity. She repeatedly reminds readers, “They call me Catarina de San Juan, but that is not my real name. That is the name they gave me, the people who baptized me to save my soul.” Catarina’s efforts to find herself begin and end with her trying to recall her original name.
Beyond her role as a poet and short story writer, Caraza is a journalist, a translator, and a curator. One of her most interesting projects involves introducing US Latino poets to Spanish-speaking audiences. This initiative is a collaboration between Periódico de Poesía, a monthly journal published by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [UNAM] in Mexico City and the Smithsonian Latino Center. Caraza profiles writers and translates their work into Spanish. Of the eight poets Caraza featured in 2016, five were women.
In addition to helping circulate writing by other Latino authors, Caraza also collaborates with a number of Latino painters. She enjoys promoting their work, but added that for a painting to interest her, it must “whisper secrets.” Two of her books, Corazon pintado (Painted Heart) and Noche de colibríes (Night of Hummingbirds) are bilingual ekphrastic collections (the titles were left in Spanish). These books include poetic interpretations of paintings such as La flor de guayaba (The Guava Flower) and La niña que cortó la flor (The Girl that Cut the Flower), both by Mexican artist Israel Nazario. The poem based on the latter work is titled “Out of Your Hands.” Caraza imagines that the girl’s feet, not visible in the painting, are sinking into the sea while her hands reach towards the “green future.”
Since translation between artistic forms can always work in two directions, Caraza’s poetry, which is highly sensorial, has been turned into visual art. Her work is full of smells, tastes, and occasional examples of synesthesia. In Syllables of Wind, music “drenches” the landscape. Colors are vivid: the rain is “carrot-colored,” the sky is purple, and stucco is the same shade as a nispero (a type of fruit). These types of descriptions lend themselves to visual representation. Chicana artist Pola Lopez painted the ocelocíhuatl, an image which appeared on the book cover. Adriana Manuela, a Mexican artist living in Spain, created a series of paintings based on the poems in Syllables of Wind. Her painting of the title poem was used as cover art for the book.
One of the poems Manuela painted is “Alpujarra of Water.” In this poem, Caraza imagines all the places she could reach if she were made of water. She would sink into the earth, cross mountains, drip into clothes being washed, “reach almond groves / and craggy ravines” and finally “concentrate on orange trees / Waiting to become clouds.” In another poem (in Where the Light Is Violet), Caraza describes her creative work as an elusive creature:
Creature of water streamed between my hands
slipped between my fingers
I lost it in the silence of the sea
The sea holds so much for the poet: creativity, language, memory, home. Just as her character Perla gives herself to the sea to reclaim part of her past, Caraza seeks to close the distance between her worlds by becoming water.