In his stunning debut collection, Citizen Illegal, José Olivarez explores the complexities of an identity in flux, reminding his readers “it’s hard for one body to contain two countries, / the countries go to war & it’s hard to remember you are loved by both / sides or any sides, mostly you belong to the river that divides your countries.” Simultaneously critiquing the systems that create borders and embracing the culture that thrives between them, Olivarez refuses to let any narrowing labels to be placed on anything. He always interrogates perspective: “everything in me / is diverse even when i eat American foods / like hamburgers, which, to clarify, are American / when a white person eats them & diverse / when my family eats them.” Embracing this multiplicity, Olivarez constructs a narrative where differences coexist—the past and the present, adolescence and adulthood, the hypothetical and the real, belonging and banishment, tears and laughter, the United States and Mexico—breaking down boundaries between these worlds and yet never fully arriving in either. Olivarez carves out a place where Mexican-American Chicano identity can exist on its own terms by defying definition. In “My Family Never Finished Migrating We Just Stopped” he writes “i have a theory. / some of our cousins don’t care about LA or Chicago; / they build a sanctuary underneath the sand, / under the skin we shed, so we can wear / the desert like a cobija.” Citizen Illegal acts as an oasis for acceptance and resistance—an ode of gratitude for in-between spaces.

Haymarket Books.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner