Poet Ariana Brown searches for new origins in her debut book We Are Owed. (Grieveland Press, 2021). Brown has had over ten years of experience writing, performing, and teaching poetry that struggles towards freedom for all Black peoples. She identifies on her website as a “queer Black Mexican American poet” whose lived experiences within anti-Black cultures and societies have forced her to spin language into liberation. We Are Owed. achieves that goal by centering scenes of Black Mexican American life, history, and feeling. The title is a call to action, a demand, a recognition, a reparation, a reorientation, and a reclamation. Brown ushers in a new grammar that reaches beyond nation and builds from the foundational understanding that colonial and neocolonial nation-states, and the theory of borderlands set forth by Anzaldúa, are limiting to Black peoples.
Brown begins by introducing the reader to memories of her childhood on the Southside of San Antonio, Texas. She conjures her father, who passed away while working for the Air Force; she recalls being the only Black child in her elementary school full of mestizo ethnic Mexicans; and she details the inherited embodied experiences of colonialism and imperialism through the lens of mainstream Mexican American culture. In a poem titled “A Quick Story” Brown writes, “Dream of the end // of nations, a world without borders to enforce. // Countries will kill everyone you love // & everyone else too – foreign and domestic” (10). The readers are tasked with rejecting U.S., Chicano, and Mexican nationalism due to their inherited violence towards Black, indigenous, and queer peoples everywhere. Brown interrogates, “Who are you without your country?” (3). A similar question can be posed: Who are ethnic Mexicans without mainstream anti-Black Mexican American culture? Or, rather, what is Mexican/American culture without anti-Blackness? We Are Owed. does not seek to merely point out erasures, but instead moves quickly to establish a new epistemological derivation of Blackness rooted in resistance to colonialism in Latin America.
Ariana Brown writes towards the liberation and freedom of Black people. Her dedication, and surely the plural “We” in the title of the book, is to Afro-Mexicans and the Black diaspora writ large. This happens at different scales. In a poem titled “Negrita” dedicated to the author’s cousin, they are playing lotería together when Brown reflects on the games’ representation of Black people. She writes, “You & I are not mirages. // Neither are our ghosts. // To survive here, mija, // I work on the words, // making a list of everything // we are owed” (15). At this moment Ariana is not only speaking to her younger cousin but also Black girls everywhere. Brown is skillful in translating her lived experiences into meditations of agency, birthright, and history. For example, she evokes two critical historical actors – Esteban and Gaspar Yanga. The former, Esteban, was a Black Muslim enslaved person brought aboard the Panfilo Narváez Expedition in the 16th century and was a scout sent ahead of Spanish conquistadors to survey lands and negotiate with Indigenous peoples. The latter, Gaspar Yanga, was an African revolutionary who led a maroon colony in a slave rebellion against Spanish rule and established what is now known as one of the first free Black settlements in las Américas. Even though little information exists for both of these historical actors, Brown yearns to learn more. As a result, she employs Saddiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation to imagine the lived experience of these individuals, what they looked like, and their desires. In “Letter to Yanga, from Six-Year-Old Ariana,” Brown begins, “Yanga I wanna know what you look like. Can you send me a picture // please” (45); this is followed by the poem “Why I want to know What Yanga Looked Like” only three pages later. Ariana argues that liberation and freedom are rooted in historical, ancestral, and spiritual connections with other Black and revolutionary peoples.
Ultimately, Brown utilizes language as a medium through which to pursue new origins. Not origins beginning with Hernán Cortés or Christopher Columbus or the Mayflower – and not one in which citizenship or English or Spanish proficiency will save people. Instead, she creates an origin story stemming from resistance to these conquistadores and colonial endeavors grounded in the lineage of the likes of Gaspar Yanga. “I have been thinking about birth // as the place we begin // but I want to begin with you // I think I do,” (53) Brown writes in the poem “Yanga,”. Ariana rescripts the history of Afro-Mexicans and their descendants as a history in which resistance to nationalism and colonialism was and is always possible. Brown continues later in that same poem/letter to Yanga, “teach me to be a person without a nation // on the other side of enslavement” (53). Brown dares to imagine better possibilities and more radical connections to historical revolutionary Blackness as a catalyst for futures unknown.
While the work reads as a collective journey towards freedom, the work of freedom is done in and through Ariana herself. “I choose something closer to freedom // I grow bigger // I learn to understand my own loneliness. // I go see what parts of me are missing. I fill in the blank,” she writes in a poem titled “Borderlands suite: Nightmares.” This work moves us closer to something beyond nations, nationalisms, and the entrapments of borderlands theory. Ariana Brown is a poet leading the way towards freedom for all Black peoples, offering her writing and language as a portal towards new possibilities and new origins. We Are Owed. consists of thirty-two poems across seventy-one pages and will surely spark conversations in Latinx Studies, Afro-Latinx Studies, and African and African Diaspora Studies – as well as in the many poetry spaces in which Brown’s work circulates.
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Jonathan Cortez is currently the 2021-2023 César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. They received their Ph.D. from the Department of American Studies at Brown University in 2021. Cortez is a historian of 20th-century issues of race, labor, (im)migration, surveillance, space, relational Ethnic Studies, and Latinx Studies. Their research focuses on the rise of federally-funded encampments (i.e., the concentration of populations) from the advent of the New Deal until the post-WWII era. Their manuscript, “The Age of Encampment: Race, Migration, Surveillance, and the Power of Spatial Scripts, 1933-1950” reveals underlying continuities between the presence of threatening bodies and the increasing surveillance of these bodies in camps throughout the United States. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @joncortz and on their personal website www.historiancortez.com
Jonathan Cortez is a Ph.D. candidate of American Studies at Brown University. They are a historian of 20th-century issues of race, labor, (im)migration, surveillance, space, relational Ethnic Studies, and Latinx Studies.