Ruben Rivera, Ph.D., was born in New York City to a mixed-race Puerto Rican family and raised in southern California in that time “when children should be seen and not heard.” As a working-class brown Latino boy, Ruben was invisible in the public school curriculum, on TV and media – except for anomalies like Tonto whose name in Spanish meant Dummy – and America as a whole, even as the long-ignored were struggling to be seen and heard in the era of Jim Crow, Civil Rights, the Chicano movement, anti-war marches, and the threat of cold war doom.
In Z is for Zapatazo, Ruben’s poetry depicts family upheaval, social injustice, and suffering summarized by the Spanish word Zapatazo. But his writing also elaborates on the joys of love, family, faith, and hope for a better world. Experiences in the spaces between freedom and favoritism, ideals and reality, suffering and hope are rendered in a range of poetical forms with vivid imagery, deadly seriousness, and humor.
The centerpiece “Vatos,” meanwhile, considers Ruben’s own youthful inclination toward the toughness it takes to survive in such a punishing culture, toward being “vatos locos,” or glue-sniffing “kids who couldn’t hurt the man, but we could hurt our own.” Touchingly, it’s a friend’s deep engagement with film and books that introduces to young Ruben the possibility of living for more than “mercurial omerta” and “ineffectual violence”—an epiphany he holds to even after the duo suffer lifelong injuries in an assault by police officers. Ruben writes with exquisite tenderness of what it takes to transcend the options a racist society offers. In the standout “Miss Rice,” a poem about a teacher who just stopped showing up one day, he presents the roles everyone played as elemental: “You were perfect as spring rain. We/the hard ground that sewered you to sea.”
Ruben finds refuge in art and imagination, from Middle Earth and Marvel comics to the contested figures he memorably celebrates in “Pulp Fiction Women,” queens and pirates who “composed your own justice like poets, and lured men/to your dens, your chambers and altars and all-women empires.” That spirit of claiming one’s place in a world where power’s inequitably distributed pulses throughout these arresting pieces.
Takeaway: An incisive collection exploring the gulf between American promise and its reality.
Great for fans of: Jimmy Baca, ¡Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A