the poem wears a mask. the mask is a bouquet of gardenias.
the bouquet is for your protection. if the poem ever dropped
the bouquet. the only thing remaining would be a fist.
From “1. Language”
Por Siempre, a collaborative collection of poetry by Jose Olivarez and photography by Antonio Salazar, is grounded in the Latinx community of Phoenix, but which expands outward to represent Latinx communities across the American borderlands. Salazar speaks to the inspiration behind the collection, explaining that both he and Olivarez are hoping to encourage deep connections “not just in artistic spaces, but in everyday life.” For Olivarez, Salazar’s photos “reveal a deep tenderness” that juxtaposes how “a man, teaching the child how to hold a gun” with how “a suburban father in another America might hold his son or daughter, while teaching him how to swing a bat.” Together, these two artists offer a starkly beautiful celebration of border communities that resists the tropes and mischaracterizations pervading American politics.
Olivarez notes in his artist statement that his bio describes him as “the son of Mexican immigrants” and that this statement “counters…negativity with the reminder that immigrants have positively contributed to the United States.” This dedication to counternarrative comes through immediately, as Olivarez opens the first section of the book, Language, with verse that declares “the poem knows you are scared of guns…the poem knows/guns are ugly. that type of knowing is easy.” Olivarez goes on to describe “a billionaire smiling on television” as one of “many guns we applaud,” arguing that “when the violence is neat, we nod along.” The photography throughout this section arranges images of children, guns and drug use with images of pregnancy, intimacy and camaraderie. Midway through the section, Olivarez interjects with another set of lines that implores the reader “to look again./look again if all you see is the cracked glass/like halos behind the lovers’ heads.”
The desire to alter perspective and offer readers an alternative lens through which to witness Latinx communities permeates Por Siempre across all three sections. Olivarez and Salazar are keenly aware that their collaboration acts a counterpublic space, and they seize on the opportunity to challenge one-dimensional representations of Latinx people with layered, complex windows into the breadth of human experience. Olivarez rebukes the flattened narrative of Latinx immigrants as drug lords, proclaiming that “americans love cartel shows because they haven’t learned the names of their own monsters haunting daylight.” Statements like this one urge readers to reconsider the images they confront, even those featuring automatic weapons and gang members, and to sit with the ways in which America continually works to villainize Latinx immigrants.
Salazar’s photography is remarkable in its own right, and Por Siempre succeeds in large part because he continually disorients the reader, framing images from unusual perspectives and varying uses of light and shadow. Some photos are black and white, while others pop with vivid colors; some images are crisp and highly stylized, while others are grainy and candid. The refusal to visualize Phoenix’ Latinx community in a single, “consistent” approach further rejects flattened representations of la frontera, insisting that readers see each subject as an individual and each exchange as unique. Salazar is deliberate, though, in highlighting cultural artifacts that unify the community, firmly grounding his photography in ethnography.
Por Siempre is neither a poetry collection nor a photo essay, but something between. It works well as a coffee table book, but also offers enough complexity and artistic value to warrant intensive study in the classroom. Olivarez and Salazar prove to be an ideal collaborative, and the result of their work together is something that everyone should sit with.