Victoria Buitron

Chain Migration

          My mother doesn’t remember the change of seasons, her mother’s smile, or the home in Stamford, Connecticut where she spent the first years of her life. When she’s three and her older sister is five, they become orphans due to fate and a man’s choice. Their mother is diagnosed with aplastic anemia and dies just a few months later, and their widower father refuses to be the sole guardian of two girls. There is a third child, one born with the privilege of a penis. The father sends the two girls more than 3,000 miles away, to the country he originally migrated from, and reserves his fatherly duties for the boy who can stay with him in the United States.
          The girls are sent to Milagro, Ecuador, a coastal town about an hour away from the hub of Guayaquil. Despite its name, the town lacks miracles, though it makes up for it in sugar and pineapples. A river, in which the town’s kids swim, weaves through its center. The sugar mill’s tower rises above most of the edifices and cloaks the air with a hint of molasses, while slivers of ash from the factory fall on clothes hung out to dry across the town, like a volcano emitting a persistent spew of smoke. In the 1970s most of the streets are still dirt. The few concrete ones bear the onslaught of the rainy season for four months, and by the time April arrives and schools open, the streets are battered with holes the width and depth of pots made for gumbo. With only two main streets, it takes just a few minutes to enter from the east and continue onto the outskirts of the town where only sugar cane fields and rice fields mark the landscape. 

          “An anchor baby is a child who was purposefully brought while in the womb to the United States by a foreigner so that they would receive US citizenship upon their birth. It is widely considered to be an offensive term to immigrants, especially Asian-Americans.”

         The sisters first live with their maternal grandmother. About a year later, Tía Yolanda, one of their father’s eight siblings, visits the girls. She finds them both on the sidewalk. They have long unkempt hair and even though they are two years apart, they are both the same height. Their skinny bodies are tanned from the equatorial sun, and the oldest is a few shades darker than her sister. Their shirts worn through with holes, and they are sweaty with old dirt on their necks, new dirt on their fingers, and Tía Yolanda initially mistakes the lice crawling on their faces for moles. She claims the girls, taking them to the house she shares with her mother and brother. 
         That first night, she heats up water and bathes them. She pours lice shampoo on their small heads, caresses their scalp, and makes sure none of it seeps into their eyes. Tía Yolanda, a teacher who prayed for children of her own, is granted the children of her brother by Diosito. The girls sleep in a separate bed in her room. She can finally be a mother, kiss her quasi-children goodnight, and for years the girls don’t understand how good they have it.
         Tía Yolanda is plump but petite with black hair that almost reaches her shoulders. She never leaves home without lipstick or mascara, which makes her small eyes pop. Men look back to take in her beauty, especially on the monthly bus ride with the girls to the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil. When the gringo officials see the girls, their guardian is handed a Social Security check for each of them, which is financial help from the government due to their mother’s death. It is more money than what Tía Yolanda earns in six months at her teaching job. She then takes the girls to their favorite restaurant, where they eat juicy meat, moros con lenteja, and leave with protruded bellies. The girls always wear matching socks, clean underwear, and dresses with no holes. They are enrolled in their small town’s most expensive school and attend an English academy on the weekends. “It’s for you to understand basic English once you move back to the United States after high school,” she tells them. Tía Yolanda promises the girls that no matter what happens, they will attend a bilingual high school in Guayaquil. The girls will have to wake up at five a.m., make new friends, start homework on the bus back home, but it will all be worth it. Every year, during the months of school vacation, the girls go with Tía Yolanda to the United States for a few weeks, a treat paid for by Tía Alba, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut.

         In November 1986, President Reagan signed the “Immigration Reform and Control Act.” Reagan’s joint statement declared, “Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.” In 1990, the cost for a U.S. citizenship application was $90. By September 2020, the cost had increased to $640. As of October 3, 2020, the new fee is $1,170.

         The girls only see their father during annual trips to the United States. I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to know that your father is still alive, thousands of miles away, unwilling to reach out. He doesn’t write, he doesn’t call, and he doesn’t send money. But they are children and children love their father. They hug him when they arrive at his home in Connecticut, call him Papi, and are polite to his new Argentinean wife. They also visit Tía Alba, who visits the girls every year in Ecuador, sends them new clothes, and continuously asks Tía Yolanda whether they need anything.

         According to the article “New Media and the ‘Anchor Baby’ Boom,” published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in 2011, the term anchor child describes a young immigrant who will petition relatives in other countries to become permanent residents or citizens of the United States. 

         When my mother is twelve, Tía Yolanda falls ill with pancreatic cancer, and Tía Alba does everything in her power to take her to see a doctor in the United States. But before Tía Yolanda can leave, she undergoes emergency surgery in Milagro. She will never regain her strength to stand up and teach. The girls hear her crying out in pain for weeks. At times Tía Yolanda stifles her moans so the girls can sleep. Her bosom, once wide and full enough to allow a toddler to comfortably sleep in, begins to disappear. Her waist shrinks until her clothes cover her like bedsheets. 
         The night she dies, the girls cry themselves to sleep: the oldest one because a second mother is gone, and the youngest because, while it’s not the first mother who dies, it’s the one she will remember. Their future paths are again wholly altered by death. An uncle takes them in, but uses the Social Security checks to support his love of whiskey. The girls never go to school in Guayaquil and they don’t learn English. They leave the private high school and enroll in the overcrowded public one. The uncle’s number one priority for the next few years is to make sure the worst fate doesn’t befall them: premarital pregnancy. He only lets the girls out of his sight to go to school and then they must head straight home after the last school bell rings. But my mother meets my dad when she’s in high school and she sneaks out to see him. When school is closed for the holidays, the girls lie to their uncle and say they indeed have class to experience some semblance of freedom. 
         At seventeen, my mother becomes pregnant with me. Somehow my mother, father, and their friends keep it a secret from their guardians. If they hadn’t, she would have been forced to drop out during her senior year. People think a pregnant girl in class is contagious and will lead to more children out of wedlock. In their high school graduation photo, my father and mother are standing side-by-side, along with my paternal grandfather. Their expressions don’t look mischievous at all, but their ability to keep a secret is one of the reasons they’re smiling. In a few weeks, when she is four months pregnant and she knows no one will be able to take away her high school diploma, my mom and dad confess. My mother’s uncles and aunts call her father, and it’s only then that he decides his presence is warranted.

         Excerpt from Chapter Three of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Policy Manual: United States Citizens at Birth (INA 301 and 309):
         “A child born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions acquires citizenship at birth if:
      •  The child was born before noon (Eastern Standard Time) May 24, 1934;​
      •  The child’s father is an alien;​
      •  The child’s mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth; and​
      •  The child’s U.S. citizen mother resided in the United States prior to the child’s birth.”

          My parents remember that the day after I’m born, my maternal grandfather arrives in Milagro. He stands in the doorway of my mother’s room, demanding she promptly get dressed in white and walk down the aisle. The second worst thing after premarital pregnancy is no marriage after a birth. My father promises he’ll take care of my mom and me, but a wedding is out of the question. They’re still teens, and no one forces my dad to do anything he hasn’t decided to do himself. Mom and Dad leave with me wrapped in a blanket and they move in with my paternal grandparents—but without a promise to wed. The man who abandoned my mother was left reeling in shame for what she did to the family name. Decades later, my mother’s father will ask me to call him Uncle instead of Grandpa, so I refuse to call him either.
          No one outside my immediate family knows that when I’m born, my mother is given a document that says Certificate of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America with my name on it. My father learns his girlfriend doesn’t have an Ecuadorian passport just a few months before I’m born. For years, no one knows that my mother is, on paper, actually a gringa. No one knows because she doesn’t speak English and because the trips to the United States had stopped years before. 

          In 2008, a “birther” controversy erupted during Barack Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States. It began when opponents alleged he was born outside of the country. On August 6, 2012, Donald Trump tweeted: “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.”
          In July 2008, Fred Hollander filed a lawsuit against John McCain and the Republican National Committee in order to disqualify the Republican candidate from the U.S. presidency. The suit alleged that McCain couldn’t become president because he was born in Coco Solo, Panama on August 29, 1936. At the time, the Panama Canal was under U.S. control.

          I was born in 1989, and by the early 1990s, my Abuelo was one of the wealthiest people in Milagro. After my father graduates from high school, Abuelo gives him the money and the space to start his own business. In a few years, though, he is on the verge of closing his business for the second time. He refuses another loan. Instead, at 22 years old, he decides to go to the United States and start over. His father is adamant he stay and tries to convince him that the perils of immigration aren’t for him. But his pride doesn’t allow him to stay in Ecuador. 
          My parents, now married for several years, arrive at the U.S. Embassy. They’ve consulted lawyers, filled out paperwork, obtained bank statements—but they’re still worried. Green cards are rarely granted so they’re scared he might have to wait a few years or go back to the embassy in a few months. The workers don’t even peek at the paperwork. Instead, they ask who I am. My father grabs me by my armpits and raises me up to the gringos. In that moment, I become their anchor to the United States. I look like my father, and they tell them that’s all they need. He has a green card within a month and leaves to start a new life in Connecticut before we can join him. 

          In 2020, the Trump Administration announced a travel ban on Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Sudan. These countries were added to a previous list of countries with travel restrictions, which initially include Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called the new travel ban “pure discrimination and racism.”

          I’m five when we join my father in Connecticut. My mom has papeles but no command of English and only finds work cleaning houses. In 1996, on a day towards the end of spring, late to one of my mother’s appointments, we board the first train heading south. Mr. Cutacelli will be at the Greenwich train station to pick us up to clean his home, while I’m left in a room to play with toys that aren’t mine. My mother doesn’t like to venture to an unknown location if she’s alone. When she needs to take a bus or train, her knowledge of English evaporates, and she enters into a rush of panic over what the unknown could bring. She fears a train will end up in New Jersey or Florida, far from the comfort of all that she knows. On the train, she suddenly notices that it isn’t making any stops. There should be five stops between South Norwalk and Greenwich but the train proceeds at a high speed and by the time we approach the platform, my mother is holding back tears. She spots and waves at Mr. Cutacelli, the house owner who promised to pick us up. The train doesn’t stop, and my mother looks around for a face that might know Spanish to find out where we are heading.

          On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Cristina Riofrio sat a table with friends in a McDonald’s in Georgia. A man at a nearby table overheard her speaking Spanish and ordered her to “shut up” and “speak English.” She filmed the encounter then posted it on Twitter and wrote, “In America, I can speak FUCKING Spanish if I want to.” Cristina was born in California to Ecuadorian parents. I think, That could have been me. Not only are my parents Ecuadorian, my mother’s maiden name is Riofrio.
          Within a week, the man who hassled Cristina was fired by his employer, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.

          My mother finds a conductor aboard the train and explains as best she can. Her hand, holding mine, is wet with worry.
          “Grenich. No stop? Stop in Grenich?” my mother says.
          “Oh, you got the express train, honey. Next time take the local. LOO-CAAAL.”
          He stretches out the vowels as if this will prevent any future mix-ups, as if my mother knows what these words mean. The man has some stubble over his lips, and I can’t see his hair under the navy-blue conductor’s hat. His shirt is a lighter blue, the color of a cloudless day.
          “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you which train to get on once we stop so you can head back to Greenwich. Sit down, okay?”
          The other passengers have books or newspapers open, some are wearing t-shirts or light sweaters and they glare at us, others have worried eyes, but they are all bound by silence.
          “Mami, are we okay?” I ask. If she cries, I’ll panic. But I don’t see any tears, and she tells me there is nothing to worry about it. I cling onto her like I always have. I’m five and I have never had a nanny. She is everything to me. I make sure I’m touching her hand or arm, and I feel like the weight of our worry is like a heavy anchor that will cause the train to halt.
          I have never seen the end of train tracks before. In my mind the tracks circled around the world in a never-ending path to take people to their destinations. The terminus is not what I imagine. The track is covered with trash, from coffee cups to old newspapers and receipts accidentally flung from people’s pockets. We are the only ones who cross the track to the other side;  everyone else on the train makes their way past the railings, through a gloomy tunnel to wherever they need to be. 
          We thank the conductor and head back towards Connecticut. Cellphones are not common yet and my mother doesn’t have a beeper; we can only hope Mr. Cutacelli is still at the station and not eager to fire her. When we arrive at the Greenwich stop, about an hour and a half after my mother waved to him from the express train, he knows exactly what happened to us and is ready to take us to clean his home. 

          In 2018, on a televised show called Axios on HBO, President Donald Trump said: “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States… with all of those benefits… It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”

          What I don’t know on that day, when my mother utters I’m sorry too many times on the train platform, is that she is not an immigrant to this country. What I don’t know, even to this day, is who the anchor child is. Is it me or is it my mother? Maybe it’s both of us. What I don’t know on that day is that my mother was born just a few miles from where Mr. Cutacelli stood, beaming with an expression of pity reserved for newcomers who don’t know the difference between the express or the local train.

Victoria Buitron is currently working on a memoir and recently graduated with an MFA from Fairfield University. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Spry Lit and more.




Opal Palmer Adisa

Wherever There Is Sea I Belong

Sitting on a rock at the sea’s edge, I become internally quiet, my breath slows and lengthens, and for a moment I close my eyes, allowing the rays to bathe my face. Breathing deeply, I look out and listen, leaning into the sea, I listen for the voices at the ocean floor, moaning, chattering and sending me messages. They, my ancestors, have come to terms with their fate under the blue waters, their new home. This too was a part of the plan, so they assure me.

              hear us in the ripple 
              of the waves
              in the current of the tides
              our journey is in the underworld
              where new life is always beginning

Sometimes, depending on the location, I sit under a tamarind tree, or stand on the pier facing the open Atlantic or I squat in the sand, using a stick to trace designs, mesmerized by the voices that neither the sound of the nor the loud appetite of the sea-gulls can block. I am a child of the sea, I rode to the Americas on Yemoja’s back, learned to ingest salt like the fish and use its sodium chloride to preserve my history. I am here and have been since before the Middle Passage which is the chronicle I am given in their history, and I will be here for eternity. No one can dispel or annihilate me.

              unshod my soles remember
              every pebble every soil every
              wisp of grass and the stories
              too tied to these shores that 
              generations have lived
              where belonging is the bridge
              and expanse of every path and road 

Before I was schooled about how Africans came to the Caribbean and the Americas, I could not imagine anywhere else that might be home. And even now that I have been to 14 African countries, have had my DNA tested which traces my roots to Cameroon, even though I have lived in the USA for more years  than I have lived in the Caribbean, these islands will always be home. I know the borders are arbitrarily drawn by the conquerors who lay claim to land based on their success in battle. Land is female and borders are male, and the world and divide of the world that we now inhabit was decided and determined in conquest and often did not consider the original inhabitants, nor the integrity of rivers, mountains nor the local ecology. For this reason, I am opposed to borders and believe people should be allowed freedom of movement.

              in the forest all trees belong
              growing at their own pace
              sometimes plating leaves
              co-joining roots linking branches
              in the spirit of discovery and togetherness
              all belong to the endless belonging

I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in California and doing workshops on diversity with the almost all-white faculty, the majority of whom insisted they were not racist and that their courses were inclusive. There were only a handful of Black and Latino students, but two came to me, a Black woman and a Latino man, asking me to intervene in one of the painting classes where the professor kept insisting that skin colour was pink to puce. When the Black female student raised her hand it was ignored, and when she blurted out “My skin is neither pink nor puce and neither is my mama or papa or a whole community where I come from” silence fell over the classroom, and the professor ignored her for the remainder of the three-hour studio class. 

The Latino student had similar issues over representation in another class. As the faculty diversity coordinator, I reached out to both faculty and said that stating “skin color is pink” in an all-white class with a lone Black female student was not inclusive and omitted a sizable portion of the population of the city where the college was located. I explained that this was what I meant when I spoke about the lack of diversity. 

A few days later I went to my car in the faculty parking lot and affixed to my windshield wiper was a piece of paper with these words written in bold black ink: “Go Back Where You Came From!” I was stunned. Because I was running late to pick up my children, I placed the note in my bag and reported it the next day. A  week later, in the faculty newsletter, I printed the note and wrote a poem in response, the gist of which was: ”I am right where I came from but technically only the indigenous people have claim to this land because no matter how many generations you have been here, like  me, your people came here on boats, voluntarily seeking better. My people were kidnapped and forced to be here to profit your ancestors, so I have sweated the right to be here.”

That was not the first time I was told to go back where I came from. It happened in New York many years before when I was an undergraduate student and babysat a rich boy in upper Manhattan three days a week after classes. Once, an elderly woman in the building where I worked, while riding the elevator, looked sternly at me from the opposite side and crossly said, “What are you doing here! Why don’t you people go back to where you came from?” Her hatred was so palpable. I stood where I was, speechless. I was only 17 then and I truly wondered why white people were so hateful. There is still a part of me that doesn’t understand such a stance–this idea that they belong, but we don’t. Curious, the blindness of white supremacy. As a fairly recent immigrant to the US, I found the racism and ignorance puzzling and vexing. Relating the incident to my mother when I arrived, her attitude was: “Don’t tek on them people. Tell them you belong as much as they do, and besides our bauxite and sugar are increasing their wealth.” In the 1970s, Jamaica was the third largest exporter of bauxite to the US.

Belonging is neither assigned nor granted, nor is it a privilege bestowed. Belonging is understood as a right. I belong because I am human, because my ancestors have contributed because, because… really, I don’t need a reason. Perhaps it was my mother’s staunch, arrogant attitude that buoyed me up so even in those instances, when white Americans tried to make me feel as if I did not belong, my response was always almost indignation and back in their face attitude. I have infused my children with this same attitude, except I have extended it to the world, always saying to them, “You are a citizen of the world, and wherever you want to travel and live you have a right, and you belong.” 

When I moved to New York, I discovered Langston Hughes while completing my final year of high school. His poem, “I, Too” has always resonated with me, as it so eloquently articulates the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. 

              I, too, sing America.
              I am the darker brother.
              They send me to eat in the kitchen
              When company comes,
              But I laugh,
              And eat well,
              And grow strong.

Though Langston Hughes wrote that poem more than 50 years ago, it is still relevant and dialogues with the Black Lives Matter Movement. As Black people, we always have to declare that we struggled and contributed and helped to shape the culture of all the Americas, so therefore we belong. Sometimes, however, the racism and constant need to protect yourself and your children makes you not want to belong, makes you want to find a safe place to flee. 

Yes, white brothers and sisters, “I too, sing America.” And when the white racist raises his ugly head, I just walk away and keep moving, the sea in my ear, my ancestors singing the water, I’m never far, I’m always here, the sea is the largest body so you can’t help but belong. 

Opal Palmer Adisa is a Ja-American writer who currently resides in Jamaica but has lived and taught in the Oakland Bay Area for over 25 years.  She has published 20 collections of poetry, short stories, two novels and three children’s books. She is a cultural activist and gender specialist at The UWI, Mona, Institute for Gender and Development Studies.




Saba Keramati

The Daycare Teachers Ask Me Why I Don’t Talk 

Baba buys me a pair of shoes, asks: does it feet?
I ask Mama for pancakes, 

she fills them with green onions. 
I hear their accents only when they speak 

to Americans. We give fake names 
to the Starbucks barista. I learn 

that which is too difficult to explain to white folk
is not worth my time. 

I fill out government forms for my parents, 
translate at the DMV. Legal jargon 

is the fourth language I speak. 
I interpret between the two sets of grandparents 

before I hear the ABC’s. I am the great genius
of my family lines, the decoder of dialects, 

the articulation of my ancestors. 
They take me to Disneyland to thank me 

for being a good daughter and I have to ask for directions
from strangers. At a food stand, I buy a Mickey Mouse 

lollipop, shove his stupid upbeat voice 
into my own mouth until it turns black.

Those Who Live

                       for Vincent Chin 

I’ve come to where he is buried, 
looking for answers. I am ashamed 
of what I did not know. Once, 

I made it to the front gate of the cemetery.
A funeral procession of Fords 
with American flags stopped me. 

A baseball bat flashed through my mind.
It’s the anniversary of his death again. 
Today is the first time 

I’ve made it this far. Usually, I stop 
driving at the red post marking what remains
of Detroit Chinatown. Or, should I say, 

the red post that simply is 
what remains of Detroit Chinatown. 
The years pass so quickly. I’ve lived 

a short distance away for six of them. 
His ghost always with me but unnamed for so long.
I had to Google the mural in memoriam, 

across from the new dog hotel and tattoo parlor.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard for six years: steel,
not chopsticks. The suggestion being 

one is stronger than the other. But did you know
he was an orphan? 
I call my mother and ask 

if she’s ever heard his name. She says no.
I keep looking. The headstones grow 
blurry before my eyes. Strange,

how the graves of the murdered are so hard to find.

Saba Keramati is a multiracial writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from University of Michigan and UC Davis. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barren Magazine, and elsewhere. She is nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize.




Ariana Benson

Frenetic Musings on the Thumbnail (in American Technicolor)

For Breonna, for George, for all those whose names I wish I had learned while they were still with us // Scrolling past a pixeled thumbnail, I see red / at the scene of white skin entrenched in Black flesh. // To be Black in this world is to know names you shouldn’t, / to know that both knees and ropes have knots  // that, though meant to hold objects together, / serve the same function when applied to the neck. // When knotted knees are applied to the neck, veins / swell and splinter, fragile like glass full of faults. // The function of asphalt, when not cradling the neck, / is to provide a Black back ground, or, a background. // In the thumbnail I see a wash of black ground, / splintering cold like sky scorched by flashing lights. // Red and blue bleed into the heavens, / set the air ablaze, drown people in color. // Lit up like gas torches, white flesh reddens / with blue blood—to know the colors “red,” // “white,” “blue,” “black” is to know that most uniforms

are dyed one or many or all of these hues. // To see ember-red rage rise beneath flesh / cloaked in blue is to know that white bodies use // uniforms as camouflage to naturalize even / their most obvious movements, to blend and blur. // When hunted by the boys hooded in blue (read: white / hoods), embodied Blackness must blend to survive. // Those moving around their natural habitats pause— / an attempt to save themselves with camouflage. // When reading a poem, a death is the punctuation / after an elongated pause, or the silence behind // an ellipsis, before black letters disrupt the uniform, / perpetual negative space of the blank white page. // I can only bring myself to read about the demise / of the bruise-blued souls, the reddened swell of eyes, // the white hand tucked the negative space of a pocket, / the blank faces—mementos of death. // In the blue-lit moments of his death, the last / man I watched bid his body farewell called // out to his mother in
a cadence I can only bring myself / to hear as poetry, a black echo borne of red blood. // I see that thumbnail and vow that when the pulse / of blood ceases to echo in my soul, I will speak // nothing but poetry—not because I am moments / from death, but because it is the only way I know to live. // In the world after this one’s red end, its black farewell, / not a soul will drown awash in white caps // that unfurl atop crushing waves of blue. A thumbnail / will be nothing more than a pink (read: a blend of red // and white) punctuation entrenched at the end of my own / Black flesh. How we’ll function is the answer, never a question. // Every breath will be inevitable, each punctuated by another / in perpetuity. We will then know Black as color, not an absence // of light. In this world, we will know their names, / but not because we have to.

[Ariana Benson] How I situate myself in “American” identity: I am a Black woman, and occupy a liminal space in the American landscape. I visualize my place in this way: if “true citizens” are those represented and rooted by an “American” identity, then I exist in the spaces in-between the very letters that comprise the word. Thus, though I am not exactly “American,” the idea of “America” cannot be fully read or understood without acknowledging my presence, my history, my taking up of space.




Sabina Khan-Ibarra

What I Will Tell My Daughter

         When her daughter asks her how it was to be a Pashtun, Muslim woman living in America, she will breathe out all the stories she has held in her lungs, until she is blue in the face, waiting for the day her daughter gains awareness that being a woman makes everything more complicated.
         She will exhale and begin like this:She will tell her about the old woman in Pakistan who wrinkled her nose.
         “This one,” said the elderly woman, looking at the young girl with meaningful scorn, “she is going to be trouble.”
         The girl was visiting Pakistan one summer when this unwelcome prophecy was bestowed upon her. The blunt words of this lady, a relative Mama loved, cut deep. The young girl adjusted her glasses, ran her tongue over her braces and wondered what the woman saw. The girl wore a simple, demure cotton partoog kamees that Mama had chosen for her. Even Mama was more vibrant, wearing a bright purple outfit.
         Her usually poised mother bared her teeth and told the elder that she had a good daughter. The daughter, in turn, reveled in the rare show of positive words and went back to reading “Little Women.” 
         Secretly, the girl was excited that she appeared to be like Jo–a rebel–even if she couldn’t figure out how she was anything but a misfit. How she never quite fit into any of the boxes that were put in front of her.
         She promised herself that when she grew up and had her own daughter, she would raise a daughter who was not easy. She would raise a complicated and difficult daughter.


         She will tell her daughter about when she was in the seventh grade and her teacher was upset that she had read “The Outsiders” and done a report on the book.
         “Is there something wrong with the book?” she asked Dr. James.
         “Yes, a good girl like you should stay away from books that glorify vulgarity and violence.”
         She didn’t really notice the vulgar, she just loved Ponyboy’s relationship with his brothers and friends. She wondered if the hijab made Dr. James think that she was unable to think critically and beyond what was written on the page.
         “America is corrupting you already,” Dr. James shook her head.
         “But I am American,” she reminded Dr. James.


         She will tell her daughter that it started on her very first day of school, as a five-year-old kindergartener. Right away she was taunted for being different.
         It was the first time she was away from Mama, who had always acted as a buffer against the harsh world. 
         At home in Redwood City, her parents spoke to her only in Pashto. So when she went to school, her lack of English coupled with her dark hair and dark eyes, led the teachers to believe that she was a Spanish-speaking student. 
         She was placed in an ESL class where the teacher spoke to her only in Spanish. She cried quietly the whole class. Only when Mama showed up with her smooth, long, black braid in her long, colorful, silk partoog kamees, did the teacher look relieved. 
         She walked out of her classroom, holding tight her mother’s hand when a group of middle schoolers shouted, “Sand ni**ers!” She didn’t know what it meant, but by the sneer on their faces, she knew it was something bad. The words stayed with her. It wouldn’t be the last time she would hear them, and other names, in her life. 
         She looked to her mother for help, but Mama kept her chin high and didn’t flinch. They walked to the car, Mama’s clothes flowing regally behind her.Like Mama, she squared her shoulders and tried not to react. 


         She will divulge the story of when her father was a boy in Pakistan. There was a bride in the village who asked to see the elder and leader in the community, who happened to be Baba’s father, BabaJee. It was the bride’s wedding day and she had locked herself in her room. She stood on her bed, held a rifle and demanded to be heard.
         When BabaJee got to the house, she told him that she did not want to marry the man her father had chosen for her. BabaJee told the imam who was supposed to officiate the marriage of the girl’s rejection and the imam called off the wedding, saying it was invalid.
         After, there was a lot of talk in the village about this girl who brought shame upon the family, but her wishes were respected and she wasn’t forced to marry the man she didn’t want.
         “Baba, what happened to her?” she asked her father after he finished telling the story.          
         “She never married and ran her father’s household as a son would. People learned to respect her for being strong.”
         She knows that the woman did well and that she wasn’t compelled to marry another person. But a part of her wondered if she didn’t marry because no one wanted to marry the girl with the big mouth or the girl who caused dishonor to her family.
         It didn’t matter because she had spoken up and lived a life of honor and strength– she did this by changing how her life story played out. By rejecting marriage and living as her brothers had (within certain restrictions, for sure) she silently showed the community that a woman can be content even if she does not marry.
         Fierce women have always been around–even if no one heard about them. She longed to be like this girl, who gave up so much for what she believed in.


         She will tell her daughter that one time, when she was in third grade, a boy named Brian Lewis shouted from across the park, “Look at the camel jockeys having a picnic!” Brian was in her sister’s second grade class. He told kids at school about how their family wore tents at home and about the strange hats Baba wore. When she told him that she liked being original, he told her that she wasn’t original, she was weird.
         “Ignore them,” she ordered her brothers, sisters, and cousins. They all pretended not to hear the laughter that was only getting louder and closer.      
         “Didn’t you hear us? Or do you not speak ENGLISH?”
         Brian would not let up.
         “Why don’t you leave us alone?” she finally yelled.
         “Shut up, towelhead,” Brian yelled back. “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” A gang of five kids stood behind him, all different ages.
         She ignored him and moments later, Brian and his friends were bullying her young cousins on the other side of the swings.
         “Look who’s here,” Brian said to his friends. “It’s the Ay-rab girl!”
         I’m not even Arab, moron, she wanted to say. But she doubted he knew what a Pashtun was so instead, she hit him–straight punch to the nose. He doubled over crying. She didn’t feel ashamed. Later, in the evening, when Baba found out, he asked her what happened. When she told him, he asked her if he cried.
         “Yes, Baba.”
         He nodded and told her to watch Jeopardy with him.


         Once when her father was returning from a business trip to China, he had a stopover in Texas. Mama and the girls waited at the terminal in San Francisco or two hours before they went home. There were no cell phones and there was no way for Mama to know where Baba was. They sat by the phone and waited.
         He called seven hours later. He was still in Texas. Airport Security, Customs and Immigration officials had detained him. He explained to them that he was an American engineer who was managing the project in China, but all they saw was a non-white male with a beard named Mohammad Khan.
         After hours of interrogation, they let him go without an apology. 
         They all went back to the airport in the middle of the night to pick up a weary Baba, who decided to pay extra and get the special security clearance that allowed you to sail through the security process so he would never have to face such an interrogation again.
         “But what did they ask?” the girl wondered.
         “I don’t want to talk about it.” Her father shut tight, never told her.
         And this sealing of the story told the girl all she needed to know about the incident.


         She will tell her daughter about the two-year period when her house was “doorbell ditched.” Someone would ring the doorbell and leave before they could answer the door. 
         Almost every night, around midnight, when they were all in bed, the sound of the doorbell shocked them out of sleep.
         Baba called the cops after a month of this. They did nothing.
         When Baba realized it was some children from the neighborhood doing it, even though it was “inconvenient”, he never called the cops again. He would step outside while his children sat terrified in their beds, under their blankets, and shout, “Who are you? Why do you bother us?”
         Of course, no one answered.
         She suspected that it was Brian, but he was only a kid with no way to leave the house. It had to be someone older–probably someone more dangerous. And so she said nothing and endured the nightly terror.
         Eventually this stopped. The terror became a faint memory even while it was still woven into the fibers of her being.


         She will tell her daughter about the time Baba gave her a heart-to-heart when she was thirteen.
         “Sabina, this life is short.  Our lives are a test and we must remember to always put others first no matter what. We respect elders, are gentle to those younger, generous to our guests, and kind to all we meet. But we must always stand up for what we believe,” Baba said to her after school one day.
         She remembered how a boy kicked her shoes during P.E. because they weren’t Nikes and how she called him a jerk.
         “But what if someone is wrong or mean to us? Not really going against what we believe.”
         “Like I said, you have to stand up for yourself and others, there is no question about that. Sabina, when I was younger, they’d ask me if I wanted to be honey or vinegar. Do you know what I said?”
         Honey. Definitely honey.
         “Sometimes vinegar is better,” Baba said, “Sometimes, vinegar is what is needed. Sometimes we don’t want what horror the honey may attract.”


         There were also some scary stories. When she was fourteen, she went on a hike with Mama and her sister. Mama, who wore her partoog kamees with her sneakers, walked ahead of the girls. She stopped and pointed to a wild rabbit she saw in the grass.
         The girls moved closer to watch the animal and soon Mama was out of sight.
         “Hey, you!” the sound of a man startled them out of their awe.
         Three young men sat at the side of the road on large rocks.
         She grabbed her sister’s hand, ready to fight. 
         Mama had turned back.
         “What do you want?” Mama yelled at the young men, who were no more than 17.
         “We were wondering how many camels you would want for your daughters?”
         “Fuck you,” she said, forgetting that Mama was nearby.
         The boys laughed.
         “Get out of here before I kill you,” Mama said, her voice cold.
         The boys laughed. Mama didn’t blink. 
         “Let’s go. She probably has a bomb under that turban,” one of the boys laughed.
         “Don’t ever walk away from me,” Mama said. “It is dangerous for Muslims, especially Muslim girls. Who knows what would’ve happened if I wasn’t there?”
         “I wouldn’t worry too much, Mama, you taught me well,” she told her mother.
         Her mother concurred but insisted on walking behind them for the rest of the trail.


         She will tell her daughter that when she had her, she was pleased to see that her daughter was strong-willed, demanding attention when she entered any room. As a young girl of seven, her daughter held the attention of many, telling interesting stories and voicing opinions about everything. With her eyebrows raised, chin high, her young daughter put her hands on her hips telling her father, brother, and mother (all older than her) what they should be doing.
         She watched her daughter silently, not stopping her. She reveled in her daughter’s natural strength and confidence.
         In her daughter, she saw all the things she was when she was younger–confident and assertive, with a strong voice but without the big personality or charisma of her daughter.
         She knows that if she was really lucky, her daughter would not be the girl demanding to be heard, but the one called upon when there is a conflict in the village.
         Women in most cultures feel compelled to conform and bend themselves to make others happy. But not her daughter.
         “Your name is ANABIYA, not Ana, not Nadia. You make sure to tell your teacher that,” she told her daughter. And her daughter does not respond to anything less than the perfect pronunciation of her name.


         She will tell her daughter that the old lady in Pakistan who predicted that she would be trouble was probably right. She was not the poster child for how a Pashtun woman should live her life: she asked questions and voiced her opinion when it was best to stay quiet; dared to dream beyond having a husband and the security of married life; and she identified as a feminist. Nor was she a poster child for how an American woman should be either: she chose to stay Muslim at a time when most Americans–even liberals–thought that Islam and feminism were incompatible. They imagined a demure, silent woman who relied on a man to make her decisions.
         She was somewhere in between. She will teach her daughter that the space in between is the best place to exist, for it allows for growth beyond the harsh walls and boundaries that others create for you. 


         She will tell her daughter a story she herself never expected to hear.
         “Is everything OK, Baba?” she asked her father one day recently when he called her in the midafternoon. It wasn’t very often he called and when he did, it was in the mornings while the kids ate breakfast so he could talk to them.
         “Yes, I just came back from my walk,” he said. She imagined him walking around the big park in front of the house.
         “You’ll never believe what just happened.”
         “What is it, Baba?”
         “Do you remember a boy named Brian?”
         She stopped stirring the meat sauce she was cooking and stood very still.
         She thought for a minute.
         “I don’t know anyone named Brian now, but there was a boy named Brian in Saira’s class. He lived in our neighborhood.” She shuddered at the memories.
         Her father told her about meeting someone named Brian while on his daily walk around the park.
         Well, the young man was really polite. He said, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ So I stopped and looked at him. I didn’t recognize him…
         ‘You don’t know me, I went to school with your daughters. I had to talk to you…I can’t live with myself,’ he said.
         ‘Why? What did you do?’ I asked him, confused by what he was saying.
         The man looked sad. He said, ‘When I was a kid, me and a bunch of kids used to bother your daughters. We would ring your doorbell in the middle of the night and watch you turn on your lights and come out of the door. It is something I’m not proud of. It’s something that has stayed with me and kept me up at nights. I was such an asshole. I want to say I am so sorry for doing what I did. I hope you and your family can forgive me.’
         I started laughing and said, ‘That was so long ago. And you did cause us so much discomfort. Of course I forgive you. What’s your name?’
         He said, ‘My name is Brian. I was in your daughter’s class for almost all of elementary.’
         ‘Ok, young man,’ I said. ‘I’ll tell my daughter. Have a nice day.’
         ‘You too, sir.’ He smiled and walked away.

         Baba laughed.
         “Can you believe that? After all that it was a young boy?”
         After hanging up, she leaned against the kitchen counter. She had always suspected it was Brian or one of his friends, but what she never ever expected was that he would be sorry for what he did.
         Maybe Brian apologizing made Brian feel better, but all she felt was anger at Brian for all of those sleepless nights. She felt vindicated for being right, and she felt sad that Brian hated them so much.
         She will tell her daughter that she never forgave Brian and she never will.


         “Your daughter looks just like you,” the librarian told her once.
         She looked at her daughter and saw a beautiful, vibrant child who looked nothing like her.
         The compliment left her feeling confused because in her eyes, there was no one as beautiful as her daughter.
         She told her parents later.
         “Sabina, you should see yourself through our eyes. You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. A strong force who never backs down.”
         And she will then realize that her parents had told her the same stories she is now telling her daughter.

Sabina Khan-Ibarra is a writer and an educator. She is a recent San Francisco State University Graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing, where she now teaches Creative Writing. She is currently working on her novel, The Poppy Flower. She currently resides in Northern California with her husband and two children.




Abigail Licad

4th of July Confession

Fine, America, I’ll tell you my secret:
although I have betrayed history
and abandoned homeland to live
with you for over two decades now,
I can still sing all the words
to the Philippine national anthem by heart.
Bayang magiliw, Perlas ng Silanganan
Alab ng puso, sa dibdib mo’y buhay.
Yes, the melody still returns me
to the simple happiness of my childhood,
to my old Antipolo neighborhood
where during summer the children played
our patintero street games well into
the darkened sky, while loving neighbors
kept watch under thousands
of stars and the moon, cheering
and laughing loudly along
the bougainvillea-lined terraces.

But calm down, please.
America, I choose you.
Yes you’re right I still can’t sing
“The Star-Spangled Banner” in its entirety
but cut me some slack —
how can I learn something that only divas
with Whitney Houston’s vocal range can sing?
Even the lowest key would be too high,
plus I was an asthmatic kid anyway
so I never did have strong lungs
to begin with. And besides, America,
voice lessons just got to be too expensive.
Why must you be so demanding?

At least I haven’t given up yet
on struggling to learn Vladimir Horowitz’s
transcription of “Stars and Stripes Forever”
on the piano. Yes, I know it’s taking me
long enough, but the piccolo part is a killer!
And have you seen Horowitz’s huge gorilla hands?
Of all the things that had to be small
in my big round body it had to be
my puny palms! Oh, it sucks,
how it sucks, America, that I wasn’t
born with more talent, more skill,
more God-given natural abilities
to please and honor you
by realizing the big dreams
we have been dreaming together.

And even if I know you’re thinking it,
please don’t say that I’ll never be
a true American. Say you’ll love me
and take care of me like a parent would
of any child, even if I’m only adopted,
even if you won’t amend your Constitution
and let me at least have a crack at becoming
president one day. Can’t you see, America,
I’m really trying here! I’m doing the best
that I can to live honestly and make a better
living, even if I’ll never make it to Hollywood
or be on TV. Even if you play favorites.
I’ll still keep trying. And I’ll still be
waiting, America, I’ll be waiting for you
to choose me.

Abigail Licad immigrated from the Philippines with her family at age 13. She was naturalized as an American citizen in 2000. She is still struggling to understand the full import of her naturalization oath to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty,” and to question how this affects her relationship to her historical past and beloved childhood home. 




Diana Ma

Six Feet

Cough into your elbow.
Shelter your skin to your skin against 
the words you breathe in. 
Chinese Virus.
Yes, I know it hurts. The swollen blaze of marrow. Your lungs
sliced apart like filleted fish. 
Breath scraping up tender tissue—desperate
to stay in your body.
Keep exhaling into the inside of your elbow. 
Your skin there is soft enough, the crease deep enough.
The warm steam of your breath
will return to your lungs.

The six feet between you 
and them
has always been there.

Keep your mask on.
The one with soft cotton on the inside 
and a dinosaur print on the outside. 
Who can be afraid of a child wearing an orange brontosaurus?
(They will be afraid).
They will put forefingers to the corners of their eyes and stretch 
a slant to their eyelids. 
They will spit at you—spittle slick with fear. Chant 
yellow, yellow, yellow. Stab you, burn you with acid. 
Break your home into spirals of shattered glass.
The virus is not the one we think we know. 

Wash your hands.
Not because you are dirty. 
You are not.
You are not dog eater, chink, dangerous, diseased.
You are not.
You are the child who runs so fast your body shakes 
like a wind-whipped wave and nothing can catch you.

Bring my love nearer 
than breath, deeper than skin, close as your heart.
And even then—my love
will not protect you
in the ways you or I
think it will.
We are all guessing—
at the distance that will keep us safe.

Diana Ma is a Chinese American poet and author of young adult books. Her poetry has been published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women and The Asian Pacific American Journal. She has an MA in English with a Creative Writing focus from the University of Illinois, Chicago and a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. She lives in a suburb of Seattle and teaches English and Humanities at North Seattle College.




Leticia Del Toro

A Mí Me Toca: My Turn

          I am at the County Recorder’s office in Martinez, California filling out a request for a death certificate for my father, who died seven years ago. It is part of a quest to document his life to help me in a journey to open up my own immigration options. I take one form to request the certificate and realize that very possibly, I may need two. If they are able to look up deaths via location and approximate date and their files go back far enough, I may be able to locate information on my grandfather’s death, as well.
          I hand the clerk the completed request for my father’s certificate and one with information for my grandfather. Date of death states winter 1958. The clerk seems to have located a record as she charges me for two certificates and within minutes she is printing details of both my father’s and grandfather’s deaths on embossed paper.
          My father’s death is not a mystery. It’s a sad story for another day. My grandfather’s death has always been a tragic tale, one I was about to verify by reading the cause of death. My father had told us my grandfather Martín had been run over by a train in Crockett, near the houses on the water where most of the local brick workers and longshoremen lived. Abuelito Martín had been trying to pull up a friend who had passed out drunk on the train tracks when the train caught them both. Maybe they were both inebriated and Abuelito’s reflexes weren’t quick enough, or maybe he died a hero. In any case, my father was there and he witnessed it. He would later tell us, “I had to pick up pieces of my father before the firemen came. You can’t imagine it. Trozos de mi padre. A mí me tocó recogerlo.”
           Whenever my father was rueful or locked in his bedroom detached from us in mood and spirit, I chalked it up to the tragedy of losing his father in this brutal manner and how he was left to fend for himself in a country he never truly claimed as his own.
          Before I read my abuelito’s death certificate a panicking question arises, “What if the train really didn’t run him over? What if Dad made up that story?” Who would make up such a story, chain themselves to such a tragedy? I didn’t know, but my father held so many mysteries and he did have a penchant for storytelling.
          I quickly scan the document. 

          Place of death: Crockett (Rural) ½ mile East on San Pablo Railroad
          Cause of death: Crushing injuries of chest and multiple fractures.

          I am standing in a county office less than six coastal miles along the Carquinez Straits from the very spot where his life ended. If I weren’t in a hurry and on my lunch break, I could walk there. There is also a train station half a block away.
          Two more bits of information strike me.

          Length of stay in California: 30 years
          Name of Father and Maiden Name of Mother: (the names I choose not to disclose)

          My father’s grandparents’ names are printed there. They are names I never knew, names that were never spoken of as my father would only speak of his mother’s side of the family, the descendants of hacendados, landowners, the blue-eyed folk with Spanish lineage.
          My Abuelito was 48 when he died, which meant if he’d been in California for 30 years he came into this country or at least left a legal trail at the age of 18. My great aunties had told me he was known as a norteño when he courted my grandmother, Isela. I have always considered myself a first generation Mexican-American since both my parents were born in Mexico, but if Abuelito had put down roots here this long ago, does that make me second generation or a generation and a half?
          Also remarkable is his address: #8 Railroad Avenue, Crockett. My mother tells me this was a ramshackle house built on stilts over the Carquinez Straits, where modest houses once existed for laborers. She moved into that house when she arrived in this country and shortly after those houses were condemned for their poor construction and dangerous proximity to the railroad. My own childhood house on Loring Avenue was on the very edge of a cliff overlooking the railroad below. It occurred to me that we had been in the same spot for three generations. No wonder I was getting restless to move somewhere else, to be riding trains and not crushed or haunted by them. 


          I am amassing a two-inch high stack of documents from three countries: the United States, Mexico and France. Each of the U.S. and Mexican documents require an official translation. Some of them require trips to Sacramento and an apostille from the California Secretary of State.  My father’s death certificate takes its place in the pile of documents. In the age of Dreamers, some of whom I teach and organize workshops for, I realize I am embarrassingly over-documented, but I am also one generation away from campesina, one generation away from soul-sucking poverty. All I have to do is talk to my mother for 20 minutes and references to her impoverished childhood surface.
          My husband and children are French nationals and so it seems logical I should be as well, but I have put off the process for many years. I prided myself in being Californian, American with roots in Mexico, Xicana to the core. On some level, to file for some European citizenship stinks of betrayal. I tell my husband the reason he was able to become a U.S. citizen was thanks to my father’s struggles in this country and the abuelo who died on the railroad tracks. The price my father paid for living in California was the immigration itself, the tragedy of his father’s death, a lifelong alcohol addiction and 45 years of hard labor at a brickmaking factory. It was not a pretty life. Maybe now I wanted a pretty life.
          When people I meet, white people mostly, learn a little about my past they have trouble taking it in, understanding my trajectory. My parents had less than a sixth-grade education and never quite acquired English literacy skills. My mother made ends meet by working in restaurants and plant nurseries, sometimes taking care of elderly people in the neighborhood, supplementing my father’s income as a machinist. I am the youngest of six children and was the first to attend university. I hold degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis and a teaching credential from San Francisco State. Right after graduating from UC Berkeley, I worked for a prestigious archival music company, handling Spanish language marketing and promotion for Arhoolie Records (now owned by Smithsonian-Folkways). It felt like a successful path. After a solid five-year stint at Arhoolie I decided to become a high school teacher and I have worked in public education ever since. The independence and creativity of teaching fuels me, allows me to provide for my children but also competes for time dedicated to creative writing, my truest love.
          By some measure people see a success when they see me, but it’s a success that I’m ill at ease with. I have academic achievements and a stable, secure life, but what does any of that mean when I inhabit a country that cages and demonizes brown immigrant families, a country that brutalizes and hunts my Black brothers and sisters? As a young person I was always taught to reach for opportunity, that any goal was within my reach, but in this current environment of hostility to immigrants and people of color, my achievements feel hollow. My political actions are my writing, my community building, and nurturing conscious kids and educating youth in Northern California. It doesn’t feel like this is enough to create change with a government that so overtly violates brown and black bodies.  How do I reconcile raising children in this place, in this time of violent transgressions? 
          Northern California is my home. All I have to do is think of Abuelito Martín who died on those train tracks. All I have to do is hear the trains when I go to Richmond, Crockett or Berkeley and I have confirmation of the price my family paid to be here, but I can’t help but wonder is it still worth it to be here?
          In 2018, I traveled to the Southwest as invitations to visit other states unfurled before me. I visited Tucson, Santa Fe, and San Antonio in that order. My work as a writer and educator helped to carve this path. In 2017 I published a chapbook, Café Colima, as part of a first-place award in fiction through Kore Press, selected by one of my all-time writer heros, Edwidge Danticat. The good people at Kore Press organized a celebratory reading for me and my poet sister Natalia Treviño in Tucson. I traveled there to meet the publishers, read at their institute and visit the city. I was keenly aware of how close I was to the border and how close I was to Yuma, Arizona, the site of my father’s original border crossing. Even though my abuelo was already in California, my father at 14 was directed by my abuela Isela to go in search of his own father and to bring him back.  “Te lo traes cuando lo encuentras.” Bring him back, she said, as if retrieving your father in another country was as easy as buying cinnamon from the corner store.
          This was 1946, a time before coyotes, before mass incarceration, but still my father was caught in Yuma and jailed for a time. I only know this because his sister told me when I was in my twenties, always trying to explain my father’s suffering. When he died, I found his journal next to a typewriter and one of the entries was about this very incident. He regained consciousness in a jail cell just to witness an elderly man being beat on the head with a broomstick by the jail keeper. He doesn’t tell how or why he was released but he does eventually make his way to California, jumping trains and finding work along the way. I know it is an experience that traumatized him.
          Not being able to “bring his father back” to Jalisco also traumatized him, especially as he found himself 10 years later witnessing my abuelo’s death, and then responsible for explaining this tragedy to the rest of the family back in Mexico. I know it was something he wanted to write about more. It is a story I will never completely know but will continue to explore with my fiction. I know Arizona as a state that anchors my father’s pain, yet I am grateful to Kore Institute for hosting me. This visit coincided with the time of inhumane family separations at border facilities, which continue to this day. My activism, whether it’s through writing, participating in protests, or raising funds for the ACLU, seems like a drop in the bucket against the monolithic machine that is ICE. 
          In April 2018 I was invited to participate in a workshop hosted by Courageous Conversations for Latinx educators from across the country in Santa Fe. I attended with three of my teacher colleagues. We worked through three days of empowering panels on colorism, helping children of color succeed and honing our own stories to step into leadership. I was most stimulated by meeting other Latinx professionals from around the country, non-Californians who have a different heritage–Ecuatorianos, Hondureños, Guatemaltecos, Dominicanos, Puertorriqueños and Peruanos. It opened my eyes and inspired me to bond and share stories, to encourage each other to sustain our work as educators. Now in 2020, mid-pandemic, I wonder and pray for my Latinx colleagues and all teachers, truly, as we navigate the daily beast of distance learning. I wonder who of my peers across the nation has been endangered or will be endangered by a premature return to the classroom. I know this country has failed us in handling the pandemic, and there has been a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
          In July 2018 I had the privilege of attending the Macondo workshop founded by Sandra Cisneros. Macondo is a conference for Latinx and multicultural writers across the country. Although I have been writing for many years, I was late in arriving to Macondo, but there I found a community of writers who felt like family. That year I worked with Reyna Grande, whom I was acquainted with through writing circles in the Bay Area. It was a summer of new friendships and finding sustenance in my writing. I felt a renaissance of Latinx creativity flowing through San Antonio, a city I had written about as I chronicled the lives of conjunto musicians and guitarists such as Lydia Mendoza, back when I worked for the record label. In the five days I spent in San Antonio, I marveled at how talented and magical my raza, my Chicano compatriots, were who thrived in that community. I loved seeing brown faces and families everywhere I went in restaurants, grocery stores and on the river walk.  Our readings and workshop talks fueled me in a way I had not experienced in many years. My poet friends, Natalia Treviño, Viktoria Valenzuela and Vincent Cooper also hosted and accompanied me for a reading of Café Colima at the Twig bookstore. San Antonio became a highlight as well, in my triptych of the Southwest. 
          For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of place not only in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also within the Southwest. I know these trips have aligned for a reason, to more deeply connect me with my homeland. I may one day make use of that stack of documents to allow my passage and integration into another country; James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein and the Cuban writer, Zoé Valdés all come to mind as each of these artists made France their home. Could leaving the U.S. help me focus on my home in a way I can’t when I am mired in the struggle of surviving the daily grind? The truth is, I still would have to earn my living and be an immigrant all over again. Even though I am U.S. born, let’s face it, my brownness and indigenous features have always marked me as other. For now, I am staying in California, through the pandemic, through fire season, through climate catastrophes, through my children’s youth and resisting these times of racial strife. After all, if the artists and resistors leave, who will be left to continue the work and fight the good fight? It’s easy to favor an escape to another idyllic country, but I am not ready to abandon the life I have created here, the life my father and grandfather died for. 

Leticia Del Toro is a fiction writer, poet and essayist from Crockett, California. Her awards include the 2017 Kore Press Fiction Prize for the chapbook Café Colima as well as residencies and fellowships from Hedgebrook, the NY State Summer School of the Arts and Bread Loaf. Her writing has appeared in Huizache, Zyzzyva, Mutha Magazine, About Place Journal and is forthcoming in Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century. Leticia earned an M.A in English from the University of California at Davis and also attended VONA and Macondo. She is working on a collection of short stories.




Đỗ Nguyên Mai


After Bryan Thao Worra

My mother counts gạo to the sound
of California storm. She keeps the bin full
when sirens echo. Like today. And tomorrow.
And the tomorrow when there isn’t one.

I have never felt more like a refugee’s child 
than I do clutching a plate full with reserve,
every bite, the same prayer
to different gods.

Even in apocalypse, my mother cooks
with the same refugee kitchen rules:
the more bruised the heart, 
the more fragrant the fish sauce. 

Sing the broth to boil faster.
When the rain arrives,
open the door for heartbeats
traveling on trails of smoldering sandalwood.

Serve every permutation of spices ground
down to the memory of harvest day.
Always keep an extra serving

Đỗ Nguyên Mai is a Vietnamese poet from Santa Clarita, California. They are the author of Ghosts Still Walking (Platypus Press, 2016) and Battlefield Blooming (Sahtu Press, 2019). They have work forthcoming in They Rise Live a Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets (Blue Oak Press, 2020) and Read Ritual: An Anthology ​(Locked Horn Press, 2020). Mai is the 2019 Locked Horn Press Publication Prize winner and a 2019 Sophie Kerr Prize finalist, in addition to a having received funding from the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund for their literary work.





Abecedarian Portent

爱:         (Ài / love) celebrates the roof of the mouth and ”eye” halves the poet halves the name given by
爸爸:    (Bàba / father): bisector / point of blame: one-side source material for a poem about language loss
                  and so will not be mentioned here.

西:        ( / west) at five years old compasses left: the departure of word as name like arrival of
第:        (Dìdi / younger brother): names me (Jiějiě / older sister) with sibling spite though in the late hours I sit on the bed holding his head like a globe.
一:        ( / One) school one alphabet to rule all alphabets against language without alphabet against
发:        ( / hair) static-charged on its brush: the loosener of things, as diverts to “far”–
                  I am, I swear,

吉:         ( / auspicious): “conductive to success”: filament glow not cowprod discharge, see! I am
很好:    (Hěn hǎo / ”very good”) the teachers say the father says the mother does not say “Tian-
爱:         Ài, let’s speak Cantonese for a minute.” Now Dìdi says “Tian-Ai” not
姐姐:    Jiějiě “because I’m not a baby anymore.” And I’m a baby with no globe anymore, now in the late hours on the bed
开:        (Kāi / open)ing the writing hand, mouth in muscle fibers praying quietly:
留 :       (Liú / stay) please, I
没有:    (Méiyǒu / don’t have) you
内:        (Nèi / inside) anymore.”
哦哦:  “(Oo  /  oh)?” they laugh,
放屁:      “(Fàng  /  bullshit).”

气:        (Qìgōng / Breathing),
二:        (Èr / two) lungs coded to exhale an impossible sound
是:        (Shì / ”yes”), but like trebuchet only,
踢:        ( / kick)ing counterweight:  this poem, quickly, shoot too late temperate tympanic tadpole—




                   I’m sorry


u:             mom says
v:             no words start with these.


我:        (Wǒ / I) said, it doesn’t matter,
谢谢:   (Xièxiè / thank you), I
有:        (Yǒu / have) some
字:       ( / words) now.

Previously published in Pleiades: Literature in Context, Volume 40, Issue 2, Summer 2020


Some Time in Tailiang


Two hundred years ago the coast flooded a hundred miles inward, cities dissolved in Pacific: Tailiang swallowed kind enough to leave survivors

and our children still came, but with each flush something faded, in desperate nets fish slapped their tails extinguishing incense which refused to burn in new humidity, smoked fibers of our thousand-year poems that refused to regather from the sea back to our hands back to our mouths feeding back what we had forgotten.



栩栩然蝴蝶也, 自喻适志与,不知周也。

The consequence is now.

Buildings caterpillar to the sky flushed together,
the thickest fog demanding nothing fed by exhalations
demanding everything.

On high balconies grow lamps feed
lychee trees, staining the fog
razor purple;

looming tired tangles of concrete,
scaffold and wire hanging from air conditioner boxes
doing nothing for the condensated windows,

everything only a grey suggestion.
No cars on the streets, not today. Only the hum of the boxes
whirring fans coiling the fog disturbing

telephone wire
spider legs
above the street.

Neon signs float rectangular to a vanishing
point, fog hands over their mouths
muffling their beckoning to:


Mercy came once in an unearthed erhu,
Cradled from a waterlogged basement like an infant.
We did not know it was an erhu then but we wanted to so badly
That we knew it without name.

Tatters of snakeskin framed its wood hexagon
A cane clacked to the floor
The elder scrambled up the eucalyptus
Descending with a python
Slit down the middle with his pinky nail.

Eight sons to stretch its skin across the box
Eight more to seal it,
The old man flicked his fingernail

Two notes that drummed the river
Ricocheted across the city a million
Pulses synced to silence
Shrine to a new and fleeting God.

Once a boy stole it
Strung it with bra wire and bowed:

A soft wail traced spines top to bottom
Vibrato smoothed down vertebra with its single finger
Shivering the trees retracting their plums and the mothers
Pulled for them finally finally

A week later cityfolk found an instrument
Snapped in half
Swallowed whole by a boa;

A week later they found the boy
Shot dead in the evening,
Rosy under the traffic light.




No one admits we’ve started praying again
so the procession is quiet. The fog has thickened, but lanterns border the
orbed hearts guiding the parade: the people in black

 robes, bodiless if not for the drifting
ceramic masks of tigers monkeys dragons cranes women,
drumming out their prayer:        summon     summon

Men: frustrated, drool seawater as they sing
Women: humming mouths sticky with
lychee eyes,

stomachs full
of unripe

Above the street
I watch wet-mouthed
at the window.

Grandfather smokes the long pipe on the couch,
its long crescent channels drags in quarter notes,
smoke wafts S’s out the window
joining the fog–

One time this was a snake
He says.

I lied. I don’t see him. He died years ago.
I don’t see him so violently
I see him.




The drums persist:
communion communion
Little girls’ heads above
dart in and out of windows, salivating for red.

My brother, mask of a crimson ox
drumming away something
dad put inside him.

He doesn’t tell me much about it, only that
in the night
dad stood over the bed

while he slept.
It slipped from the mouth
and buried into his.

I asked him what it tasted like.
He said a dog’s tongue,
loving too hard.


Tian-Ai (天爱) is a diasporic poet, musician, and visual artist from Seattle. She is a fellow of the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets. She appears in Asterism literary journal, with work forthcoming in Flock Magazine, Pleiades, and others. More of her work can be found at