“We have a duty to our ancestors to survive”: An Interview with David A. Romero

David A. Romero is a Mexican-American spoken word artist from Diamond Bar, CA and the author of full-length poetry collection My Name Is Romero, which came out this year from FlowerSong Press. While reading My Name Is Romero, I found my journey through the book to be tumultuous, parts I loved and parts that didn’t necessarily sit right with me. One of the great byproducts to this, however, was I found myself engaging in really great conversations with those around me because of this book. It opened up a dialogue that I otherwise might not have had the opportunity to have. I then was able to ask David some questions which I feel gave me better insight into the book and some of the sections I might have originally struggled with.

In this interview we are able to discuss some intricate aspects of being Latinx and My Name Is Romero. 

Ni de aquí, ni de allá is a phrase that Ulises Bella brought up while reviewing your book saying, ““Ni de aquí, ni de allá” (not from here, not from there) is a saying and a dynamic that many of us Latinx/ Chicano/ Hispanic people struggle with. David tackles this theme and the complexities of how this mindset affects not only the personal, but also our role, or perceived roles, in modern America.” So, what does this phrase mean to you personally? 

That phrase sums up a huge part of My Name Is Romero (FlowerSong Press, 2020). It is the theme of poems such as “My Name Is Romero,” “Make Me More Mexican,” “Sweet Pochx Pie,” “Gorilla Arms” and more that deal with my experiences as a Mexican-American. The quote sums up questions of identity and feelings of belonging and exclusion. 

I’m not fully considered Mexican: I am white-passing, I don’t speak Spanish, I am unaware of a lot of the everyday knowledge of Mexican culture that most Mexicans possess, so the reaction of most Mexicans I meet is to, at first, deny my identity. There are times in which this hurts very deeply, but at the same time, I understand. 

I’m not fully considered American either. As a child I would see the reactions of Caucasian-American friends towards family heirlooms in my home and notice how they looked at them with disgust or reacted to them in ways that played into stereotypes. For example, we had a sombrero in our garage. I think it was covered in dark blue felt with some ornate sequins. It belonged to my father and was kept among my grandfather’s things. Sometimes when my friends would come over, they would put the sombrero on and immediately pretend they were bandits and quote lines from stereotypical Mexican movie characters. As we got older, some of those same friends would feel comfortable saying openly racist things about my people in front of me. When they noticed that this made me upset, they would say things like, “Don’t get upset, you’re not really Mexican.” This has been a constant theme in my life. Caucasian-Americans saying things to the effect of, “You’re one of us. Not one of them.” 

However, in college, I met some Caucasian-Americans who looked at me with hatred the second I told them I was Mexican. I flashed them a smile but they weren’t having it. It was a new experience for me and one that I will never forget. They hated me simply because of my race, not because of my politics, my language, my style, or anything else I might change to make me more pleasing or inoffensive to them. As a white-passing person, it’s one thing to hear about racism, hear and see racism directed towards others, but to experience it firsthand, directed at yourself, is something else entirely. These people would never see me as being American. To them, being American wasn’t simply embracing a set of values and conforming to a culture, after which, you would be accepted, it was being white. Period. End of story. The experience opened my eyes to the reality of racism. The reality that non-passing People of Color experience every day. 

Recently I read some really interesting and insightful words from Priscila Garcia-Jacquier on Instagram (@priscilagarciajacquier) about the topic of being a White/White passing Latinx. She writes, “[O]ur desire to deny our whiteness and refute its existence is White Supremacy in action.” She goes on to write, “So, even if our ancestral roots are Indigenous or African or both, if we do not present as such by the color of our skin, we have to take responsibility for our Whiteness.” Which made me think of the lines “Some pochxs are sliced/Into a permanent state of denial/Cut themselves/“White”/Or “Other”/For pie charts” from “Sweet Pochx Pie.” The tone of the poem almost seems dismissive of Latinx people that might check “White” or “Other” while filling out their demographic questionnaires, but there really doesn’t seem to be another option for us. Personally, I check “Other,” and then as I continue on, I check “Latino/Hispanic.”

It seems hard to move in spaces that don’t account for the colonization that is my bloodline. However, I know I have to especially own up to the fact that I am white passing and the privilege that affords me in order to be an ally for Black and Indigenous folks. Am I denying who I am because I check these boxes? In what ways do you think white/white passing Latinx folks should show up for themselves as well as Black and Indigenous folks?

In the demographic questionnaires that omit “Latino/Hispanic” as a category, or list “Latino/Hispanic” only as a secondary category, you are given the choice of “Black,” “White,” “Asian,” “Native American,” or “Other.” If you are Latinx, and aren’t Afro-Latinx (if you were, I would advise you to check “Black” for reasons similar to ones I will touch upon later) I would advise you to check “Native American” instead of “White” or “Other.” 

This is counter-intuitive to many. First, is the term, “Native American.” In this context, it doesn’t necessarily mean Cherokee, Seminole, Lakota, Apache, ie, the Indigenous peoples of the current geographic boundaries of the US, in this context, it refers to the Indigenous people of all of the Americas: North, South and Central. 

Due to the legacy of the white supremacy inherent in Spanish colonialism, Latinx people have gone on to have negative attitudes towards Indigenous peoples, peoples they have common ancestry with. They have gone on to forward Spanish notions of beauty and, if made to choose, will choose “White” on the pie chart every time. This is what a large part of what my poem “Poor, Poor Spaniard” is about. 

Why does this matter? The creation of these surveys and the articulation of the question as such was used as a tool to increase the number of Caucasians in a geographical area or field of research and downplay the number of People of Color in a geographical field or area of research. Latinx people are the fastest growing population in the United States. Historically, we have been the largest population in the American Southwest and have also had large concentrations in the Northeast and Southeast. For decades, our numbers were counted as “White.” These numbers affected public policy decisions, political campaigns, where money was allocated, etc. 

When I advocate for non-Afro-Latinx Latinx people to claim “Native American” in that category, I do not argue for us to take up space in conversations focused on marginalized Indigenous peoples concentrated in specific geographic regions, I do not advocate for us to try to lay claim to any owed benefits to Indigenous peoples when we have no solid link to those communities, nor do I advise for us to engage in any cultural appropriation of Indigenous cultures, all things that some Latinxs feel very comfortable doing, I simply argue that we proclaim our Indigenous ancestry, whether we are white passing or not, especially in those circumstances that improve the conditions of our people, increase representation, and consolidate resources for People of Color. 

While reading “Gorilla Arms” I started to think of “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden and even “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke. There seemed to be a very similar tone among the three. Any thoughts on these poems? Are they ones that have influenced you at all?

I wasn’t familiar with either of the two, so I can’t say they were influences, but I read them, to understand the connection you had made.

All three poems are about a male poet’s remembrances of his father. Both touch upon working class issues. “Those Winter Sundays” is the one that is most similar to “Gorilla Arms” in that both poems reflect upon the hard labor of the father and the ignorance and ingratitude of the son. They both describe some of the conditions of the work and the appearance of the father. Both refer to the anger of the father, an anger brought on by hard labor (which, after my hardest days of physical labor, I can attest to). Both I and Robert Hayden make the connection that the work was done out of love. Two other poems in My Name Is Romero, “The Ladder” and “Grandfather Tells Time” touch upon this same theme.

What differentiates “Gorilla Arms” from “Those Winter Sundays” is that it is also about how labor is racialized in the US and that racism is often aided by dehumanization. Furthermore, it’s about internalized racism. 

So, some of these poems are nonfiction and some are fiction what led you to construct the book this way? Especially since each section is a mix of the two types? 

The final section of My Name Is Romero, “Etymology,” consists of a single poem, “Our Name Is Romero,” which is based upon genealogical and historical research. “Etymology” is the only section of the book that does not blend fiction and nonfiction.

Blending fiction and nonfiction has always been a hallmark of my writing. One of the things I love the most about spoken word, something that it shares with rap, is direct address. I love the freedom to tell you my story. Often telling an audience directly, how I think and feel. However, I grew up wanting to write comic books, short stories, screenplays, and novels. I bring the imagination cultivated in those years to my work as a poet. 

Sometimes I get creative with telling my firsthand accounts, for example, in “Micro Machines” I switch from second-person, “Mexican kid with the blue eyes and light skin,” to first-person, “I knew what she meant,” however, all of these are based on actual events. There was a poet who shocked the world of spoken word when it was discovered he had written a fictional poem in the first person, presenting it as if it were from his own personal experience, and it wasn’t. To make matters worse, that poem also dealt with a marginalized community and the issues that affected them. It was a shameful act.  I try to avoid anything approaching that.  

Sometimes, as in the case of “Undocumented Football,” I create poems that are inspired by the true stories of people I meet, but are mostly works of fiction. When I met the undocuqueer activist Isaac Barrera, at the community arts center Corazon del Pueblo, he was speaking in front of an audience, performing poems, but also talking about how he had played high school football. He talked about the point in which he realized there was a ceiling on his dreams as an undocumented student athlete. This immediately sparked my imagination. I imagined this character, Miguel, who was a wide receiver for Roosevelt High School. I imagined Miguel playing in the East LA Classic, a game that my dad took me to as a kid. The fictional Miguel was different from Isaac, who I later learned, had been a running back for Belmont High School. Still, Isaac was flattered by the poem when I shared it with him. Other undocumented students, especially undocumented student athletes, have told me that they found the poem to be very moving and true to their experiences. If they had found it objectionable, I would have retired the poem. It can be easy for stories based upon traumatic, non-lived experiences, to be problematic. Still, I think there’s something to be said for trying to put one’s self in someone else’s shoes if it’s done respectfully.

In the “The Ladder – For Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas,” I researched this real victim of the border patrol and then fictionalized elements of his life that weren’t publicly available. “Lili’uokalani” is another poem about real people and real events in which I may have taken liberties with the events and historical figures involved. 

The poems with the most amount of fiction in them in the book are “Temecula” which was based on a dream I had, but touched upon the very real foreclosure crisis in Temecula after 2008, “Concierto de al-Andalus” which is not based upon any historical figures or any particular documented events (there was, however, a slave trade that ran from Africa into Spain under Moorish rule), and “It Could’ve Been Magic,” the most fantastical of all the poems, which features a talking rabbit. 

In the case of “It Could’ve Been Magic,” it isn’t hard to infer that the talking rabbit is a reference to an ex-girlfriend of mine, and that the magician is based on me. In the poem, the rabbit is a bit more callous and the magician is a little more sympathetic than my girlfriend and I probably were in real life. The final exchange between the rabbit and magician, is to the best of my memory, almost the word for word final exchange I had with my ex-girlfriend. I wrote “It Could’ve Been Magic” somewhat in the style of a children’s book. It was inspired by a comic strip called Martin’s Misdirection by children’s book author James Burks. I would like to adapt “It Could’ve Been Magic” with illustrations someday. It doesn’t really fit with most of the poems in My Name Is Romero. But it’s in there. Because it’s really good.

I’d really love if you could discuss the section “Flowers” and your reasoning for including these poems, “Concierto de al-Andalus,” “Mountain Meadows,” “Lilli‘uokalani,” into the book. They seem much different than the rest of it. Why make them their own section and not just include them in another section? 

The poems in “Flowers” are historical epics. One of the key themes of My Name Is Romero is history, particularly family history and many of the poems in the first section of the book, My Name Is…, also deal with history. If the poems in My Name Is… referenced history to inspire a sense of pride or outrage, and were explicitly political, I wanted the poems in “Flowers,” in contrast, to have a very different tone and be more subtle in their messaging. 

“Concierto de Al-Andalus” was the first poem to be conceived for “Flowers.” It is a poem inspired by Miles Davis’ album Sketches of Spain and the opening track “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Sketches of Spain was one of my father’s favorite albums and is one of mine as well. It is majestic and haunting. The album mixes jazz, a distinctly African-American artform, with Spanish and middle eastern instrumentation. While listening to it, I cannot help but imagine Miles Davis himself transported to medieval, Moorish, Spain. “Aranjuez” is a long track, and it became clear to me, early on, that “al-Andalus” would have to be a long poem. At some point, I knew that putting the poem in the middle of a section might grind that section to a halt. So, I decided to put it into its own section. 

“Mountain Meadows” was inspired by a family trip to Utah and a visit to the site of the historic massacre. My sister Julie and I just happened to meet a descendent of one of the survivors. We had a fascinating discussion with her. Visiting markers and hearing her testimony, my mind was immediately flooded with images of the horrors of the massacre, but also, images of the children being taken in by the community responsible for the murders of their family. For two years, those children from Arkansas were raised in a small and close-knit Mormon community, presumably brought into the faith and educated by them. I couldn’t help but think of the Indigenous peoples brought into Roman Catholicism by the Spanish missionaries with the force of the Spanish conquistadors and the history of past conquests behind them. The ending of “Mountain Meadows” is bittersweet, because of the implication of PTSD, but because the children were, in fact, rescued and returned to their extended families, it is a much happier ending than what happened to the Indigenous people of Latin America. While the descendants of the Indigenous peoples of Latin America drove the Spanish out, in many ways, they too, never left “Mountain Meadows.”

“Lili’uokalani” was the last piece, written as a tribute to my brother in law, following his death. There was a point in which I had wanted to write “Lili’uokalani” as more of a traditional spoken word poem. I wanted it to be more like an upbeat anthem. Something more like a Bob Marley song. Something more overtly political. However, everything I tried to write in that vein felt forced. The more I read about Lili’uokalani, the clearer it became to me that the real style I should write the poem in should be period drama. To take a note from shows like Victoria, The Crown, and Downton Abbey, and tap into these romantic notions of a bygone era of dignity and virtue. While these shows focused on monarchs and aristocrats who, in reality, maintained cruel class systems and subjugated entire continents, I could use the aesthetic of them to call attention to the plight of a subjugated people. 

There were points in the development of My Name Is Romero in which I contemplated moving “Temecula” and “Grandfather Tells Time” into “Flowers,” but both didn’t feel quite right there. It was because, ultimately, “Flowers” is about colonialism, in contexts (Moorish-occupied Spain, pre-US Mormon-independently ruled Utah, and Missionary-ruled Hawaii) people are not used to thinking of it in, and those poems focus more on other themes of wealth, and the importance of taking time for one’s loved ones, respectively. 

While writing “Concierto de al-Andalus,” “Mountain Meadows,” and “Lili’uokalani” I became fascinated by a concept touched upon “Undocumented Football” and that was failure in victory, and victory in defeat. It occurred to me that Quentin Tarrantino, with his succession of films–Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–was ushering in a trend of revisionist, wish-fulfillment, counter-history. Personally, I think it’s fantastic to see Hitler, antebellum slave masters, and the Charles Manson Family get killed onscreen. However, at the same time, I was starting to grow concerned that we were losing touch with the realities of history. That, if it were so gratifying and so significant to be seeing these moments of counter-history onscreen, it was because history was the opposite. History was a tale of profound loss; of memory, of identity, of peoples, of culture. Mass media today is more interested in showing victories than losses. This can have short-term gains in offering a sense of empowerment to marginalized communities. Changing people’s conception of the past can positively impact the perception of their future. The problem with all of that is, is that it starts to have a cumulative effect. People start to lose understanding of the world as it actually was. This impacts the way that marginalized communities understand themselves in relation to the larger forces of imperialism as well as how those marginalized communities have historically interacted with each other. 

That was why it was so important for me to have clear protagonists in each poems of “Flowers,” but who have hollow victories (Aderfi, “Concierto de al-Andalus”), who are unsuccessful in winning their freedom (the Queen, “Lili’uokalani,”) or, who never even attempt an escape or act of heroism at all (the children, “Mountain Meadows”). History is a tale of conquest, of savagery, of villains portraying themselves as heroes, and of the conquered being indoctrinated into thinking they belong with the conquerors. Most people in history weren’t great heroes. Most of them were survivors. We have a duty to our ancestors to survive.

Danni Beltran is a queer, Latinx poet, performer, and creative nonfiction writer. They are a senior at The College of Saint Rose, majoring in English. Their work has appeared in Ethel Zine. Currently they reside in Troy, NY. You can keep up with them on Instagram at @danni_lou_who.

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