When my mother was pregnant with me her constant fear was that I wouldn’t understand her heavy accent, that I wouldn’t speak Spanish, and that we would be forever disconnected at the moment of my birth. With no common language I would never understand the most basic lessons she could offer me as a mother—as a woman. She feared that I would grow to hate and resent her, and that she would not have the words to defend herself to me in. But her fears did not come true. I learned English by way of naming everything around me, and Spanish became the language of my interior. Spanish: my language in prayer, in the re-telling of family stories, and in expressing that which is too painful.
In high school I became fascinated in my mother as a person, so I wanted to better my Spanish to get closer to her. Growing up on the U.S.-México border, I took Spanish classes for speakers and was able to further my reading and writing skills. My mother is an avid reader and amazing storyteller, and I wanted to be able to read and discuss the novels and poems she loved in order to connect with her. But outside of my household, this fascination with the Spanish language always became a point of identity crisis for me. As a child, and even well into adulthood, I constantly have my identity questioned: Why do you write about borders? Why are you bilingual? Why are you familiar with both Mexican and Spanish cultures? Is there a difference? In this way, I am always separate, always held in the liminal space by my mother’s act of immigrating and by her fear that we would be split by a border so deep we might never recover.
Victor Turner, a British cultural anthropologist writing in the 1960s, re-introduced and gave new perspective to Arnold van Gennep’s idea of the liminal. Turner outlines van Gennep's definition of the liminal phase in the lecture, “Liminal to Liminoid, In Play, Flow, and Ritual,” as occurring during rites of passage, which is broken down into three overarching stages: 1. Separation, in which one is considered separate from the society so as to complete a rite of passage, 2. Transitional or limen, in which the subject “passes through limbo,” 3. Incorporation, in which the subject is reincorporated into the society with a new position or standing in the culture (57). Taking these concepts from van Gennep, Turner widens the applicability of the liminal by arguing that in the liminal there must be a sense of obligation either from tradition, myth, or culture. He claims that in societies with a leisure class, the Western world fitting that bill perfectly, we’ve traded many of our liminal spaces for the liminoid (Turner 67). In the liminoid, a subject is still in a space where societal norms can be subverted, but these subversions take place in less structured ways (Turner 68). In the liminoid, optation pervades. For example, the scientist working in a lab or the researcher doing work at a university tends to be away from the greater society, and so they can question the greater superstructures in their work, but they choose to be there. In this way, the contemporary artist living in the U.S. is challenged to create liminoid phenomenon in which, “The solitary artist creates them (liminoid phenomenon) out of the collective experiences of liminality” (Turner 84).
To my mind, for the Latina/o living in the U.S. our very existence, generationally, is a perpetual cycle that consists of being trapped in the liminal space. The act of immigrating, regardless of immigrant generation, is to be stuck in a rite of passage that is never completed. When immigrating, the dream is to be incorporated into U.S. culture with all of the rights and privileges that others are supposed to be guaranteed after going through the trauma of crossing into this country. And crossing is a trauma, however great or small, whether it be crossing multiple borders and landscapes, overstaying a visa, applying for permanent status, surrendering oneself through Biometrics, or even if “the border crossed you”—these are the stories that deeply mark the narrative of Latina/o identity in the U.S. This liminal space, this broken and incomplete cycle, this removal from the society—while always present in the society—is the trauma, the scar, that fascinates Latina/o poets. It binds our diverse voices and homelands because our very existence is to question the cosmos of our cultural laws and structures. To ask a Latina/o poet where they are from is to welcome an answer that will bury us within the narrative of existence in a liminal space. Even if that liminal space is being Othered deep in the heart of the U.S. Turner argues that people who exist in a liminal space are often seen as “dark, invisible, like the sun or moon in eclipse, stripped of names and clothing, smeared with common earth…” and that they are seen as “oppositions existing simultaneously: life and death, male and female, dying form and dead” (58-59). Perhaps this is why the Latina/o poet in the U.S. is not only obsessed with identity, but with the body, with politics, associative thinking, and/or with the ways we can live in a liminoid space and be a ludic voice in the dominant culture. We are fascinated with the liminal, with its otherness, its trickster nature, its push against binaries and pull towards simultaneity.
I was very struck by the variety of ways that Latina/o poets speak in tongues, in a range of loud to hushed voices, in an interplay between lyric and narrative modes while at a fellowship retreat in Austin, Texas this summer for Latina/o poets called CantoMundo. Modeled after Kundiman and Cave Canem, it is an important space for the development and support of Latina/o poets. It is also the first space I have ever entered where my identity was not questioned outright, instead I was pushed to explore and deepen my sense of it. I was allowed to exist in the liminal space without ever reaching “Incorporation” in my personal and familial rites of passage. During this fellowship I had amazing conversations with other Latina/o poets who share the same investment in showcasing, honoring, and promoting our diverse Latina/o poetics as a concrete presence in American poetry.
Inspired by my time at CantoMundo this summer, over the course of the next few weeks I will be posting conversations on liminal spaces with different Latina/o poets who are all current CantoMundo fellows. In these interviews we discuss our comfort and frustration in coming from liminal spaces, and the ways that we do this in our art through surrealism, realism, magical realism, duende, narrative, lyricism, formalism, free verse, and performance. Every Sunday for the next few weeks you can expect a new voice coming from the Latina/o liminal to the Best American Poetry Blog. We encourage you to converse with us by leaving comments or following us on twitter.
Beginning today and continuing on Sundays for the next several weeks, Natalie Scenters-Zapico will be writing about Latina/o poets in liminal spaces. She is the author of The Verging Cities, which is part of the Mountain West Poetry Series (Center for Literary Publishing 2015). A 2015 CantoMundo fellow, her poems have appeared in American Poets, The Believer, Prairie Schooner, Best American Poetry 2015, and more. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Find out more about Natalie here and by following her on twitter @nascenters