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Embracing Heritage and Healing Through Poetry: An Intimate Interview with S.Salazar on Cultural Identity

In this captivating interview, we delve into the personal journey of S. Salazar, poet and explorer of cultural identity. From childhood poetry projects to navigating the complexities of family heritage, this individual shares their heartfelt experiences and challenges in reclaiming their Puerto Rican roots. Through their introspective exploration, they unravel the emotional terrain of disenfranchised grief, the empowering discovery of diasporic identity, and the transformative power of poetry in preserving family stories. Join us as we uncover the legacy this poet hopes to leave through their work, offering a message of embracing the beautiful complexities that shape our identities.

Can you share a pivotal moment or memory that ignited your journey into poetry and exploring your heritage? I’ve loved poetry since the 7th grade. I was assigned to create a poetry book project, where we got to write and illustrate our work ourselves. I remember typing and formatting haikus, blank verse, free verse, sonnets, and everything under the sun. I cut them with crimpy scissors and pasted my poems to neon construction paper, all bound with yarn. For my heritage, it’s a more complicated story. I’ve always had deep-rooted questions about mis abuelos’ wedding photo, which sat on my dad’s dresser for my whole life. I’d ask about them, get some vague response, and then continue on with my life. My dad would tell me we were Puerto Rican, but as a kid, I didn’t really know what that meant and didn’t know to ask. As I got into my teens, I remember going on a college campus trip for a week with people all around the state. I was roomed with three Latinx students, which I was really excited about– maybe they were Puerto Rican too. I was the only roommate that didn’t speak Spanish or Spanglish. They didn’t try to include me into any of their conversations, and when I tried to be friends, my attempts were brushed off. Even though I couldn’t speak Spanish, I could speak side-eyed glances, whispers, and giggles; I’m fluent in being an outsider. From that moment on, I wanted to learn more about my heritage, try to learn Spanish, and find a community of people like me, who weren’t 100% one thing or the other. However, none of those opportunities or communities existed where I lived. My high school didn’t even offer Spanish class. It took until college to really get into the exploration piece, and it took a few years after to marry the exploration to the poetry. 

What were some of the challenges you faced while delving into your family history and cultural identity, and how did you overcome them? One of the primary challenges was lack of documentation. My best friend at the time shared her Ancestry information with me– she could trace her family’s heritage back through the 1400s. I was shocked and amazed and hopeful: maybe I can learn more about mis abuelos in that way, as my dad had no clue about where his family had come from before Puerto Rico, and Abuelo in particular told people several different answers about where his family was from. It seems Abuelo wanted to live and die a mystery. That sentiment creeped into all my exploration: Abuela’s ancestry went back to the late 1700s, and Abuelo’s didn’t go back at all. I tried to overcome this by reaching out to my family. I didn’t just want to ask them questions, I wanted to build relationships with them because I’d never met them before. When I introduced myself, some of them didn’t want a relationship with me. Some tried, and as soon as I asked them about mis abuelos, they shut me out. Geographically, I had no access to Latinx communities, nor did I know about diaspora communities (or the term “diaspora” itself). It wasn’t until the pandemic where I found the online Latinx writing community of Alegria Publishing. I sat in on a session to see what the writing community was like with them, and I vividly remember telling company founder and maestra Davina Ferreira “I’m not Latina enough to be in this group. I don’t want to impose on a space that might take away opportunities from others.” She reassured me that I was certainly Latina enough, and from then on, I’d finally found my Latinx AND diaspora community. I learned about diaspora, started learning and speaking Spanish in class, and used my education in language arts to help support and amplify emerging Latinx authors. It was a beautiful relationship where everyone in the community contributed and received what they needed.

Your book, “Raíces, Relics, and Other Ghosts,” is deeply personal. How did you navigate the emotional terrain of exploring your family’s stories and your own sense of identity? The whole writing process was incredibly emotional. The only way I could navigate the emotional territory was to pace myself. When I learned something new, especially when it involved trauma, abuse, alcoholism, or conflicting/nonexistent information, I had to take a step back. I spent many hours of “writing” walking the path by my house, crying and/or journaling while listening to the creek swell and the black birds warble. When emotions disconnected me from my world or spiraled me into grieving things outside of my control, I connected with nature and movement to bring myself back. Some great poems came out of this process too.

What lessons did you learn about yourself and your heritage through the process of writing this book? The number one thing I learned about my heritage through the writing of this book (and the finding of community) is that heritage, and in turn our identities, are not a monolith. The color of our skin, the texture of our hair, the fluency of our language(s) do not mean we are one thing or another. Diaspora is not a bad word, being of mixed race or mixed ethnicity is not a matter of “not enough” of one or another. Knowing about diaspora, including reading books like mine that explore the experiences of people living in diaspora, is so empowering and relatable, even for readers outside of the Latinx diaspora. Tangibly, what I learned about myself is that I have a large and supportive family, and while some are caged by the pain of their upbringings, that many of my family members want relationships. They don’t want to be apart because of what happened Abuelo and Abuela. Intangibly, I learned that I’m a mixed-Puerto Rican, and that the definition of this is an ever-growing and ever-evolving version of myself that continues to claim what I can and accept what is lost forever. When people tell me “You’re not Latina,” which I’ve been told many times, I have the confidence to brush that off because I know who I am. 

Could you speak to the concept of “diasporic identity” and how it informs your work? How do you see it reflected in your poetry? Diasporic identity when a person’s identity is impacted by the “battle” between where they live now and where their origins lie. Diaspora is the term used to describe groups of people who have been displaced (purposefully or by war, famine, genocide, etc.) from their contry/ethnicity of origin. Both of mis abuelos died before I was born, and they were my nearest connection to Puerto Rico. My dad was displaced from mis abuelos when he was a child, so he didn’t have the opportunity to learn his culture, language, or traditions from them. This leaves me with very little knowledge about my Puerto Rican heritage. This is diaspora. The feelings of loss, and the sheer permanence of some of that loss, is the diaspora identity. I grew up not knowing, and no matter how much growing and learning I do, I will never know certain things. This impacts my identity because I feel like parts of me are missing, and some of these things literally went to the grave with mis abuelos. They are gone forever. Like me, my future children will grow up feeling this same sense of confusion and loss. For people knowing the feeling of diaspora, grief informs identity to some degree. For me personally, I feel this deeply, and what better place to put deep, conflicting, grieving thoughts than in poetry? 

In your experience, what role does poetry play in reclaiming cultural roots and preserving family stories? Poetry is generally short-form. This is a great format to share challenging, heavy, and painful stories, as to not overwhelm a reader and to offer frequent pauses between poems to digest the stories. That’s one reason I chose poetry. Poetry also allows the exploration of several themes and sub-themes that can be laced together more easily in a poetry collection than a novel, with a level of distance (speakers in poetry are a bit more distant than a fully formed character in a novel) that can protect my family while being as honest about our story as possible. In this sense, poetry has given my family a space to finally put our authentic stories. Ancestry contains Abuela, but not Abuelo. My dad faintly remembers either of them. My aunts and uncles can’t or won’t share much with anyone. What they know will likely go to the grave with them. What my collection has done for me and given me the ability to honor and memorialize these people, problematic and beautiful, when no one else will. It has allowed me to gift these stories to my cousins and siblings. They read the book and say, “I never heard that story before! It reminds me of when Abuela _________.” It opens the doors to future dialogue, stronger connections, and more opportunity to memorialize mis abuelos. My family has been disconnected for almost 30 years, and because of this book and the conversations I started, that won’t have to happen again. 

What advice would you give to others who may be grappling with similar feelings of cultural disconnection or longing to understand their heritage? The advice I’d give others is to read. Diaspora is a big topic right now. The emergence and prevalence of this term is getting authors to talk about this more opening and vulnerably. Outside of poetry even, there are so many beautiful works about diaspora that make people feel heard. My other piece of advice would be to seek community online. Libraries, literary presses, community centers, museums, etc. all have in-person and online groups that allow people living in diaspora to connect. Online is especially important for people living in rural areas.

You mentioned “disenfranchised grief” as a theme in your work. How did you approach writing about this often-overlooked aspect of grieving, and what do you hope readers will take away from it? Initially, I didn’t know about this term. I felt frustrated writing about this existential grief I was feeling but couldn’t justify the same way as other forms of grief like losing a parent or spouse. I researched and eventually found the term “disenfranchised grief,” the process of grieving a nontraditional relationship (such as a relationship you never had with a family member). Once I learned about disenfranchised grief, I knew I needed to share it with my readers because I know other people feel this but can’t name it, and naming something is the first step of reclaiming and/or accepting something. I want to empower my readers in this way. This urgency to share is what created “The Nature of Grief,” the opening poem in the collection.

How has your understanding of your Puerto Rican heritage evolved through the creation of this book, and how do you plan to pass on this knowledge to future generations? My understanding of Puerto Rican heritage has changed because I don’t see it as dreamy as I used to. Puerto Rico has a long, painful story of colonization, one that is still being written as I type this. The traditions I’ve learned about have all been deeply impacted by colonization. This makes me step back to honor, but not glorify, Puerto Rico as many Americans do. Because of the learning I’ve done, I’m most excited to advocate for Puerto Rican rights and to amplify Puerto Ricans who are living on the island and fighting for sovereignty. Similar to a previous answer, due to the colonization of Puerto Rico, as well as many other Latin American nations, Latinx people aren’t just one thing or another. My understanding of my heritage is, again, not being a monolith. For my future generations, their knowledge and practice of Puerto Rican heritage will be passed on with other aspects of my upbringing and other parts of my heritage: beautiful, messy, complicated, unsure, or otherwise. My children and grandchildren will be able to say, without question mark, “I’m mixed Puerto Rican,” something I wasn’t able to do for decades.

What message or legacy do you hope to leave through your poetry and exploration of cultural identity? Through my poetry and exploration of cultural identity, I want to leave the message of: growing into what we can reclaim and accepting what we cannot is a painful and messy process, but it is entirely worth spending the rest of our lives trying to do. Our pasts, families, and stories are equal parts beautiful and broken, and it’s all of these things that make us who we are. It’s best we learn to thank them for their lessons, good, bad, or otherwise, so we can be most holistically and authentically ourselves. 

Signed copy with book swag from ME: https://forms.gle/Pg7wfJcAaqU7KS579

Socials: @writessalazar on SubStack, TikTok, Instagram, Threads, Twitter/X, and Facebook.

Website: https://www.writessalazar.com/

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