By Maria Esquinca
Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s debut poetry collection Matria (Black Lawrence Press, $15.95) is on ode to El Salvador, maternity, and womanhood. Regalado sets up her book like a deck of Lotería cards, beginning with “El Chandelier” and ending with “La Virgen.” But this is not a Mexican Lotería card: Regalado creates her own Loteria board using El Salvador as characters, and illustrates the daily realities faced by Salvadorans: “Ours is not El Apache, La Pera, El Catrín. For Salvadorans, all days are Lotería.”
When it comes to the violence in El Salvador, Regalado doesn’t shy away from its portrayal. In “La Quinceañera,” Regalado recounts how a fifteen-year-old girl was drowned by members of the MS-13 gang:
fifteen days of rain, like the years of her life, swallowed
docks, swelled mountainsides, unearthed bodies.
In “La Calavera,” the speaker and her son find themselves in the middle of gunfire after leaving a country club:
Our car at a standstill, front row
I see the man with the gun
crossing the street— and by man
I mean a 15-yrear-old boy, tattooed
skull and face.
But, in Matria Regalado doesn’t just dwell on the violence; the women in Matria are central to countering stereotypical notions of El Salvador. Everyday women such as la enfermera and la pupusera offer the readers moments of strength and tenderness. In “La Sandia,” Regalado depicts the laborious pain of motherhood:
when the pains of labor came
like a machete to a watermelon,
I was sent searing
into my gender.
Regalado’s version of motherhood is corporal and visceral. The sacrifice that motherhood demands bleed across the pages of Matria. It’s a continuous thread that runs throughout her book. The speaker constantly motions to the women in her life: they, in turn, become central to the survival and existence of the self.
The book is titled Matria; could you talk a little about the title of the book?
So Matria, to me, means motherland. I felt like it was important to have a title related to women and in particular to mothers because it actually is part biographical. My mother is Salvadoran and my dad is American. So, my motherland is El Salvador—where I was born, where my mom is from. But for my childhood, I lived in what would be my patria, my fatherland. I thought that it was important because of the idea of a nation, a country, what we define as home, not necessarily defined by borders but really by the space where you can grow and develop and explore.
I’m also curious about the cover art of the book; what was your reason for selecting an image of a woman of color?
I felt like it was important to have the cover of the indigenous woman. The photograph is by Luis Gonzales Palma, and he is a Guatemalan photographer. But he is most renowned or recognized for his portraits. He uses a very traditional method. If you see the photos in person, every hair, every wrinkle, every single aspect of the face is very visible, and so I think that, especially the way the woman looks out at the reader with a sort of challenging, questioning look, but also, she is very at peace and comfortable with herself. Not in an angry way, she is just sort of like ‘This is who I am, and this is my face and I’m looking at you.’ Not really with judgement, just standing her ground. That is the feeling that I got from it. And that portrait is part of a series that Luis Gonzales Palma made of different Lotería images. I decided to focus on this woman and that somehow she would be the one ushering people in at the gate, or somehow ushering people in and out of my book.
One of my favorite poems within the book is “Salvadoran Road Bingo.” I saw it as an entryway into your book, because you also set up the rules of the game. You also have all these different images of El Salvador like el borracho, the fireater, the hen and her pollitos, and then you also have the points, which is also interesting, but they’re also sarcastic. How did you get this idea, to set up your book through the Lotería, especially in contrast from Mexican Lotería?
It was important for that reason, because El Salvador always has this… it’s never happy with itself. We don’t have a true, strong, national identity. We don’t even use the Salvadoran currency anymore. We use an American dollar. A lot of our advertising is in English. A lot of the advertisements that you see on billboards show fair skinned, light eyed, blonde, [people]. They market them specifically so that it would be like ‘this is somebody who is white, and blonde, and with blue eyes, this is what they would use, so you should aspire to have these products to be like these people.’ So, there’s that sense of ‘what is ours?’ and truly ‘what do we define ourselves as?’
I have a lot of friends that come and visit from out of the country that have never been to Central America. They’ll say stuff to me like, ‘Why are there men with shotguns standing outside of a pharmacy? Do they really make so much money that they need to be protecting every store?’ Part of it is like, well, that’s part of the things that we see, que pasan por desapercibidos. We just assume that’s part of landscape. We are not even shocked by it anymore.
On the weekends, we go out of the city as much as we can. On these trips, I started to create this list of things, iconic kinds of things that we would pass on the side of the road, and so we started playing this game with my husband, where we would say, ‘The first one to spot the guy without a shirt on gets a prize.’ And the prize would be a piece of chocolate or something like that. And so, on my phone, I started writing down all these different things we would see on the side of the road as we were driving. I was also taking photos for my Instagram project “Through the Bulletproof Glass,” too.
I started to see things that would repeat over and over. That was a poem, that was, as you say, the steps into the collection. But I wrote it at the end because I felt like I had already internalized the rules and the structure of the book, but I needed to lay down how to play that game, for the reader. And that’s how I set it up, and the point system is something that I felt made a reference to the way that Salvadorans try to find the humor in a situation. That’s part of our survival process. It’s true and that’s the way that we work, so I just felt that that was part of the rules. That it had to have a point system as well.
There’s also brutality and the violence that is going on in your country in your book. One of the hardest poems for me to read was “La Quinceañera,” which is the poem where the girl drowns. Why was it important for you to also talk about this reality of El Salvador, and did you ever worry that an American audience might read that and kind of misjudge your country?
I understand what you’re saying and it’s a debate I had. For example, in the very last poem “Ode to La Matria” there’s a line there that says “I’ve had the privilege of pretending but not without consequence.” So, there’s a sense of empathy of where I try to put myself in the place of a mother, for example, who is desperately trying to find her daughter, knowing pretty much that her daughter is dead.
I’ll tell you the way that poem happened. We have a house on the lake and we go there every weekend, and when we went we showed up on a Saturday. There was that yellow police ribbon tied up, two doors down, all along the shore. There were reporters, and police. So we started talking to some of the locals. As it turned out there was a young girl who had left the countryside to go in the second largest city, or the third largest city of El Salvador. As it turns out she had gotten mixed up with the gangs over there, and had panicked, or decided that she no longer wanted to be a part of that and went back to her house. And when she went back to her house they came looking for her. And so they, they drowned her, and they had located her body that same morning. So, it was very difficult because here I am in a very comfortable place of privilege, you know going to my weekend house, and not being able to go sit at the dock because they had been combing the shore looking for this fifteen year old’s body. My son was 13 at the time, my eldest, and so it was really difficult. It was really difficult to imagine that, to see that. That’s [the] one place for me that symbolizes peace and tranquility and like a sense of home, where I go to disconnect. Even in a place that you consider safe, and quiet, and calm, and peaceful, the violence was already coming into areas like that. Where before we had only grown up with the idea, the fear, the myths and the legends. There was a monster called El Tabudo, that was supposed to pull you down into the lake. Now we couldn’t be afraid of myths and legends because there were actually, real monsters to contend with.
I’m also thinking about Donald Trump and his rhetoric around Central America.
It’s like, well, I’m writing it, yes, it is true, and is it known? Of course. I think that’s what El Salvador is known the most for, for its violence. Even during the Civil War—historically, the area has been a violent area. We are a violent people. The Pipil, and the Mayas, and everyone that passed through that corridor. Everybody was vying for territory and power, and it’s a difficult space to talk about. I did make a conscious decision when I was writing the book that I needed to counter that with other moments. So, there are other poems like the one called “La Mano,” that are more about love, protection, and discovery. I didn’t want to linger in this morbid fascination of the rubberneckers, or the amarillismo. I wrote about it because I thought it was important. I wasn’t doing it to take advantage of a situation or anything like that.
Why was it important for you to write about El Salvador, and about your country?
Because it was my way of figuring out my place in El Salvador, or how I connect to El Salvador. Where do I fit in? What am I contributing to it? At the time that I started writing this book was when I moved back, and I was recently married. And afterwards when I became a mother, I did not have my own mother with me. My mom stayed in the US, and I needed to talk to other women to kind of get the lay of the land, like practical advice, and to be close to women, to have that sense of community. And, they were the ones that became my guides as how to navigate motherhood, and just the day to day life of El Salvador.
That kinds of leads to my next question. I noticed most of your poems are la, la—they’re feminine poems. There’s only one masculine poem, which is El Chandelier. How did that happen?
I made a conscious choice that I was going to do a Salvadoran feminine Lotería because I wanted all of the symbols, or icons, or everything to relate to women. So, the first woman, “El Chandelier,” talks about the difference between the articles. The use of el y la in Spanish, and how you can claim certain words to a different gender, in a way. That is not something you do in English. I thought it was curious how when they became plural, certain words switch to feminine again, and I thought they were really important and relevant words.
Another poem that I really like is “This is Grace He Says” I just thought it was a very beautiful and a tender, intimate poem, because you talk about your son, and compare him to fireworks. It’s just so beautiful. That’s something we constantly see mentioned: motherhood, children, and Chabelita, too, so again the importance of being a mother, or motherhood in your book.
Well, there’s that idea of caring for people, and also caring about yourself. There’s a balance between the two things, and as women I think we have to constantly negotiate that balance, right? I thought it was funny that those kinds of things, where my husband would say, “Let’s catch this ball of sand perfectly in our hand without having it shattered,”—that requires a lot of balance. So, there’s things you want for yourself to find that peace, to find those moments that are going to help you recover whatever it is. There is a moment where you have to fill your own tank with whatever it is, so that you can continue giving.
In the poem you mentioned, I didn’t know that I was pregnant. And there were a lot of moments of tenderness that I needed to explore because I felt there’s a negotiation, and a process, that as women we have. Are we doing enough? Am I allowed to relax now? Am I allowed to enjoy myself? And so in one of the last images in that poem, I try to find that moment of restoration in nature. I’m diving, looking at a sea turtle, not knowing that I’m pregnant, and that life is inside of me. And yet I’m looking outside for something else, for something that’s going to restore me.
In another poem, “La Madre,” I’m on a jet ski with my husband looking for the nesting grounds, so happy and so relieved because I’m able to be away from my son for a little while. I left him sleeping in a hammock, and I was able to go and look for what I needed. So, there’s this idea of how much of what we do is for ourselves, and how much is enough that we’re doing for others. And there’s a lot of that back and forth, like the nurse, the enfermera, she works for a living as nurse and then she sees this young girl who has a baby, and she’s kind of caring for it, and the same time judging, ‘This girl is not doing enough.’ And I’m watching from a distance. So, there’s a lot of that back and forth of carrying, and who cares for us, who will save us, who are we going to save. Those kinds of questions. There’s a lot of negotiating in that kind of respect.
What would be your advice for young women who want to write but they might not see women writers reflected in their community? Or in the books they’re reading? Or they might not have someone that’s encouraging them to keep writing? What would be your advice for young women?
I think you need to fight like tooth and nail to find that strength inside of yourself to really carve out that time for your writing. No one is going to be cheerleading and pushing you along, especially after school. I think that you have to learn what your routine is, and what your style of writing is, and what your strengths and your weaknesses are. You have to find accountability, like a system of a checklist where you’re sure that production is happening, and you’re sure there is something that is going to be outside of yourself checking up on you, driving you forward.
Create alliances with writers who you have things in common with, or someone you feel particularly understands your work. You have to be relentless in your submissions, almost to the point where you doubt yourself like ‘am I crazy? Is this even good?’ Part of the reason I included all the semifinalists and finalists prizes in the back of my book was not because I was bragging, it was because I wanted to say, ‘Look, man, it took me ten years to get this manuscript published.’ I got probably triple or quadruple the rejections that are not listed there, and so the times I got an answer back saying ‘Hey, you’re a finalist,’ or ‘Hey, you’re a semifinalist,’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not that crazy. I have to keep going.’
Some advice I was given is ‘touch it every day,’ so even if it’s a line, even if it’s a scribble in the margin in a book you. I adapted that idea to myself, because I know that I have a hard time transitioning in and out of the work. So, I’ll have one day a week where I don’t have meetings. I don’t go to the office. I stay in my pajamas all day long if I want to. I don’t pick up kids. I basically tell everybody in my family, ‘Today, if you need something, ask your dad, ask someone else, I’m in my writing.’ So I know I have that entire day, and that I can put music on, and I’ll produce something.
What it comes down to is that I think that you have to find a routine that works for you. There’s a moment where I’m planting, planting, planting, seeding, seeding, seeding, fertilizing, fertilizing, fertilizing, and then the harvest. You really get to know yourself as a person, and you get to know what works for you. Once you have that figured out, it’s really big hurdle that you pass.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.