Alan Pelaez Lopez crossed the Mexico-US border at age 5 as an undocumented migrant. In this interview, they discuss various elements of their journey, from childhood to adulthood, as well as how they use art as activism. Alan Pelaez Lopez’s poetry offers an unflinching look at how humans treat one another, from the afro-indigenous slave trade to modern US legal practices that threaten a sense of history, identity, and deep humanity. In the face of all of this, Alan Pelaez Lopez retains a voice of resistance, love, hope, and even joy. This is an interview full of necessary truths, told from the heart.
The following highlights are from a conversation with Alan Pelaez Lopez about their work, "Intergalatic Travesls: poems from a fugitive alien." To hear the full conversation, click the link above, or subscribe to our podcast.
How do you scream?
Yeah, I feel like my screaming comes in disobeying form, in adding visuals, in taking away text, not letting the reader feel like they know me or that they can master my work.
On your website, it states, "Alan Pelaez Lopez is an Afro-indigenous poet, collage, installation, and adornment artist from Oaxaca, Mexico. In their art, they explore the intersections of PTSD, undocumented immigration, indigeneity, queer feelings, and black flesh." I was so intrigued by the language that you use. It was hoping you could specifically address PTSD, queer feelings, and black flesh.
Right, so the PTSD, I guess in my work, comes in through a lot of the memories that I have of my crossing, but also the fact that I don't necessarily remember my exact moment of the crossing. I remember everything before and everything after, but I don't remember those few days, and I think that a lot of my work tries to speculate on what happened, and that's why a lot of the forms are pretty innovative, with like the footnotes, and the constant going back and forth throughout my childhood, of trying to recall. That's how I kind of address PTSD, and queer feelings has been interesting for me, because my manuscript doesn't really talk about queerness, maybe once or twice, but as a queer person, I feel that I've never had a closet to come out of, particularly because I am marked as black, because of my accent. The idea of closets never existed, so I feel that everything I write is by default always already queer, because there is that idea of something else.
And then black flesh has been quite interesting, because I am Afro-descendant, and I am very much obviously black, but I'm very light-skinned, and I think that when I write about black flesh, I talk about the experience of blackness, particularly because I found out I was black in the US, because back home in Mexico, although I come from a black village, our understanding of race is very differently, because I come from an indigenous landscape as well. So indigeneity takes precedent over race.
You began making jewelry for income as a minor, undocumented migrant to the US. As your work evolved, what can you say about the power of adornment, both in your art and on the body?
Oh, I love this question. I think that somebody who lived as undocumented, that meant to always be hiding from the police, from government officials, and I think that adornment is a way in which we reclaim our power, by adorning our bodies for saying, "I am not going to be defined by a piece of paper. I'm actually a person. I am existing in this world." I think it really fragments everything that we know about the undocumented migrant, and it also fragments how we understand talking back to politics, right? Because to adorn ourselves is to undo the language of illegal alien.
This entry, "And to think once I thought we were lucky." How did your activism evolve from your experience as a child, and what did you used to imagine as luck?
Yeah, so I think that this piece came from something I wrote, I want to say maybe in 2012 or 2013. Most of my family is illiterate. In my immediate family, I'm one of the only people that know how to read and write. My last name actually comes from the only literate person who was nearby when I was born, which I believe was a 12-year-old. So my last name is that person's last name, because it was the only person that could register me.
So this idea of we lost language, and we lost what the West assumes literature is, through slavery and sort of colonialism, so I think that before I really understood where my last name came from, I was like, "Oh, you know, it's definitely Latin American," and then as I gained more consciousness, I was like, "Oh, no, well that's from Spain, right?" And when I started to research Spain, and to really look at the slave trade in what is now considered Mexico, it's when I realized that the archive for me, although I can trace my [foreign language 00:04:45] roots, because my family's still alive, and the culture's very much alive, I can't trace any of my black roots. Yes, I have black family members, but whenever I ask, it's like nobody knows anything, so that idea of before I thought I was lucky, because I was like, "Oh, I can trace everything." Then as I grew older, I realized that oh, well, there's definitely one of the lineages I cannot trace.
About the Book:
Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien, is forthcoming from The Operating System Press (2020).
About the Author:
Alan Pelaez Lopez is an Afro-Indigenous poet, collage, installation and adornment artist from Oaxaca, México. Their poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and "Best of the Net" and selected to appear in Best New Poets and Best American Experimental Writing. Most recently, they have been offered fellowships and residencies from Submittable, Museum of the African Diaspora, and VONA/Voices. Their debut poetry collection, Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien, is forthcoming from The Operating System Press (2020), and their chapbook to love and mourn in the age of displacement is out at the end of 2019.