In his powerful new collection of poems, “Promises of Gold,” José Olivarez challenges cultural expectations. Delving into the struggle of emotional repression, with a focus on communal strength and embracing vulnerability, Olivarez’s words resonate. He’s transcending cultural and linguistic barriers.

In his poignant poem “Most” the poet showcases the cultural expectations of masculinity, highlighting the powerful struggle of emotional repression.

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“The more I think about it, I just feel like I want to move towards a definition of strength that is more communal,” Olivarez told mitú. “Because, in a lot of ways, we really come from people who are communal.”

Vulnerability and community in “Promises of Gold”

In the eyes of Olivarez, being a strong Mexican man isn’t about crying. He says it’s about finding the deep resilience within that can eventually lead to tears.

In “Promises of Gold,” the follow-up to his 2018 award-winning debut book “Citizen Illegal,” he furthers these themes. This time, adding sensitivity, insight and a powerful call to embrace vulnerability as a source of strength.

Olivarez speaks not only to his own experiences but to those familiar with parents sacrificing so much for their children’s futures. 

Jose Olivarez poetry
USED WITH PERMISSION FROM Mercedes Zapata

In “An Almost Sonnet for My Mom’s Almost Life,” he movingly confronts alternative paths his mother could have taken. He also pays tribute to the love and dedication of his parents. They ensured that he would never forget the struggles of their past.

While Olivarez’s new book is not solely devoted to exploring the complexities of Mexican family life, it is difficult for him to avoid exploring the deeply intertwined roles of family, love, and sacrifice that have been woven into the fabric of his poetry.

“I don’t know if it was because it was too painful for them to revisit those memories all the time, or because it was too much trauma, and they’re just trying to focus on what’s next,” he said. “So they will kind of move between those two paths, sometimes they want to talk a lot, and sometimes not at all.”

Olivarez is bridging cultures through poetry

Storytelling is not simply a pastime or a craft for Olivarez, but an integral part of his identity as a Mexican American writer. Rooted in the rich tradition of communal storytelling he inherited, his vivid and evocative poetry brings to life the voices and stories of a vibrant and dynamic community built on a foundation of shared history and identity.

With “Promises of Gold,” Olivarez bridges the gap between cultures and languages. He’s allowing his English poems to be translated into Spanish. Through this expansion, it immediately invites a wider audience to experience his poetic work, creating a testament to the power of language to connect us all.

“Reading the poems in Spanish is an emotional experience to me. They feel like poems that someone else wrote,” Olivarez said. 

“Another reason that it makes me emotional is because Spanish was my first language. And now I have a book that is in both languages. I don’t know, it makes me emotional to kind of think about that,” he adds.

Connecting with Young Latinx Readers

This continues to persevere some of the poet’s work he excelled in with “Citizen Illegal.” Including topics about Mexican American disambiguation, identity, race and belonging. 

However, in a reading Olivarez did in a classroom full of students, interests about similar family dynamics and younger Latinx readers identifying themselves in the descriptions of Olivarez’s work became evident. 

“In every single classroom that I visited, the poems that they wanted to talk about the most were about family. They’d be like, ‘Yeah, Mexican American disambiguation is cool but can you read the poems about your dad, because I have the exact same dad,’” Olivarez said. 

The realization that familial patterns of emotional repression are passed down from one generation to the next is a heavy burden for him. Yet he isn’t afraid to tackle it in his work.

By delving into his upbringing and keeping in mind his three younger brothers, he captivates a new generation of readers seeking to understand their own family dynamics and cultural identity.

“I think poetry will get harder, in my experience that’s how it goes in poetry. So I think it will get harder, I don’t know what exactly I will write about, I imagined that I’ll always keep circling back to particular themes that I like,” he said.