"Emmy Pérez’s poetry collection With the River on Our Face flows through the Southwest and the Texas borderlands to the river’s mouth in the Rio Grande Valley/El Valle. The poems celebrate the land, communities, and ecology of the borderlands through lyric and narrative utterances, auditory and visual texture, chant, and litany that merge and diverge like the iconic river in this long-awaited collection."
The Borderlands Lecture Series:
The stories told in the Borderlands of Southern Colorado exhibit are getting richer. Join authors, artists, scholars, and activists from around the country this fall for the Borderlands of Southern Colorado lecture series as they deepen discussions an complicate narratives on various Borderlands topics. All talks are free and open to the public.
As part of its Borderlands of Southern Colorado Lecture Series, El Pueblo History Museum hosted Chicana poet Emmy Pérez to read from her latest collection of poetry: “With the River on Our Face” – a book influenced by her history and direct experience of life on the border. Pérez is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In 2017, she was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry. She has lived along the Texas-Mexico border for over seventeen years.
The lecture series, which is sponsored by Colorado State University-Pueblo, is an effort by El Pueblo to richen the community’s understanding of the stories told by its Borderlands of Southern Colorado exhibit by hosting a series of presentations given by various authors, artists, scholars, etc. from around the country. The lectures are free-of-cost and open to the public.
The Borderlands exhibit includes a collection of artifacts and information highlighting this area’s geopolitical border history. The museum marks the site of the original 1842 El Pueblo trading post along the Arkansas River that acted as the original border between the United States and Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed by the U.S. and Mexico to end the Mexican-American War declared the Rio Grande as the new border between the U.S. and Mexico. The original treaty was on display temporarily in the exhibit over the summer – the first time the treaty has ever been on exhibit in Colorado.
The signing of the treaty consequently cost Mexico over half of the territory it originally occupied. The people who lived in the newly purchased territory and along the newly appointed border were given the choice to remain in U.S territory north of the border and become full U.S. citizens, or surrender their lands and uproot their lives to relocate to territory owned by Mexico. The stories of these people – the people displaced by the relocation of a political border and isolated by the linguistic, ethnic and even geological borders that remain – are the ones El Pueblo aims to tell through its exhibit.
Border and immigration disputes persisted long after the end of the Mexican-American War, as they still do today. And these are the stories that comprise Emmy Pérez’s writing: the modern struggle of identity and place that affect the people who inhabit the border territory of the Rio Grande Valley in today’s political climate. Including herself. Pérez made a decision years ago to move to her mother’s childhood neighborhood in Ysleta – now a part of El Paso – partly because she originally planned to write a novel about her mother’s life, and, as a poet, wanted to experience firsthand the places from her mother’s stories that she was writing about. After visiting and living in other border communities all along the Rio Grande and in the Rio Grande Valley, including the river’s headwaters here in Colorado, she ended up writing poetry instead.
In her poems, Pérez conveys an understanding and appreciation of the borderlands’ history, people and perhaps mostly: the land. Her interactions with nature in the real world inform her use of nature in her writing as a means of translating her feelings, her pain and her story. Pérez doesn’t shy away from the political in her work either.
One of the longer poems in the collection entitled “Río Grande~Bravo” details her outrage at being witness to the building of a border wall in 2008 at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse in Texas. The collection then is not only an exploration of identity and place in the borderlands, but also a protest of the over-militarization of the borderlands.
Pérez’s work is that it’s the kind of poetry that demands a change of pace. She experiments with sound and space in her poetry in ways that require your undivided attention. You can’t read one of Pérez’s poems only once.
It takes two, sometimes three or even four read-throughs to pick up on all that she’s packed into the lines. It requires a little work to fully understand too, as Pérez alternates between Spanish and English in almost every poem – a method she used on purpose to represent the borderlands linguistically. But poetry you have to work for is the best kind, because it’s poetry you have the most to learn from.
The book is available for purchase at El Pueblo History Museum in the gift shop, as is Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous work, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” – a book which has greatly influenced Pérez as a writer, and is a great resource for those interested in educating themselves further on subjects of border disputes and their impact on the people who call those areas home.