of nameless Mexicans desired only as epistles
anchored in their death;
the dialect between Self
as Subject & Self
as Object separated by panes of clarity
into softer yellows.
–from “The Mexican War Photo Postcard Company”
The National Poetry Series Winner, Museum of The Americas by J. Michael Martinez is culmination of erudite research, family history, and a dismantling of the originations of American racial constructs, especially along the U.S.-Mexican border since The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and the present day, where labelling humans “illegal” and “alien” is common government practice.
The first poem “POTUS XLV” is a tiny evocation of where this border and its disturbing rhetoric stand currently:
point so carcass
carved: servant who sweetens
only mirrors, where is
The first section of four poems sets the stage: “Crossing the Border,” “Instructions for Identifying ‘Illegal’ Immigrants,” “Lord, Spanglish Me,” and “Casta Paintings, an Erotics of Negation” build the trifecta of personal, political, and historical before going into deep research.
In the 18th & into the 19th century, casta paintings were employed in New Spain to validate racial identity (“whiteness”) in the legislation of land acquisition & in determining civil rights.
Engaged upon the background’s horizonless beige, the figures appear as forms outside the social, standing as racial indices prior to particularities.
The castas were portrayals of a single individual’s heredity: canvas brushed with numerous tiled panels.
This goes beyond genocide and land-grabs. This is “racial” cleansing through painting portraits. This is an Instagram filter that will give rights, land, power, and entry into the commanding classes. This is a ticket to climb the class-race-social ladder. Martinez describes several of the castas in sparse prose poems, reminiscent of early hybrid-writing by Michael Ondaatje and the theories of John Berger in “Ways of Seeing”:
While the panels depict heterosexual couples with offsprings, the particular individual whose overall genetic heredity is portrayed, unknowingly reveals a wonderfully range of sexual cravings:
Implicit to the “white” gaze demanding the creation of the casta: the
Desire to visually represent ancestors & their sexual relations for public consumption & legal proof.
The cast: kinky historiographical exhibitionism. Sextastic.
Martinez is not only describing these visual artifacts, but seeing through them, and revealing how vicious and conniving the erection of racial constructs were and are, especially with the awareness of retrospection. This scratches at the importance of Martinez’s third collection: How are we to deal with the horror of the past? How do we study them so as to not repeat them? How should the museum of memory be arranged to educate, not just intellectually but emotionally?
The second section displays postcards of executions and other atrocities that were sold by The Mexican War Photo Postcard Company as curiosities in 1916. In “Yncineracion de Cadaveres en Balbuena: Postcard No. 35,” the gore is palpable:
The mound of plied cadavers
splays in clots of coal
& throb as one
hundred arms, stiff as singed tin
reach across this drowning
as if casting their names
between the surface & depth
The reader cannot help but picture holocaust images, obscene abuse, sanctioned wickedness, and wonder why humanity repeats these abominations ad infinitum. Yet Martinez gives respite, perhaps a coping-mechanism, through the beauty of the language:
petals to no
The juxtaposition between the horror and the beauty creates memorable art.
The casta paintings and the postcards are joined by a prosthetic leg in the third section and two “Aztec Wonders” in the fourth section. These wonders were brother and sister suffering from microcephaly, trafficked around the world from Buckingham Palace to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York in the 1850s, displayed and forced into incestuous copulation for profit. Many of these heart-wrenching narratives are told through found documents and slightly altered research sources, forcing the reader to face the facts, and acting as a buffer to the gruesomeness.
The Museum of The Americas is not for the lighthearted, and not for those who choose to ignore the genocides committed during the building of America and the racial constructs build by “white” men to reap wealth from suffering. But just when the thought of continuing seems unbearable, the fifth section of the museum arrives, and Martinez gives a long and beautiful elegy about his grandmother, as if offering a recess from the pain of facts with the comfort of family. Perhaps conflictive logic, but rewarding and humane, because aren’t all these soldiers and senators and businessmen, after all, loved by someone?
The Museum of The Americas is brilliance layered in horror, fact, and love.
There is only the fall:
like leaves grasping,
we are each’s other’s first sketch.
The shoots bud upon the branch
& I say, I think we are loved.
& I know we are loved.
For each’s soon, I said,
You held for each’s soon.
–from "The Wake of Maria de Jesus Martinez"