By: Allegra Villarreal

South Sun Rises
By Valentin Sandoval
Santa Fe: Sherman Asher Publishing; Bilingual Edition, 2014
152 pp.

Much has been written about the U.S.-Mexico border; all too often, the 2,000-mile stretch of desert and delta has been reduced to a contentious talking point on cable news.  In these discussions, it becomes a controversial symbol, a political touchstone that reveals the deep tension over what America could and should be. Into this territory, some of the nation’s best Chicano artists, writers and filmmakers have ventured, describing and documenting an altogether different place: a land of merging and emerging cultures, teeming with life in all its tragic and comedic forms.  El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, in particular, have nurtured many acclaimed writers who explore its physical and symbolic terrain.  Into this polyphony steps Valentin Sandoval, an author and videographer who has published South Sun Rises, a bilingual poetic memoir that was awarded the 2015 Southwest Book Award.

In a series of interlocking vignettes, this collection of prose poems explores the author’s personal history as well as the collective experience of those who grow up on both sides of the Rio Grande. Indeed, Juarez and El Paso are inextricably linked in this book by the same mythic river, the inscrutable mountains and the people who hold the histories of both places within themselves. It is clear that, for the author, home refers to both sides, and the struggle to create singular self from the dualities inherent in the Mexican-American experience is the focus of this work.

Throughout the book, he explores the dichotomies between worlds: American and Mexican, pre-Columbian and Spanish, as well as the enduring strength of the women in his life, and the men who slipped into early graves. The non-linear structure allows for forays into socio-political topics, meditations, and brief appearances from an array of relatives, friends and “narcoprenuers” who populate the author’s childhood landscape. The book truly shines, however, when it focuses on the dominant character within its pages: Yolanda, Sandoval’s single mother. Her narrative thread spreads across multiple poems, leaving the reader to watch her evolve from a shy girl hopefully in love to a young woman battered by a series of tragedies and brutal experiences that forge her into a “stoic” mother who “had her kingdom stripped from her” and was forced by circumstance to become  “the father as well.” Perhaps the most affecting vignette is “El Coyote,” the harrowing account of her journey across the Rio Grande, led by the man who loses his life as he saves her from drowning, his last words a warning, “Be careful with the currents.”

“Undercurrents,” or “remolinos,” takes on multiple meanings here and features in the titles of three poems. It is the literal force that may swallow those who cross, but it is also the metaphoric whirlpool of violence that threatens the family. In one passage Sandoval describes his oldest brother José who had to “grow up quick” and defend his mother and sister from “predators”:

Particularly the blonde boy
Who would, on occasion,
High off his ass on paint thinner,
Break in
Attempting to rape my mom,
Only to be confronted
By José’s fire-poker sword.

In another passage, his mother is hanging laundry when a gang of men throw a bag filled with guns into their yard.  “Yolanda,” they warn, “don’t say anything to anyone, if you say anything, we’ll kill your children.”  In the book’s penultimate poem, “Undercurrents II,” the term takes on a more subtle meaning and signifies the author’s acceptance of his mother and the mistreatment he sometimes endured by her hand.  Fierce currents exist in nature as in relationships and are often difficult to avoid. There is a hopeful tone that emerges, however, in his final poem “India,” where he writes: “in those eyes as she looked at me / I knew remorse was more real / than the car we drove in.”

This collection represents an exploration of Sandoval’s origin myth—at once very personal yet also universal. It is also an invitation to think of place and the role it plays in shaping our values, identities and inner worlds.  Another El Paso poet, Pat Mora, explores the metaphor of the desert, writing “its firmness, resilience, and fierceness, its whispered chants and tempestuous dance, its wisdom and majesty—shaped us, as geography always shapes its inhabitants.” In the end, after all the fragments have been brought together—the stories, the inheritances, the ghosts—Sandoval emerges from the duality that has shaped his past and finds himself in a place of “sublime lucidity.”


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