“Don’t throw me obstacles throw me opportunities and you’ll see what I can do”: Listening to Kentucky’s Latina/o Youth

Let us to turn here to a poem written by eighteen-year-old Ricardo Perez, a Nuevo Kentuckiano poet born in Mexico but raised in the Bluegrass. Perez was a member of the Latino Outreach Leaders, a club of students who formed their own group to address educational issues facing their futures. The Latino Outreach Leaders (LOL) are a student-led organization that performs outreach in Little Mexington. The students’ objective is to empower and inspire younger Latina/os to stay in school and pursue their educational goals. Perez was one of nineteen LOL students who authored creative work in an edited, self-published book entitled Living Out Loud: Our Stories, Our Struggles. The LOL students contributed writing and artwork for the book, which they marketed for sale to generate funds for scholarships for undocumented students. For my nearly three years of living in Kentucky, I have collaborated with LOL at their high school and at a public library as an informal creative writing instructor. I volunteer to instruct writing workshops among students interested in collaborating on a book-length project published via an online printer and distributor. With the support of my department, we purchase copies of the book to distribute to local schools, K-12, university, and public libraries, and afterschool programs across the commonwealth. We are currently working on our third book.
            The workshops I conduct with students incorporated creative writing methods with text models from U.S. Latina/o Literary canon demonstrating translanguaging poetics. Examples from writers shuttling between languages encourage the high school writers to explore their cultural identities through writing and with their full translanguaging repertoires. This is important as I encourage students to translanguage, to extend their languaging across languages for fullest expression of both their ideas and identities.
            I offer Perez’s poem “don’t cross the line” as case in point. Upon publication, he told me this was not the first poem he had published, but the first one that incorporated English and Spanish. He had written a few poems before, and also had one published in his school’s literary magazine. He was the first student to offer a submission for the Latino Outreach Leader book project.
                        don’t cross the line
sí, nosotros crusamos la frontera.                      [yes, we crossed the border]
pero that doesn’t give you the right                [but]
            to cross the line and judge us
we are an example of people
            fighting for happiness.
We can do anything we want
            as long as we put our mind to it.
            Sí se puede                                          [Yes we can]
            Sí se puede                                          [Yes we can]
You call us lazy
Say we come here to do nothing
            but have anchor babies
But without us you wouldn’t have America,
            you wouldn’t have our labor
This nation was built on immigrant blood
Mi famila y yo hemos hecho de este país        [My family and I have made this
Tu piensas that only                                              [country / you think]
            because I come from somewhere
I have no
Right to succeed in life.
Give me a notebook and a pencil,
            I’ll write you my story.
When you read it, you’ll realize
            that my life isn’t easy
            and if you live it
You’d be grateful not to have lived
            what I’ve lived.
Sí quieren que seamos mejor en este país,     [If you want us to be better here
            denos la oportunidad                           [give us the opportunity
De demonstratles de lo que somos capaces.  [to demonstrate we are capable]
Give me the opportunity to show you             
            that I can be
            as great as you, as your
            parents, and as your president
I am capable of doing everything
            you can do,
            but it’s harder for me
Why? Because of obstacles history threw at me.
Don’t throw me obstacles throw me opportunities
            and you’ll see what I can do.
            solo quiero triunfar,                              [I only want to succeed]
            y ahora me quieren deportar                [and now they want to deport me
            y yo no quiero trabajar,                        [and I don’t want to work
            yo voy a luchar, yo voy a triunfar.        [I will fight, I will succeed]
                        ¡ya nomás!                                   [enough!]
            Perez’s poem shares his anxieties about citizenship and opportunities to succeed in the United States. He writes in “don’t cross the line” about his desire to express himself, and to share his story—establishing a translingual voice that calls seeking responses. “Give me a notebook and a pencil,” Perez writes, “I’ll write you my story. When you read it you’ll realize that my life isn’t easy.” The sharing of struggle as writing is important for him, but as someone who has experienced struggles—similar to Ricardo’s in fact—I can say that the sharing of these experiences, of collective struggle, is the first place for healing, and for strategizing a plan for action, with the right mentors of course. Sharing stories of similar struggle, and also reading about similar stories guided Perez’s poetic exploration and also his bilingual call to action. His call is one for educators to respond to, and I ask, where do we begin?
            Look further at these lines near the end: “don’t throw me obstacles throw me opportunities and you’ll see what I can do.” Perez challenges his audience for equity, powerfully calling upon and critiquing a tradition of exclusion. Just before these lines he writes “I am capable of doing everything you can do, but it’s harder for me. Why? Because of obstacles history threw at me.” Perez acknowledges both agency and social constraint, but expresses his own potential and confidence to meet challenges imposed upon him. He acknowledges power differences, and he asks that his audience should as well. It seems he images an audience unaware of its privilege amid suffering. He is exemplary of Latina/o students in Little Mexington, but also meaningful for all Latina/o students in the United States learning about citizenship, opportunity, and inequality. Perez is indeed a capable young man, someone who acknowledges the strength of his community with a social consciousness. In our local communities, students like Perez call for our involvement as educators for mentorship, and as educators we must respond.