Pervasive Whiteness in the Apocalyptic: On Melissa Lozada-Oliva's Peluda
by Jason Harris
Less than a year after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, Melissa Lozada-Oliva published Peluda—a small, but powerful collection of poetry that interrogates what it means to be a Guatemalan-Colombian woman living in an apocalyptic time. Before reading any of the poems, the lucky reader is met with what can be inferred as an apocalyptic scene—a scene in which we are left shooting at different versions of ourselves in an attempt to survive what society expects of us and the belief that who we are is enough.
The cover design, created by Tiffany Mallery, is one that situates the reader deeply into the rhetoric of the book’s title, Peluda. The Spanish word peluda translates in English to “hairy, shaggy, furry, or long-haired.” On the front cover are three women, their heads full of bushy hair, each kneeling on one leg and looking as if they are startled, were just snuck up on from behind. Around their shoulders, shins, and feet are tangles of hair that pervasively wrap around their bodies. Snake-like. On the back cover are three stick-figure women, much smaller in size, shooting arrows across the spine of the book.
Upon first glance, it is easy to overlook the three women on the back cover. Their small, simple black outlines juxtaposed against the yellow backdrop, along with the purple and salmon color of the three hair-wrapped women, makes them easy to go unregistered in the gaze. If you open Peluda and set it down with the inner pages against the table you’ll see, in the cover’s full display, a scene of three naked, long-haired, stick-figured women shooting arrows at the three much larger bushy-haired women, wrapped in a snake of hair.
This shooting of arrows, the defending of what is natural by the three stick-figured women, and the bewildered, startling glances and postures of the three snake-haired women are all of us living outside of whiteness at once in this—what feels like nothing less than an apocalyptic time.
The apocalypse remains a quiet hum throughout the 43 pages of Peluda. Published in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, our speaker is grappling with the politics of hair, the shame and joy of inheritance, and the desire to be loved and accepted as a brown woman in a world that does not, cannot, exist without whiteness.
We see this apocalypse of self, this destruction of image and identity, this acceptance of being named as something other than what we name ourselves, in the book’s opening poem, “Origin Regimen”:
...you have no name
but you have nails & hair
like your father’s, thick & dark
from an origin with ships,
origin he never really traced.
It is difficult to read a poem written by a person of color and not be reminded of the reality that America is underneath Donald Trump’s iron fist. The misinformed rhetoric around immigration in our current political climate positions Peluda, in the softest, most honest way possible, in the realm of protest. By protest, I do not mean innocent citizens marching. I do not mean innocent citizens sitting in a courthouse. I do not mean the guiltless police suiting up in their military gear, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. What I mean is the protest through which poets use language to combat the misuse of language and meaning-making. Lozada-Oliva’s ability to capture a moment of reclaiming a narrative that has been poisoned by Trump, his base, and his supporters is evident in the long block-poem “You Know How to Say Arroz con Pollo but Not What You Are”:
...if you ask me if i am fluent / i will tell you my Spanish is
understanding that there are stories / that will always be out of
my reach / there are people / who will never fit together the way
that i wanted them to / there are letters / that will always stay /
silent / there are some words that will always escape / me.
The rhetorical turn of the title urges the subject of the poem to examine their use of Spanish while also interrogating the Spanish-ness of a person who speaks Spanish or appears to be a member of the Latinx community. As in American tradition, the subject of the poem partakes in and can say fluently arroz con pollo when ordering food, but refuses to call themselves racist or a person thinking from a racist framework when asking someone if they are fluent in Spanish on the pretense of their identity. In the last five lines of this block-poem, Lozada-Oliva’s speaker’s reaction to being asked if they are fluent in Spanish turns the question on its head. While never answering the question outright, the speaker instead invites the reader to think about Spanish being something more than language—a collection of stories, a body of people that will never come together, letters that will remain silent, words always in a mode of escape.
In the last poem of Peluda, “Yosra Strings Off My Mustache Two Days After the Election in a Harvard Square Bathroom,” we are left in a restaurant with low lighting as our speaker is having her hair plucked by a friend, preparing for a date with a white man. The poem opens:
there is very little light in here,
but we’re used to this.
we worry about taking too long.
we worry about someone knocking
on the door, someone asking us
what we’re doing here,
someone making us leave.
The rhetoric displayed in this powerful opening performs on several different levels. On the one hand, we have the literal act of being in an establishment with low lighting, feeling anxious about our bodies and the space they take up. It reminds me of the feeling I, as a Black man in America, feel when I walk into a classroom, into an office, a coffee shop, a bookstore, outside. Furthermore, we have the allusion to concerns that run deeper than the poem’s immediate situation. It plays into the rhetoric that circulates what it means to be an immigrant, a child of immigrant parents, or a person living—with a line through our names—in the margins of America’s Bill of Rights.
Our speaker in “Yosra…” is hyper-aware, as she should be, of not only the space she as a Guatemalan-Colombian woman takes up, but also the space that she as a Guatemalan-Colombian woman takes up two days after the election of a white, heteropatriarchal political dunce. The reality that the opening lines of this poem tap into are actual fears of immigrants today. In addition to our speaker being a woman anchored to oppression because of the intersection of her identities, her friend Yosra is also oppressed in many ways—being not only a woman, but a Muslim woman with a name that will raise the eyebrows of a Trump supporter, and a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab. The vulnerable positions our speaker and Yosra put themselves in sheds light on the pervasiveness of whiteness that Peluda, in all its quiet protest, exists within.
yosra sees the hair because she knows
where to look. okay, she says, putting the string
between her teeth, this is the most middle eastern thing
i’ve ever done. & i think of what the most
guatemalan-colombian thing i’ve ever done
is & maybe it’s grow. i think about the most american
thing we’ve ever done & it’s hide in this bathroom.
i think about the most womanly thing
we’ve ever done & it’s live anyway…
Here we have an accumulation of fears and strength and bravery coming together to resist the erasure of Brown women in this country. It is in this bath that they are left to eat in the mess a white family made after a white father and husband says:
i’m so sorry, referring to the crumbs
& coffee stains he & his family had made
they had made this mess not thinking
we would have to sit here in it.
still, at the same time, we tell him,
don’t even worry about it, because we have done
all of the worrying for them our entire lives
because we have learned to forgive
every space we enter…
This section of the poem, much like the work of the opening lines, repeats the levels on which Guatemalan-Colombian women, Middle Eastern women, and people of marginalized spaces must maneuver to survive. We must appease our okayness with injustice, with uncleanliness, to ensure our survival.
In the apocalypse, perhaps the most beautiful thing is that all that existed before will come to complete and total destruction. I read once that after a large fire burns what lies in its path, the charred remains allow for new life to grow. Perhaps that is what Lozada-Oliva’s debut collection allows its readers to feel: a sense of renewal in the wake of, after the destruction of, our current political climate. As our speaker grapples with her desire to both accept and reject her hairiness, her desire to escape the pervasiveness of whiteness, to exist both within and outside of our historical context, she becomes both the bushy-haired women wrapped in hair from shoulder to sole, but also the the stick-figured women, shooting arrows at that which we try to become in the fight for acceptance.
Jason Harris is a poet and NEOMFA candidate. His pronouns are he/him/his. His work has appeared/is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, TRACK//FOUR, Wildness Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, and others. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of BARNHOUSE Journal, a contributor for Watermelanin Magazine, and lives in Cleveland, OH. He can be found on social media @j_harriswrites.