Every summer, Juan Palomo squeezed into the backseat of his father’s ’52 Plymouth for his family’s annual migration. “Like birds,” his people knew “shiny fruit beckoned” in northern fields where they harvested beets and cucumbers. The youngest of seven children, Palomo traveled with his parents, who were migrant Mexican farm workers, to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Utah, California, and North Dakota where he was born.
Palomo’s name will probably be familiar to some readers; he has covered religion at the Houston Post and the Austin American-Statesman. In the ’90s, he wrote a monthly column for USA Today. Now retired and living in Houston, Palomo’s long career as a journalist serves him well in a new genre; his economy of words, precise details, and clean style provide easy access to his debut poetry chapbook AL NORTE.
In the book’s dedication, the poet writes,
“Para la familia
Immediate and extended
—All over the world—
Y todos for whom necessity
They must move
De lugar a lugar.”
In the poem “Impermanence,” readers can smell the coffee his parents pour from a thermos, hear the “taca-ta-tacca” of tires ticking off concrete squares,” and feel how “the car nodded and rocked in acknowledgement of a passing tractor-trailer.” Dusk was the hardest and loneliest time. Even as they slept, Palomo and his siblings shifted positions, evoking images of those from Central America and Mexico who even now head north, some packed into 18-wheelers, some riding atop rocking trains.
Traveling at nightfall fuels his obsession with the people inside the lit houses they pass, those unaware of their good fortune to have a permanent home.
This feeling of transience suffuses the narrative of AL NORTE. Although set in the past, the same issues—financial insecurity, substandard living conditions, mixed immigration status, and fear of government officials—exist today. He talks about the constant, clawing terror of separation, of his parents being shipped off like produce to a country they left three decades ago. Narrative details set the tone and hint at other dangers. The author describes how each morning they carry washed and rinsed Clorox bottles, covered in soaked burlap to keep the water cool longer. When thirst comes, he says, the water is “always a half-mile away.”
Anxiety is ever-present, even at play; we get glimpses of Palomo splashing in a shallow creek, where leeches hid among the rocks. He didn’t know their names, “los animalitos negros,” but he was forced to pull them off anyway. On Saturday nights, children stayed up late since they didn’t need to be up at dawn to work on Sunday. In “Angelitos,” he remembers,
At dusk, we built
big fires, and told ghost stories – then
waited for fireflies to begin
circling. We were told they were the
spirits of angelitos,
children who died as infants and
were buried along the edge
of cemeteries to protect others
laid to rest there,
so we never tried to catch one.
When harvest ended, the Palomos returned to Crystal City, the barren South Texas outpost that housed a massive Japanese/German internment camp during World War II. Although the writer was born after it closed, he grew up in the same harsh environment, one that mirrors the reality of undocumented workers housed in detention facilities today, in “a world ruled by other tribes.”
Perhaps as a result of growing up with five sisters, Palomo also writes well from a female point of view. His mother admits to her daughter Dora that during her nine pregnancies, she prayed for boys because females are “destined to live difficult lives,” always prisoners of pain and misery. In El Castigo (The Punishment), Palomo writes that his mother had “no / reason to believe / things could be better.” Two of his mother’s four sons died and, in the end, it was her five daughters who cared for her during the final four years when she couldn’t move or speak.
In “Pepineros,” his mother comments on summer tourists in “skimpy shorts and shameful swimsuits.” Not her children. They are “not about exposure, but about shielding / protection, about long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats / and clammy rubber gloves.” She regrets their harsh life laboring in the fields, but knows they must learn to be tough to survive in a world that hasn’t welcomed them.
Guilt pervades some of the poems. The poet regrets distancing himself from his mother while she recuperated from an accident. He also wishes he had defended his father when a farmer refused to pay him for an honest day’s work. Speaking up for himself years later in a country club kitchen, however, had the same result—non-payment—but he acknowledges one benefit, “I did not remain silent.”
Palomo considers his relationship with his complicated father. In North Dakota, his father was a good one, often inventing things to make their lives easier. In Texas, his father was macho, a man drinking too much and staying in town with another woman. Since he was prone to cursing the pope and God, his father’s name Domingo (Sunday) is ironic. His death is one of many compelling “Kodak Moments,” poetic snapshots of the author’s experiences.
Of the many emotions expressed in AL NORTE, one is missing: anger. Readers can appreciate Palomo’s authentic voice and honesty as he remembers a childhood spent moving from one farm to another, but he never mentions the fury he and his siblings must have felt when they saw their parents disrespected or other children playing while they labored in the fields. I wonder what was left unsaid.
The author uses language in a variety of clever ways. In “Cruzando My Own River,” he shares his journey from Spanish to Spanglish to English by gradually using less and less Spanish in lines of poetry. In others he maximizes the page’s white space with creative layouts of his free verse.
AL NORTE’s final poem describes a return to a long gone migrant camp where he and his family spent many summers. There the writer finds a handful of half-buried items, including the rusted tub of his mother’s Speed Queen washing machine, “upside down / its legs poking out from / knee high Johnson grass.” For him, its existence assures him that once his people lived here. He, like his readers, feels the weight of his memories as he slips a lone lump of coal into his pocket.
With compassion and truth, Palomo assembles memories of his migrant life and records his family’s humanity. The book resonates with the strength of his relatives who lived fully in spite of their struggles and suffering. These are poems to celebrate.
The publisher of AL NORTE is Alabrava Press, is a small, new press founded by Octavio Quintanilla, the former poet laureate of San Antonio. The book can be ordered by sending $15 via VENMO to @alabravapress; or to [email protected] via PayPal.