Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Cristina Rivera-Garza was born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (Mexico) in 1964. She studied sociology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and received her Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Houston. In addition to numerous articles in academic journals, between l991 and 2001 she published three novels, a book of short stories, and a book of poems. She appears here as an “emerging poet” because, until now (aside from one anthology), her poetry has not been translated into English or published in the United States.
Reading Rivera-Garza for the first time, I found myself feeling incredulous that her work was unknown here; it was as though Szymborska had been overlooked among the translated Polish poets. And while I realize this analogy does not account for the difference in the age between these two women (and therefore the difference in size of their bodies of work), nevertheless, reading Rivera-Garza’s poem “Third World” one cannot help but feel that a major literary presence has moved into our line of sight, an original and what will undoubtedly be influential voice has suddenly been made audible to our ears. “Third World” (the “Terzo”) is, like Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes, an epic encounter with poverty and oppression. Like Hikmet, Rivera-Garza’s condemnations are intellectual and emotional and utterly lacking in sentimentality. About the poor living on the streets of the “Terzo” she writes, “They could be recognized by their way of being absolutely, roundly, cinematically wrong.”
On the streets of The Biggest City in the World they could be recognized by the jumbled
excess in their eyes
by the way they levitated, tremulous, over impossible yellow thistles.
The city was also their house
they had a living room of brackish buildings downtown
a dark bedroom in Tlanesburgo
an enviable view in Belvedere
and underground passageways that everyone called the Metro.
In the kitchen which was everywhere the men came to know the bite of garlic intimately
and those who were going to be women wore glass armor instead of flowered aprons.
They could be recognized by the agility of their thighs and the proficiency of their hands as they snatched.
They were the diurnal animals that took the parks by storm
solid like a flagpole ringed with light
the length of it appeased by wide red-black flags.
They, the ones with sad armpits and mouths bursting with the greatest hunger
flung themselves upon the roundness of the world with arms and legs made of net.
They could be recognized because it was difficult to know if they were just going or if they were already returning aghast.
They were the ones who sang hymns out of tune and walked upstream in parades
the contingent of dark individuals.
They could be recognized by their way of being absolutely, roundly, cinematically wrong.
But above all they could be recognized by the excess in their eyes
obsidian stones inlaid in firm emaciated crania
tremendously stunned drops
kites flying spiral.
Beneath their light, the world was finally small
a broken toy that wasn’t scary anymore.
The Third World was a hospital, a party, an orphanage, a rest home
abducted from reality.
The Free Territory of America.
Interminable like wretchedness the Terzo.
Saturated with piss and vomit like the whole country.
Motherland of those undone, of those wounded by desire, of those dead from so much dying, of
those so often devalued, of those alone so comfortably uncomfortable inside their solitude, of those who are fed up, of those who
are full of shit, of those defeated from the start, of those heralds of the Truly True, of those with no sex and with all the sexes, of
those exiled from the city, of those necessarily without hope, of those with terrifying hopes, of those who later became warriors or
professors or died of hunger, of those everyone.
House that’s cruel.
House with cloud roofs.
House where dragging yourself was walking.
House with no entrance and no exit.
Everyone said let’s go to the Terzo like someone going inside a seed.
House that’s artificial.
House with no aurora and no respite.
House of demolition.
Everyone said let’s go to the Terzo like someone going beyond.
They could be recognized by their steps, nailing themselves into the earth with a nail’s
They could be recognized by the fiery pain in their bones.
House of the soulless holding onto their souls like an anchor or a last chance.
And I was the man and I was the woman
my concavity was the state of the site of the metamorphoses.
How the infectious terror of happiness raised blisters on my lips.
Crumbled the before under circular microscopes
opened the box of whistlings in pelvic dawns:
daybreaks edged with pale borders and fruity dissimilarities.
I were an other, Rimbaud dixit
but I was more.
How to sing this holey sentimentality over trinkets
this diamantinically geological layer upon my skin
the blindness of prayer and the magnanimity of the gift?
I was you excessive dog with yellow eyes
you proclivious girl
you glaringly sunny fragments and green city bend.
How to say Third World without burning my mouth with golden trifles?
I was a neighborhood accumulated on the outskirts of form
about to exist and about not to exist like faith
narcotic in the ellipsis of a monumental mouth.
We laughed as if we were shelling nuts
as if we were stealing the show among the noisiness of vast Alexandria
Salt deaf. In that geodesic place
where the infinitesimal shoot of the carnivorous plant grew
the one we called pleasure when we wanted to say June sun.
How to say Let’s go to the Terzo without falling face down among objects?
We were mythological tatters
lusts for anonymous unruly bells.
The worst of the worst
what is left after basic consummation
the longitudinal fibroma of sugarcane stalks
the iridescent pulp.
How to say the Terzo once again without putting out this match of words
this inaugural illumination that wakeful unveils the dactyl
We were a vertiginous peeking out from behind the veins
an aerial industriousness of legs and fingernails and cartilage.
We were saliva.
translated from the Spanish by Jen Hofer
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The gender politics of Positive Psychology valorize the nuclear family and heterosexual monogamy. But few of the millions who encounter it through self-help books and therapy have any idea.
The passage of the administration’s signature IRA should be celebrated, but without explicit corporate guardrails it’s doomed.
As the war continues with no end in sight, the country’s ability to prevail at the front will depend on how badly the war damages life on the ground.