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Poet Erika L. Sánchez on Going Mainstream and Not Being Perfect

The Bridgeport writer longed for Mexican American voices in literature growing up. Now she’s carving out a place for her own.

Photo: Kevin Penczak

Erika L. Sánchez is on the cusp of a marquee year, but her ascent has been anything but smooth. In the past year, the 33-year-old Bridgeport resident has weathered a divorce, bouts of depression, and an apartment fire that still has most of her possessions in storage. Her career, though, has flourished: She’s published poems and essays in the likes of The Paris Review and Rolling Stone that relay her experience as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in the near western suburb of Cicero.

As she prepares to release her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, on July 11 and a young adult novel this fall, Sánchez reflects on the twists and turns that landed her here.

How did growing up the daughter of immigrants influence your poetry?

I always felt very out of place. My parents were undocumented when they arrived here, so much of my life has been about borders and belonging to two places at once. That’s partly why I began writing.

In the poem “Orchid,” you write about seeing prostitutes on your block.

We lived at the corner of Cicero and Cermak, and there were all sorts of sex workers at the Cove Motel. It shaped the way I viewed the world. On TV, the white women I’d see were the ones considered beautiful, but the only white women I saw in real life were these prostitutes. I didn’t understand what they were doing at the time, but as I grew older, I was like, Oh, they were hustling.

You recently spoke out against the Cicero Public Library for requiring parents to show a government ID when their kids apply for a library card.

I first heard about this issue from someone who works in Cicero public schools; they sent some of their students to get library cards, and the kids got turned away. Most places, all you need is two pieces of mail. It’s bananas. It’s a fucking library card. Is there a conspiracy that these neighborhood kids are going to steal all the books? Why would you deny a kid a right to literacy?

Why write a young adult novel?

Essentially, I wrote the book I needed when I was young: about a complex girl of color with goals and dreams. The publishing industry has really caught on in recent years that, one, we read and, two, we buy things. When I was trying to get this book published, people were like, “Why don’t you try a small indie press?” Absolutely not. I insist that we become part of the big mainstream American publishing houses.

You titled the novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. What is a perfect Mexican daughter?

Someone who is family-oriented. Someone who is not sexual. The fact that I’ve traveled alone has horrified my family. And by Mexican standards, I’m way too old to be thinking about kids. I feel for my parents: I was an exasperating, rebellious little asshole as a teenager. But as a grown woman, it’s nice to give no fucks.

Below, Sanchez reads her poem, “Forty Three,” reflecting on the abduction and alleged murder of students in Guerrero, Mexico, in 2014. She chose dancer Ashley Rockwood, founder and artistic director of the Dancers Awareness Project, “to interpret and disperse the story of these young activists” through dance. "I wondered how the violence of the poem would be physically manifested,” Sanchez says.

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