On Tracing the Horse by Diana Marie Delgado

Jose Hernandez Diaz

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2019. 112 pages. $17.00.

Diana Marie Delgado’s poems in her debut full-length collection, Tracing the Horse, dwell in the real world: cousins kiss behind a dumpster, someone waits in line for free food and sees the popular kid in school also waiting, a father shouts an obscenity to an otherwise classy wedding party. With genius and grace, Delgado captures the layers of marginalization of a Latina, as well as the mundane squalor and pulse of the hood/barrio/San Gabriel Valley (SGV). Her poems never romanticize or condemn; they are always painting, always photographing, and always poetic. To this end, Delgado utilizes an aesthetic of stripped down, direct poetry to unravel the otherwise harsh realities of her marginalization and her community’s marginalization.

In the prose poem “Note for White Girls,” Delgado describes the difficulty of growing up Mexican-American in a Mexican-American neighborhood, or barrio. By highlighting the trauma of growing up poor and Latinx, Delgado takes us into her world (La Puente, CA) which resides inside the thick layers of another world (mainstream America):

                Roaches bubbling out of drawers and cabinets, so
many that each time a boyfriend asked for something
to eat, I’d head to the kitchen, turn on the light, and
squash with my hand whatever I saw running.

Straightforward, Delgado recounts an traumatic experience of growing up poor or working-class. Instead of using hyperbole, Delgado’s matter-of-fact style paints a vivid picture of growing up brown and out, dealing with roaches, poverty, etc. Later, Delgado continues her proclamation of feeling othered and isolated, not just as a Mexican-American, but also as a daughter in a Mexican-American family:

They (the boyfriend)
thought I had them sit in the living room because I
liked serving them. Life as a girl in a Mexican family
can feel different. Sometimes like you’re not part of
the family.

There are distinct layers to Delgado’s speaker’s marginalization: she’s Latina, she’s a woman, she’s working-class, she speaks Spanish. At once avoiding the roaches so she won’t feel embarrassed, at the same time seen as submissive for serving the boyfriend so he doesn’t enter the kitchen, and all in the context of growing up in a working-class, immigrant barrio—the speaker(s) in this book seem far from the (white) American dream.

Later, in another expertly written prose poem, “El Scorpion,” Delgado introduces us to her grandparents in a hospital, and we witness a painful moment on various levels:

. . . “Mrs. Lopez,
we’ll have to move your husband to hospice,” and
grandma, who never learned English, asked, “Que
dijo, Felipe?” and Grandpa answered, “Stupid, that means
I’m going to die!”

We witness this heartbreaking moment wherein the grandfather learns of his inevitable death, but also, simultaneously, we see the grandma’s marginalization and belittlement for not knowing English. The speaker does not condemn the grandfather, though, as grace can be hard to come by in the hood/barrio, especially when one hears the news of their eventual death.

In “Firebird,” another prose poem, we find another moment of struggle yet persistence in soldiering on in the SGV. Working on an old car that won’t start, which has become routine, the speaker highlights the dreary reality of growing up brown and out:

. . . we
used to pick the alternator ’til it sparked when it died
and dad would pop the hood, point the flashlight, and
yell to mom—pump the fuckin gas—until the engine
would roar, and we’d be gone.

Masterfully, Delgado puts a face to the hardships of Latinx working-class folks. Her father’s routine struggle with getting the car to start is a metaphor for the rise and grind mentality necessary for survival in working-class barrios. Folks have to soldier on, a huevo, no hay otra, because there is no other option.

In another prose poem, “Amiga,” toward the end of this illuminating book, Delgado unravels the world of misogyny present in barrio life:

We were in front of Kmart when I called your boyfriend
an asshole for beating you up and you told me if I said
anything bad about him again, you’d never speak to me.

Delgado’s bad luck is twofold: she has to deal with violent men and also with the realities of women who cover up for said knuckleheads. The fact that this takes place in front of a Kmart also reminds us of the “Kmart realism” poetry, which similarly highlights everyday moments of working-class struggle. Moments like this one appear again and again throughout the book, creating a powerful sense of empathy with the reader, an effect that only poetry this powerful and moving can accomplish.

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