The jaguar in the box

A conversation between Diego Báez and Jose-Luis Moctezuma

In August of 2023, just as the Fall term commenced, poet and scholar Jose-Luis Moctezuma reached out to me about celebrating Latinx Heritage Month at Wilbur Wright College, where he teaches Literature and Composition in the English department. Jose invited me to read from my forthcoming debut poetry collection, Yaguareté White, which was published by University of Arizona Press in February. As a fellow faculty member at the City Colleges of Chicago, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to spend time with a new group of students talking about poetry. Of course, I accepted without hesitation.

In preparation for my visit, I learned that Jose also had a book of poetry coming out, Black Box Syndrome, published by Omnidawn in December and described as a book that synthesizes “chance-operational aesthetics with Aztec anatomical science, conspiracy theory with systems theory, and the black box model with the concept of the “influencing machine.” Jose and I had been connected via social media, but we’d never met in person. When I arrived on campus, he greeted me like an old friend and guided me inside the concrete geometry of Wilbur Wright’s Bertrand Goldberg-designed structure. The auditorium is an impressive space, and it provided the perfect backdrop for a poetry reading and follow-up conversation with Jose’s thoughtful, intelligent students.

After the event, Jose and I chatted briefly, but he had to jet off to class. So we decided to continue our conversation in a slightly more formal context. We corresponded via email on December 31, 2023 and through the first weeks of the new year, first discussing Black Box Syndrome and then Yaguareté White.

– Diego Báez 


Diego Báez: Your book, Black Box Syndrome, employs the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching to shape each individual poem and give structure to the overall collection. Even as someone previously unfamiliar with Chinese cleromantic practices, I found your use of the hexagrams a surprisingly straightforward means for giving shape to each poem. How did you land on using the I Ching as an organizing structure for the book?

Jose-Luis Moctezuma: The I Ching provided a means of intellectualizing and modeling an oppositional cleromancy to the algorithmic capitalism that operates unseen and unperturbed in our daily lives, a thematic current which runs throughout the book. The “financialization of daily life,” as a book by Randy Martin named it, is a phenomenon predicated, among a multitude of things, on futures trading and the “management of risk,” and it can be seen in the widening economic rift between (what McKenzie Wark called) the “vectoralist class” and everyone else, a perilous situation which is reducing culture as such to the realm of economic access. I see it as a predatory form of divination, via algorithmic computation and A.I. mediation, practiced with a view toward specific financial outcomes and the accumulation of interest at the expense of a socially ethical human coexistence. The I Ching belongs to the oldest of human traditions, the poetry of divination and cosmic order, and it precedes and preempts the vulgar magicks of financial market speculation. In a way, the I Ching served as an obsidian mirror for me, a mechanism that reflects both itself and the practitioner, in which a void of infinite possibility rests like an interstice that changes with each gesture, action, and thought. The I Ching was ultimately a liberatory mechanism as much as it was a lens for thought. 



the form that fish in a tank make  under fluorescent light invisibilizes
them,  much like a melon covered in willow leaf,  or the sensation of
running into a wall  when the sky brightens,  a plastiglomerate effect
in which gills and scales and debris are plasticized into a new atomic
arrangement, under water where the light breaks up and leaks in oily
patterns and microplastic                       particles emerge break merge


from “Black Box Syndrome”

Báez: I’m especially interested in the “influencing machines” so central to your book. You cite Victor Tausk as using the term to describe the sense of having one’s thoughts and actions controlled from afar by a cabal of ill-wishers, an experience shared by many schizophrenics. It’s uncanny to me how readily this term lends itself to describing a feeling I think many people experience in navigating today’s complicated technoscape, one largely dictated by profit motives and reinforcement learning. What drew you to the concept of the “influencing machine,” and how did you develop it over the course of the book’s composition?

Moctezuma: This question hits at the heart of the origin of the book. During the pandemic, I became fascinated by the proliferation of (absurd) conspiracy theories regarding COVID — what it was, how it spread, and where it originated — and the ensuing skepticism and doubt toward the development and distribution of COVID vaccines. I read this as a signal of overdetermination stemming from global capitalist existence, in which armchair conspiracists both deprecated and (purposely, grotesquely) misread and misunderstood the tremendously complex and diffuse conditions of globalization that the COVID pandemic manifested in a profoundly somatic way. 

While researching the motivations and origins of conspiracy theory as a kind of perverse genre, I came across the concept of the “influencing machine,” which turned out to be an apt metaphor for how the “technoscape” (to use your term) worked to virally spread frequently racist, fascist narratives of conspiracy, in a kind of mise-en-abyme of conspiratorial powerlessness that privileged the jaded and timorous folklore of the local rather than the obdurate realism of the global. The influencing machine was itself a conspiratorial fantasy on which a whole panoply of conspiracies multiplied and dispersed, an abstract and infernal engine that generated simplistic abstractions belonging to the xenophobic realm of the binary (“good” vs “evil”; “west” vs “east”; “us” vs “them”; etc.). Victor Tausk is a fascinating figure for which there is really too much to say that wouldn’t fit here, but his paper, “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia” (which is readily available online), was a key document in my thinking of the “black box model” as a kind of influencing machine, a turn of thought that eventually led toward my adoption of the I Ching hexagram as a lyric-producing “box of boxes.”  



we might think of the box             as a kind of wellspring in which
the rope and bucket descend  & descend and the floor is never reached
a distant sound of waterdrops        rises in the air in a temperature
that conceals the color in the grate  that keeps the inside   from the out
a hairpin made of trinitite or fordite clasps a lock of hair  that i threw
into the well which doesn’t            change only my memory of her


from “Black Box Syndrome”

Báez: I’m gonna hit you with a question right out of Creative Writing 101: Who’s speaking in these poems? I’m tempted to describe it as a kind of disembodied voice, an intelligent agent on the fritz, or an edited echo from a ghost in the machine. But I don’t think that’s quite right, since moments of natural beauty and images of deceptive simplicity break through, such as the “melon covered in willow leaf” and a “hairpin made of trinitite,” to give only two examples. Another way to ask this question: to what extent do you rely on readers’ own interpretive lenses and how much of these poems’ meaning-making lives in the speakers’ intentions and desires?

Moctezuma: This is a great question, and it’s one which I think may have multiple answers depending on the reader. I really dig your description of the speaker as a “disembodied voice” or an “edited echo from a ghost in the machine,” descriptions which feel right to me. But I also agree that the diffuse nature of the poems, which are often assemblages of lines that seem to clash with the notion of a centralized or consistent speaker, relies on the reader’s own input into the “black box” of interpretation that the poems request; this was my attempt at channeling the chaotic, Heraclitean nature of an I Ching reading, which changes with each “throw of the dice,” to quote Mallarmé. There are patterns and subtle repetitions, certainly, but these repetitions produce a difference in lineation depending on the stresses and phantom punctuations that a reader may bring to the reading of the poem. 

More importantly, I wrote the poems so that they can be read (aloud) in different ways, putting emphasis on different segments of the line and hopefully creating alternate readings that produce new outcomes. I may not have been very successful on this latter intention (some readings manifestly suffocate others), but it is in the nature of using the I Ching that intentions and intentionality are aborted in favor of something significantly grander than the limited personal voice of a speaker. The “lyric I” is only a fragment of ordination that does not take a hierarchical precedence over any other object in the binding space of the poem, whether it is the “melon covered in willow leaf” or the “hairpin made of trinitite,” objects which are equally consecrated by the reader’s attention span. I like to think of this mire of objects (where the self is only an object among things united by scarcity or excess) as reflecting the massive “garbage patches” that drift like plastic islands in the ocean, reminders of the need we have to reduce impossibly complex “hyperobjects” (to use Timothy Morton’s term) down to things like the “speaker” or the “voice,” when in fact such a garbage patch, collecting more absurdly random and toxic materials as it drifts, is a grotesque agglomeration of the plastics and filth we cast off into the ocean, an accountability for which we might start reframing the lyric voice as itself a byproduct of the detritus of information we’re daily inundated with. 



what is an individual under                     the scrutiny of the black box
a dummy’s guide to leaping                  into leprosies of yellowy faith
the mother wakes up from                      auto-suggestion asphyxiation
yet i undo my father’s work                  tying the doll’s loose shoelace
the pre-oedipal capitalizes  on the phantom logic  of yggdrasil branch
arboreal patterns and the camouflage of filial relation are called 401k


from “Black Box Syndrome”

Báez: On the topic of writing courses, I don’t know about you, but A.I.-generated content has proliferated like a virus across student work uploaded this semester. I mention this because certain passages of your book sound almost like mad libs composed by a supercomputer’s autocomplete (“arboreal patterns and the camouflage of filial relation are called 401k”). How do you think about the role of generative A.I. tools like ChatGPT in your own creative and teaching practices?

Moctezuma: I also teach writing and composition, and A.I. has certainly become the primary concern we now have as instructors to rethink how we teach writing, knowing how easily our students can resort to ChatGPT to produce formalized bursts of script that simulate what we believe is “good writing” in the academic mode. There is a range of exceptional poets (like Lilliane-Yvonne Bertram) who use A.I. in remarkable ways that critique and deconstruct the modes of thought A.I. enforces and infects us with, and their poetry feels like it is at the forefront of a defense against A.I. and the ever-narrowing channels of “original” human thought that are still left for us. I am nowhere near that level of sophistication, which is why I relied on the “older tech” (if one can say that) of the I Ching to create a polemical fabric that critiques A.I. on similar grounds. But I might be tempted to say that the entirety of the book was “hand-crafted” (however fatuous that expression may seem in this day and age), including those lines you cite, to simulate what A.I. would have produced had I had the brains to know how to use A.I. in the first place. In other words, I wrote parts of the book intending to simulate A.I.-generated patterns of expression in the way that A.I. tries to simulate human patterns of expression, a countermagic or counter-divination intended to cast off the “evil eye” of A.I. To this day, I have yet to use ChatGPT, but I know the day will come when it will be necessary to do so, as a way of familiarizing myself with the tools that my own students are daily confronted with and, to some degree, tempted by as a replacement for their own voice. 



the nahual  hides its arms  in thick grass  under various moons of inquest
a brother animal  breathes in  the machine vapor  and asks that the blood
of a running brook  offer to spill its redblack  over stones broken by light
in the red east  they say the belated one married her  who opened the box
my tonalli returns me to him                   and he is me in the undercurrent
narratives of miscreancy are common  where the yolk of the sun splatters


from “Black Box Syndrome”

Báez: Speaking of algorithmically-produced linguistic sequences, I really enjoyed your incorporation of terms from Nahua cosmology and science. I Googled one word in particular (“tonali”) and got a perfectly absurd result: “There are multiple matches for tonali, including a concept in Mesoamerican religion and a pizzeria in Philadelphia.” When so much of contemporary life is defined by language that is both mechanically distanced yet meticulously personalized (social media feeds and the ads they serve), your use of Nahua feels uniquely authentic to your own Xicano identity and experience. Can you describe your relationship to Xicanismo, specifically, and Latinidad, more broadly? How does it play in your work?

Moctezuma: I follow in line with what Alfred Arteaga had theorized in using “X” in the term “Xicano”: it is the multipolar, Baroque sign that encases both self and otherness, the artificed, ever-shifting border and the luminous migrant earth, the eagle and the serpent, the arrow and the target. I see myself as belonging to the generation after the first politically awakened Chicanos, hence “Xicano,” a generational transition that now has to contend with the accelerationist history-compacting operations of the technosphere, which is swiftly quantifying our respective hold on identity, language, gender, and race in a way that restricts or predetermines our relationship to the ancestors. In this respect, I rely on my own ancestrality as the repository of animist symbols and technologies that permit me to read the present into the past, as a layering rather than a substitution, an unearthing of what is there (creation) rather than an imposition of what is not (simulation). Aztec cosmology and medicine were instrumental for giving the book a texture that was missing, the need for a linkage to the ancestral that the technosphere works hard to efface, modify, abbreviate, and rewrite; in other words, thinking in and through nahualism (in short, composing in and through animal-otherness) gave me a means of projecting a different species of organicism, a return to the (ugly) complications of the organic, into the non-organic, antiseptic realm of A.I.-derivative operations. It is a poetic system, to borrow a figure from your own book, that likes to imagine that there is a jaguar hiding, and waiting to pounce, within every black box model.



how do we know it is documentary  or  nonfiction how we do split hairs
on this magnitude if we are bacteria on a god’s fingernail how do boxes
work at sunrise or dusk  how do we know the cat is alive or in my brain
how does  the internet of things              work versus the world of things
if the doorbell rings why do they            need to see my face looking out
at its face if the door is locked but in my phantasy it is always unlocked 


from “Black Box Syndrome”

Báez: An acute sense of paranoia haunts the book, one that feels difficult to separate from the scarily mainstream, increasingly complicated conspiracies that intensified during the pandemic. (I’m thinking specifically of QAnon and its labyrinthine derivatives.) To what extent did this hostile environment of politically inflammatory, perpetually online storytelling influence the book? More generally, what was writing like for you during the pandemic? How did your habits change?  

Moctezuma: Paranoia is a major environmental component of the book, and it is one deeply intertwined with the conspiracy-theorist mode I described above. This book is very much a “pandemic book,” conditioned and inspired by the momentary reduction of life to extremely online lifestyles, where the normative sense of a public sphere was defamiliarized into forms of curious estrangement (e.g., teaching on Zoom) and, in some cases, political derangement (e.g., QAnon). On the aspects of paranoia, I drew on the example of James Tilly Matthews, another fascinating figure I came across, who had been a British merchant living during the French Revolution. Matthews was later committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam), after he had interrupted a House of Commons debate in which he loudly accused a powerful politician of treason and complained of an influencing machine, which he called the “air loom,” that was used by his political enemies to control and influence his actions from afar.  

Under supervision by the Bedlam physician, John Haslam, Matthews described and drew pictures, in great detail, of the air loom and its operators, which was eventually published by Haslam (also readily available online) as Illustrations of Madness in 1810. I was greatly impressed by the purely sci-fi possibility (in the mode of Philip K. Dick) that Matthews must have felt paradoxically justified about his miserable situation, confined to Bedlam and forced to reiterate and replay his paranoid delusions, much to his detriment, which must have only increased his belief in what he held to be true; a rabbit hole from which there’s no escape due to the evidence (political persecution, confinement) that reinforced the veracity of the influencing machine’s omnipotent hold on him. 

Did I myself feel paranoid, and did my writing habits change during the writing of the book? Not at all, since the book isn’t written in my voice, nor in anyone else’s for that matter. Paranoia was more of a motif, a form of compositional logic for the images that grew out of the hexagrammic model; the material itself determined the kind of outcomes that emerged. My writing habits did change somewhat as a result of my interactions with the I Ching and with the hexagram form in particular, but it was a very “project-oriented” book rather than a collection of personalized performances, and I pursued the theme as one does the white rabbit, into vertices of thought that sometimes produced fascinating results. 

Báez: To conclude with very different kinds of influencing machines, I’m always curious to know what informs poets’ writing. So what are you reading right now? Who has caught your attention recently?

Moctezuma: In terms of influence, I have to mention a book that, weirdly, I only came across after I had long finished writing my book and it was going to press. Peter O’Leary, who wrote a magnificent blurb for my book, informed me, after reading through Black Box Syndrome, that there is a book by the poet Peter Cole titled The Invention of Influence whose centerpiece is a long poem on the life of Victor Tausk and his relationship to Sigmund Freud. I was totally unaware of Cole’s book, and when I got the chance to read it, I was rather blown away by its intellectual beauty and lyricism, and I was struck by the uncanny notion that Cole’s book — quite unconsciously and from afar — acted like an influencing machine on me when I first started reading about Tausk and the theory of influencing machines in general. In a strange way, Cole’s book on “the invention of influence” seemed to have invented and exerted an influence on my own book after the fact. Although my book does not deal with Tausk’s life and letters as directly as Cole’s does, there are similar concerns with the infectious nature (and distortions) of language that both books share. 


There is history and then there is history, but there are no jaguars
here, only a pool of blood petrified into stone, a place I call home,

tierra de arcilla, clay so bright it stains orange. This color we call rust in English,
after a chemical reaction used to describe the old, unused, out of practice.

                                                                                    from “Yaguareté White” 

Moctezuma: There is a wonderfully enigmatic, pregnant line in your book, in the titular poem “Yaguareté White” which states that “[t]here is history and then there is history, but there are no jaguars / here,” and I like to think of this line as embodying one of the key themes in your book, the relationship to history and the ancestors (or what I had referred to as “ancestrality”) through the vehicles of myth and the folkloric, in this case from the Guaraní and Paraguayan traditions. The speaker’s personal history seems to contend and come to terms with the collective (and fragmented or lost) history of the ancestral past, especially in its various bifurcations and obfuscations when it comes to one’s sense of racial and ethnic identity and grasp (or loss) of language. What does “history” represent here, not just in this line, but for the overarching theme of the book, perhaps most vividly described in the poem “Empire” (where history is described as “so many just men [...] / sharpening knives and altercating / over which tongue to impale”)? What are the two (or multiple) histories the line seems to reference?  

Báez: I appreciate that phrasing, when you refer to the “collective history of the ancestral past.” Certainly, a collective consciousness lurks behind the poems in Yaguareté White. But in conversation for a podcast recently, I realized how many of the book’s poems speak from a singular first person. This came as a surprise to me! I composed so many of the poems with my brothers — I have two younger brothers — in mind. As in, they were in the rooms, the cars, the planes, all those places in Paraguay with me. In earlier drafts and in poems since abandoned, I tried to triangulate our shared experiences, but that proved too complicated, at least for me to achieve. Instead, I consolidated my brothers into the singular character of Miguel, to serve as a foil, accomplice, and doppelganger to the book’s primary speaker. This means Armando has all but disappeared from its pages (sorry, bro!), at least by name for now.

All of that is to say, I think that’s where history is made: across the intersecting quadrants of personal, familial, and cultural practices and habits. As for the lines you cite, about how “[t]here is history and then there is history,” it strikes me as both obvious and obfuscated. In the most superficial sense, this is simply how history works: important historical moments always are — and always will be — superseded by more, and more important, moments of historical import. In fairness, it’s probably more accurate to call this linear accumulation of facts and records a chronology. History is not a dead thing that lies dormant for our perusal and poaching. History lives! It breathes. It breeds and feasts. It dies to rise again. History is a zombie, a phantom, a phoenix. And, particularly in Paraguay, where US military, transnational capital, and homegrown dictatorial interventions continue to destabilize life for its peoples, history functions as a tesseract, distorting and inverting facts and memory, reiterating, reproducing, and recreating. I hope to translate these histories through the prismatic hyperplane of poetry.

But in Spanish y is “and” so
why is Guaraní for “water”

the same as “and” in Spanish?
And who              knew Guaraní

    is “Avañe’ẽ” in Guaraní?
Not I.

(The sound for water
in Guaraní.)

from “English Eventually”

Moctezuma: Going back to the historical lenses that are at work in this book, what does the wonderfully evocative title of the book (and poem) refer to? Secondly, what is the role of race and “whiteness” here, not just in the title, but also as a theme that runs through several of the poems, whether as a marker of historical, colonialist “co-option” of culture or as a referent of postcolonial hybridity and/or erasure? 

Báez: The title, I hope, evokes the book’s themes of cultural and linguistic hybridity. The poems intermarry the indigenous, state-sanctioned language of Guaraní into English, and it was important to me to lead with a signpost of sorts, a way to announce that the book’s pages are a place of ambiguation, uncertainty, and, what I think Keats would have called, negative capability.

So I wanted to combine a word of Guaraní origin that will likely be unfamiliar (and perhaps unpronounceable) to many readers (YAGUARETÉ) with the stark confrontation of a highly-charged racial indicator (WHITE). A lot of the book attempts to disentangle (and then re-entangle) strands of racialized identity, with whiteness assuming a violent, militant character as the collection progresses. I’m curious how these indictments and provocations will land for folks who are people of color, as well as for those who are not. I wonder, too, whether readers will wade into a kind of uncanny valley when they parse the title, since “yaguareté” looks both similar to the English “jaguar,” but morphed or, rather, reduced to its etymological origin. 

Without sounding ridiculous, I also think there’s an aesthetic to the string of letters that is visually appealing. I like that the title is kind of long and awkward. I like that it’s syllabically lopsided. This is silly, but I also love the letter “y,” especially as it’s called in Spanish: i griega, the Greek I. I mean, that’s downright Homeric. Plus, the classical Greek sound /y/, and I’m stealing this directly from today’s version of Wikipedia, “was not a native sound for Latin speakers, and the letter was initially only used to spell foreign words,” which perhaps speaks to the book’s themes of translation and translanguaging. Also worth mentioning is that the word for “water” in Guaraní is “y,” which adds another interesting, if borderline incomprehensible, layer to the equation.

Quick watch a white guy                    y
Talk on YouTube                                 y
Saying isn’t it funny / how the children ignore us / but then you say count and they sound
like a chorus:

peteĩ, mokõi, mbohapy                      y
(And four?)                                          y
They answer in Spanish / and the missionary man’s compassion will vanish.

from “So You Want to Write in Guaraní”

Moctezuma: I noticed that that book is segmented into three sections: “Peteĩ” / “Mokõi” / “Mbohapy.” What do these terms mean and/or intend to represent, and how did you land on splitting the book into these three sections? 

Báez: So the section titles are simply the Guaraní words for “one,” “two,” and “three.” They serve a pedagogical purpose, as I hope to teach readers to recognize at least those three words. A “Notas” section appends the poems, but the aftermatter doesn’t include a glossary, per se. Instead, the Guaraní numbers pop up across the book in subtle, oblique ways that are probably easy to overlook: one poem imagines Paraguayan children reciting their numbers for a Peace Corps volunteer, another series of “joke” poems incorporates the numeration in their titles. In these ways, I hope readers experience the kind of fragmented, informal, disorganized processes of language acquisition that I — and the book’s speakers — know so well.

I’m also only now learning about rhythm in Paraguayan polka music. (So it’s called.) Polka paraguaya employs both binary and ternary rhythms, which I’m led to understand is quite something. (I’m no musician, clearly.) But I’ve long enjoyed rhythms that compete for primacy in the listener’s attention, and I’ve always wondered where that came from. 

                                         Miguel sips grapefruit
juice and chats incessantly with his neighbor,
a guy from Chicago, but not born and raised,
a transplant from the suburbs who’s never heard
of Uptown, its inhabitants and sirens, its silences, its animals,
its daily reminders of life’s savage chance, the way fortune
will ravage the addict, the unsheltered, the scathed.

from “Passing through Panamá, En Route to ORD and Uptown, Chicago” 

Moctezuma: Your poem, “Passing through Panamá, En Route to ORD and Uptown, Chicago,” makes explicit reference to Chicago and “its daily reminders of life’s savage chance,” and I can’t help but ask (since you and I both live in Chicago and teach in the City Colleges of Chicago) how much of Chicago — as city, landscape, and cultural locus — has filtered into the writing of this book? How has Chicago shaped your identity and practice as a writer? 

Báez: Few places on Earth produce such a wide variety of talent and can sustain so many artistic communities as Chicago. I grew up downstate, in what locals refer to as Central Illinois. Whenever my family flew south to visit our family in Paraguay, we drove to Chicago, and O’Hare was always our initial point of airborne departure. So the city makes its way into the book via the poem you cite, which is a mostly factually accurate recounting of an absolutely disastrous, drunken journey back from Paraguay. But it wasn’t until I returned to the Midwest after grad school and rented a tiny studio in Uptown that I could start to call Chicago home. 

At the time, I lived across the street from Graceland Cemetery, a historic graveyard that boasts enormous, ornate mausolea and landscaping that puts Lincoln Park mansions to shame. It’s also home to wildlife like I’d never seen in a city before: coyotes, deer, and hawks regularly populate its paths and expanses. It was like living across from a strange urban nature preserve. It was wonderful. But one night, mistaking the midnight sounds of the red line screeching against the rails over Montrose for the howls of aroused coyotes, I wrote a poem for the victims of Ethan Couch, the wealthy teen who used an “affluenza” defense and then fled to Mexico when he violated parole. The poem included the lines, “I wasn’t wrong, not exactly, / right the way a white boy can be / ready to make a run for the border at any moment.” For some reason, that confluence of influences strikes me as uniquely Chicagoan. I don’t think I’d write that poem anywhere else. Chicago will always be a special place for me personally. It’s where I got my start as a book critic, honed my practice as an educator, and now launch my authorial career as a poet. It feels exceptionally right. 

Still, is it strange for a preteen in Normal,
Illinois to deflect the question from classmates:
“Are you wearing makeup?” He said it was a medicine,
this application of a basic white. But the girls knew better:
boys always mistake concealment for a cure.

from “The Assumption of Whiteness”

Moctezuma: In thinking of Latine identity, how does your book negotiate the boundaries that lie between Unitedstatesian concepts of Latinidad, which often compact entire Latine communities (and sub-communities) together into a simplistic monolithic form, and the Paraguayan boundaries that exist, on a different level, between white Paraguayans, non-white “mestizo” Paraguayans, and indigenous communities in Paraguay, like the Guaraní, the Zamuco, the Maskoy, etc.? I feel like your book engages with the complexities and contradictions of this discourse (what is Latinidad? what is hybridity?) in a striking way, and I’m wondering how you think through these concerns as an abolitionist thinker. 

Báez: I’m fixating on your use of “non-white mestizo” in this context. My experience growing up was entirely the opposite. It was so estranging to see “White (Non-Hispanic)” as the only remotely applicable option on standardized test forms and so forth. It was jarring. In retrospect, I have to believe that persistent, negatory prefix (“Non”) deeply informed my poetics, which a perspicacious friend kindly referred to as “apophatic,” from the practice of describing a thing (“God”) by what it is not (since its name cannot be spoken). I’ve found this descriptor incredibly empowering because it applies to so much of my own experience of Latinidad in the States: devoid of community, without language, uncertain about so many aspects of how my particular family lived, and where, in that time. Happily, poetry helps me to continue searching.

Moctezuma: It’s now my turn to ask: what are the influences, literary or otherwise, that informed this book? What have you been vibing on recently in poetry, cinema, television, and/or music? 

BáezThis will sound silly, but there’s an episode of the children’s animated series Bluey I’m absolutely obsessed with. It’s called “The Dump.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Bandit drives the kids to the dump. The story touches on issues of recycling and sadness, disillusionment, reconciliation, life, death, art, and reincarnation. It’s brilliant, I’m not kidding. Although, of course, as a parent, I’m likely biased.