Review by Christina De La Rocha
Do you know what it is like to live in a liminal space? To occupy a niche where you’re of two cultures and/or two countries, and therefore not a true member of either of them? These are the shoes that the poems in Hell/a Mexican, the debut chapbook by Kevin Madrigal Galindo, let you stand in. Or perhaps it is more relevant to say that this is the food the collection of poems offers for you to taste and chew and allow to become a part of you. Because one world that Mr. Madrigal does firmly inhabit is that of food and how it sustains us and plays such a fundamental role in our identities and cultures.
Kevin Madrigal Galindo turns out to be one of those people who do a lot of different amazing things. It is easy to imagine that he is both smart and dedicated. He knows his nutrition, for instance, by virtue of having earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Biology from Stanford University. What he has done with that foundation is not just work for a while over the fires at Chez Panisse, but also co-found Farming Hope, a paid “garden-to-table” job-training program (and empowerment for better eating) for homeless or formerly incarcerated residents of San Francisco, California. He also (obviously) writes poetry. And all of that on top of being a first-generation immigrant to the USA from the city of Zapopan, near Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
These are the eyes, heart, and experiences that have written the poems in Hell/a Mexican. If you aren’t within a generation or two of having moved to a country whose people look down upon your country of origin, it’s a perspective that will knock your socks off. But if you still exist in that space of belonging to both cultures/countries and thus to neither, you’ll tip your hat to Mr. Madrigal and his poems for having nailed that experience so vividly.
I don’t want to talk too much about the poems, thereby ruining the charm of your first experience of them, but if you want to know what you’d be getting into by plonking down US$13 + shipping for a copy of Hell/a Mexican from Nomadic Press, I will say the following: Hell/a Mexican contains 18 poems that tackle being Mexican American in an absolutely spot-on, sentimental-yet-goofy, sometimes quietly enraged way that is so dang Mexican American, it made me miss my relatives in California. Mr. Madrigal captures the awkwardness of being a Mexican American urban professional eating in restaurants whose kitchens are staffed by poorly-paid and little respected Mexicans and Mexican Americans and turns it into several poems full of grace. He writes the exact sort of love song to 99¢ tacos from Jack-in-the-Box that I’ve always wanted to write to the beast that is Taco Bell’s Enchirito (now more than 30 years dead to me because I became a vegetarian who moved to Europe and developed an allergy to wheat). Mr. Madrigal relates the experience of learning to cook food from Mexico in California, which put him in the position of having to ask how to cook the food of his own heritage authentically and face potential disapproval for his updating of some of the recipes to suit younger, hipper ideas of eating (And haven’t a lot of us been there!). Meanwhile, the poems “Mexican Heaven” and “Mexican Hell” are alone worth the price of admission (horchata, OMG, yes, exactly, and you will just have to read “Mexican Hell” to find out what I mean).
All in all, despite not generally being a fan of poetry, I loved Hell/a Mexican. The minute I finished it, I ordered a copy for my dad. The poems aren’t in any way science fiction or speculative. But Mr. Madrigal, whether he knows it or not, is solarpunk AF with his nourishing of people to build up their communities and better their worlds. I think his poems are, too, for conveying so well the experience of being an immigrant from a perspective that is so far from stereotypical and yet also universally true.
Christina De La Rocha (she/her), is nonfiction co-editor for Solarpunk Magazine. She’s formerly a professor of biogeochemistry and marine sciences, loves reading and writing science fiction that explores what people do with the spaces opened up by science and technology and non-fiction related to how stuff works, from the origin of the Universe and then, later, life, to the complexities of the climate system, to whether or not fueling the electricity grid through fusion is an impossible long shot. Her (non-academic) writing has appeared in Analog, Toasted Cheese, and Unsustainable Magazine and in the book Silica Stories. You can find her on Twitter at @xtinadlr.