“Maybe I Could Save Myself By Writing”

As a Latinx teen in Chicago, he belonged nowhere—until he found his voice

José Olivarez
Published in
5 min readSep 12, 2018
Illustration: Austin MacDonald

WWhen I was a teenager, I felt like I belonged nowhere. I know it’s a cliché: Ni de aqui, ni de alla, but damn if I didn’t feel that. I walked around with my head to the ground. I was just trying to get through each day.

That was a long time ago now, but recently, I decided to write a book of poems, Citizen Illegal, about what it was like for me as a teenager. I didn’t always love poetry (though I always loved reading). When I was growing up, poetry was taught like it was a historic practice akin to scratching a cave wall with a stick. It was past tense. Poetry happened, but we never met any living poets or even talked about them.

We were empty bank accounts and it was our teachers’ responsibility to deposit facts.

This wasn’t unique to poetry. I attended public schools in a working class south suburb of Chicago called Calumet City, where teachers taught via the banking model of education: We were empty bank accounts, and it was our teachers’ responsibility to deposit facts.

Before we go any further, I have to tell you that my memory cannot be trusted. It’s been 12 years since I graduated high school and 25 years since I started kindergarten. Am I reconstructing my past to fit what I now know about how the decks were stacked against me and my classmates?

Why am I telling you all of this, anyway?

I’m telling you this because I wrote a book of poems with one foot in the past, one hand in the present, and a nose on the future. Because I want to be honest about how much I don’t know. Because, maybe, you too want to write your own book, but are worried that you don’t remember well enough.

HHere are the facts: My parents were born in Cañadas de Obregón, Jalisco, México. I was born in Chicago, Illinois. The distance between Cañadas de Obregón and Chicago is 1,965 miles.

This is one story: When my family moved to Calumet City, I knew I did not belong. How did I know? My parents brought me to the local preschool facility where the preschool promptly…



José Olivarez
Writer for

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of Citizen Illegal, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.