Bad Mexican, Bad American: Poems

Image of Bad Mexican, Bad American: Poems
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Acre Books
Reviewed by: 

“The simulcast of the poems within Bad Mexican, Bad American present the complex dynamic of this dual identity as easily as the morning sun rises, caresses the sky, then transits to its daily, twilight retreat.”

The first thing you will notice when opening a copy of Bad Mexican, Bad American by Jose Hernandez Diaz, a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow and author of two prior poetry collections, is the intense presence of the poet. “I like football,” he says in the book’s title poem, “ketchup on my scrambled eggs; / My biggest sin, perhaps, is I speak English to my parents.” Just as the opening is like a direct and easy yet no-holds-barred conversation, the rest of the book follows suit.

“I am a bad Mexican,” the title poem continues. “Yet I like carne asada over BBQ, Latina women who speak Spanish in my ear.” A reader will notice the soft introduction into the layers of life that must be dealt with in being American, yet having the heritage, family and underlayment of another country and culture. The poet alternately dances with and dives into the juxtaposition of cultures. As his poem, “I Never Had A Mexican American Teacher Growing Up,” says:

“Or any teacher that wasn’t white. Just stating

            some facts. In fact, my teachers were wonderful, white as


            they were. I lived in a multicultural neighborhood,

but it took longer for that to be reflected in our educators.


            Today, I hope, it’s more diverse.

I guess that’s part of the reason why I don’t feel comfortable


as a teacher. Never seen a Mexican male English teacher.

            Also, however, I think I would find


any excuse not to stand in front of a group of strangers.

            My therapist tells me maybe I can be that teacher one day,


for someone else. That Brown teacher talking about poetry.

Comparing a father’s hands to battlefields and strawberry fields.


            Maybe I could be that teacher, one day, today, perhaps,

who teaches a Brown boy how to sing in verse, and in stories.”

The subtle pain that Hernandez Diaz brings to the forefront in “I Never Had A Mexican American Teacher Growing Up” is the uncomfortable truth of being for those who live in anything other than the white American majority. Images of self are poorly represented for people of color: this in the land settled by a rainbow of immigrants of which people of color are still disenfranchised in the system-wide lack of their representation in public institutions.

This systemic imbalance is part of what the poet subtly brings to the surface in the poems of Bad Mexican, Bad American. He shows readers that the beautiful surface of America’s multicultural mirror is cracked and not living up to the stated ideals of equality and opportunity—or even acceptance—for all. “My father tells me we need to stop speaking Spanish,” the poet writes in his poem, “Broken.” Later in the poem, he comes to a reckoning: “we come from broken people who build / themselves up. I feel like telling him the brokenness in my Spanish, / like the brokenness in his English, is part of who we are, / like it or not.”

Hernandez Diaz has organized this collection into four parts, each with its own perspective. Part one in some ways establishes the poet’s personal basis, laying the groundwork for what will come. Part two sees the shift from a personal and relational perspective to narrative stories. Parts three and four continue with the poet’s uses of concise, poignant narrative. In “Mirage,” he writes:

“A man walked in a desert on a Sunday afternoon. It was his birthday. He’d spent the morning walking in the desert after his horse died. The man was starting to feel weaker by the minute. Then he began to see a mirage: it was his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cranford. Mrs. Cranford had died ten years ago. The mirage, or Mrs. Cranford, implored him to keep pushing, despite the oppressive heat of the desert. The man leaned toward the mirage, to give it a hug. It disappeared. The man looked up at the sky: the stars were beginning to shine.”

Through this and other narrative poems, the poet makes subtle inroads into the whole of a life through its various parts. The dive into the imagery seen in “Mirage” shows up in a series of narrative poems in this collection, sometimes using a form of representative characterization, as in the poems, “The Conformist,” “The Rebel” and “Voice” among others. In “Voice” he writes:

“A man in a Carlos Santana shirt looked for his voice beneath a pile of crisp autumn leaves. Nothing. He looked for his voice at an underground rooster fight. Nothing. The man in a Carlos Santana shirt picked up a bulldog puppy and looked for his voice inside the dog’s mouth. Nothing. Finally, the man in a Carlos Santana shirt saw a used black guitar in a thrift store window. He purchased the guitar with his last few dollars. The man tuned the guitar and began to play a bolero. His voice was there, as it turns out, inside of the guitar sound hole. It had been there all along.”

It is not easy to take a slice of the human soul and unroll it like wallpaper, so that readers might engage with the duality of experience lived as Mexican and American. The simulcast of the poems within Bad Mexican, Bad American present the complex dynamic of this dual identity as easily as the morning sun rises, caresses the sky, then transits to its daily, twilight retreat. Yet the struggle of both existences is not just unrolled in this masterful collection of poems by Hernandez Diaz, it is laid bare. The work of the poet has been more than accomplished in this can’t-put-the-book-down collection. It has been realized, page by page, bringing the reader into an insidious understanding of the poet’s life, work, and perspective.