Speak My Name, Break Me Open: Moncho Ollin Alvarado on the Cihuayollotl (“Heart of a Woman”)
Interview by Alton Melvar M Dapanas
Mixed media collage by Moncho Ollin Alvarado.
Poet, novelist, translator, and visual artist Moncho Ollin Alvarado is a Cihuayollotl (a gendered identity which literally means “heart of a woman”) and Xicanx (a gender-neutral term for Mexicans born and raised in the United States). Cihuayollotl and Xicanx are also reclamations for historical justice and perpetuations of “social movements that flourished in Mexican barrios, migrant camps, and factories in the United States during the last century, particularly at the height of the civil rights struggle,” in the words of essayist Mixcoatl Itzlacuiloh, indigenous name of Luis J Rodriguez.
In this interview, I conversed with Alvarado on the Cihuayollotl and Xicanx as ethnosexual formations and literary œuvres; her poetry collection Greyhound Americans (2022), selected by Dianne Seuss as winner of the Saturnalia Book Prize; and her forthcoming trans historical novel in verse.
– Alton Melvar M Dapanas, October 2023
Alton Melvar M Dapanas (AMMD): You identify as a Cihuayollotl which, owing to both classical Nahuatl language and ancient Aztec folklore, is a gendered identity which means, “heart of a woman.” Can you speak more about the Cihuayollotl and how it emigrates from westernized coinages such as queer, nonbinary, and trans?
Moncho Ollin Alvarado (MOA): For me, Cihuayollotl emigrates from westernized coinages such as queer, nonbinary, and trans by adhering first to my indigenous heritage. When I came out, I was still looking for a word to hold all that I am, which honors my indigenous queer-cestors and resists westernized coinages. Cihuayollotl contains the energies of all I am; in westernized language it would be fem, masc, & the more. But in my culture, it was more of being born with all these energies, and there was one that lived you and still contained the other energies of the self. “Heart of a Woman” was the best English translation.
AMMD: In his essay collection From Our Land to Our Land (Seven Stories Press, 2020), writer Luis J Rodriguez (Mixcoatl Itzlacuiloh), explains Xicanx as:
…the most recent incarnation of a word that describes people who are neither totally Mexican nor totally what is conceived as American. It also removes the gender-specific ‘o’ and ‘a’ used in Spanish; Xicanx are all genders and gender non-conforming. This may not work for everyone, but it’s about inclusivity.
In terms of embodying colonial identities, can you explain how the ‘X’ becomes integral in naming those who were previously nameless?
MOA: The X confronts the long history of colonization, slavery, and systematic marginalisation by connecting me to my ancestors through decolonial consciousness, by inclusion of genders outside the western gender binary, by not adhering to a gender binary that does not work for me through a spanish and english language. In my past, there was a violence and destructive assimilation that destroyed a whole part of my ancestors that I will never hear from ever again and a culture that was not passed down because of that. The X confronts the gendered language by remembering where I come from, reclaiming my past to reject the coloniality of gender and an imposed history through a language that was not ours.
AMMD: As a Cihuayollot and Xicanx writer and translator, in what ways can translation—linguistic, cultural, among others—into dominant European languages alter and distort the indigenous, pre-colonial genders and sexualities in the Global Majority?
MOA: The act of translation can disrupt the dominative European language that is imposed upon us in all levels of our lives by introducing new histories and ways to experience the world. New ways to know ourselves that are not driven by capitalism and colonization. There is more than one way to say or describe purple, just like there is no one way to be trans. Translation helped me by bridging those ideas of gender and self into the English language from my ancestors' culture, which altered and distorted the idea of being a trans woman with indigenous ancestry for me. I started to find home, family, and air in the distortion and altering.
AMMD: And how can platforms like fellowships, journals, courses, grants, workshops, magazines, residencies, publishers—and even writers, artists, and translators from the Global Majority like us—become complicit with this erasure and dismissal?
MOA: The complicit erasure and dismissal can happen if only one person or group becomes the only way to see a group of people or culture or history. For me the novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story“ Ted Talk illustrates my point as her conclusion responds to these erasure and dissmals by reiterating the importance of spreading diverse stories in opposition to focusing on just one and seeing people as more than just one incomplete idea. For me, that is a danger of having platforms showcasing only one or two voices for a majority, it erases the other stories and lived experiences of other authors, artists, translators, musicians, and so much more. It reminded me of how hard it was to find trans women jazz musicians or international trans woman poets or novelists. We have to demand that those platforms showcase other voices to stop erasure and dismissal from happening.
AMMD: As a Cihuayollot and Xicanx, in what ways have your award-winning poetry collection Greyhound Americans (Saturnalia Books, 2022) and your poetic œuvre subverted these globalizing and universalizing pronouncements?
MOA: In the poem, “Amá Teaches Me How to Whistle,” I subvert the asterisk. I remember asking ‘how can I use the asterisk for myself?’ How can I mouth it, embody it. How can it embody my trans identity and how I came out to my mom. I try to do this by showing the reader a different way the grammatical symbol can be read, heard, and understood. The symbol for me is a history of silence, and connected with me by containing the history of my queer & trans identity. Instead of silencing it, I wanted to sing it out loud. Then I thought about how the asterisk looked like lips whistling, of how the sound of whistling looks out in the air. It brought so many stories and layers of my history of coming out and to no longer silence the self anymore.
(L) Greyhound Americans by Moncho Ollin Alvarado. (R) Monco Ollin Alvarado
AMMD: There is this trend among poets, Xicanx or not, whose heritage language is underrepresented and marginalized—they may write in the dominant language but their poetry confronts the confines of multilingualism. Xicanx poet Alfred Arteaga’s collection of poems and prose poems, Xicancuicatl (Wesleyan University Press, 2020) is a fine example. What about you—what are your artistic responses to silencing?
MOA: I want to live my truth with the languages I grew up with, learned from, lived in, and continue to learn from. Being queer, trans, Xicanx, and Cihuayollotl, are some of the I that I have written from in my poetry collection, Greyhound Americans. For me I write in all the ways I live my life through language. I learned early on that silencing of the self happened in my family and friends that I grew up with. The fear and the silence is not a place I want to live in, nor is it a place I want to write from.
AMMD: Your forthcoming book certainly is many things at once—it is a transgender novel which is a historical novel and a novel-in-verse.
MOA: When I first came out I wanted to learn more about trans women in history. I kept finding how a lot of the stories are missing and absent not only in poetry and history, but also in the historical novels that I have read and listened to. My main influence was the organization El Archivo de la Memoria Trans from Argentina, which is a space to archive trans memory. The archive was a virtual space where a collection of history, memory, and life was told through photos, testimonies, letters, police reports and more. I want to write using these various ways of memory to tell the story.
I started to research where and how to write the book that I started to envision by reading other novels in verse, hybrid novels, and historical novels. The story is about a Xicanx trans woman born in the 1920s. The story uses the novel-in-verse to tell her story of coming out, overcoming the strife she encountered while growing up closeted, embracing herself over the years to finally live her truth through the help of the trans communities that existed then and looking to the past to find more trans folx in history.
AMMD: Susy J Zepeda contends a decolonial queering and re-Indigenising in Queering Mesoamerican Diasporas: Remembering Xicana Indígena Ancestries (University of Illinois Press, 2022): “For Xicanx and Latinx peoples living in the diaspora, visual culture that opens the senses to remembering has the capacity to awaken sacred seeds and prayers planted by ancestors.” Was this also the reason why, aside from being a poet, translator, educator, and novelist, you also dabble with the visual arts?
MOA: Yes, this is one of the reasons I started to practice visual arts. I mainly focus on collage. I have been working on collage with leaves, flowers, plants that have fallen off and are on the floor. I use them with my estrogen boxes to create a juxtaposition of natures which for me documents the history of lives lived. I have always been attracted to collage when I was younger, and it was a way to express myself in a visual way that writing could not do. In art, I find the sacred, the prayers, the seeds that help germinate and open myself to myself and others.
Mixed media collage by Moncho Ollin Alvarado.
AMMD: When asked who were the most influential mentors during your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, you mentioned Tina Chang, Aracelis Girmay, Cathy Park Hong, Marie Howe, and Monica Youn—all women, mostly women of color. What about Mexican and Central American literary scholars and writers whose works shaped your philosophy, ethos, and writings—both creative and critical? Any Cihuayollot, Xicanx, and Two-Spirit thinkers, artists, and theorists who influenced you? And if you were to teach a course on Cihuayollot and Xicanx Literatures, what books and works would you wish to include as key texts?
MOA: The Mexican and Central American literary scholars and writers who shaped my writing and that I would include in a Xicanx literature course are Julia Burgos, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Luis Zapata, Carolina De Robertis, Cecilia Vicuña, Juliana Delgado Lopera, Cherríe Moraga, Linda Heidenreich, Francisco Galarte, Maria Sabina, Martín Tonalmeyotl, Irma Pineda, Celerina Sánchez, Enriqueta Lunez, Mikeas Sánchez, and so much more. I keep trying to find more trans writers of color as well, but these are a few that I have found so far. Whenever I travel I try to look for anthologies in translation to track down these poets to read them and share them.
Moncho Ollin Alvarado, MFA (she/they) aka @moncholapoet is a sister in residence in air, a Cihuayollot trans Xicanx poet, translator, visual artist, and educator. She is the author of Greyhound Americans (Saturnalia Books, 2022), which was the winner of the 2020 Saturnalia Book Prize, selected by Dianne Seuss. She has been published in Hayden's Ferry Review, Acentos Review, Foglifter, Poets.org, and other publications. Winner of the Academy of American Poets’ John B Santoianni Award for Excellence in Poetry, she received fellowships and residencies from Lambda Literary, The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Troika House, and others. She received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College where she was awarded the Thomas Lux Scholarship for her dedication in teaching at writing workshops with youths in Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, New York, where she currently lives with her partner, cuddly dog, and meowling cat. Her website is https://monchoalvarado.com.
Alton Melvar M Dapanas (they/them), essayist, poet, and translator from the southern
Philippines, is the author of In the Name of the Body: Lyric Essays (Canada: Wrong Publishing, 2023) and Towards a Theory on City Boys: Prose Poems (UK: Newcomer Press, 2021). Their latest works have appeared in World Literature Today, BBC Radio 4, Oxford Anthology of Translation, Sant Jordi USA Festival of Books, smoke and mold’s Across / With / Through: Trans Writers in Translation, and the University of Alabama Pres anthology Infinite Constellations. Their lyric essay has been nominated to the Pushcart Prize and their prose poem was selected for The Best Asian Poetry. Formerly with Creative Nonfiction magazine, they’re editor-at-large at Asymptote and assistant nonfiction editor at Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature and Atlas & Alice Literary Magazine. Find more at https://linktr.ee/samdapanas.