FQ: Have you traveled to or created/maintained any personal ties with Puerto Rico; if so, how does that affect your current thinking about the many issues you address in your poetic works?
RIVERA: While my older brother and I were born in NYC, and when I was age 6 moved to Los Angeles, I have always lived in a Puerto Rican atmosphere. As depicted in the memoir piece Z is for Zapatazo, my fondest memories since childhood were everyday things as well as frequent gatherings with our Puerto Rican extended family and friends. The food, music, dancing, passions, sometimes-hilarious Spanglish, the deep ethno-Catholic connections, and above all the stories of Puerto Rico – from my mom and stepdad, grandparents, uncles, aunts and friends who were born and grew up there – were thoroughly ingrained in me.
I have had three main visits to Puerto Rico that left lasting impact. One was a marvelous month long stay with the family during my middle school years. Another was a stay around the time my maternal grandmother was nearing her passing and I was working on a three-week study abroad course in Puerto Rico, followed by the course itself. Also, as part of my doctoral studies I did extensive work on the history of Christianity on the island with a focus on Pentecostalism in NYC and Puerto Rico. I worked with numerous denominations in both places, stayed with and interviewed Puerto Rican faith leaders – men and women – and came to see a side of my heritage that few know.
Finally, although Latin American countries have been plagued by the racism that are the legacy of colonial slavery and the casta system, growing up, my Puerto Rican interracial family was to me a beautiful thing. “Negrito” and “negrita” were terms of endearment. But I was shocked and hurt to discover that what was normal and beautiful in my family of a white mother, mestizo father, black stepfather and mixed-race siblings was taboo and hated in the U.S., and for some still is. This impacted my understanding of human relations, justice, social policy, and above all religion. For despite their much-vaunted claims of ultimate truth, when it comes to race, religions have had a mixed history at best. Many of my poems and prose pieces come directly from the difficulties but also the beauty of living in those spaces.
FQ: Does positing and writing about oppression and the ways it might be overthrown or reformed give you a sense of hope?
RIVERA: I’m an historian. Racial thinking, policies, and nativism are key themes in our history, as are denial and resistance that they are key themes in our history. Clearly the American saga is not just about its blunders and brutalities. There is good and lots of it. But one cannot ignore the near genocide of native populations, the trail of broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow, and strawman versions of Critical Race Theory today. The Chinese Exclusion Act. WWII Japanese internment camps, with nothing remotely equivalent for Germans, even though we were fighting Nazi Germany, not just imperial Japan. Listen to the racism in the titles of these U.S. policies: The Greaser Act; Operation Wetback. Closer to our time, anti-Muslim hatred post-911, anti-immigrant nativism, racist anti-Asian scapegoating following COVID-19. Several Asian-American friends and colleagues told me they stopped going to get gasoline or groceries alone.
But I do foster hope, for without it, no one will find a reason to do anything. My poems like “Heaven is Other People,” “Sachem” and others indicate such messages of hope.
I know, for example, that had I been born just a few decades earlier in the U.S. than I was, the chances would have been slim that a brown Puerto Rican kid with not a single higher education or professional gene in the family line would go on to earn a Ph.D., be hired at a predominantly white university, rise to the rank of Associate Professor of History and then VP for DE&I.
I experienced my share of racial discrimination along the way, such as the time I was invited to a gathering and a tall white man put his hand on my shoulder, pushed down and said, “Bow to the superior race.” My first response was to laugh. It seemed ludicrous. What was this, Mississippi Burning? Had to be a joke. It wasn’t. Perhaps mine was an expression of flight mode, but it may have saved my life. He and others were the white friends of the white friend who had invited me, and it only then occurred to my friend that a world that was perfectly safe and normal for him was dangerous for those like me. He apologized for his ignorance and got me out of there.
Moreover, a faith-based, by far predominantly white university in the Midwest hired me despite the feelings of some that I was an affirmative action hire. While I experienced my share of frustrations and tears around diversity and more than once nearly quit, I must in fairness add that several white colleagues and friends supported me and stood up to be counted in those times when the air for persons of color became perilously thin in that community.
I hold on to hope. But as someone with long-lived personal and professional experience, I have no illusions that equality, justice and equity for historically devalued groups will be an ongoing struggle. Pretty much all the poems in Chapter 2: Duck and Cover reflect this, as well as in Chapter 3: Vatos, and a few others throughout the book.
FQ: What single piece of advice would you give to a person preparing to read your work with no previous knowledge of your poetic philosophy?
RIVERA: I advise my readers to be open to the fact that what I write in Z is for Zapatazo may not be about them or an America they have come to know and love, but it does encompass the reality of many. I hope they can see that while at times I may critique America (and certainly not all my poems in Z are about that), it is only because I too love it, and readily concede that most alternatives to the American experiment have not ended well.
But we must improve. I therefore reject the notion I’ve heard some on the far right say, that when children complete their public school education, they want them to believe that the worst day in the U.S. is better than the best day of any other country. Not only is this patently untrue, but such indoctrination will not create the results imagined.
Above all, I hope that I have written in compelling ways about compelling stories of real human experiences “in the spaces between what America says it is and what it is” and that we must none of us grow cynical or weary of contributing to “the grand, unfinished experiment.”
FQ: There are smatterings of and tributes to other poets and classical works throughout your collection – is there one poet or writer in particular who inspired your wish to create poetry?
RIVERA: I cannot think of one poet or writer that inspired my wish to create poetry. While I loved to read, my earliest poetical influences are musical, that is to say aural. If I had to mention one of the many musical influences that will surely date me, it would be the Beatles’ John Lennon. Junot Diaz said that growing up he wanted to be the Dominican H.R.R. Tolkien. Personally, I do not think of Tolkien when I read Junot Diaz. But he did win a Pulitzer. I suppose that’s some consolation. In terms of creative genius and a somewhat rebellious streak, I wanted to be the Puerto Rican John Lennon. You asked.
FQ: Do you envision the possibility of elimination of racial and other divides that you so aptly probe in your poetic works?
RIVERA: I do envision this and I will continue to address this theme in hopefully compelling ways that reach deep within our common humanity and the highest principles of what we claim to believe, politically, religiously, philosophically. For all the polarization currently ascendant in the U.S., and I have not seen it this polarized since the 1960s, things have gotten better since the days of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. How to eliminate racial and other divides is complex, not always obvious, nor the purview of one party or group. I find it almost funny, if it wasn’t so tragic, how often one group thinks that the way to bring polarized groups together is to listen only to them.
FQ: The prose piece about your stint as a vato is quite enthralling; have you considered a longer work based around that story, those characters?
RIVERA: Yes, I have. In fact, the reader may notice in “Vatos,” that near the beginning when Homeboy and I are violently accosted by two police officers, one of which punches me so hard in the face that I nearly pass out, I mention that “a thunderous bang in my ears, and adrenalin, I think, caused me to snap to and my legs were possessed with the speed force.” I also mention that when we ran and got away, the cops did not follow, which just does not happen. Question. What was the thunderous bang and why did the cops not follow? This makes for more story with these and other characters.
FQ: Is the core of your philosophy best elucidated in Heaven Is Other People?
As a long-time educator, I have come to realize a problem: we Christians can be very hard to reach for change. I’ll phrase the challenge this way: “I’ve found ‘the Truth, the Way, and the Life.’ What can you possibly show me now?”
One mistake is in thinking that because one believes they have found THE universal Truth that transcends all cultures (in this case, Jesus Christ), that we too, Christians, transcend those things. No. Getting “religion,” any religion, does not bless us with intercultural competency, nor inoculate us from prejudice or the psychological power of propaganda and conspiracy theories. What part of the U.S. or the world you were born and raised, what branch of faith you’re in, where you go for news and information, your age, gender, culture, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, political party, are but a few of the factors that significantly impact the kind of Christian (or other religion) one becomes.
In short, it is impossible for anyone to only be a Christian (or other faith). Being a Christian may, in the Christian’s mind, be the most important thing about them. But it can never be the only thing about them. Take politics. As an historian I cannot think of a time in the history of what is now the U.S. when there weren’t Christians who so marry their Christianity to politics, that to critique one is to offend the other.
The poem “Heaven is Other People” is both a vision of heaven and a warning that many Christians who believe they’re going there, don’t really want what it’s going to be like – based on the global scope of God’s redemption constantly repeated throughout the Bible, as well as glimpses of a vastly multicultural, multilingual heaven in the Book of Revelation. Hence the poem’s refrain: “This will be hard.” For example, if you hate certain immigrants now, what makes you think you’ll love them then? Or has your faith become so narrow that you can’t imagine people different from you being there at all? I have news for you:
There will be no deportation
of undeserving immigrants,
In the Shalom Seminar I created for new employees of Bethel University where I worked for nearly 24 years, near the end I would say:
I cannot prove empirically a single Christian doctrine that I consider core to the faith. I cannot prove that Jesus was God, born of a virgin, that his death on the cross was an atonement for the sins of a world, that he rose from the dead. (Side note: yes, I’ve read the apologetic literature. I am an historian of Christianity, after all.) I cannot even prove empirically that there is a God at all. What I can do is prove that I believe these things, and the only way I can do that is by the good with which I treat others who are different from me. That is all of my religion the world can see.
FQ: Do you have plans for more writing of a similar nature?
Yes. I continue to write poetry with similar themes, though it is certainly not the only poetry I write. As mentioned earlier, in "Vatos," I have imbedded elements that almost beg expansion. Because of my historical background, I have also been doing research and taking notes for a novel set during European conquests of the Americas around the 17th century. I have much research for another novel set in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, when Western optimism for progress was so high that the motto of the great missionary conference at Edinburgh in 1910 was “To convert the world in this generation.” Just a few years later in 1914, the self-proclaimed advanced Christian nations were embroiled in mutually fratricidal war the likes of which the world had never seen. That is a saga worth telling in the form of historical fiction.