The Paris Review

There Are No White People in Heaven: An Interview with José Olivarez

The first poem I encountered from José Olivarez’s forthcoming book, Citizen Illegal, was “A Mexican Dreams of Heaven” at The Adroit Journal. When I read it, I started cracking up in the living room. I read it out loud to my partner, who was in the bedroom, and she also cracked up. The poem elicits the painful laughter that comes with so much truth:

there are white people in heaven, too.
they build condos across the street
& ask the Mexicans to speak English.
i’m just kidding.
there are no white people in heaven.

Olivarez’s poems span gentrification, gentefication (which Olivarez defines in this interview as the returning of a neighborhood to the communities who are being displaced), migration, anger, love, cheese fries, family, loss, therapy, white America’s engagement with immigrants and people of color, futures (including defecating donkeys), pasts (including a very sweet imagined recollection of his mother out dancing), more love, tough love, generous love, and, of course, as a Chicago poet, The Bulls.

I met Olivarez for a coffee in Chicago to speak about the book. He was coming from a Teaching Artistry workshop at the Poetry Incubator, a conference for poets who integrate activism and community engagement into their creative practice. I already knew of José—he used to work for the same organization, DreamYard, that I work for in The Bronx. He has since worked for Urban Word, and now is at Young Chicago Authors, all organizations centered on building with youth through poetry. His workshop at the

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