As we remain at home and do our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I wanted to share a short interview I did with poet and performance artist José Torres-Tama who I met a few years ago when we read along with other featured New Orleans poets at a venue off of St. Claude. I remember his chant of “no guacamole for immigrant haters” vividly. Torres-Tama has been touring his solo show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers across the country for almost ten years. The multimedia and bilingual show, which he describes as a “sci-fi Latino noir,” is updated regularly to reflect current events and is based on interviews Torres-Tama conducts with undocumented immigrants who share their courageous stories. The Readings & Workshops program cosponsored a powerful performance of the show this past September at the Alvar Branch of the New Orleans Public Library. I was able to speak with him about his work, his life in New Orleans, and the importance of giving voice to the immigrant experience.
How has Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers evolved over the years?
Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers premiered in 2010 at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. In August 2019, we restaged the show for sold-out houses back at the Ashé to kick off a national tour. The show is about the hypocrisy of a country that exploits immigrant labor while criminalizing them. My comic battle cry is, “No guacamole for immigrant haters!” My 2020 tour opened in Mexico City and celebrated Glossolalia, a bilingual poetry book edited by iconic poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña that includes poems from Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.
Why does New Orleans feel like home to you?
I’m an Ecuadorian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, and immigrant rights is the thematic platform for my poems. New Orleans is the northernmost point of the Caribbean with an often forgotten Latin legacy, and since the 1980s, I proudly call these swamplands home because I’ve cultivated my voice as a poet and performance artist here.
What do you feel is your contribution to the New Orleans literary scene?
I’m one of few Latin American poets here speaking to the immigrant experience. I believe my work is vital to a poetry scene that’s often stuck in a white and black binary quagmire. We need more Latinx voices to claim our rightful place in a city whose post-Katrina resurrection owes much to Latin American immigrant reconstruction workers who gave their blood, labor, and love to our rebirth.
Who are some local poets on your radar that we should look out for?
Two poets to watch in New Orleans are Linett Luna Tovar, a fierce Mexican wordsmith, and José Fermin Ceballos, an Afro-Dominican singer and poet.