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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

Related Interests

More from The Paris Review

The Paris Review5 min read
Our Town and the Next Town Over
The author as a child, dressed as Oscar the Grouch. Every year it floods on three sides of our town. I do not know how any town could have floods on three sides, but there it is. My mom says it is because the very rich people who live on the lake to
The Paris Review11 min read
Voyage around My Cell
© Mathier / Adobe Stock. When I was eight my views on literature were precise and unshakable and my confidence in myself much greater than it is now. I had decided O. Henry was the world’s best author. During Prohibition, the folks who bought one of
The Paris Review9 min read
The Stuntwoman Named for a Continent
In the late summer of 1866 a Black equestrian stuntwoman made her Paris debut and galvanized the city. She was known only as “Sarah the African,” and history has left us few traces of her: just some battered posters, inky clippings and burlesque scri