Ariana Brown believes that there is an audience for every poem and her latest chapbook, Sana Sana speaks to the queer community, Mexican Americans, and the Black community — all extensions of who she is. Brown, 26, is a Black Mexican American poet who has been writing and performing poetry for a decade, using it as her own form of healing. Her 36-page chapbook Sana Sana — featuring artwork by Black feminist artist Ari Brielle, is a collection of 16 of her favorite poems, tracking her journey toward healing as she’s confronted the hardships she’s endured. Brown grew up in San Antonio, Texas and born to a Black father — who died when she was young — and a Mexican mother with a grandmother who didn’t speak Spanish with her due to historic prejudice. Growing up Black with limited knowledge and comprehension of Spanish shaped her experiences and formed the foundation for a large part of her poetry. This book – like the title implies – is representative of her interest in “communal, participatory healing work.”
“They’re the poems that meant the most to me, that always feel relevant and feel restorative. ‘Sana sana’ means ‘heal, heal’ and is something my mother, grandmother, and community elders said to young children whenever they got hurt,” she tells HipLatina. “It wasn’t something I immediately connected with ethnicity or language [wise] but with care. The poems in this book help me care for myself, my whole self.”
Brown made a name for herself as a slam poet with Youtube videos of her spoken word poetry on gender, blackness, class, and spirituality getting thousands of views. This chapbook follows her 2018 chapbook, messy girl, which centered around her healing following a deep depression and exploring the lies of womanhood. Now with Sana Sana she’s highlighting the love tied to these difficult experiences, describing the topics in her poems as “explored as acts of different kinds of love — for self, for lovers, for family, for community.”
Being both Black and Mexican, she’s been opening about having dealt with racism since she was first called the n-word around five years old. She included one of her most powerful and thought-provoking poems, “Supremacy,” early on in the book, at the end of which she asks, “In what version of the story do Black women win?”
“Supremacy is explicitly about Black women, wherever they are in the diaspora. I often feel as though non Black people conflate their experiences of oppression with those of Black women—this poem is an attempt to get non Black people to consider their relationships to Black women. However, the primary focus of this poem is a recognition of other Black women in the world who feel similarly to myself.” This blunt exploration of race relations is a common thread throughout her work emphasizing the painful history of Black people and Mexicans in the U.S. while also sending a message of empowerment.
In “Dear White Girls in My Spanish Class” she explores how white students trivialized Spanish class as well as the colonial roots of the language and the prejudice endured by Mexicans who spoke Spanish in the U.S. including her grandmother.
“I am descended from slaves. I am obsessed with origins./I want to know where I come from, but I can only trace/my history in one direction — so I am here, in yet another Spanish class, desperately reaching,/ for a language I hope will choose me back someday,” she writes.
The video of the poem went viral about two years ago and she’d written it in a time when she felt if she could conquer Spanish she would be accepted by non-Black Mexicans. She’d taken years of Spanish classes back to back and wanted to address the xenophobia she witnessed from the white girls in class but since then she says her relationship with Spanish, her second language, has changed.
“Now, though, I am not as protective of the Spanish language. I think subconsciously I used to think if I perfected my ability to speak Spanish, then I would be a more authentic Mexican American, and non Black Mexicans would finally accept me. Now, I question my initial desire to want to be included in Mexicanidad, as I am beginning to question ideas of nationhood and patriotism. I am still interested in learning Spanish so that I can communicate with others. I think it just doesn’t feel as resonant with me anymore,” she says.
The poem that follows “Dear White Girls” in the book is called “Myself, First” and it illustrates the beginning of that journey toward self- love and owning her blackness. “Yesterday I loved a Black girl/and today that girl is myself./Whenever I go missing, let me return/here first. Let me choose myself/first.” Growing up in Texas and in spaces where there weren’t other Black Mexican Americans, she felt it important to “affirm my blackness because it was often under attack.” She explains that both this poem and “Supremacy” are “explicitly about the embodied experience of being a queer Black woman existing in spaces that don’t often love us back.”
“In ‘Myself, First’ I think about the ways I’ve internalized some of that anger directed at me and find ways to reject those false images of myself,” she explains. “Learning to love my own self and body helped me be able to love another queer Black woman in a romantic relationship. It freed me in a way.”
Addressing her queerness is still new for her and she says she’s still learning about it yet she wants it to be known she is in community with fellow queer individuals “even if I don’t have a lot to say about queerness yet.” She intentionally placed the poem “Sunday Morning” — which talks about her attraction to a girl — early on in the book for that reason. Unlike her race, ethnicity, and gender, her queerness isn’t visible and so she explains it’s not necessarily been something she’s dealt with until recently. “I’ve had my whole life to study my relationship to race and ethnicity and gender because those things are visible on my body and affect the way people treat me before speaking to me,” she explains.”I am still learning about that part of me.”
One aspect of her identity that also isn’t visible but plays a role in her work is her spirituality. She identifies as a “part-time curandera” — a nickname given to her by a friend that she’s adapted — though she’s not trained in the practice because she wants her poetry to heal. In “Curanderismo” she touches on the history of the indigenous practice of healing and how she incorporates it into her life from using rosemary oil to being matched with a counselor who is a curandera. She writes about the preservation of energy despite colonists destroying native temples in Mexico and how curanderos return to the location of the temples and continue to pray: “The lesson —/ if you are alive, you are descended from a people/who refused to die. Nothing is more sacred than you.”
As much as her poetry is about healing, it can also service as educational (she has lesson plans available on her site) and she herself is in the process of learning the truths of indigenous culture. Her understanding comes from the works of Afro-Indigenous poet Alán Pelaez López, Indigenous American writer Dr. Debbie Reese, Nick Estes, professor and citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and part Native American writer, Deborah A. Miranda among others as well as the All My Relations podcast which explores indigeneity in this day and age.
“I think mestizo Latins tend to romanticize indigeneity without investigating the difference in power, resources, and ability to live livable lives between ourselves and Indigenous peoples. There is no way to have effective community with Native people if we are not listening to their needs and finding out ways to support them in freedom struggles,” she says. “One thing I am continually learning is that indigeneity does not function the way race does, so just because some of us have Indigenous heritage, that does not mean that we are Indigenous, but it does mean we have a responsibility to Indigenous people because we likely have more access to resources than they do.”
For her, “Curanderismo” is a reflection of the loneliness she feels when disconnected from her people, community, and history and includes the ways she tries to reconnect with those things. Community is also a major component of “For the Black Kids in My 8th Grade Spanish Class” which she calls a “reminder to myself and other Black Latins that we find community amongst other Black people in diaspora precisely because we understand the conditions of each others’ lives.” In the poem, she writes, “Blackness, the gift my father gave/me, is the most human thing I have/ever been blessed to be. Bond/that cannot be broken should we choose/it over supremacy.”
She also wrote an ode to Puerto Rican and Dominican reggaetonero Ozuna called “Odiesea” alluding to his music as taking her on a journey/spiritual quest (odyssey): “Ozuna, I made a poem for you/about the oceans inside me./They swirl and tumble at the sound/of your voice.” Brown said her listening comprehension of Spanish is not great and says it’s mostly due to the fact that she feels like Mexicans tend to refuse to speak Spanish to her “because they see my Blackness first.” Her love of Ozuna is a way of recognizing a fellow Black artist who speaks Spanish: “It feels important to me personally to listen to contemporary Spanish language music from another Black person, and I think it’s really as simple as that.”
Brown herself is venturing into music in a way with a debut poetry EP that she collaborated on with Tucson-based artists DJQ and PSYPIRITUAL. They added music to poems from the book to compile a nine-track album she named “Let Us Be Enough” (the last line of “For the Black Kids in My 8th Grade Spanish Class”) available for download for $10.
“I have always thought that performing poems is a ritualistic kind of ceremony that is important for people… I just hope people connect with at least some part of [the book]. My work is written and performed primarily for myself and my own healing, but witnesses are a crucial part of that ceremony,” she says. “My poems are participatory. So I hope people give it a chance and are willing to participate in these poems with me.”