Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a Chicana writer and educator focusing on joy and struggle in equal measure. This October, she published her second collection of poetry entitled Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites, written during the years of Donald Trump’s presidency. In response to centuries of our country’s misogyny, white supremacy, and violent history which still persists today, she offers an alternate narrative for our future over the course of three parts that focus on social justice, death, love, and pleasure. In this new world, Black and brown bodies can thrive with love, pleasure, resistance, and resilience despite the trauma and pain we’ve been forced to carry alongside our ancestors. It’s a vision that her poems say is more than wishful thinking or a call for healing—it’s also a promise.
“I was just trying to live in the Trump administration, trying to look for the things that would make me happy. I wanted to use language to imagine other possibilities where we’re not constantly frightened and our children aren’t dying,” Bermejo tells HipLatina. “So I started thinking more about the everyday, that everything doesn’t have to be so intense. It’s okay to find that joy.”
Throughout the collection, Bermejo is unafraid to call out the systems that have made freedom feel impossible as a result of machismo, shootings, violence at the border, police brutality, and the effects of colonization, nor to uplift our family and ancestors and how we love others. But despite her talent and growing list of accolades, she never saw herself becoming a writer growing up. Unlike many writers today, she describes herself as not “a big reader,” preferring instead to listen to her cousins read to her or recount the plotlines of books they’d read. By preferring this oral storytelling over the reading that was valued in school, she later experienced a lot of shame and frustration in writing circles and classes where names of prestigious authors and titles were thrown around and expected to be known.
“That’s always the first piece of advice writing instructors give you when you ask how do you become a better writer, to read more,” she explains. “But what if you’ve never been that big of a reader because of language acquisition, learning difficulties, not finding books that reflect you?”, referring to her assigned school reading of books like Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter, both considered classics by white writers.
At the same time, she loved writing. She wrote her first poem when she was seven years old after receiving a journal for her birthday, learning quickly to rhyme and tell stories in a way she had never tried before. In her literature classes, group conversations about the assigned reading felt like another kind of oral storytelling she was able to enjoy and excel at. She loved learning through other people’s interpretations and was able to do well on tests despite not reading the books. In a way, it grew to be her superpower. She ended up turning around to do the same for other students by becoming a high school English teacher, leading those discussions in the classroom, and giving access to more diverse reading than she had.
At that time, she was in her mid-20s and she felt “like I didn’t know enough yet” and wanted to learn more about herself and the world, especially when she was teaching kids who weren’t that much younger than her. She decided to take the plunge and sign up for a poetry writing class at Pasadena City College. From there, it felt she kept getting signs to pursue writing: getting recommended to pursue writing by her writing teacher, getting accepted to an MFA program at Antioch University on her first try, and getting inspired to write and publish her debut poetry collection right out of grad school.
Her first book Posada (2016) is a culmination of her experiences working at the Tuscon border for several weeks. Throughout her time there, she followed the migrant trails in the desert, put out water, offered first aid, and saw many atrocities and hardships first-hand. But wasn’t until she showed the poems to a writer friend of hers that she realized she had something even more powerful on her hands than she initially envisioned.
“He said, ‘This is interesting but what took this person out there? Why did they go?'” she says. “That started me writing about my family, our immigration story, and my story in LA. What it all came back to was this idea of home and being a single woman wanting to build my own home. Many of us just want a safe place to call home, to know that within yourself, there is a home and a safe place that you can call back on at any time. Everyone should be able to have that,” she explains.
What she didn’t expect was for her writing process to change in profound ways that would inspire her second book, Incantation. She found that she’d written Posada with the “intense desire to be important”, writing to wow people instead of relying on her own opinion of her work. In doing so, she’d been more vulnerable and honest than she planned and ended up feeling exposed for all the wrong reasons. She started experiencing panic attacks, stopped eating, and stopped sleeping because she felt like all of her secrets had been pushed into the spotlight. Her mental health was at an all-time low and her second book felt like both a farce and an impossibility. Then, something shifted.
“I started changing what I thought a poem should be. It didn’t have to be really important. It just had to come from me. It had to be something organic. A poem doesn’t have to be an intense moment. It can just be a moment,” she explains. For example, though she’d written plenty of poems about people crossing the border in Posada, “there are other ways people cross the border. I have poems where my dad and I go to Tijuana over the weekend because he would sell stuff from all these little businesses he had and I went with him to get inventory. Yes, there are people crossing in the desert, and that’s very important, and we should talk about that, but there are also people who live going back and forth, across the border all the time, and that’s also a reality.”
In the same way, she found that her writing process also changed alongside her. She found comfort in flowers growing out of sidewalks, of sitting under oak trees or redwoods, and putting a hand to their trunk as a way of thanking them for growing there. These influences of nature, death, and renewal can be felt throughout all three sections of Incantation, like in the opening poem “One Sweet Day: To Do List for the First Day of Spring,” which juxtaposes her mother’s phone call about a 2017 shooting in a Temple City sheriff station with serene images of Bermejo’s dog, cat, and loquat tree. In this way, nature is called upon for guidance and support in its own unique resiliency and persistence despite destruction.
This desire to parallel violence with joy and playfulness is at the heart of the book, particularly in the poem “Even in War” which sees her try to discuss gun shootings with her nephew, only to put it aside in order to let him be a kid for a moment longer. In invoking death, she also explores cultural ideas of ghosts and spirits like La Llorona, transforming her into a mother worthy of being sympathized with and mourned for, and offers the reader incantations, prayers, protections, totems, and riddles that we can always carry with us to communicate with those who have left us.
Perhaps most importantly, Bermejo emphasizes that she couldn’t have written the last piece of Incantation, which focuses on sensuality and love, without the radical works of Black women writers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Marie Brown. Whether it was hooks giving her permission to write about love without apology, Lorde to embrace sexuality, pleasure, and eroticism, or Brown allowing her to enjoy the process, she considers Black writers as the foundation of all her work and the reason she felt permitted to write in the first place.
This is felt in poems like “On This Page” which depicts a love scene with tension, sexual references, and tenderness, or “I’m Not Your Torta” which rejects unwanted touch and reclaims her bodily autonomy and power. Especially when Latinas grow up learning to be afraid of their bodies and expressing love for themselves and others, reading other women’s writing about these topics was actually what she needed in adulthood.
“I grew up Catholic so there were a lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do, that were wrong, that I was going to hell for,” she says. “I grew up hearing, ‘No you can’t do that. Don’t even talk about that. We’re not even going to use words [like] that one.’ I never really felt that much freedom to be myself or even think for myself. Being able to read about things that hit my own experience and having these writers and brilliant women say that, ‘No, you can,’ was huge.”
In one way or another, receiving permission from other writers to venture into new territory, as well as getting the courage from within herself, is a large part of what makes Bermejo’s work so unique. By calling on her life experiences, sharing her observations of the world, and offering a new path for us all to blaze forward, she offers readers a future in which love and joy within the Latinx community can not only be normalized but uplifted. And she knows that starts with representation. Because how else will we be called to read? To see ourselves and our experiences put forward by others? To be inspired to see that platform for ourselves and add our voice to the chorus? She notes:
“As Black and brown folks, we don’t see ourselves in popular television and movies. So we think, ‘Well, I must not be important.’ But it is important to put it down, celebrate life, celebrate your family members, celebrate your experience. Then it creates an echo and because you’re now writing about it, that’s going to encourage someone else to write and they’ll have permission to do it too. That’s what I love about writing and being a writer.”