Vanessa Angélica Villarreal was born in the Rio Grande Valley borderlands to formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PBS Newshour, Poor Claudia, Apogee, Waxwing, The Wanderer, Sporklet, DIAGRAM, The Feminist Wire, The Poetry Foundation Harriet Blog, and elsewhere. She has served as an editor for the Bettering American Poetry project and is a CantoMundo Fellow. Her book, Beast Meridian, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2017. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Poetry and Digital Media Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she eats tacos with her family, but her forever hometown is Houston, Texas.
It has been the aim of my life to excavate the record of how we got here. There are significant gaps in the narratives about how my family arrived to the United States. All I know is that the women in my life are survivors of extreme and brutal gender and intimate violence, who fled to the U.S. pursuing safety and autonomy for themselves and their children. My grandmother Angélica and her story is central to all of my work—her survival, strength, and sacrifice are gifts I have inherited that I choose to honor through my writing. She died at 50 years old of preventable cervical cancer, yet another consequence of race, gender, immigration status, and class oppression which created insurmountable barriers to regular women’s health and medical care.
This loss, and this occluded history, has caused me to spend all of my academic and scholarly research on Chicana subjectivity and the many ways violence enacts itself in intimate as well as institutional contexts. My first book, Beast Meridian, out from Noemi Press in the fall of 2017, explores the early racism and sexism I endured after my beloved grandmother’s untimely death, and the subsequent dreamscape I inhabited in the dissociative states afterwards as an at-risk youth, marked in the school system as a juvenile delinquent, expelled and sent to alternative school for adolescents with behavioral issues, a kind of institutional corrections facility, and eventually, a psychiatric hospital. It also documents various other pipelines I survived—school to prison pipeline, immigrant working class to grueling low-pay service jobs, surviving conservative classism as a Latina in Texas, queerness, assimilation, life wrapped up in frivolous citations and fines and penalties.
This has led to an exploration of the state and institutional violences the women in my family have endured. The project I am interested in building upon now is examining why my grandmother died of a highly common and fully preventable form of cervical cancer, how this kind of cancer disproportionately affects women of color, specifically Black and Latina women, the non-disclosed sterilization of Latina women from 1922-1972, and access to reproductive care in the borderlands. I have begun telling this story through various media—poetry, image, spoken word performance, and video.