With New Book Of Poetry, Kansas City Writer Monique Salazar Finds Home

Apr 10, 2017

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Monique Salazar came across a Facebook video from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The video depicted guard dogs attacking indigenous people standing in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The images struck her. Salazar had been scheduled to bartend for a Thanksgiving event, but she couldn't get the video out of her head. She called her boss to tell her she was sorry, but she had to go to North Dakota.

"She graciously told me to go home," Salazar says. "So go home I did."  

Monique Salazar first visited the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in November 2016.
Credit Courtesy of Monique Salazar

That was the first time Salazar had ever been to Standing Rock. She was born in California, but spent her early childhood in New Mexico. When she was seven, her dad got a job at Hallmark and they set out for Kansas City. 

"It was a complete culture shock for me," Salazar says. 

At Barstow School, in her class, Salazar remembers one African-American girl, and a boy from India. 

Salazar is Latinx, the gender-neutral term for Latino, and Native American. It's a term she uses because of its inclusivity, and because she herself identifies as "Two-Spirit," an indigenous term implying spirituality and gender neutrality.

It's taken much of her life to embrace her own identity, and the rich cultures she came from.

When she first came to Kansas City, she remembers classmates making fun of her "accent." So, each night, she would watch the news and imitate newscasters — that's how she gained a new accent.

"I've taken those silly little phonetics tests, like, which accent do you have? It's always the newscaster accent," Salazar laughs.

Looking back, she's sad she felt like she had to do it, but she's not sorry she did it. She believes it fostered an aptitude for languages, and lead her to new ways to express herself.

All of which was pivotal for Salazar; she's a poet but it wasn't something that she readily embraced.

"Poetry was always something I had to be dragged into," she says.

Prolific Kansas City poet José Faus, Salazar's mentor, spent years "pestering" her to become a part of the Latino Writers Collective. But she didn't feel good enough, or "Latinx enough." This was the backlash of changing her accent as a child, and leaving her Spanish-speaking grandmother behind in New Mexico.

We have to save what we have left in order to continue as a species. Really, I believe that the underlying feeling of revolution is a maternal feeling.

Salazar's journey is painted with identity crises, and a sense of not belonging. This fueled curiosity about her heritage.

"I didn't have a whole lot of knowledge of my family history growing up," Salazar says. "It's been a very arduous process of going to small churches in New Mexico and finding baptismal certificates and things written in spidery lettering from the 1900s."

She still doesn't have the answers, but when she finally came to poetry, she realized she didn't necessarily need them.

It took a lot of work to get to that point, though. For many years, Salazar was a severe, high-functioning alcoholic. Then, four years ago, her skin turned yellow, and her body started shutting down.

At 27 years old, Salazar was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. The doctors told her she wouldn't make it. They told her to make her calls, and arrange for family to pick up her remains. Salazar didn't die; she didn't fully recover, either. 

"I poisoned myself with alcohol. It was a deliberate action. So now I have to suffer the consequences," she says.

Her condition is chronic; she says she'll never feel confident enough in her own health or longevity to responsibly raise a child. But her rehabilitation changed everything.

I have prayed for you since I was small, imagining what I would be like, the books that I would read to you first. I promised you while my father's hand struck my flesh again and again, that you would never know the sting of narcissism, never be beaten for small imperfections.

"I had to change the way that I thought,  the way that I spoke to myself, related to other people, and allowed other people to relate to me," she says.

Part of her therapy required her to look in the mirror and say something nice about herself.

"It was heartbreaking how difficult that was for me," she says. "Just to be able to look in the mirror was something I hadn't done in years. I used to be very nasty to myself."

And so, it was in recovery, in becoming sober, that Salazar learned to embrace herself.

"I picked up the pen again, and was like, 'Oh. This can be easy and natural. I don't have to fight it,'" Salazar says.

When she went to Standing Rock, she felt that same sense of healing, and inspiration. Her newest book of poetry, published by Kansas City's 39 West Press, comes out at the end of April.

"Striking the Black Snake" came, in part, from her experiences at Standing Rock, her experience "going home." But it's also an exploration of herself going way back.

In the poem, "Puppet," Salazar writes to the child she will never have.

"I have prayed for you since I was small, imagining what I would be like, the books that I would read to you first," she writes. "I promised you while my father's hand struck my flesh again and again, that you would never know the sting of narcissism, never be beaten for small imperfections." 

The poem evolves into a statement of purpose, a reference to a prayer chant Salazar learned at Standing Rock: "People gonna rise like the water, of all colors and creeds. I can hear the voice of my great-granddaughter, singing Mni Wiconi."

Salazar feels like it's her duty to make sure generations to come sing "Mni Wiconi," or "water is life."

"It's the maternal feeling we perhaps have in all of us," she says. "We have to save what we have left in order to continues as a species. Really, I believe that the underlying feeling of revolution is a maternal feeling."

With "Striking the Black Snake," Salazar nurses a revolution. 

Monique Salazar has contributed music critiques for KCUR 89.3. She shared her story on KCUR's Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @adtudhope, or email her at andreat@kcur.org.