The lie my mother told me
took decades to see. See?

I stand under

a flowering apple tree’s shade.

¡Vámanos, Sergio!


What I get mezclado
are words she never said.

As a child, I lived in one
vocabulary; as an adult,

I am who I am, minus her


When I see the district court, lo veo.
I was seven, and we sat all morning on those

stone steps, those pigeons pecked
pretzel crumbs around the vendor’s cart.

I did not understand. Was the government
going to take my mother away?

Name the writers of the Federalist Papers.
Name the wars the U.S. fought in the 1800s.

When she came out, she cried.
She had passed the citizenship test.

My mother insists
this never happened.


What my mother calls me:

cara de perro
cholo feo 


A favorite family story:
when my brother first saw snow,
he shrieked, “Pan!”
and reached for a sky full of breadcrumbs.

When did my mother start editing herself?

Cúcara, mácara, títere fue 

She tells me it happened in the kitchen.

“Pan!” I cried and
pulled a neighbor’s hem

who gestured wildly,
“What does he want?”


On her surprise visit
to my new city, a moment passed where
I didn’t see her standing in the lobby.

Is learning how
someone is foreign
the first step to love?

El abismo entre obtener y tener.

A continent is a container.

What makes a person content?


What my mother calls me:

mi cholito
mi cielo, mi sol, mi rey 


I follow her as she slices cebollas
and translate her hum and sway
into my own awkward two-step.

She does not remember
that country, she insists,
shipped here when she had only 14 years.

She crossed the long desert
from a seat at 40,000 feet.
Her dinnertime chatter teaches me “ida”

means “departure;” “abuelo” is “ghost.”
We drive to St. Patrick’s for communion.
We drive to Ross: Dress for Less

for discount-bin bags of chifles.
Me dio Dios. Every night,
glued to novelas. On the phone,

she recounts an episode of Gilmore Girls
in only 10 minutes—the time
it took Plaza Grande to fill

with soldiers. When bullets
peppered the coup’s protesters,
when bodies rotted

beneath banana leaves,
she saw snow for the first time
in the sky above a Kansan high-school.

She tells me about a neighbor’s son’s
new job, a work-friend’s cousin’s
wedding, and what are the flowers—

she forgot the word. Years later,
I learn she lived there again
in her 20s. Her parents kept her room

with wool dolls and floral dresses
as abuelito’s milky gaze drifted
along bamboo walls

empapeladas with newspapers
that told of the President exiled again,
of rainforests razed for Texaco oil,

of the bankrupt family warehouse,
of the ousted CIA officer
whose memoir says he ordered the junta

to fire into Plaza Grande’s crowds,
while generals were flown to the states
for education that nothing is more

dangerous than shared
land and who would not want to live
near Hollywood, where she

and my father’s favorite flamenco
dancer gritaba del alma
and she danced with her Colombianas,

Salvadoreñas, Nicaraguenses,
and Grace Kelly’s glamorous hair
shined onscreen as she fought the killer;

of course, they are the lucky ones
who dodged the slow blade,
wealthy poor born to survive; of course,

there are no idas but in things
and the dance is still out there


Chocolate sin queso es como amor sin besos 


Whose mother disappeared through the polished gold doors?

I thought I dreamed it.
A decade later, I found it online:

I was seven years old.

I sent it to her with a note:

Her reply was an apology

she had not been naturalized earlier.
You see, she had lived here for years, and anyway

that is something very ‘old’ oh my, it is a


Ningún nos llama;
ningún nos quiere.

When I ask about Kansas, she says,
         It was cold.

When I ask about racism, she says,
         Oh, some people were mean.

She is this tough:
she made me move out at 18,
cried while she carried boxes to the car.

Tosses her dramatic curls.
Laughs at the worst of my jokes.

         Nobody loves us, she laments
when she checks the phone,
lifting the back of her hand to her forehead.


Every dinner was lentejas y huevos.
         Con este biscocho hasta mañana a las ocho.
Arroz by any other name would smell
like golden cocolón crisping in heat.

Yard duty. Secretary. Office Assistant
40 hours a week. Balanced the church’s books,
washed my hand-me-downs, worked
all day to earn that dolor.

Comemos lonche and she teaches me
papaya se cura stomach aches.
While she trained boss after boss
because they were the ones

with a college degree, we fought
holes in drywall. We knew all about
her work-friend’s son’s new girlfriend,
how aloe soothes a burn,

and tío might lose his fishing business
with new customs regulations, but what is
for dinner? Nicholas wears an ice-pack
for sympathy, drywall dusting

our knuckles and jeans.
         Sana sana culito de rana,
she says, platanos sizzling
so sweet and so brown.


The first English words men taught her were

“pleasantly plump—”
         mi cielo, it was just a different time.

Her favorite word is “gallivanting,” as in
         you were out late, mister,
         gallivanting about the town!


After meeting my mother for the first time,
my ex was furious.

Why had I not warned her about her accent, she asked.
She could not understand. Felt set-up.


Samuel P. Huntington (Harvard)
argues in “Who Are We?”
the primary challenge America faces is
“Hispanization trends in American society” (p. xvii).

She introduced me to her church friends as
         my son, the future doctor;
         he wants to go to Harvard.

We watched Huntington’s prime-time interview, hamburger
patties dumped on arroz y lentejas; our forks
scraped plates in static between words.

“I will lead in this fight
with every once [sic] of my strength I will not waist [sic] it
on matter [sic] that do not pertain to this very mission.

It is time for Americans to lock and load,”
the president of Arizona’s Minutemen posted
before she killed Raul Flores and his daughter Brisenia in their home.


More than once, a stranger or family friend
mimicked my mother’s first language:

“La baba la baba ba.”

She threw back her head and laughed,
baring the gold in her teeth.


Tía tells me her abuela spoke a few words of the Manteños.
It may have been a kind of memorial.
It may have been the last time those words entered the air.

The prayers my ancestors whispered
are now tuna boats clanging in a breeze
in the port outside her window.

She tells me this in English.
“Sigue no mas,” she insists with a plate of fish,
though I am full.


A word breaks
from clouds,


An accent is a spirit
summoned by a candle in the mouth;
it depends on every
war, every foot-worn path. To hear

is to know a body fills the space
wind opens in green vines.
To know your body—
         the listener

pin-points the speaker.
Velocity is possibly
related to the Latin “vehicle,”
meaning “bear,” as in news or children,

or “vigil” meaning “watch,”
as in vigilante. If velocity is fatal
depends on what receives it.
A rolled “r” changes a word’s

skin-tone. A body is a body
in peril. To hear is to hear
again, a series that raises loved ones
from damp earth.
         Bread falls

from sky, meaning loneliness
carved between mother and child.
Locate yourself in that void.
A hush. A pulse in the vine.


How did I not notice her accent?
Finally, I have an answer: fuck you.
Forget your good intent.

Empathy is analogy.
My mother weeps at made-for-TV movies.
The star’s suede pump breaks in a subway grate.

I sigh while she feels.
I feel her sad relief we feel together.
Your preparation is the opposite of falling

in the arms of a stranger.
In the end of this story,
every clumsy heroine is loved.


We practice Spanish and she grows silent.
         Very good, mi cielo.
It is a lonely sound

when she only remembers
the original word.

         What are those flowers that are my
         favorite ones? They are everywhere here.


Yellowed photos scanned and uploaded.
Hard-eyed, mustached Colonel. Widow with flower and veil.
Horse ribs wild in the ecstasy of hunger.

My mother, barefoot and sandy, red star sprayed
on her house before it was torn down for a shopping mall.
I misunderstood it all. She belonged here

when she spoke, and she spoke
history into being, a country separate from harm.
When I say “te amo,” I bend a border to you.


I was standing there looking at the baby’s cheeks;
they were so real! I thought, how did he do that,
to make them so real? And then it came to me:



Paul Hlava Ceballos is the author of banana [ ], winner of the 2021 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press. His collaborative chapbook, Banana [ ] / we pilot the blood, shares pages with Quenton Baker and Dr. Christina Sharpe. He has received fellowships from CantoMundo, Artist Trust, and the Poets House. He has an MFA from NYU and currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.


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