Itzel Zagal

2023 Project AwardLiterary Arts/ScriptworksPoetry Combined2017 Project AwardLiterary Arts/ScriptworksPoetry

About the artist

Zagal writes multilingual poetry, children’s stories and short stories through the influences of a childhood in rural Mexico and later work as a human rights advocate. She tells the stories of people who are too often invisible.

2023 Project Award

Zagal will write a collection of bilingual poems about Latinx immigrants and food in Alaska: “Cooking Poetry.” It will be presented both as a printed book to be distributed in Latinx and public spaces and in the “Sembranza” podcast in Alaska. Her poems are a community call to reconnect with Indigenous foodways to find healing and nourishment.

Zagal will explore Latinx community relationships with food. She will interview people in the Latinx immigrant communities: elders, food truck owners and cooks, children of immigrants, cannery workers, farmers’ market vendors, restaurant staff, community garden cultivators, immigrant mothers and agricultural workers. She will attend multicultural festivals and events, family celebrations, rituals and ceremonies. This research will inform her poetry leading to publication of her book, which will be distributed among the Latinx community and public spaces including schools, libraries, community events and farmers markets.

In her podcast series, “Sembranza,” she will read from the book and create space for community guests to speak about their relationship with food to honor her community’s oral traditions.

Zagal’s poetry aims to humanize the “other, alien, illegal” with counternarratives that embrace the dignity of Indigenous migration. She uses her art to reclaim her cultural heritage and pass it on to the younger generations living in Nepantla, that experience of being between two worldviews.

2017 Project Award

Zagal will complete a book of bilingual poems drawing upon her experiences emigrating from Mexico and the stories of other migrants in Anchorage.

In poetry, invisible others are seen

The Foundation partnered with 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, to profile Individual Artist Award recipients from 2017 and 2018.

Profile by Indra Arriaga

Itzel Zagal grew up below a volcano in the rural Mexican village of Tepetlixpa to become a poet influenced by those childhood experiences. Now she’s a mother whose son straddles two worlds, an immigrant whose intellectual fervor focuses on immigrants and refugees, a human rights activist and advocate. She elevates deeply rooted institutional and social issues into the light of understanding through the language of poetry. Zagal received a Rasmuson Foundation project grant to help her poetry career and build bridges with and throughout the communities that she champions.

She wants to make visible the experiences of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the new generations of multicultural and biracial households. Zagal characterizes the project as being “… about poetry that speaks about the migrant and refugee experience, the biracial families and the multiculturalism in which we live. It speaks about, and to, the ‘others.’ It’s poetry in which the others can see themselves reflected because few works in poetry and literature reflect these realities.” In the United States, the others she refers to are those of a different skin color or race, those who speak differently and have accents, those often silent and underrepresented voices and marginalized communities outside of the white, Anglo-Saxon Christian experience. Zagal’s poetry talks about daily moments that could be part of anyone’s life. She presents them through different vantage points, cultures and experiences.

She also tries to put attention on an emerging group of “young kids, like my son, who are part of families that are multicultural, multiracial and … creating a new way of being.” The children in this group are not totally from a foreign country, but they’re also not totally from the United States. According to Zagal, rather than remaining outside of the two worlds, these kids are at the intersection where worlds come together, coexist and sometimes clash. These experiences are unique. The kids are forging a new identity. Their communities and work like Zagal’s help support their journey.

Language is important in the transmission and preservation of culture, and it’s also a tool in its evolution. Zagal’s use of different languages in her work — Nahuatl, Spanish and English — challenges strict beliefs on the role and place of language in the social construct around dominance. She says, “There are those who categorize the mixture of languages as an error or a lesser form, but in my poetry I mix the languages as a new way of expression. It’s a richer expression, as if the languages become richer as they are mixed.”

Zagal hosted a poetry event in Anchorage in the spring of 2018 that coincided with the “Grito de Mujer” (Women Scream), an international festival of poetry and art. Zagal reports that the event featured her work but also created space for other voices. She is very proud of the inclusion of writers like Soledad Lescas and her husband whose poetry is in Spanish and Triqui, an indigenous language from Oaxaca, and the voice of MoHagani Magnetek, a transgender woman who participated in the event and found a place among the community of poets.

At a bilingual writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, she attended workshops and networked with writers who have been important in shaping her own work, like Rita Dove and Sandra Cisneros. They have written about the dynamic of being in the two worlds that Zagal’s son straddles. “These engagements wouldn’t have been possible without the project. What I was looking for at the conference was an opportunity to publish and in that sense, it didn’t work out because the agents that were there were focused on the market and what sold, and I heard that ‘poetry doesn’t sell.’ ”

However, she was successful in finding opportunities to publish in literary journals. Readers can find her work in recent issues of Alaska Women Speak, Forum Magazine of the Alaska Humanities Forum, Cirque Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, and in Muñecas International.

Along the way, interviews with other immigrants from Africa and Asia gave her an appreciation for the fact that some concepts are not translatable in all languages. Zagal recognizes that without the project she would have never gotten access to the homes and the stories of others. She met with a Nepalese family who told her about their experience lasting for many years in a refugee camp between Nepal and Bhutan. They said that when they were in the refugee camp they only had one pair of sandals. When they went out, the family members took turns wearing them. They told her that another refugee family, who was considered better off or rich, had two pairs of sandals.

“It’s important to recognize those experiences and also to see how they recreate Nepal in their homes through the food and aesthetic,” Zagal said. “We all do it. Even in my own home, I recreate my own piece of Mexico.”

Writer Indra Arriaga is a Mexican artist, author and researcher living and working in Alaska.