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Altars For Abuelas

by Olivia Muñoz

Part of LM Voices' Tiny Review series

Anyone who has sat at the foot of their grandmother listening to stories, or hanging back in the kitchen to catch gossip and memories, will love Isabella Santana’s slim collection of poems, Abuela Lore. The 19-year-old author uses her debut chapbook from Somos en Escrito press to build a literary altar to her grandmothers, one Guatemalan, the other Ecuadoran. Their stories, emotions, and diasporic experiences hit to the very core of anyone close to their elders. 

One of the ideas Santana grapples with in Abuela Lore is her grandmothers’ duality: both soft and tough, independent and caretaking, adventurous and tethered by tradition. Santana ponders in “My Mami Yolis the free woman”: “How can a woman be simultaneously / so strong and so trapped?” The writer dreams a dream for her Mami Yoli, one where the woman is a giggly, free person. 

Gender (and its interactions with spirituality, indigeneity, and the physical body) is also explored in Santana’s work. In “Good girl,” the author recalls the direct and indirect messages girls are given about how they should behave.

These ruminations blend with another recurring theme, which is nature as a force – for healing (through teas and connecting with a homeland) and for indiscriminate destruction. The poet seems to mirror the danger presented in womanhood in pieces like “Terremoto” and “Pastaza Te Lleva” about earthquakes and a merciless river.

There are a few moments where Santana is more experimental with form, to great success, such as in the poem as Venn diagram, “Introduction to my Auelas,” where she rests at the intersection of their stories.

Another exciting example of this is in the piece “Ana Dominga is dead,” where Santana ends with stanzas written as lists.The piece is about Ana Dominga, best friend to one of the author’s grandmothers. While the poem is heartfelt across the pages, sections like this succinctly capture the emotion of losing a loved one at a distance, across political borders.

As Santana develops her writing, it would be interesting to see where and how she stretches to play with form. She seems to have some natural intuition here that may help her create unexpected, experimental pieces that continue to nuance the Latine experience.

Santana’s voice is bold in this collection, unapologetic (literally, at times). She includes pieces in Spanish that remain untranslated, and she injects a frank, humorous sensitivity in her portraits of these elders (“When My Abuelas Get Drunk”) that disarm the reader. This makes exploration of familiar topics – gender, immigration, colonization – fresh enough to feel new in Abuela Lore

Olivia Muñoz is a Chicana author of the forthcoming poetry chapbook, These Women Carry Purses Full of Knives.

Find out more about Isabella Santana and Somos en Escrito at


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