A framed depiction of a mujer drawn in Mexica inspired overtones served as a backdrop for Anatalia Vallez as she appeared on Instagram live. The vibrant pink artwork is from the cover of The Most Spectacular Mistake, her recently released debut poetry collection.
And while the coronavirus pandemic is causing many authors to postpone book releases, Vallez didn’t want to further delay a dream two years in the making.
Stay-at-home public health orders did compel a little creativity, though, in presenting her work on social media one recent weekend evening alongside invited poets and artists.
Vallez readied a poem to read from her book. She turned the pages to “Bond” as a stream of supportive comments poured over Instagram. “As a fetus, my mother inhaled love,” she recited. “It lingered in her vocal chords, then traveled to her stomach through her umbilical cord and into me. It now lives between my stomach and diaphragm. Perhaps that’s why I exist, to exhale what was trapped in my mother’s throat.”
Instead of the sound of applause, a flurry of virtual hearts arose from the screen and affirmed the poet’s work. Like any other book release, Vallez turned to fielding questions from her audience to round out the event.
By the time readers weave through Vallez’s verses, they’ll realize that mistakes in life, indeed, aren’t always what they appear to be. Published by FlowerSong Press, The Most Spectacular Mistake flows along a chakra-like “roots, core, heart, head” structure on the poet’s path to affirmation.
A lighthearted, but no less profound meditation from the “roots” collection, “Pero me entendiste” allows Vallez to navigate her trilingual family upbringing through its Nahuatl, Spanish and English fragments. After recounting her own innocent mistake in Spanish trying to order bread from a store, she ends with a keen understanding: “Our broken words, these collected overflowing languages are our earth shaking truths refusing to be put to sleep.”
In “Beauty is in the eye of the beloved,” she turns to her tone twice over writing, “the brown skin you cringe at is my connection to the cosmos, and for every revolution around, I can’t help but grow, unapologetically.”
The rest of the poems navigate through similar themes of trauma, heartbreak and colonial beauty standards all towards a realization of self-love. “It’s a way of reclaiming the idea of making mistakes,” says Vallez. “The audience that this book is for is doing that work. This is my offering.”
It’s a journey that began when Vallez first discovered the solace of writing when growing up in a strict household split between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. “Once I realized that I could write something on a piece of paper and just keep it for myself, it was very therapeutic,” she says. “It literally saved my life on several occasions because I was able to share things at the time that I didn’t feel I could say out loud.”
Later as a teen, Vallez joined Sarah Rafael Garcia’s first Barrio Writers summer program in 2009. It’s there that she began to see writing as something more than a refuge and as a craft that authors who looked like her defined with their own work. “We were a handful,” Vallez admits with a laugh. “Sarah recognized that we had something really precious, important and that we all had something to share with the world.” The following year saw an experimental Barrio Actors Guild extension of the free summer youth program in connection with Chapman University. Vallez took advantage and tried her hand at writing monologues, too.
Even with such creative seeds planted at an early age, by the time she enrolled at UC Berkeley, Vallez felt the pressure to treat art as an academic afterthought. It wasn’t until taking a theater class focused on Latin American playwrights for fun that her artistic inspiration sparked anew. “It became a mission for me,” she says. “I’m going to try my best to put myself and others on the map. That’s the energy I left the Bay Area with.”
Coming back to OC, Vallez joined the Santa Ana-based Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble. She also began working on her poetry manuscript through LibroMobile, a Santa Ana bookstore founded by Garcia that offered an indie MFA program for emerging writers. Vallez kept in contact with John Jairo Valencia, an artist she first met at UC Berkeley’s multicultural community center, who agreed to lend his artistic talents to The Most Spectacular Mistake. As all the elements began coalescing, Vallez also spent time with TeAda Productions, a theater of color company in Los Angeles. One day, a songwriting exercise there produced a line that lingered in Vallez’s imagination.
“From the roots, to the core, from the heart to the head.”
When organizing her poems for The Most Spectacular Mistake, the song came back to mind like a mantra. “Starting from the ground up, I’ve always felt this need to connect with nature,” says Vallez. “I have all of these different poems, what is connecting them? All of my poetry, I feel, is about love.”
The poem “Breaking patterns, leaving notes” makes it manifestly known that self-love against all odds is chief among them. “If loving yourself is a mistake,” Vallez writes, “let it be the most spectacular mistake you make.”
It’s a still unfolding lesson for the poet, even as assembling The Most Spectacular Mistake provoked some self-doubt along the way. Now that it’s published, the work continues. “I’m still learning what this book means,” says Vallez. “At the same time that I’ve put this book out, I’m integrating the messages that I have collected and put together.”
The Most Spectacular Mistake by Anatalia Vallez, published March 23, 2020, FlowerSong Press, 108 pages. $16
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.