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In Diego Báez’s debut collection, Yaguareté White, English, Spanish, and Guaraní encounter each other through the elusive yet potent figure of the jaguar.
The son of a Paraguayan father and a mother from Pennsylvania, Baéz grew up in central Illinois as one of the only brown kids on the block—but that didn’t keep him from feeling like a gringo on family visits to Paraguay. Exploring this contradiction as it weaves through experiences of language, self, and place, Baéz revels in showing up the absurdities of empire and chafes at the limits of patrimony, but he always reserves his most trenchant irony for the gaze he turns on himself.
Notably, this raucous collection also wrestles with Guaraní, a state-recognized Indigenous language widely spoken in Paraguay. Guaraní both structures and punctures the book, surfacing in a sequence of jokes that double as poems, and introducing but leaving unresolved ambient questions about local histories of militarism, masculine bravado, and the outlook of the campos. Cutting across borders of every kind, Baéz’s poems attempt to reconcile the incomplete, contradictory, and inconsistent experiences of a speaking self that resides between languages, nations, and generations.
Yaguareté White is a lyrical exploration of Paraguayan American identity and what it means to see through a colored whiteness in all of its tangled contradictions.
About the Author
Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the Surge Institute, and the Poetry Foundation’s Incubator for Community-Engaged Poets. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.
“In his stunning debut, the crossroads for Diego Báez in Yaguareté White is as much one of the physical Americas as it is linguistic: English, Spanish, and Guaraní converge, clash, and (re)connect through the elusive yet undeniable jaguar who symbolizes ‘the souls of all the dead.’ Despite diaspora and distance, the speaker tends to the dearly departed as well as the living of his mixed Paraguayan and U.S. roots. Through hard inherent truths—‘Everyone knows a man’s father / is the first dictator / he must suffer’—and witty takes on ‘basic white,’ nothing is spared from Báez’s exacting yet humorous eye. Through absurdist ‘Postcards’ from semesters abroad, Google searches, and Gallup polls that reveal a strange obsession with happiness and deference, the speaker unflinchingly reveals the horrors of colonialism and centuries of bloodshed and racism, but not without hope, for the Elusive itself returns to him: the miracle of the lyrical against it all—in the birth of his first child, in which ‘her breath first rounded into syllables, / sílabas into word and words into song.’ Culturally, critically perceptive yet deeply personal, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.”—Rosebud Ben-Oni, author of If This Is the Age We End Discovery
“A poetry of not knowing: names, origins, where one belongs, how to explain the self to the self, how to explain the self to the other, how to explain to the self the mistranslations and dislocations of movement across languages, borders, hemispheres, and histories. Diego Báez’s Yaguareté White outlines through a brilliant arrangement and rearrangement of forms so many levels of colonial experience. Through a dissection of whiteness and race, indigeneity and empire, Báez brings us a vision of Paraguay that has yet to be seen in U.S. poetry. In the process, Yaguareté White—with its found text postcard poems, its ‘dirty language,’ its dictionary indexing of Paraguayan and national hierarchies—carves a new place in the poetry of the Americas. This is exciting and innovative work!”—Daniel Borzutzky, author of Lake Michigan
“In this startingly fresh debut collection, Diego Báez writes his Paraguayan American experience into and out of focus in smart, combustible poems that confront Latinx whiteness, diasporic return, family dynamics, militarism, and the politics of empire. Stealthily, the Indigenous Guaraní language unsettles English and Spanish in short, punchy, darkly coded jokes (‘pukarã’) interspersed between lyrics that range from the quotidian to the visionary, and from irony-laced variations on the list poem, the found poem, the prose poem, and the Beat-poet travelogue to compressed couplets and tercets and spare, luminous epigrams in the spirit of Jorge Carrera Andrade. Ever the critic, Báez amps up the cultural and political tensions, yet the lyric voice is vulnerable beneath the brashness, uneasily autoethnographic in its attempt to depict the Other aquí y allá, skewering itself and us while breaking down language and allowing us to recompose it again, if only we dare surrender to its tonal and formal shifts. Yaguareté White wanders beyond the plains and hills of Paraguay and the flat expanses of the U.S. Midwest, coming across everyone from the poet’s ancestors, tourist bloggers, and the dictator’s ‘goons’ to the ‘American Marine’ and ‘basic border anti-immigrant Latinos’ in a transnational and transhistorical poetics of personal and social reckoning that is as roar-inducing as it is thought-provoking. Praise the poet poised between the people’s tongue and ‘My tongue, a bloody muscle, / daggered to la mesa.’”—Urayoán Noel, author of Transversal
“Yaguareté White, an exceptional debut by Diego Báez, weaves a narrative of belonging, exploring the intricate ties between language and identity. Báez masterfully charts a course between Paraguay and Pennsylvania, illuminating the fusion of languages—English, Spanish, and Guaraní. He refers to this linguistic blend as the ‘language of firecracker diacritics,’ a vibrant, dynamic mix that encapsulates his experiences. These poems are a testament to the power of language in shaping our sense of self and place in the world. Báez charts a poignant tale of loss, delving into the complexities of national and cultural identity. This is a journey through ancestry of Paraguay, a personal exploration of heritage. One moment depicts an instance of awkward silence with cousins who don’t speak English, a silence that eventually ‘explode[s] with laughter and handcraft, crudity, horseplay.’ This moment is emblematic of the broader themes in Yaguareté White, illustrating the challenges and joys of navigating multiple cultural identities. Báez invites readers to reflect on their own experiences of language and belonging through his exploration of loss and a compelling story of belonging, demonstrating the profound connections between language and identity.”—Ruben Quesada, editor of Latinx Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry
"With lacerating wit and a fearless commitment to the integrity of the line, Diego Báez explodes the intersection of home, history, and language. I carry these poems with me like a prayer.”—Saeed Jones, author of How We Fight for Our Lives