Raquel Salas Reivera lo terciario/the tertiary. Oakland, CA: Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018. Finalist for the 2018 National Book Award
Raquel Salas Rivera’s powerful collection of poetry lo terciario/the tertiary, written in both English and Spanish, juxtaposes the abstract language of Marxist theory beside the concrete personal narratives of the people most affected and harmed by capitalism. Rivera uses pieces of Pedro Scaron’s translation of Das Kapital as titles for these poems, often defining theoretical terms with human stories. The incongruity of these different registers of language reveals the dissonance that capitalism creates in our lives and the unnatural way in which it forces us to view people in terms of their “use-value” and production.
But Rivera demystifies the jargon and queers/decolonizes the lens of her critique by placing real people at the center of fragmented Marxist theory: Tia Irma who slowly loses her mind; Tio Jun who fixes chairs; Teresa who works at the tuna factory; the speaker’s mother who is a poet unable to write about the debt; the businessman who kills his wife and calls his father-in-law to pick up “la nena.” In an interview, many years ago, Raul Zurita said about writing during the Pinochet dictatorship, “You can’t defeat a dictatorship with poetry, but without poetry, and this is no metaphor, humanity disappears, literally, in the next five minutes.” Similarly, in Lo terciario, Rivera humanizes the conversation about Puerto Rico and brings to surface the lives and voices such systems try to minimize or destroy.
More specifically, these poems are an incisive critique of the US colonization of Puerto Rico and the resulting debt crisis. In “coats are not exchanged for coats,” Rivera writes:
just as the debt and the fifty years of work have use-values that
are qualitatively different, so are the two forms of labor that
produce them: that of the investor and that of the colonized.
your life is not enough. You will have to pay with the labor of your
children and your children’s children. (28)
Rivera demonstrates to the reader how the debt is not simply an abstraction in the lives of Puerto Ricans, but a force felt concretely on the Island, through, for example, the closing of schools, the Promesa bill, and most recently Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. Here, Rivera holds no punches. She calls to task businessman, academics, politicians, and even stateside Puerto Ricans who have supported policies that have gutted the Island.
These poems are also a call to action. In “the conversion of sum of money into sum of commodities,” Rivera writes:
everytime you believe a woman who has been raped,
a teen of trans experience acquires his hormones
for every verse that curls up in my people’s chest,
I win five libraries from the enemy.
But Rivera also ends the collection by combining this activism with an ethic of love. They write: “I love you/ we love each other/ here who remembers love?”(83). Then later:
ay but call, abuela.
call today if you can get a signal,
or enter at night through a dream.
tell me you are alive.
i want to hug you.
i want to grow wings
and fly to your nest,
where the water can’t reach us.
It is a powerful ending for a collection that aims to critique colonization and a capitalism that reduces humans to numbers or factors in an equation or sum values. Rivera chooses to end with what these systems try to take away from us: love.
Claire Jimenez is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Nebraska Lincoln