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Southern Brown 


These days it’s a toss-up; 

I could just as much be from here

as I am from there. Half of us

are born on this “good” side, 

even if we grew up eating rice and beans.

We claim two native tongues. 

I am no more from there, 

than I am from here. My dichotomy is sweet

tea and agua dulce, BBQ and tamales. 

And even though the rooster sings to me in Spanish –




the hens cluck just the same, and whether I crack the eggs

over rice or serve it with bacon, it all keeps my belly warm. 

Depending on the season, I either have a nice tan

or I’m that tricky shade of brown.

As soon as I open my mouth to speak, 

you guess wrong. 




Pale moon white and constellation of freckles, 

there is no brown pigment in their skin

to suggest a birthright partly rooted 

in coffee farms and banana republics,


so when the Gap employee says, oh good,

as she watches me scuttle behind my sons, 

I’m looking for their mother, too.

I feel the pang of disavowal.


Are they yours? people ask, 

deaf to their microagressions, 

incredulous when I answer yes. 

And then, Where did they get that 


red hair from? as if testing me,

as if challenging what is mine.

And still not satisfied, some 

finally ask, Where are you from?


and wait for me to announce

my otherness, a foreign 

place that isn’t here, 

a place I might belong.

King Cake Baby


I never questioned why the baby born

in my cake was pink.


I was excited to find her 

curled up in the white of baked dough. 


I took her home in my napkin,

showed my brown mother,


added her to my collection

of cream colored dolls.






I want to tell my mother that I know –

she never wanted this life, 

this fumbling through words not her own,

how their foreign sounds must feel like betrayal. 

She tries to make them hers: yellow becomes hielo

Her jagged accent renounces words she cannot find

a native counterpart for. She mangles words she hates. 

Or just falls silent. 


This is the greatest sound between us –

the soundlessness of our stifled dialogue.

Vocabularies I can’t translate and the things 

she will not say. The truth 

is an untold confession, 


a burning silence,

flames that consume us.

So that sometimes I am blessed and sometimes I am cursed with a child who understands my secret heart.

From Yo! by Julia Alvarez


Anita Cantillo is the pen name of Shawn Bowers, and there’s a funny story behind it, but we don’t have that kind of time. Anita/Shawn was born in Costa Rica and currently resides in Charlotte, NC where she teaches in the English Department at Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Label me Latina/o, Pilgrimage, and Azahares, among other journals.

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