Itzel Zagal: Exploring Alaska’s Latino Community Through Poetry
BY pedro graterol
The poetry of Itzel Zagal, who is originally from a small town of Tepetlixpa in Mexico, takes us on a journey through her world of verse, which is deeply rooted in her heritage and inspired by the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or the Mexica poet Nezahualcóyotl and mixes with the experiences of her new home, here in Alaska. Her work explores the profound connection her community shares with this land, its people, and the complex relationship they’ve built with a unique ecosystem. Now, it will take a new focus: food. Zagal recently received a Project Award by the Rasmuson Foundation to write a collection titled “Cooking Poetry.” It will be presented both as a printed book to be distributed in public spaces and in the “Sembranza” podcast in Alaska.
In an interview with Sol de Medianoche, Itzel explained that this project aims to explore the relationship between the Latino community and Alaska: “I want to talk about how our community honors and creates new relationships with the land of Alaska, with the people of Alaska, how it relates to this new environment, how we learn to respect it, how we learn to honor this new home, and how we also bring to the symbolic table, symbolically but also literally, traditional knowledge from the places we come from.” In addition, she further stated that the project will serve as a reminder of the work behind the food we eat every day, so that we can better honor and respect those behind it: “During the pandemic, agricultural workers and those working in the food sector were considered essential workers. However, this classification as essential workers did not translate into better working conditions for the people working in agriculture, in food production, and many of them belong to our Latino American community.”
To honor their contribution, Itzel embarked on a project that seeks to dignify their connection to food. Itzel’s collection of poems, themed around cuisine and community, aims to elevate the importance of food not only as a livelihood but as an identity, a repository of memory, and a source of connection with their homelands, while also celebrating the beauty of adapting traditional recipes to life in Alaska: “These poems are to dignify the relationship we have with food, not only as a source of work but also as a source of identity, of preserving memory, of having ties to our countries of origin, but also in finding the beauty in the transformation and adaptation of our foods here in Alaska.”
The theme of synthesis and mixture is a constant in Itzel’s previous work, and nowhere is it more evident than her usage of different languages. Itzel seamlessly intertwines Spanish, English, and Nahuatl, an indigenous language in Mexico: “When I write poetry, I mix not only Spanish and English but also Nahuatl, which is the language spoken in the region where I come from, although it’s almost not spoken anymore, and there is no effort to recover the indigenous language. But in my poetry here in Alaska, I try to mix all three languages.” She further added: “The mixing of English, Spanish, and Nahuatl also allows me to show with language not only the tension, but also the harmony that can exist among our communities.”
In addition to her poetic pursuits, Itzel has taken part in an extraordinary community effort. She collaborated on a book titled “Raíces: Indigenous Mexico in Alaska,” published by the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska. This book meticulously contextualizes 137 pre-Hispanic artifacts housed in the museum: “The book we published, well, that the Museum of the North published, seeks to provide cultural context to these 137 pre-Hispanic pieces present in the museum in Fairbanks. It was co-authored with Gerardo Páez, Michelle Lara, and Alejandro López. A trans-community effort.”
These artifacts, as she emphasizes, serve as a poignant call to reconnect with their indigenous roots and acknowledge their place as part of the native nations of the continent: “So, these pieces are also a call to reconnect with our ancestral roots, to recognize ourselves as part of the native nations of this continent.” The Alaska Latino community is a fascinating and unique example of how culture, traditions and identity not only persist, but also adapt despite distances. It’s wonderful that we can explore the facets of this changing community through the poetry and art of Itzel, that remind us of where we came from, and also helps us understand where, as a culture, we are going.
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