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Crossing Borders: A Biography of Farid Matuk

Xi Gao

Brian Lam

João Nascimento

Malden High School AP Literature

Ryan Gallagher

15 February 2011


Farid Matuk was born in Peru but immigrated to the United States at the age of six. Caught between two different worlds, his experiences as an immigrant in America contributed to Matuk’s identity, worldview, and eventually writing. Later in  life, his experiences with politics, family, and social issues eventually manifested themselves in Matuk’s first full collection of poetry, This Isa Nice Neighborhood. Today, Matuk resides in Texas with his partner, poet Susan Briante, and their daughter.

1. Growing up in Peru

Xi Gao

       Since the conquest of Peru by Spaniards, the invasion of Chinese immigrants, and Japanese presidents, Peru has been a melting pot of different ethnicities. Those natives who left the indigenous life in the mountains and migrated to the cities at an earlier date were considered higher up the hierarchy. For example, Limenos, those who were born in Lima from parents who migrated early looked down upon mestizos, who in turn look down upon newly migrated Indians (Stieber par. 6).  The more westernized and modern Peruvians were considered, the wealthier they were and more respect they received.  As Peru separated itself further away from Incan traditions and became more modern, migrants from Britain, Austria, Italy, and Germany made up most of Peru’s elite class. These trends led some observers to the conclusion that “it is easier to reach elite status from outside Peru than to ascend from within the society” (Rex par. 3). The racial composition of the upper classes is predominantly white and those who were “Incan” were considered at the bottom of the social ladder.

Matuk’s mother was the daughter of Syrian immigrants in Peru who struggled to speak Spanish without an accent. Matuk’s mother’s “white” appearance contributed to her racial attitudes toward “darker color people or indigenous peoples” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3). Quite surprisingly, she fell in love with Matuk’s father who was a mestizo, “someone of mixed European and indigenous ancestry” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3). Matuk’s parents were a representation of this conflict in Peru’s variety of social classes.  

Stability did not exist in Matuk’s childhood in Peru. The first six years of Matuk’s life were an “ugly custody battle” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 2) between his parents. Matuk’s parents were never officially married and his father took up with another woman. Matuk’s mother was constantly abused, both verbally and physically by Matuk’s father. His methods included harassment by phone and Matuk’s earliest memory is of a brick his father used to break one of their windows in their apartment in Lima. The brick was written with slurs that essentially translate to ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and ‘cunt,’ and ‘slut’ (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 2). Wanting to have Matuk only for himself, his father wanted to take Matuk to Venezuela and never bring him back. Filing a complaint to the police would have been useless since Matuk’s father’s brother was a high ranking official in the police force. (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 2) Justice would have been ignored. Wanting to protect her son, Matuk’s mom had no choice but to kidnap Matuk out of Peru. She got a five year visa through a friend who worked in the United States consulate and took Matuk to Anaheim, California where a sister resided. (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 2)

       Matuk’s mother inability to get help from the government and her method of receiving a visa through connections was not uncommon in Peru. In fact, these acts of political corruption have existed in Peru since the beginning of its government and have grown since Matuk’s mother’s time. In current politics, corruption has been a large problem for six presidencies in Peru. At the time when Matuk was born, Alan Garcias, “acknowledged that corruption is the main concern of Peruvians” (Paez par. 5) and was determined to “eradicate corrupt practices in the state apparatus.” (Paez par. 5) However, Garcias repeatedly failed to “announce concrete measures” (Paez par. 5). His failure could be seen throughout history as corruption in the cabinet, in officers, and in other presidents became increasingly serious. Garcia, the man himself, was involved “in a high profile scandal Dec. 11, 2009, when pardoned for supposedly humanitarian reasons” (Paez par. 5). In 2007, it was discovered that government officials were personally profiting from the humanitarian aid sent to victims of an earthquake in Pisco. (Paez par. 9) The biggest scandal perhaps would be President Albert Fujimori’s exile. The Supreme Court sentenced him to twenty-five years for crimes against humanity for authorizing military death squads along with authorizing wiretaps and bribes to politicians, journalists, and businessmen.(“Peru’s Fujimori sentenced to 6 years for corruption” par. 1) Corruption is common in Peru and justice for single mothers like Matuk’s is often not seen. Therefore, her choice to leave Peru and start a new life with Matuk in the United States seems like it was her only option.

2. Growing up in the United States

Xi Gao

Growing up in the United States for Matuk was marked mostly by “displacements” (Matuk…sec. 3), but the displacements shaped how Matuk grew into his identity. Nothing went according to plan and nothing went by the norm, therefore Matuk often had to piece together his dual identities, what he was and what he was suppose to be (Matuk…sec 4).

           Matuk was expected to grow into a man, wise and courageous enough to care for his family. However, the only male figure in Matuk’s life was his father, the same abuser who threatened his mother and who “seemed horrible” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3)  Matuk’s mother who brought Matuk to a new life in the United States no longer resembled the “glamorous figure,” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3) of his youth.  Living outside of her native country, Matuk’s mother, like other immigrants in the country, often had to work harder and longer hours. Without knowing the language and “working [the] late shift in a nursing home,” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3) she “seemed smaller” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3) and “less capable” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 3) to Matuk. Matuk was left to grow, learn, and struggle in this country mostly by himself.

           Matuk’s mix of Syrian and indigenous blood often lead others to identify him as Latino, because that was the only reference point for ‘otherness’ in his community at that time. So, he was expected to be friends with the other Hispanic children in their predominant immigrant neighborhood, but his “mother’s bigotry” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 4) and attitude toward darker colored individuals prevented Matuk from hanging out in his neighborhood. Therefore, whenever it was possible, Matuk hung out with the white kids in their neighborhood. Even with his white peers, Matuk felt alone. But this lack of belonging contributed to his strong sense of individuality. (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 7)

           Although Matuk may have felt lonely, his experience is similar to thousands of other immigrant children who lack understanding from parents as they face a different culture. Since the 1980s, when Matuk immigrated to the United States, immigrant children like Matuk “became the fastest growing and the most ethnically diverse segment of America’s child population”(Zhou 63). Similar to how Matuk lacked a connection to his Peruvian culture, immigrant children “lack meaningful connections to their ‘old’ world” (Zhou 64). Instead, immigrant children often evaluate themselves and grow based on the “standards of the new country” (Zhou 64). Children with parents who are poorly educated and do not speak English grow up in “underprivileged neighborhoods subject to poverty, poor schools, violence and drugs, and a generally disruptive social environment” (Zhou 69). This is similar to the Orange County neighborhood Matuk grew up in with “police helicopters [shining] search [lights] into [his] bedroom window at night to ferret out the guys hiding in the alley and there were drug deals going on in front of [their] apartment” (Matuk…sec. 6).

Feeling different from neighbors, different from his peers, and different from his parents, Matuk felt a sense of loneliness and fear that he hid with false bravery.  At this youthful phase, Matuk felt “independent and tough and free,” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 8) but he soon realized it was “false bravado” (Matuk E-mail interview …sec. 8) to protect the loneliness and fear he hid within.  Matuk now hopes to create a family where his daughter feels comfortable to develop into her individual self, a place he lacked in his childhood. (Matuk E-mail interview …Sec 8)


3. Politics in the United States

Brian Lam

Matuk, like many other immigrants, faced struggle.  American politics has certainly impacted his life and made him evaluate the “double nature of existence” (Matuk, Email interview with Xi Gao, Brian Lam, and João Nascimento).  Before Reagan adopted the Amnesty Law in 1986, Matuk and his mother were known as illegal immigrants (E-mail interview with Xi Gao, Brian Lam, and João Nascimento).  But Matuk said that even after they had received their legal statuses, their stability was still constantly threatened (E-mail interview with Xi Gao, Brian Lam, and João Nascimento).  In 1995, for example, some politicians even wanted to take away rights from legal immigrants (E-mail interview with Xi Gao, Brian Lam, and João Nascimento).

4. Art and Other Influences

João Nascimento

Matuk, as exemplified by his first full-length collection of poetry, This Isa Nice Neighborhood—which features epigraphs by several authors and works of art by different artists—is deeply influenced by visual art’s ability “to create a powerful effect” and experience for the reader. Matuk’s decision to intertwine art which “draws on literary or rhetorical elements” within his book supplements the ambiguous but charged nature of his poems, “extending the conversation with the reader,” and  most importantly, the images included in the book act as gateways for the expression of his value system, life experiences, along with ethical, political, and social views. (Matuk E-mail interview sec. 5)

           Daniel Joseph Martinez is one of the artists featured prominently throughout Matuk’s This Isa Nice Neighborhood. The cutting-edge artist who is famous for creating “work that unapologetically probes uncomfortable issues of personal and collective identity, seeking out threadbare spots in the fabric of conventional wisdom” (Kastner par. 1) hails from Los Angeles, but a childhood lived in the state of California is not the only common characteristic between Martinez and Matuk. Martinez expressed in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail’s Phong Bui that political chaos, more specifically the Los Angeles riots that occurred in 1992, “heightened [his] sense of social and political awareness” (par. 39). Similarly, political chaos shaped much of Matuk’s childhood and the subject matter of his craft. In the interview, Martinez describes his experience growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s, a city that due to its political and social polarity, “embodied a paradox about its own identity” (par. 43). More specifically, Martinez grew up speaking Spanish in a segregated, working-class neighborhood, characteristics that deeply resemble Matuk’s underprivileged childhood in Orange County. The obvious similarity between Matuk’s and Martinez’s life narrative led both artists to share extremely compatible points of view in sociopolitical issues, and ultimately to the fusion of visual art and poetry presented in Matuk’s book.

       The interconnection between Martinez’s visual art and Matuk’s poetry is brandished on the very cover of Matuk’s book, which features a detail from Martinez’s Call Me Ishmael: The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant, “an installation...in which a robot version of the artist convulsed in a paroxysmal seizure whenever viewers came near” (Kastner par. 3). Martinez’s use of rhetoric in this piece, along with his “abiding interest in interrogating both artistic transparency and audience complicity” compliments Matuk’s poetic aesthetic and relates deeper to facets of his worldview. Matuk is drawn to the way the belt buckles were “made to look very expensive, hood rich or ghetto fabulous,” and how, rhetorically, they “help point to the way [Matuk] think[s] our desires are the driving force of what we do, of the ethnical choices we make or fail to make” (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 5). The ideological overlap that occurs when Matuk’s poetry and Martinez’s visual art fuse in This Isa Nice Neighborhood, and thus how powerfully Martinez and his visual art influence Matuk, is illustrated when Martinez proclaimed a similar opinion on ownership in the interview with Phong Bui of The Brooklyn Rail, in which he states that “You and I benefit, like everyone else, from living in the Empire, and we are complicit in our own way, even though we fight against the institutionalization, capitalization, and free market globalization that is sending this world to its own destruction” (par. 39).

           Martinez’s art is so deeply influential to Matuk’s work not only because it “resonates...with his own curiosities and perspectives” (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 4) but also because it is able to connect with Matuk’s immigrant identity. The first interior picture of This Isa Nice Neighborhood shows the robotic Martinez convulsing, which, coupled with the rest of the installation, explore how multiple traditions can lay claim to a single identity” (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 5).  Matuk also explains the cover art to his book:

[That] piece of Martinez’s from which images were taken that now make up the cover of my book and the first interior image is a “sculpture” of sorts . . .  the literary or rhetorical gesture in this piece is that belt buckle. It references a book by the poet Charles Olson called Call Me Ishmael. Olson’s book was his take on Melville’s Moby Dick (the first sentence of Moby Dick being, “Call me Ishmael”). The reference predates Melville, of course. Ishmael is introduced in Genesis as Abraham’s first son, but born to his second wife, Hagar. It gets complicated. Hagar wasn’t really a legit wife, she was Abraham’s wife’s maid, whom Abraham’s wife gave to her husband as a vehicle for a son, since Abraham’s wife was barren at the time. Anyway, Abraham’s wife, Sara, later got pregnant with Isaac. As a result, Sara kicks Hagar and Ishmael out. Long story short, for Jews Ishmael became an outcast, for Muslims he was a prophet, for Christians he was a Jew. Martinez knows all this, and he’s invoking all of it, the Biblical reference, the literary reference, and the cinematic reference to explore how multiple traditions can lay claim to a single identity (something about which immigrants know plenty). (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 8)

 Although Daniel Joseph Martinez’s powerful art aids Matuk in situating readers and simultaneously holding them “ethically adrift” (Gordon par. 2), it also explores a tension between individuality and community.

        Matuk is also influenced by a vast list of other artists to produce his poetry. His diversity of style is credited to influences from Robert Duncan, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Eileen Myles, Wallace Stevens, C.D. Wright, Claudia Rankine, Ted Berrgian, and countless others artists (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 4). Even more notably, Matuk borrowed from the artist Joseph Beuys who was a “highly provocative and always controversial” (“Focus: Joseph Beuys” par. 1)  who “did not consider art to be separate from society” (“Focus: Joseph Beuys” par. 4). Matuk found interest in his ideas when going through a “poetics of reception” to “receive images, language, tones, energies from the outside world and then organize them...in some way that is interesting for the reader” and ultimately “bring readers closer to more elemental forces” (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 3).

           Perhaps the artist who influenced Matuk most profoundly, both in his craft and personal life, was his teacher and mentor Lindon Barrett who, before he was murdered in 2008, was “an English professor at at UC Irvine and then UC Riverside, specializing in African American studies” (“Lindon Barrett, 46” par. 3). Barrett believed that “pleasure and desire were the ground floor of human existence, not the totality of who we are, but a necessary base, and one that traditional Western thought tries to avoid or deny,” and was seen by Matuk as an intellectual who “lived without borders, or across them,” a mentor who directed many, including Matuk himself, in their paths (Matuk E-mail Interview sec. 4).


Works Cited

Bui, Phong. Interview with Daniel Joseph Martinez. Daniel Joseph Martinez with Phong Bui. Brooklyn Rail. March 2008. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Call Me Ismahel; or, The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant.” 1 Dec. 2008. Dailyserving. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

Focus: Joseph Beuys.” MoMA. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.

Gordon, Noah Eli. “Poet’s Sampler: Farid Matuk.” Boston Review July/Aug. 2009. Web. 8 Jan. 2011.

Kastner, Jeffrey. “Daniel Joseph Martinez - 2008 WHITNEY BIENNIAL.” Whitney Museum of American Art. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Lindon Barret, 46.” 4 July 2008. Los Angeles Times. Web. 16 Jan. 2011.

Paez, Angel. "PERU: President Admits Corruption Has Tarnished Government." Global Geopolitics Net and Political Economy. 30 July 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

Peru: Fujimori sentenced to 6 years for corruption." America's Intelligence Wire 30 Sept. 2009. General OneFile. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

Rex, Hudson A. "Peru - Elites." Country Studies. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1992. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

Stieber, Michael. "Migration and the Mantaro Valley: Central Peru." 25 Feb. 2005. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.

Zhou, Min. "GROWING UP AMERICAN: The Challenge Confronting Immigrant Children and Children of Immigrant." Annual Review of Sociology. Vol. 23. Annual Reviews, 1997. 63-95. Ohio State University Library, 12 Oct. 2005. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.

"Author photo." courtesy of Farid Matuk