Isabella Ramirez’s “the Andes speak of death and 2020” & Anthony Wiles’ “America, when will you protect me?” (The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers)

the Andes speak of death and 2020

by Isabella Ramirez

i. April 2020, southern hemisphere
the Andes seem awfully quiet these days.
Cotopaxi no longer writhes magma 
now that the streets have become volcanic.
my mother sends condolences 
to people in Guayaquil who would be lucky
to have their bodies turned to ash,
whose families no longer buy urns
now that their sidewalks have become gravestones.

the morgues in Ecuador have become so overwhelmed
that families wait days before authorities can pick up
the corpses on their driveways.
they leave their loved ones slung like coats 
over wheelchairs to die at hospital doors,
pack them into cardboard coffins to bury in their backyards
and wrap their bodies in plastic tarp
for their skin to bubble and swell under the heat
like pan de dulce.

ii. July 2014, southern hemisphere
you could still hear an Andean whisper
from my grandfather’s beach home in Salinas.
i had never seen mountains before,
let alone spoken to them,
but they told me of the traditions of the highlands
and the coast, made me promise
not to tell the beaches. 

i didn’t know my grandfather that well
but i knew he heard them too,
understood their Quichua
imprinted in his palms that picked husks
from durian trees.
his voice rung baritone anytime
he talked back.

when my grandfather died,
the mountains hushed to a lull.
i wish they had told me how to deal
with a grieving mother, and the guilt
of not grieving with her.
the only memories of my grandfather
i can recall are of the last time i saw him,
in Salinas,
as if I had met him for the very first time,
as if the photos of when he was strong enough
to visit us in America and hold me
meant nothing.
i could tell you of the soccer ball
i kicked over his electric fence,
the 50-degree saltwater i could barely swim in,
the cold shower i took after my brothers
buried me in the shore, 
how the sand washed off the grooves between my goosebumps to reveal
shivers and sunburns,
how the last thing i remember telling my grandfather,
when he asked me if i wanted cafe con leche,
was no,
how i ignored his somber eyes and sagging face.
is it to late for me to say
that i loved him
to death.

iii. April 2020, northern hemisphere
i’m only reminded of the mountains
vaguely and in passing,
in newspaper headlines of Ecuador
as the south’s epicenter and from pictures
of unclaimed bodies stacked in mass graves and mounds.
i can’t tell if the photos are from Guayaquil
or New York’s Hart Island anymore.

peaks and troughs don’t mean what they used to,
not since i’ve stared at death charts so long
that i forget that they’re people,
hundreds of thousands of people whose names 
mean nothing behind numbers,
whose families’ grief was reduced to a statistic.
i wonder how many people died alone,
with no one to remember their name.
i no longer wonder why mountains tend to form in ranges
and not isolated summits.

iv. present day, northern hemisphere
today, as i wear my mask,
i am reminded of Quito,
of being 9,000 ft above sea level on Andean foothills
where the air was so thin and the sun so close
i could barely catch my breath,
of the vertigo from climbing hills so high
i got nosebleeds.
i want to be there, standing on the equator with both feet
in each hemisphere again, feeling on top of the world, 
blissful in ignorance and too young to know of anything but life,
but now the Andes only speak of death and 2020,
and for the first time,
i grieve.

*Writing Prompt: Write a poem in which you explore the relationship between grief and the surrounding environment. Examine how time, place, and context work together to alter our perceptions of death and the grieving process.

America, when will you protect me?

by Anthony Wiles

i know of my ancestors
from bills of sale and white men’s wills,
their humanity stolen
their roots choking the expanse of the Atlantic

i’ve spent my life under the dark shadows
of your heroes, your flag(s)

Lee & Stonewall were taught to me
as great generals,
benevolent enslavers

my blood was bought and sold
to preserve their livelihood
my unshackled spirit today 
threatens their farce of a legacy 

you fly their flag of treason
as i quake in fear
stars and bars
represent my ancestors’ scars

you find no trespass
when a modern day slave patroller
kneels on our necks
while we cry for our mothers, our air

yet chide and groan
when the self-same athletes whose bodies you cheer
kneel for an anthem
you refuse to sing in its entirety

the brands of slavery
no longer form keyloids on my skin
for my caramel-latte
oh so beautiful 
paints me as less than

i am no danger to you,
but you’ve always threatened 
my existence

i’ve learned how to 
speak, dress, and carry myself
in a way that emulates you

I’ve shunned my culture
for acceptance,

yet in your eyes
i am nothing
my life does not matter

there’s two diseases out here
killing me and my people 

one we met recently
and another we’ve known for years–
you being patient zero

an immunocompromised Black boy,
i have protection from neither
yet and still,
i consider you and your fragility,
masking up eternally

one made of cloth polymers
the other,
pigmented skin
that makes me a target

who will protect me?

tomorrow i may leave my door
only to return
embalmed with formaldehyde

another unarmed Black boy,
another protest
another memory

dear America
when will you see me?
when will you protect me?

*Writing Prompt: You are ten years old, young and new to the world and its complexities. Write about this innocence and/or lack thereof.

This issue of
The Hard Work of Hope is produced in partnership with
The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Isabella Ramirez

Isabella Ramirez is a 17-year-old high school senior from South Florida. She is an award-winning writer who was appointed as the 2020 National Student Poet of the Southeast Region of the United States. Some of her accolades include placing second at the annual Louder Than A Bomb Florida Slam Poetry Competition, earning a National Silver Medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, being named a Merit Winner in Spoken Word from the National YoungArts Foundation, and getting published in The Best of Teen Writing 2020. Isabella hopes to continue her poetry pursuits in college and will attend Columbia University in the fall of 2021.

Anthony Wiles

Anthony Wiles is a writer/poet, historian and activist, from southwestern Pennsylvania. He is a 9th-generation Affrilachian: African American Appalachian, with roots in the rural South. Anthony is the 2020-2021 National Student Poet representing the Northeastern United States.