Yaguarté White by Diego Báez, reviewed by Esteban Rodríguez

The end of the school year was near. We got shuffled from classroom to classroom, taking a math exam there, an English test there. Our proctors were teachers from a grade level above ours, so naturally they were stoic, stern, sticklers for the rules because all of their 4th graders were expected to follow them. For our last exam of the year, our science final would be held with Mrs. Gutierrez, and her name sounded as harsh as the tone she used with my classmates as they filed in. From the hallway, she directed them to their assigned seats, shouted that no one should talk, that their backpacks should be placed neatly beneath their desks. When it was my turn to give my name, I said Steven Rodriguez, and if I thought she was mean before, little did I know how furious she would become when she asked me for my name again. I repeated Steven Rodriguez, but Mrs. Gutierrez had already leveled her head with mine and began saying that on the roster on her clipboard, she had Esteban, not Steven. She came closer and said that I wasn’t pronouncing my last name correctly, that I needed to really roll that first R. She said I should be proud of my name, of who I was, of what my parents expected me to be when they named me Esteban Rodrguez. This was our first encounter, so how could she know that I only spoke English at home, that I had a speech impediment where my teeth and tongue muffled my L’s, S’s, and R’s, that already, at 8-years old and in 3rd grade, I would never become a native Spanish speaker, no matter how much I studied when I was older, no matter how many times I visited Mexico, no matter the afternoons I spent with my grandmother, listening to her give me instructions in her native tongue. I hadn’t spent a decade on this earth, and I had already lost a piece of language and culture I’m not sure, even twenty-six years later, I’ve ever truly recovered. For many of us, our writing has centered on trying to gain back the cultural aspects of ourselves that were lost way before we became aware of their importance, and in that same tradition, Diego Báez’s debut collection Yaguarté White (University of Arizona Press 2024) seeks to recover pieces of his identity, his past, and his relationships with his family that he once thought was beyond the realm of understanding. The journey that unravels through the collection isn’t easy, and there are times where the result leads to more answers than questions. But the challenge is necessary for greater truths to arise, and whether it’s examining a son’s relationship with his father, looking at the loss of language, or questioning the extent one’s identity belongs to any one country, Báez always arrives at a place ready to bloom with empathy, love, and acceptance. 

For the average American, Paraguay might not be an easy country to locate on a map. Landlocked and lacking the coastal allure of its neighbors Uruguay and Brazil, Paraguay doesn’t immediately pop up on travel destinations or international news articles highlighting the country’s sentiments or day-to-day affairs, at least not in the American consciousness. Nevertheless, it has shared a similar history to its neighbors as a result of the military and political intervention of the United States in South America. CIA-sponsored programs such as Operation Condor strengthened Paraguay’s longtime dictator Alfredo Stroessner and his repressive military regime for 30-plus years. While Paraguay’s more oppressive history doesn’t play out explicitly in Diego Báez’s Yaguarté White, what does show is the consequences of immigration on a boy trying to understand his place between a Paraguay he knows indirectly and the America he lives in. Like many children of many immigrants, Báez’s speaker contends with language, identity, and cultural acceptance, and in “Reglatio,” we see this struggle and tension play out between generations: 

The speaker’s father has a militaristic aura about him, and the strict rules that guide their verbal interactions are formal and devoid of any emotional warmth. They also do little to reveal the father’s past, and the speaker can only guess as to why his father is the way he is. Perhaps trauma has led to such sternness, or perhaps it was some other event in his home country that he’s never spoken about. Regardless, the speaker has inherited a language (in both the figurative and literal senses) that he doesn’t fully know what to do with, leaving him to merely “parrot” what he witnesses but doesn’t yet truly understand. 

What the speaker, however, does come to realize is that there is another layer of his identity that he must discover—his indigenous roots. As the speaker indicates countless times throughout the collection, reconnecting with the Spanish language is an endeavor in and of itself, but Báez goes one step further, examining the speaker’s attempt to connect with the Guaraní people and language of Paraguay and the surrounding region. Despite a history of colonization, the Guaraní people persist throughout Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, and the Guaraní (one of two official languages of Paraguay) has around six million speakers, the most of any indigenous language of the Americas. Its day-to-day use and its historical and cultural significance offer an opportunity for Báez’s speaker to connect even further with his heritage, even when he knows the opportunity is slipping away quickly: 

The irony of having to learn the Guaraní language from a “white guy” isn’t lost on the speaker, and the fact that he knows that this person teaching the language on YouTube will monetize the views from earnest learners is quite unsettling. Nevertheless, he has no choice “but to like and subscribe,” hoping that it will absorb what he can since it appears to be the only avenue he can take to learn the language. The collection is punctuated by “postcards” from bloggers who visited Paraguay, short paragraphs of seemingly innocent statements about people’s time in the country. But underneath the privilege of their statements, we see essentially how the visitors writing these postcards overlook Paraguay as something not worthy of more than a paragraph in a blog post. Even Peace Corps members question why they are there, and everyone’s insistence to teach the local population English, as in “Postcard From Your Semester Abroad, Volunteer Trip, and Mission Visit” (pg. 27), leads to their subtle dismissal of the country and its people: 

Highlighting this mindset about the supposed superiority of English and the benefits of service work reveals the way in which a country like Paraguay is seen as less from the American 

perspective. The stereotypes about the people persist, and even though the objective of an organization such as the Peace Corps is to promote “world peace and friendship,” it’s difficult to accomplish this when this mentality about class and social hierarchies are the norm and not the exception. Despite what certain volunteers might have said in a blog post, Báez’s speaker continues his linguistic and cultural pursuit, hoping that he can bridge a gap that has existed within himself for far too long. 

This need for a deeper connection with Spanish and Guaraní leads to questions of identity, and the speaker as a father in “Autonym,” knowing that his daughter will one day ask him how they define themselves, reflects on the terminology he uses to identify who he is and who his daughter can claim to be: 

The speaker is not saying that he and his daughter aren’t American; rather, he is expressing the linguistic inadequacy of defining himself in a single term that will encompass the complexity of his ethnicity and nationality. These questions the speaker poses aren’t directly answered anywhere else in the collection, but in a “Inheritance,” we get a glimpse of what the speaker attitude is, regardless of whether he can find a greater sense of clarity: 

The vehicle is a symbol of what the speaker can own, the Spanish language in this case, and he realizes that even if it is not as perfect as his father’s, it’s still a part of who he is, in all its beauty and imperfection. He can embody both American and Paraguayan identities, not just American, and he can in turn teach his daughter about where she comes from and who she is. The speaker’s desire to have his daughter undergo her own journey is evident in the last poem of the collection, “Portrait of the Artist with Clubfoot.” Remembering his great grandfather’s double clubfeet, the speaker says that he and his daughter must metaphorically follow a pathway filled with self-discovery: 

The last line evokes the spirit of Matthew 5:5 (“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”), but by turning the phrase on its head, the speaker lets his daughter know that it is she who should let the earth inherit her, and she doesn’t have to be meek about her desires to forge the life she wants. Such advice reveals how the father has come to accept his place in the world, despite how complex it might be, and he hopes that his daughter will one day come to embrace hers, that she will see the world as a place that even though has as many problems as it does solutions, is still a place she can call her own. 

What Diego Báez has accomplished in Yaguarté White is nothing short of remarkable. Heartfelt, heartbreaking, and humorous, Báez presents readers a world where it is okay to be curious and vulnerable, where it’s alright to undertake a journey to discover who we are and where we fit in. While Báez’s speaker might not have the language for everything, this book takes a giant leap in bridging the unknown with the known, rendering a portrait of a father, a son, and a writer who slowly but surely becomes whole.