Poetry on Borrowed Time


I’ve always written my poems
on borrowed paper and borrowed time
In the camps, as a child, journaling
by the fire, by whatever light I could find.

What do you want for your birthday?
My mother asked, knowing she didn’t have a dime.
Notebooks, ’ama, paper, and a pen.
So I could steal the minutes from the clock at the end of the work-day
To write to her in verses: how my day went
In a borrowed country, with borrowed ink on borrowed paper with borrowed time.

Farmworker living is communal
Todos en joda
Everybody commits to forging space for everybody to stay alive,
Counting the minutes, making the minutes count, moving all the time.

We worked together, cooked together, ate together, slept together
My siblings’ limbs and toasty bodies always extensions of mine
There is beauty in communal living
Yet there wasn’t space for me to be with me

“As a child, you are expected to contribute, nobody sits idle here.”
Yet I would sneak away to compose verses:
On the comforting shelter of my ’ama’s bandana
The deceptive strength of the apple trees my tíos picked clean
The geometric shapes and other-worldly taste of strawberries
The slimy gunk that became jam when fruit rotted into caneria at the summer’s halt.

Writing was the way I made time mine.
My grandfather knew the needs of every crop in every season
But not how to string words together on paper
to defend himself when patrones stole his bracero wages.
In encomiendas, on haciendas, in the fields, the right to read was denied
But there I was, a seven-year-old poet, defying poverty

When my chola friends dared me to steal, I shoplifted a journal with a lock
My mother threatened to burn my hands.
I cried and begged,
“I only wanted to write in a space where nobody could open the pages.
’ama, punish me!
take my food
deny me water
make me sleep away from the warmth of our family, but don’t burn my hands!
Because then I’ll never write again.”

I was always
An untrained tongue, an uninsured grad student, an unrecognized voice.
I stole to write, I carved out time
with borrowed ink on borrowed paper with borrowed time.

I’m still the clandestine poet:
A working mother who stays up past bedtime.

But I don’t want to be a thieving wordsmith anymore.
As long as my poetry is a community’s documentation,
an archival and historical declaration
a holy sanctified act of self-preservation
I no longer want to be the one writing on borrowed paper with borrowed ink,
on the margins, illegally inscribing my community’s humanity,
struggling to be legible, seen, in our borrowed country.


Gabriela Spears-Rico is a cultural anthropologist and poet. Her poem “Poetry, but not for Leisure” won the 2021 Sidewalk Poetry Contest in Saint Paul, Minnesota. A finalist for the 2022 Bougainvillea Poetry Prize, her first collection of poems, Deer Hide Eulogies, Reclamos y Remedios, is forthcoming from FlowerSong Press. She is the daughter of migrant farmworkers and a graduate of Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley.

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Poetry on Borrowed Time

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