Tucson poet's debut book offers alternative look at life along U.S.-Mexico border

Tucson poet Gabriel Dozal’s debut poetry collection explores life along the border from his experiences as a Mexican-American man.

“The Border Simulation” will be released on Tuesday, Aug. 15, published by One World, Penguin Random House. Dozal earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona.

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t want to write about the border,” Dozal said. “It just seemed like the obvious thing growing up in El Paso. But as I grew older, my feelings changed. I felt that stories about the border in the media didn’t line up with my experience living in the border.”

Dozal grew up in El Paso, Texas, and along with his family, he would travel to Juarez, Mexico, to visit family members.

“I spent my life crossing the border,” Dozal said. “When you look at stories about the border and El Paso, you hear about children in cages and violence or a desolate town – and those are important stories and they should be told. But there is also the food and the music and the culture.”

“The Border Simulation” walks the line on metaphors ranging themes such as pop culture and technology. There is a cast of three main characters – all both symbolic and stereotypical – Customs and the twin siblings, Primitivo and Primitiva – primitive man and woman. The poems read as epic verses laced with mythology. 

The primitive siblings navigate under the constant and watchful eyes of Customs as they weave in and out of the border. Dozal said the reference — to both custom agents and culture — is an example of how he enjoys wordplay in his poetry.

“My favorite poem in the book is ‘No pares. Sigue, sigue.’ And it’s a reference to a 90s dancehall song,” Dozal said. “But at the same time, I think that is a mantra that someone crossing the border might think.”

“No pares. Sigue, sigue” translates to “Don’t stop. Keep going, keep going.” He finds creative ways to rhyme in an easy way. In one of the poems, he introduces the term “Ross-ers” while rhyming with the word “Crossers.” “Ross-ers” – the people who cross the border from Mexico to the United States to shop at Ross for “bedazzled jeans.” 

Although a book full of commentary, it is still full of playful and curious verses.

The road to publishing was long for Dozal and he said he feels lucky, proud and excited.

“This is just beyond my wildest dreams,” Dozal said.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference took place in San Antonio, Texas, in 2020.

“It was right on the cusp of the shutdown and they were talking about whether hosting it or not, and they ended up having a smaller conference that year and I went,” Dozal said. “I read some of my poems there and my editor Nicole Counts was in the crowd.”

A year passed and Dozal had “given up” on the possibility of moving forward with One World, he received an email from Counts. Dozal said he had considered “small, hip, independent” presses for “The Border Simulator” and in “laziness and apathy,” he wanted to shoot for the stars. But Count had enjoyed and remembered his work a year later and he decided to proceed with publishing..

“I would have never imagined this,” Dozal said. “Sandra Cisneros read my book and wrote a blurb for it — it’s on the back. My parents were almost more excited about Sandra Cisneros writing a blurb about my book than it getting published by Penguin Random House.”

The book’s format contains the English version of the poem followed directly by the Spanish version, translated by Natasha Tiniacos. Dozal’s poetry book will be released on Aug. 15 and it will be available for kindle e-readers, hardcover, paperback and audiobook formats.

“I hope that people understand how complex the border is,” Dozal said. “And how there are so many cogs in the machine. And I don’t think anyone really understands how the border works.”