When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, published by Copper Canyon Press and ordered for me by my local bookstore Novel Places, is a culture clash of Native Americans integrating into mainstream society and the struggles the children of these family have reconciling their home lives with the differences they find at school and among their new childhood friends and society.  The narrator battles with her mother about why she cannot have a sandwich like the white kids rather than raisins, and insinuates that she’d rather be like the white kids.  By the same token, the narrator experiences first hand the bullying of the white kids in her neighborhood because of her ethnicity — a dichotomy that resurfaces throughout the collection.

“The Red Blues” (page 11-13) is a creative look at a young girl’s blossoming into womanhood, getting down to the gritty reality of menstruation.

There is a dawn between my legs,
a rising of mad rouge birds, overflowing
and crazy-mean, bronze-tailed hawks,
a phoenix preening
sharp-hot wings, pretty pecking procession,
feathers flashing like flames

Diaz is creative and surprising in her imagery and frankness.  She tackles stereotypes, truths, and the history of her ancestors.  From the takeover of their lands by the whites to the current marginalization of her people, Diaz calls attention to the underhanded and sometimes overt discrimination that takes place.  At the same time, she is careful to demonstrate how even Native Americans are plagued by similar struggles with drugs and fitting in that other cultures face.  But there are poems that no matter the ethnicity of the narrator, readers can see the internal and external struggles fought with a loved one who is addicted to drugs.  In “How to Go to Dinner With a Brother on Drugs” (page 46-51), the narrator walks a fine line between telling her brother the truth about his appearance and behavior and avoiding the inevitable fight that would ensue should the conversation be too frank.  The reader gets a glimpse of how manipulative and careful the narrator has to be to get the brother to change his clothes before heading out to dinner, etc.

Your brother will come back down again,
this time dressed as a Judas effigy.
I know, I know, he’ll joke. It’s not Easter. So what?
Be straight with him. Tell him the truth.
Tell him, Judas had a rope around his neck.
When he asks if an old lamp cord will do, just shrug.
He’ll go back upstairs, and you will be there,
close enough to the door to leave, but you won’t.
You will wait, unsure of what you are waiting for.”

But it is more than that, it is the struggle of waiting for a loved one to smarten up, to become all that they can be before your eyes and not fall back into the same patterns over and over. There is a sense of loyalty in these lines, but also a sense of hopelessness.  Diaz speaks of her own pain, the anguish of watching a brother addicted to drugs and the heartbreak of watching parents who love both children struggle to save one from himself and fail.  Each poem’s surface meaning is easy to discern, but upon another read through readers can easily see the emotional torrent of each line and image.  Each poem is layered with multiple images and emotions demonstrating the tumult that infuses familial relationships, particularly those conflicted by cultural clashes and drug addiction.

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz is a glimmering debut collection that hums in the back of the mind and generates an emotional aftermath that will leave readers speechless.  Following a brief pause, readers will want to pass this book onto others to read and discuss.  As far as book club selections go, this would be a welcome addition as the language is easy to follow, the emotions are raw, and the themes covered are modern and relevant in today’s world.

About the Poet:

Natalie Diaz, a member of the Mojave and Pima Indian tribes, attended Old Dominion University on a full athletic scholarship. After playing professional basketball in Austria, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey she returned to ODU for an MFA in writing. Her publications include Prairie SchoonerIowa ReviewCrab Orchard Review, among others. Her work was selected by Natasha Trethewey for Best New Poets and she has received the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She lives in Surprise, Arizona.  Please check out this interview.

This is my 60th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.



This is the 19th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.



  1. From the first line of your blog post I found it easy for me to identify with the cultural clashes and awkward balancing between society at large and one’s own upbringing.

    I’m not a Native American. I’m Jewish. The cultures are very different but the mathematics of our respective situations are equivalent.

    This is a book I’m really going to relish.

  2. I just read Ti’s comment and have watched a lot of documentaries about life on the reservation. To me, this is the least talked about group of Americans and it upsets me beyond belief. This book of poetry sounds powerful and disturbing!

    • I’ve seen quite a few documentaries about reservation life and the alcoholism among many of the older native Americans, but I haven’t heard too much about the younger generations integration into mainstream America. This book will really be an eye-opener for some people and there is definitely a lot to discuss.

  3. The examples you picked definitely demonstrate the intensity of her words. I’m sure this is powerful.

  4. I’m not crazy about the cover, but these poems do sound good. I was hoping you were going to recommend it for the book club.

    • I think the cover is appropriate for the content. I may still recommend it for book club. I’m sure that they don’t read all of my reviews.

  5. Oh man, that cover does nothing for me. However, what you’ve shared here is pretty interesting. I have a co-worker who grew-up with kids on a reservation and one day we got into a conversation about how corrupted the reservation system was. I was appalled at what she was telling me. I know this story is not placed on the reservation, but the bullying, the stealing and the horrible, horrible lack of nutrition and parental guidance was shocking to me. I asked her why they would stay and she said that integrating into the main stream was often too shocking for them.

    • This book really blew me away with its frank nature and creative imagery. I was stunned by the integration issues, but even more stunned by the care that she took in choosing her words.

  6. Serena, this sounds like a powerful book of poetry and very intriguing too. I may have to look into this one.