A headshot of Oscar Mancinas.

Oscar Mancinas’ The Warrior Classic and Aztec Duals: An Interview

I barely remember my final high school wrestling match. I know I lost but can’t remember to whom or how. I was seventeen and trying to will my broken body—a dislocated a bone in my right foot, torn cartilage in my left shoulder, and habitually sprained wrists and thumbs—to keep fighting. The state tournament was four weeks away; I told myself there’d be time to heal if I could make it until then.

I didn’t make it.

As a child of Rarámuri and Mexican migrants, living on occupied O’odham Jevved, I’ve learned movement is essential to how we relate to our homelands. Huhugam and Anayáwari, alike, cultivated mobile relations with the places, creatures, and elements responsible for our knowledge. I remember reading a story once about Rarámuri youths in the 1920s who were taken from our homelands, in the mountains of Chihuahua, to Mexico City to participate in national Indigenous programming. They became so homesick, they ran home, nearly 1000 miles.

Traveling to different high schools for matches and tournaments taught me about the factions in my home state—why and how strangers regard me and my kind as beneath them and their children. Defying these strangers’ expectations felt almost revolutionary. Losing to them, like the rule of law.

Aside from the state tournament, the two biggest wrestling tournaments during the final year I wrestled were the Warrior Classic in December and the Aztec Duals in January. I nearly went unbeaten in both.

Running and wrestling brought me peace. For those twenty, forty, or six minutes, I evaded what otherwise couldn’t control, and focused, instead, on the opponent or ground directly in front of me.

Unlike my final high school wrestling match, two matches I remember vividly—too vividly, perhaps—are the semi-final and final matches of the Aztec Duals. I won the former, despite dislocating a bone in my right foot at some point during the fray. I should’ve won the latter, despite the freshly acquired, mummified appendage. In that final match, I faced an opponent I’d previously defeated at the Warrior Classic; hence, I say “should’ve.”

For something so indebted to memory, notice how disciplined I am about writing “I remember.” Maybe none of this, ultimately, is limited by what survives the passage of time: acquisitions, losses, and complications of experience.

I’ve learned nothing stings, lingers, like being unable to do something I could previously do. Wrestling introduced me to this lesson; aging has become my reluctant, life-long enrollment. Months after the season ended, my foot was surgically repaired. In post-op, the doctor said to expect arthritis as early as my mid-30s. As I write this, I’m thirty-three years old. It took me nearly a year to be able to run again.

I still know the name of my final opponent at the Aztec Duals, which I’m tempted to write here, but I won’t. I will, however, write that he and I are both Mexican, but we attended, and wrestled for, schools on opposing sides of history. I wouldn’t make this claim if he hadn’t shoved me after I beat him in our match during the Warrior Classic.

Could I be extrapolating too much? Possibly, but why expend energy trying to parse interpersonal hostility from expressions of hegemony?

I run when I can.

I hope to keep the previous sentence in present tense for as long as possible.

There’s a cliché about how all fighters feel, regardless of their final fight’s outcome, as though they have one good performance left in them. If they won, it’s evidence they have something left to give; if they didn’t, then they should fight again and try to go out on their own terms, right? The bitter taste of failure, ultimately, is what’s risked when we fight. I hope I never forget, hope I never let it keep me. Consider what we’d lose, otherwise, if we became too defeated to keep fighting.

Oscar Mancinas is Rarámuri-Chicano poet and author. His books of poetry include the chapbooks JAULA (Gasher Press, 2020) and ROTO: A MEX-TAPE (rinky dink press, 2020), as well as the full-length collection des____: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert (Tolsun Books, 2022). His debut collection of short fiction, TO LIVE AND DIE IN EL VALLE (Arte Público Press, 2020) won a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. He’s a proud resident of Mesa, Arizona’s Washington-Escobedo Neighborhood. To learn more, visit his website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Oscar Mancinas’ essay. This interview was conducted by our Nonfiction Editor, Olivia Grasso. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Grasso: Hi! I’m Olivia Grasso. I’m the nonfiction editor for Issue 31 of Superstition Review. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Oscar Mancinas for the SR blog. Oscar is a Rarámuri-Chicano poet, writer, and teacher based here in Arizona. His debut collection of short fiction, TO LIVE AND DIE IN EL VALLE won a 2021 Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award. Welcome, Oscar. Thank you for being here!

Oscar Mancinas: Thank you for having me.

OG: So my first question is about your essay titled “The Warrior Classic and the Aztec Duals.” In this piece, you write that “movement is essential to how we relate to our homelands.” I was wondering if you could share a bit more about this idea and how it informs your writing.

OM: Sure! Yeah. In that particular passage, I use the terms both Huhugam and Anayáwari, which are respectively O’odham and Anayáwari words that—to translate them into English—sort of mean “those who come before us.” “Ancestors” is I think the most literal translation. But my understanding of these terms is that they’re much more expansive. They don’t simply refer to human ancestors, but also beings and non-living things that have predated us and really inform the way we live, the way we come to know the world around us.

That idea of movement is informed both by the fact that I have migrant parents—who are both, you know, from the other side of the political boundary that separates the United States and Mexico. My father is Rarámuri, so his homeland is… There is another sort of layer of movement there because he didn’t grow up on our ancestral land. I’m interested how that isn’t a deviation of norms, but is its own way of living for some many, right? You know, if you live in Arizona—or the US in general—movement, migration, displacement, you know, whatever term comes to mind… It ends up really informing complete ways that people live.

And so that’s the big, broad thing. And I’ve sort of connected that to different research topics I’ve looked at and history. But then also, in this very interpersonal sense, exercise, movement, and just how integral that is to understanding the southwest—maybe even just the Salt River Valley and the Sonoran Desert—at different times of year, at different times of day… You experience where we live pretty differently. And trying to take stock of what that teaches us or connecting things like mental health to a practice that is as simple as walking around, running around, and moving your body in the space.

OG: That’s really fascinating, and I like the idea of physical movement being a way to connect to the land around you. Because I think a lot of the time, we think in emotional terms—an emotional connection to your homeland—but bringing physical movement, and even exercise, as you mention, kind of adds a different layer.

And that brings me to my next question. Along the lines of physical movement, this essay is about your experience as a wrestler. And I was wondering what inspired you to choose that experience to write about, and did you face any challenges with writing from memory?

OM: So I was a high school wrestler, which the essay is seemingly kind of about. It’s going back to my final year—the final months—I spent being a high school wrestler. Because—for anyone out there who’s ever wrestled in high school or at a high level—it’s an interesting experience, the sport. I have a lot of love for it. I catch a random NCAA college or high school wrestling thing on TV. I’ll stop and watch because once you’ve been on the inside, you understand the sport. Not that there’s a high bar of entry, but it’s not the most publicized sport, right? Unless you know someone or were involved in it. It just looks like people grappling to you, and it can be tough to know, like, “Who’s winning? Who’s losing?”

I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write about that experience because it had been so important to me when I was young—to the point where, when I could no longer do it, it really dramatically altered how I thought of myself and also where I thought I was heading. I thought I was going to potentially go to college—not to major-league D1. I don’t want to bring myself up here in case anyone who was around high school wrestling in Arizona in the late 2000’s knows. But I was getting mild offers, and I thought—you know, when you’re young, “This is just a thing I do. This is just part of who I am. I can’t ever imagine my body failing me in this way, or this being too overwhelming physically.” Because when you’re young, you bounce back from things—or you tend to bounce back from physical things pretty quickly.

And so I wanted to write about wrestling. This probably won’t be the last time I really get into it. I mentioned wrestling in short fiction pieces. I’m interested in—obviously, it’s rich for metaphor when it comes to writing. It’s sort of one-versus-one—it’s a sport that’s as physically taxing as it is psychologically taxing. It’s a very isolating sport. You’re technically on a team, but you don’t take the field of play—the mat, in this case—with your team. It’s you out there. In that ways, it is a bit distinct from other team sports that I think people can do in high school.

Plumbing back into it, the sort of memory element of it—to the second point of your question—it is curation. Like, what’s relevant here and why? Because part of me wanted to write a, you know, “This is it. This is when I had to hang it up.” I still get an itch; I still think about it, as the piece alludes to. But I’m also, now, reaching an age where a lot of the physical consequences of being in this sport so intensely are showing themselves. My left shoulder just hurts randomly at times. I’ve had to deal with other consequences from breaking that bone in my foot. It’s thankfully not arthritic yet—like I sort of write in the piece. But, you know, that’s coming.

And I’m just being mindful—I’m on the other end of where this journey began with the piece. I knew the debt would come for this—the bill would come due. And now I’m experiencing it, and looking back—or even looking back and projecting forward—how do I feel about it? Do I have any second-guesses or do I yearn for things to be different? And on the one hand, yeah—it’d be cool to not have parts of your body randomly hurt. But this sport was really important to me at the time, and I remember really wanting to push myself to get everything I could out of the sport, out of myself, at the time. And that’s sort of where the piece formulated out of.

OG: Those things you mentioned—your shoulder hurting or your foot—those are pretty vivid reminders of that whole experience in high school. So you were kind of already thinking through these things, just in your daily life.

OM: Yeah, because you remember—oh, yeah, that’s when this happened. And sure, I’ve done other sports since. I’ve done other physical activity that hasn’t helped, like rolling an ankle here and there when you’re playing pick-up basketball or reaching for something funny. But, yeah, the genesis of the body I have now—that’s where it came from, in the midst of that. And specifically that final year where I had to quit.

OG: I’m also interested in another point you brought up, which is that our physical fitness can be so interrelated with our identity. For you, being a wrestler in high school was a very significant part of who you were and still are, to an extent. With that in mind, how central to your writing in general are these concepts of identity and belonging?

OM: Probably almost inextricable from most of the things I’ve written thus far. I’ve thought about these things, and they’re part of other work I do—including my dissertation research, as well. Again, because of biographical details about me. I have migrant family. I was born in a different country than a good chunk of my family, but I have family that sprawls across multiple borders. Especially when the rhetoric of exclusion, of extraction, all of the rhetoric around closing things off, deportation—I’ve swam in those waters since the moment I was born. So it’s difficult not to think of yourself in relation constantly to those terms because they are so—even if you don’t want to think about them—they are in your face.

And so, not to try to resolve those things, but understand them, engage them, and maybe even invert them—is pretty central to how I write. Because, on the one hand, what belonging feels like is so subjective. What does belonging actually feel like, are we conscious of it when we feel like we truly belong? I know there are a lot of wonderful pieces of writing that try to get at the heart of that. This is where I felt I truly belonged or when I finally arrived. This stops being a question.

But I’m also curious about—what if that is a constant process? And we have to work actively at it. And we have to remind ourselves to pursue it, in the same way that I mention in the piece—the anecdote about movement and belonging and the Rarámuri youths. In the 1920s, a group of them were taken from our homeland to Mexico City, and you might say, “This is the same nation. They belong here. What other nation would they belong to?” But they didn’t feel that way because—for people who don’t know the piece—the story goes that they ran home. That’s how out of sorts they felt. And again you have movement—this idea of movement. That belonging can be so localized, that even within the national boundaries, it doesn’t quite convey the same.

And so negotiating those terms is simultaneously so personal, but also really collective. And, at least, that’s the balance I try to strike in my piece. Because I’m not O’odham, although I am Indigenous. My Indigeneity is not to the Salt River Valley, it’s not to the Sonoran Desert, and it’s not to the place I was born and raised. So I want to try and be mindful of that and to sort of work toward, “What does it mean to belong in another’s occupied land?” in terms of how I think of myself and how I write about the place that I do love. I love home—it is home; I call it home. It’s not as simple as, “I call this home, and so it’s home. End of story. There’s nothing left to say.” I think there’s a ton more to say.

OG: The idea you brought up of “localized belonging” is really fascinating to me, and the challenges that come up with moving physically and being forced to find a new sense of belonging. And so, would you say that, for you—you’ve been able to feel that sense of belonging in multiple places in a genuine way? Or is there one place in your mind where you feel the strongest sense of that?

OM: I think it’s the former. I’ve been fortunate too—because I’ve moved around a little bit throughout my life. Mostly after I got out of high school. I went to college on the other side of the country, and I also did graduate school out there. I’ve lived out of the country briefly. All the while—and this goes back to creating the belonging—I was fortunate, along the way, to find some great communities. To find and create community. And even if I didn’t feel like I belonged—in a permanent sense—to a place, where I felt like, “This is where I’m settling” or “This is where I’m going to live.” It did help to meet other people who pursue similar interests, to share things. I did a creative writing program, and I would not have made it through had it not been for the fact that I made friends. I found colleagues; we shared writing. We shared our enthusiasm for the kinds of writing we thought important, the kinds of books we like, the kinds of books we didn’t like.

And as it pertains to belonging here, where I’m home, part of that is my family’s here. My family has been here for a few generations. And I’m familiar with it. And part of it has been reading—reading works by Arizona authors like Ofelia Zapeda, like Alberto Ríos. I sort of refer to them as literary elders. Seeing how people have tried to put this into words before. What does that look like? What can I learn from them—for my own writing and for my own research?

OG: There’s definitely so much value that can be found in a community of writers, especially writers that share a homeland or a place, as you do. There’s a lot of understanding that can come from that, seeing how they have experienced the same land or something that you have. I really like that.

Moving on to another question I have. You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I’m wondering how your approach to each of those genres differs. And any other genre you’ve experimented with.

OM: Kind of going back to seeing what’s been written before… It’s where a lot of this process starts, where I’ll read something, or I’ll come across a piece of writing or a piece of art that I like or just sticks with me. Where I’m like, “That’s a really fascinating way to engage with this, or to write about this.” Part of the structure of this piece was inspired by Wayne Koestenbaum, who’s also a poet and nonfiction writer. And this essay he wrote, called “My 1980s,” which is similarly written in this non-linear, sort of vignette structures. And that piece is specifically about his experiences as a young gay man in New York City throughout the 1980’s—the AIDs epidemic is at times in the background, at times in the foreground.

What I really find striking about the piece is the representation of, “This is what time would feel like in the midst of an epidemic.” That’s where the inspiration came from. For anyone who’s been conscious for the last couple of years, time has not felt linear. It’s been really hard to track things, and I knew I wanted to write a piece eventually in that structure. I didn’t really know what it would be, but I come across structures like that, or I come across interestingly crafted pieces. And I go, “I wonder what I would write if I were to take on this form?” Or, “I wonder what I would say about this?” And kind of gestate on that for however long. I first read that piece nearly a decade ago, and I come back to it periodically. Because not only did I borrow the structure from it, but there’s a lot of meta-commentary or fourth-wall breaks where Koestenbaum commentates on his own writing in a really funny way. The final part of that essay is really funny I think. It’s pretty understated, but it’s very funny.

And so this could’ve easily been a poem, or the structure could’ve been easily used in a piece of fiction. I think the only consideration is that I start with something like a line or an image or, again, an idea, a structure. I think what feels appropriate? Or what feels like a conscious inversion of this? Is there anything there? Do I want to keep working on it? I’ll share it with colleagues, with friends—get notes, get feedback. And depending on what I hear back, sometimes this doesn’t totally work like this, and I have to put it away. There’s something I can extract to use in a different piece at some point. I’m sort of like a packrat: I hold on to drafts of things. The end result is that sometimes they’re an essay, sometimes they’re a poem, sometimes they’re a piece of fiction, sometimes they’re a hybrid. I’d like to believe that I have more of a conscious, a more deliberate thought going into a lot of this stuff. But it’s not always the case.

OG: I think some of the best work happens intuitively. But with structure in mind, with this piece—”The Warrior Classic and Aztec Duals”—the nonlinear structure suits it really well because it’s about memory and recall. And people don’t really recall things in a linear way, in a streamlined way. I like the vignettes and the very fragmentary form. I think it works really well. And you also have a meta quality, I would say. There’s a line where you draw attention to the fact that you’re relying on memory: “For something so indebted to memory, notice how disciplined I am about writing ‘I remember.'” I thought that was a great line. You’re conscious of the fact that you’re recalling things as you go and piecing them together, and I think that’s a really clever structural thing.

OM: Thank you. I didn’t want to bore a potential reader with “I remember, I remember, I remember.” Which, I think, can be melodic in some pieces. But for this, I don’t know—I don’t think it would work quite as well.

OG: It’s so funny you say that. Because I just had to read this piece for a creative nonfiction class. And I forget the author, but the form was every sentence begins with “I remember.” And it’s one hundred and sixty or so pages, and it does get a little tiring.

OM: Well, I mean, you have to commit. I felt like I either had to commit and write something, really follow-through with the structure—to the point of overdoing it. Or I had to pull back because I think, for the length of the piece… I didn’t want to get caught in the in-between.

OG: I’m sure there were a lot more memories that you could’ve brought into the piece. My next question is… So you’re also a teacher. How has your experience as a teacher shaped your writing?

OM: It is a great chance to be around writing, to be around people figuring out writing and figuring out their own relationship to their writing and to each other’s writings. The way I was trained as a writing teacher—there was an emphasis on peer-reviews, on collective and group work. It’s great for me because I’m not much of a lecturer. I really believe in trying to decentralize a classroom a little bit and go with where the students really want to go.

Being a writing teacher has been great because—again—you get to work alongside the writers. In some cases, who rely on you more. In some cases, who don’t rely on you as much. Young writers come from all over and go all over. Including young writers who go “I hate writing. I don’t actually believe in it.” And they end up writing some of those brilliant things, of course. It’s a nice, humbling reminder—because, as I just said—I will read a line, a sentence, an image… And I go, that is a really, really incredible passage from this younger writer. It makes me excited to encounter it. And it makes me more determined to be constantly evaluating how I engage language, how I write.

Because there’s something to be said for experience and practice. But then there’s also just the spontaneity. Sometimes you sit down at the computer or the notebook, and the idea comes to you, or the line. Whatever it is, it comes to you nearly fully formed, and you’re like, “I got it. I did a month’s worth of work in five minutes.” I wish the relationship between time and effort and outcome were more linear, but it’s not. I really relish the opportunity to teach writing, to learn from the writers that I get to work with, learn what are some of their favorite writers. It helps me keep up with things like that, which I otherwise might not have as much exposure to.

OG: That’s wonderful that you can find inspiration in a classroom with young writers just starting out. Because I think there’s a lot of value to being able to see what a young person is doing right from the start, with no prior experience. Just kind of something unique about that, and sort of their perspective on things as not very experienced writers. They’re figuring out their own style and voice and everything. It’s pretty fun to witness that.

My final question for you is—can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now? Any projects?

OM: Yeah, sure. I’m obliged to say that I’m working on my dissertation. I’m a doctorate candidate at ASU in transborder studies. For my advisors or anyone else watching, I am working on the dissertation still. I’m hoping to make great progress on that and be finished within a year, possibly longer—but there’s that.

Also, I just published my first full-length collection of poetry called des____: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert. It’s out through Tolsun Books. It came out in December of 2022. I’ve had a chance to read at the Tucson Festival of Books. At the end of this month, on March 31st, I will be reading at the Northern Arizona Festival of Books. Northern AZ Book Fest, that’s what it’s called.

Yeah, so I’m hoping to have more opportunities to share that work with folks. I still work on fiction and nonfiction. I have stuff I will periodically send out, including this piece, which Superstition Review was gracious enough to house on the blog, along with this interview. So I think those are the big things, for now.

OG: That’s wonderful! Congratulations on your poetry getting published, and good luck with your dissertation.

OM: Thank you; I’ll need it.

OG: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down for this interview today. I really appreciate it, and it’s been a joy to talk with you.

OM: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me!