January 22, 2007

I’m not crazy about Gloria Anzaldúa’s theoretical musings about what makes a Chicana (too normative and essentialist), but she was an astute observer of the way people treat each other, especially when they’re being cruel. Language–its proper use, its correct accent, its ability to take and to give power–was a theme Anzaldúa dealt with in her work. Here is a quote from her well-known Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza:

If a person, Chicana or Latina, has a low estimation of my native tongue, she also has a low estimation of me. Often with mexicanas y latinas we’ll speak English as a neutral language. Even among Chicanas we tend to speak English at parties or conferences. Yet, at the same time, we’re afraid the other will think we’re agringadas because we don’t speak Chicano Spanish. We oppress each other trying to out-Chicano each other, vying to be the “real” Chicanas, to speak like Chicanos. There is no one Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience (80).

In my own life, I have felt the discomfort of Hispanic friends who are uncomfortable with their own language. In college, I was involved in a series of protests to get ethnic studies programs started at my university. In these protests, some people were arrested by the New York City Police. A group of us rushed to the precinct after the arrests to continue protesting in front of the police station. We were a group made up mostly of second-generation Dominicans, long-time Nuyoricans, some white people like me, and a few African Americans.

The only news network in New York covering the protests as they unfolded was the Spanish-language Univisión. When their reporter and cameraman got to the precinct, they asked for an interview from one of the protesters. None of the Hispanic students felt comfortable enough with their own Spanish to go on TV, so I gave the interview. Later, one of the girls told me that her Dominican parents had seen the interview on the evening news. They had said, “¡Mira el gringo que habla español tan lindo!” (Look at the gringo who speaks Spanish so nice!)

For me, this highlighted the need for the academic study of ethnicity in America. What happened to my friends’ language? I had heard my friends speaking Spanish, but it was shameful, street-Spanish, Anglicized, the language of the janitor, the worker. Their tongues were tied by the same things that Anzaldúa fought against way back in 1986.

Anzaldúa wrote a bold challenge, which clearly remains relevant today:

Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate (81).

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