“Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” –Gloria Anzaldúa
ESSAY BY GISSELLE PEREZ
I love that my people can warn each other with a simple “aguas!”,and greet each other withthe casual, “que onda?”I love that our words bear a history—a history of convivencia, of expulsión, ofReconquista. The Arabic sings from the guitarra, the laúd, el tambor; it seeps through the azulejo tiles that adorn the alcoba.
When I accepted a position as English instructor at a Colombian institution, I knew that part of my job would be to continuously examine my identity as a foreigner, and all of the complexities that accompany it. What does it mean for me, a first generation, Mexican-American recent grad, to be co-teaching in a foreign classroom of English Language Learners?
Some of the students I’ve encountered commonly refer to “having more opportunities” as the greatest motivator for learning English. What is disheartening about hearing this, is that the focus in recent bilingualism initiatives across Latin America, does not seem to be multilingualism, but rather on forming English-speakers.
In my own experience, bilingualism has helped me navigate between seemingly distant worlds: my family’s home in New York, where my mother allowed slips of Spanglish that inevitably peppered dinner conversations; my high school Spanish class, where I felt my classroom contributions validated for the first time within a class of predominantly white peers; family reunions in Mexico, where my tíos lovingly understood that sometimes, my words trailed off, my pronunciation as limp as the American passport I used to enter my native country.
My mother is a nurse at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York, a public hospital that serves one of the largest immigrant populations in New York City—many hailing from Spanish-speaking countries. My mother uses her native tongue daily; she attributes the strength she has built in patient care over the years to the linguistic connection she makes with her patients. There have been times where English-speaking co-workers and patients alike will look down on my mother and ask, “Do you understand?” To which she will reply in the strongest proud-as-fuck-to-be-not-from-here-but-I-built-a-life-and-family-here accent, “Yes, I speak English. I have been in this country for twenty-two years.”My mother’s English does not have the same musicality of her Mexican Spanish. It is jagged, it is confused, it is raw. But it is hers.
I, too, have been guilty of becoming frustrated with my mother when her adjective follows her noun, or when her subject pronoun goes missing.Noticing my frustration, she’ll explain: “El inglés no es mi lengua. Mi lengua es español. Yo soy mexicana, yo hablo español. Mi inglés nunca va a ser perfecto. Como quieres que hable una lengua que no es mía?”My mother’s English is uniquely, distinctively, hers. Traces of Spanish linger on her tongue when she speaks English. And quite frankly, she doesn’t give a damn that her accent doesn’t sound ‘correct.’
I wince a little when I am told that I should not use any Spanish at all during my lessons. While immersion proves to be an effective method for language learning, I find it difficult to divorce my Spanish from its English. How else would I contextualize the 18th-century casta paintings that my class is analyzing to practice “wh- questions” (“Who is the artist? When did they paint it? What is in the painting?)? How else can I introduce Sandra Cisneros’ chicanaactivism when we practice reading excerpts from The House on Mango Street?
Of course, there are many pedagogical approaches to these exercises. But for me, ‘code-switching’ between both languages, as I have for as long as I can remember, is about demonstrating authenticity and vulnerability. My Spanish isn’t perfect. My English isn’t perfect! I will often ask my co-teacher, “Se dice así en español?” (Is this how you say it in Spanish?). I imagine my mother letting out an exasperated groan each time I ask. But that is what I love about teaching, and teaching language in particular. It’s about looking at a set of established rules, questioning where they came from, and laughing when they don’t quite seem to make sense, or contemplating the times you don’t adhere to them.
In thinking about the power of language in all its varied forms, I find myself constantly referencing Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to tame a wild tongue”. I think about Malintzin, a figure so integral to the conquest of Tenochtitlan, and how mainstream history has silenced her deliberate, indigenous, woman’s tongue time and time again. To some, she is “La Malinche.” She is Hernan Cortés’ lover. Traitor to the Mexicas.Yet shifting the conquest narrative away from conquistador to Malintzin herself centers the history on a captive woman who wielded the power of a bifurcated tongue, who chose to use it, potentially as a means of survival.I think about the ways that I uphold the status quo and at once resist it, daily. A veces Cortés, a veces Malintzin. So, as a child of mestizaje , I say to the men who silenced us, and the men who will try:
My mother’s English does not have the same musicality of her Mexican Spanish. It is jagged, it is confused, it is raw. But it is hers.