Authored by: Alexis Montano, Zaidie Mendoza, Ayanna Reyes-Dawson, Danelys Castillo, Valerie Fernandez, Daniel Vázquez Sanabria, Anthea Fletcher, and the rest of our peers in People & Language during Fall 2020.
The way people have treated me because of my appearance or the way I talk has made me who I am today. When I was 7 years old, I went to Bolivia to visit my family, but ultimately I decided to stay for the entire year and ended up enrolling in school. During my time in school, I would get bullied everyday for not speaking the way they did. They would constantly tell me to go back to where I came from, which led to constant tears being spilled. I remember asking myself, “Where do I belong?” Not only was I not accepted in Bolivia, but I also wasn’t accepted also in the United States. In my home country, I would get bullied for not being “American” enough. This led to me feeling like an outcast and like I didn’t belong. This takes a toll on a person, especially when you are young because it brings out insecurities within yourself that end up affecting your social life. For instance, I began closing myself off and started becoming more of an introvert. I would enjoy spending time with myself and keeping a close bubble of friends. Til this day I struggle with being a social butterfly, but I fight and push myself to get out of my comfort zone. Thankfully, as I got older, I began to realise that accepting my differences is something that I should wear with pride instead of something I should be ashamed of. I learned that even though I may be different and there will be people who judge me, there will also be people who will love and appreciate my differences and me. So, instead of seeing my differences as a defect, I learned to embrace them. I haven’t visited Bolivia since, and I think a partial reason for that is because of the reminder that Bolivia brings. I related to Anzaldúa when she said, “If you want to be American, speak ‘American.’ If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong.” Throughout my life, people have asked me what my nationality is and I have told them “I’m half Mexican, half Bolivian,” and their response would be either “You don’t look Mexican” or “I thought Mexicans…” Sometimes I would just walk up to the newsstands and the vendor would ask me where I’m from, I’d give them my response. They would then say, “I thought you were Indian, you look Indian.” Having gone through those experiences in life has allowed me to grow as a person because it has allowed me to fully accept myself and my identity. It has allowed me to see that being different is not only okay, but it is AWESOME!
Religion and Fantasy blur lines of commonality and familiarity. I was brought up in a Christian household where I was always told that there was power in my words. This was always the answer I received when I would complain about having to pray. I didn’t like to pray because the act of praying seemed forced upon me. My words never seemed to hold weight or have any power unless they were directed in thanks to the almighty. My words were only wanted if they were words of submissiveness. I had to obey my parents and the lord above all. I wasn’t just forced to pray but I also had to endure the routine of closing my eyes and bowing my head. This “position of prayer” always made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. I didn’t understand how prayers even worked because I didn’t know who I was speaking to. The Lord? An all-knowing man that wasn’t physically tangible… Sure. I mean don’t get me wrong. I could get into my imagination, I did buy into the whole Santa fantasy when I was younger. You see I was okay with writing to this unknown Santa guy and being on my best behavior for him. At least the old guy brought me presents for Christmas, while this lord guy held the act of dying for my sins over my head. I didn’t hold the same reverence for this god almighty person the way everyone else I grew up with did. I guess at a young age I knew that I didn’t mind being told what to do as long as I got something out of it. Other than praying for the avoidance of eternal damnation. Being forced to pray was an act of submission that I was unaware of. In “Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines” by Kira Hall though, submission is being used in order to negotiate power. Power being mostly physical and social capital. My personal experience connects back to the ideas of emotional language, creative mediums, and exploiting a ‘man’s’ wants and needs in Kira Hall’s article lip service on the fantasy line. Sex workers are aware that they are utilizing emotional or submissive language and tone in exchange for funds. The creative medium these sex workers used were phone conversations. While my creative mediums were prayer and my letters to santa. The exploitation of a man’s wants and needs is in the way I gladly begged God to provide for my family and how I asked Santa for the latest barbie, while the sex workers exploited a man’s ideals of feminity and womanhood.
When I was briefly incarcerated in New Orleans, my indisputably Black racial identity suddenly became ambiguous; the way I spoke had a lot to do with that. My diction and vocab usage enabled inmates and staff to infer pretty quickly that I wasn’t from the South, along with my education. Those variables along with a few other nuances concerning my appearance, such as my hair and skin tone, led the local inmates and CO’s verbalizing the problematic conclusion that I was not Black enough to be labeled Black, but rather Mixed or Creole (whom are essentially Black to varying degrees, but are placed in their own racial group — in jail at least). This was very odd to me because I racially self identify as Black first. I felt like this distinct racial label was imposed on me as a way of taking away my blackness, due to the way I speak, which was perceived to be white adjacent. This definitely affected the way I was treated, in good and bad ways, by both inmates and correctional officers. It was paradoxical to be situated in a historically multiracial city, with almost caste-like racial systems in its institutions. It wasn’t long before I chose to stay non verbal, as I felt like my inability to code switch (NYC and New Orleans accents are entirely different), unlike Jamila Lysicott in her TedTalk — 3 Ways to Speak English, left me at a disadvantage and made me feel like a target at times, attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention due to my vernacular exacerbating the perception of my ‘otherness’.
Recently, I had joined my mom for another one of her doctor’s appointments as I’ve been doing for the last few years. She has type 1 diabetes and has been visiting a clinic with diabetes specialists. In order to better manage her condition, she needs to work with all this new technology. She isn’t too familiar with technology and unfortunately these tools are only available to her in English. Therefore, everytime I go to these appointments with her, I act as her translator and a medical technology expert in training. I have to learn from her specialists how to navigate all these new and complex medical tools, as well as become familiar with a million different medical terms. During these appointments, her doctors talk directly to her and I’m listening on the sidelines and actively translating in my head, to then relay that information to my mom in Spanish. My mom understands most of what is being said to her by her doctors, however when they talk too fast or go on talking for a little too long, that is when it becomes a bit difficult for her to catch every single detail. I caught myself being amazed by how difficult translating really is. However, this makes me question though why am I having to be my mom’s translator? Why is it that there aren’t any translators? Why aren’t doctors taking up more than one language, especially in a city, where there is bound to be a diverse set of patients and in a country that doesn’t even have an official language, why are these resources not available?! I’m not bothered by having to translate for her because I’ve been doing it all my life and it feels natural to me at this point, however what worries me is if I’m doing it correctly. I shouldn’t be responsible for my mother’s medical treatment plan, it’s literally not my job (since I’m not her doctor), but I guess this isn’t obvious to the healthcare system here. What I can’t seem to understand is why these resources aren’t available, but also how this country’s twisted perspective on bilingualism ties in with this. Why is it when a person of color speaks in their mother tongue, it is so looked down upon? People of color get shit all the time for speaking their mother tongue in public by ignorant bigots claiming that “This is America and you should speak English in America.” But if an American white guy starts speaking Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Creole, etc. everyone is suddenly wide eyed and in awe. I’ve always taken pride in being bilingual, so I can’t make sense of these kinds of situations. Is it because I grew up knowing Spanish and the white guy went to school to learn Spanish? Is it because he doesn’t look like one of us that it makes it so special and cool to hear? Does it sound more beautiful and sophisticated when the r’s roll off his tongue, then mine? How ridiculous is that? America, a stolen country built by immigrants, has accepted English as the unofficial official language, because the colonizers were too caught up in their own bullshit (creating and fighting unnecessary wars, raping women and children, killing and expoliting entire populations of people and robbing their culture, stealing land and natural resources, and the list goes on and on…) to learn and embrace different peoples and their languages, values, religions and cultures. And this is what has shaped the messed up ideology around bilingualism in America today.
As a child, I was raised by an immigrant mother who immigrated from Ecuador to the United States. My mother struggled a lot with learning and understanding English when I was growing up because of the lack of resources available to non-English speakers. I started to notice my mother’s language barrier when she would force me to listen to conversations over the phone when scheduling a doctor appointment. If my mother didn’t understand something that the operator said on the phone, I would have to explain it in Spanish to her. Sometimes my mom would hand the phone to me to speak to the doctor or operator since I spoke “perfect English” in my mother’s eyes. When my mother told me this, I did not believe that I spoke the most perfect English because I still struggled to read, write, and speak English at school. Similar to the bilingual children placed in ESL classes, I had to be tutored separately from my classmates at elementary school since my mother could not help me read nor write in English at home. Even though my mother praised my linguistic abilities, outside of my home life I was not treated the same as I struggled academically. Over time my grammar and reading abilities improved at school but I would have liked it if my mother could have helped me practice my homework and speaking skills in English instead of vice versa. I still lend a helping hand to my mother today when she calls Bellevue Hospital to schedule an appointment. When my mother asked for a Spanish interpreter to be present at her doctor’s appointment, the operator replied that they can not offer an interpreter on the date of her appointment. As a result, I have to accompany her to doctor’s appointments so my mother can understand what the doctor is saying. Most of my linguistic and bilingual skills were practiced at home and in a public setting when needed. Public institutions like a hospital should provide more access to resources for non-English speakers.
My experience being considerably submerged in the Puerto Rican Deaf community and their language, never led me to believe that I would find their lives written on paper. After Hurricane María hit the island, and I saw the stories about the deaf community’s struggle to recover, I felt like not doing research on them would lead me to forget about them. Hence, while learning about “d/Deaf communities,” as LeMaster and Monaghan call them, helped me see how much academia serves to validate, reinforce and canonize certain aspects of personhood. While academia is often regarded as a space of violence, it also helps us understand our communities within different standpoints. For example, after watching the Indian film “Ishaare” and placing it in conversation with LeMaster and Monaghan’s arguments about language, I learned to see how the signs that deaf Puerto Ricans use, in whatever context they may be, are just as valid as any other internationally regarded sign language. Deaf Puerto Ricans, although generally speaking a form of ASL, have a plethora of signs that help to contextualize their daily lives. While some of these signs can be considered what LeMaster and Monaghan consider to be “contact signs,” there is a considerable amount of signs that originated solely within a Puerto Rican context, and outside of the boundaries of American Sign Language. For instance, the signs used to name the towns of the island hold specific meanings to Puerto Ricans. In the case of Fajardo’s sign, which signals to its ties to the water and the ferry that drives you to Vieques and Culebra, two smaller islands off the eastern coast of the mainland, we find experiences and contextual information. Consequently, considering signs like these “contact signs,” rather than real and valid signs for Puerto Ricans, we ignore the purpose of language as an ever-evolving tool used for communicating realities across different spaces. Ultimately, what the class allowed me to understand is that, while language could be considered as an independent tool, it is really up to its speakers to tell us what its uses are.
One of the primary ways in which institutions attain and maintain power is through their use of language. National narratives, mandatory standardized testing, official languages, and national institutions can be used for the purpose of reproducing and validating a collective sense of national identity. Exclusionary language policies and systems maintain a socio-economic status quo, as well as selective programming of nationalist citizenship and participation. In America, the public education system introduces many concepts of nationalism to young minds, including idyllic historical narratives of American exceptionalism. This includes the national celebration of Thanksgiving and the story of intercultural cooperation with Native American Indians. Meanwhile, the truth and consequences of the systematic marginalization and genocide of Native American Indians is omitted from national narratives. Artifacts and visual representations of Native Americans can be found in the possession of national museums, on display for ‘the public’, and yet Native American Reservations remain on the fringes of society, physically and politically. Despite the diverse and drastically changing racial, ethnic, multi-lingual landscape of the American population, English-only legislation and standardized testing maintains a status quo of white supremacy. What are the detrimental effects of the homogenization process of American nationalism? Is it necessary to enforce the linguistically oppressive regime of the state in order to unify a nation?
The perpetuation of false narratives, whether it be interpersonal or nationalistic, intentional or accidental, seems to me to be a very destructive phenomenon. Carving out narratives like turkey slices, America has proven itself adept at mass-media, mass-production, and mass-distribution of Americanism. On November the 25th, I, like millions of others, received a series of roasted turkey photos accompanied by turkey emojis. What does this bombastic bird truly represent and why must every household overcook one to celebrate the founding of this nation? This national symbol seems to have dubious, if insidious, origins.
This year I made a conscious decision to abscond from Thanksgiving, opting instead for a $12/night bunk bed in Oaxaca, Mexico. After reading ‘The Invention of Thanksgiving: A Ritual of American Nationality’, I sought to distance myself from the American narrative and the rather barbaric, consumptive nature of the holiday itself. How should the United States go about reconciling its nationalistic wars against the indigenous of this land, let alone the indigenous of foreign lands? How does a country begin to recognize its own brutal and racist past (and present) without damaging its citizens? While Thanksgiving cushions itself in the language of gratitude and familial gathering, the ritualistic presence of boiled yams and an oven-roasted turkey symbolically celebrates the successful colonial experiment, a systematic land appropriation of native peoples. School children create paper turkey decorations from the outlines of their hands and millions of households languish over a dry bird carcass, lubricating their heaping portions in oceans of gravy. Does anyone at the dinner table turn to their left and ask where the Native American Indians are now or why feasting is mandated on this day?
In parallel, the article ‘Tomahawk: Materiality and Depictions of the Haudenosaune’ reveals the displayed artifacts of state-owned museums, memorializing the ‘savage’ Native American Indian, have been used for dehumanizing purposes in the name of conquest. The stigma of Indian ‘savagery’, emphasized with the material and literary presence of the tomahawk, a cross-cultural weapon, seems to justify the means to their end, so to speak. White colonial-era painters captured a few Indian subjects in artworks that emphasized their culturally different, ‘uncivilized’ ways, weapon in hand, loin cloth ‘round hip.
The reframing of narrative in order to justify brutality seems to be a bit of a theme of my life recently. While in Oaxaca, I receive calls from my former partner. They are debilitating exchanges in which differing versions of reality are tossed back and forth, similar to a divorce lawyers table or the hallway separating prison cells. My mother implores me not to answer. I have a gut-obsession, however, to answer these calls. (It is amazing how intertwined the stomach becomes with emotions.) The vitriol I hear crushes my loose leaf confidence. He has woven new narratives to fit his pain and anger, conveniently replacing memories of his own abuses of power and violent acts with reasons why I am punishable.
His brutality has come from a history of brutality. The transference descends from who-knows-how-many generations. His alcoholic grandfather was the son of a Turkish general. War, bloodshed, violence, and Turkish nationalism(!) defined how he now understands power, domination, and even protection.
The option to abscond from pain can be found quite easily in a bottle of tequila. Or it can be acknowledged, brought forth into the open, wrestled with and tamed… not to be transferred again. The manipulation of historical narrative seems be normalized these days. Those in power use this tool to excuse behaviors that would be deemed uncouth or unjust in circles of human judgment. What is a ‘civilized’ person, these days? Native nations, having an oral tradition, left little in the way of written narrative and material memory. The American narrative is owned by the winner, the one who slayed best. There is no such thing as a One Truth in a world composed of so many voices, perspectives, imaginations, and witnesses. False nationalist narratives may have been effective in the past, as America hopes to configure a sense of imagined community out of the sacrifices of many. I doubt, however, this mentality has much staying power.
I think we, as humans, much prefer the truth.