Sunday, July 09, 2006

Letter to the Editor

From today's El Paso Times opinion section:

English-only errors

On June 26, I read an interesting letter by Fermin-Fermon Torres regarding English only and I would like to point out several errors in its content.

The writer says that English only is part of the reason the U.S. is a "failed leader." The truth is, I don't see millions of people all over the world trying to get into Mexico (failed leader?).

He says that racism exists on the border. Yes, it does, and anyone who could read the signs carried by Hispanic protesters for illegal immigration could see that anti-Anglo sentiment is present on the border.

It is wonderful to be bilingual, trilingual, or polyglot -- at home. The cult of active multicultural is killing our national identity and, because of it, many immigrants are coming to this country for the money and opportunities but not to assimilate and become Americans!

Philip Darryl
West El Paso

I am often sickened to read the opinion section of the El Paso Times because I am not wanting to face the reality of the blatant ethnocentrism (thinly disguised as U.S. patriotism) that is alive and well in the border community as in other U.S. cities. While I did not read the Torres letter that Darryl responds to, the logical fallacies present in Darryl's response to that initial letter are clearly evident. Many people I know say they have given up reading the opinion section of the Times because they cannot stomach much of what is written.

I admit that I felt the same way for a long time about the opinions reflected in the Times, but now I realize that it's better to know who and what is out there rather than ignore it. And while it's not surprising that this letter comes from the westside of town, I know that plenty more people of all backgrounds feel this way all over the city and express it daily. These are the opinions that continue to silence our youth. These are the opinions that continue to encourage assimilation (at the cost of identity) and cause many vulnerable youth to feel ashamed of their culture to avoid being categorized as anti-American. Some parents are aware of these views and act accordingly to negotiate a world for their children with the least amount of conflict. And some parents hold these views themselves. Either way, some believe their children will not be afforded certain opportunities in life if they do not assimilate. Some parents don't give a care about pressure to assimilate and continue life as they see fit, and I give them a lot of credit.

Opinions like those stated in the letter above are the opinions most often written and printed. These are the opinions that seep into the consciousness of many educational policies and educators who pound 'english only.'

I can't tell how many young, bilingual poets are shocked when I encourage them to write in Spanish. Shocked and happy (for the 'permission'). They are likely shocked because they know that it is still taboo in most school situations. And I'm not talking so much about local college students (although many of them are initially surprised too) as I am the incarcerated youth. Even if my Spanish isn't great, I will have my dictionary by my side if need be. The beautiful words of la gente come alive in letters to parents, in poems about Juárez, El Paso, L.A., and beyond... in poems that switch effortlessly between worlds and situations so that the word "switching" becomes the academic trying to break down the brilliance for others looking in on what is alive and well in our neighborhoods and people.

Opinions like the ones in the letter above that pretend to support bilingualism (if it's only at home, mind you) should be reminded that such bilingualism has a hard time surviving the generations schooled in English only. Of course this is the intent of assimilation... bleach out what's "foreign" so that we are all more comfortable with each other. Bleach out one of the most powerful tools for the cultural survival of many ethnic groups and thus attempt to strip them of their identities in the hopes that their voices (and thus opinions) sound more mainstream. I want to say: Admit it... there is political power in the Spanish, Navajo, Vietnamese, and many other languages in the United States!

Opinions like the ones in the letter above also continue to encourage publishers to encourage writers to italicize and give context clues or provide a glossary when "foreign words" are used. As a young writer who just assumed it was the "proper" thing to do (italicize words in Spanish), I now offer another perspective to students who also assume it's the proper thing to do: "but the words aren't foreign to you, or to many of us sitting in this classroom, or to your characters who are speaking to each other in the story." It is so easy to pick up a dictionary or look at online dictionaries if words are "foreign" to readers... I do this all the time when there is a reference made to something that I don't know in English, so I don't see it as any different. I give a lot of credit to those writers who paved the way in their innovative use of two languages in their writing. But I worry that today the pressure to continue using italics continues (now if writers choose this themselves I respect them for feeling what's best for their writing). In writing published now, the use of italics for the pure acknowledgment that words are in another language (not for other types of emphasis, and not if the writers themselves would like to use italics) appears to me like a drum roll from publishers....... ta-da! get ready readers! for the words in Spanish! we don't want to make anyone feel too uncomfortable! so italics will be used to let others immediately know that this word might bring a little discomfort.

How many of us grew up always aware of how we were being perceived outside of our communities? This extra sixth or seventh sense of knowing what to do and say to fit in. Sometimes I feel like I (and others) have catered to the comfort of others at the expense of myself (and ourselves). I grew up knowing that the dominant society felt "The cult of active multicultural is killing our national identity" as the above letter written in 2006 states.

And it's not always views on the other side of the spectrum that keep us down. I am tired of some (apparently like-minded) people judging others for not being completely fluent in Spanish as if it were a conscious life choice to be snooty. I know there are some Latin@s who are proud (unfortunately) not to speak Spanish fluently (likely as a response to discrimination outside of our communities and poor education about our history), but that is not the case with me and many, many other 2nd & 3rd generation Chican@s who grew up listening to Spanish. The issues are much, much more complicated, and I don't offer them as excuses. Many judge themselves plenty--plenty. And we're trying to undo the damage of circumstance without the burden of guilt and fear of sounding wrong (grammar, diction) or being laughed at (even by our families) that continues to worsen the situation. One Chicano writer recently put me down and I will never forget the experience (this was immediately after other put-downs and bullying remarks made in response to the shock of me speaking my mind about something unrelated... basically he made the comment about fluency as an easy opportunity to twist the knife, something I'm finding common among Latin@s and non-Latin@s alike (academics especially), who somewhat seem to enjoy equating lack of fluency with having zero knowledge of the language, and thus with the culture, which are both so far from the truth, completely cruel in intention, and I wouldn't say ignorant but a deliberate attempt to stereotype for their own purposes. People: your intentions are quite transparent and even silly. Read Gloria Anzaldúa’s essay "En Rapport, In Opposition: Cobrando cuentas a las nuestras"). We have enough problems in our communities. We have a lot of work to do. Where we exert our energies is of utmost importance. Do we fight each other or do we fight those whose opinions are so deep-rooted and will not change? This is a rhetorical question. I can't use it in good faith without pointing out that I am aware of its intent.

My hope is that we will write, write, and write. My hope is that we will encourage Chican@, Mexican@ youth, adults, the elderly to continue using their languages, and sharing their cultures, their experiences... They don't need teacher-writers at all to express and survive but I say this perhaps selfishly for wanting access to more oral histories, documentaries, stories, poems, songs... the words of our communities beyond college campuses... I have much to learn from them and myself. We have much to learn from each other and beyond each other. History repeats itself daily, hourly, by the minute. We need to keep writing our own histories. Everything I have said above has been written before in many forms and continues to be written because it continues to be felt and experienced. It still has a tough time making it in the curriculum of most public schools, including those that serve Latin@ majority populations.

This goes along with my "On 'Blight' and Beauty" entry of June 28th (below). The downtown El Paso "revitalization" plan that includes the destruction of a historic Segundo Barrio area adjacent to downtown is further evidence of the people in power telling us it's time to change with the times if we want to progress. Changing with the times to them means destruction and bringing in a new way of life, new people, and stores, including "America's favorites" as their expensive promotional video states. They want to make the area of Segundo Barrio (which is not downtown) more "attractive" to outside investors. They really believe they are doing all of us a favor (or again, am I too generous about all the unexamined and examined motives? When the outcome is destruction and displacement, the outcomes become the motives). I'm tired of reading about urban removal in other cities as I see history repeating itself here even though the planners insist it's not urban removal in their legal haven backed by lots of $$$$$$. I'm tired of knowing that what's been done was done with the intent that few would protest and those who held out the longest would be the "anklebiters" who changed a tiny decision here or there but nothing significant enough to prevent their elite plan from pushing through as intended. They did this, of course, without caring to reach out to the majority of residents and business owners in the proposed demolition zone before the maps were drawn to ask their opinions on their future displacement via the likely use of eminent domain. This was a conscious decision. History repeats itself and so do the actions and words of those of us who do not like what is happening.

There is a lot of work to do. A lot of people are counting on us to give up. What they don't realize is that the downtown issue is only one facet of the larger issues that continue to exist and we will continue to write and write about and encourage others who feel the same way to voice opinions in the hopes of future change, understanding, and social justice.

I have said nothing new in this entry and that frustrates me. I rarely write about these things because I feel like they have all been written about, studied and examined time and time again. It's frustrating to see history repeating itself in this community and all over the U.S. and recognize the necessity of writing about it in a tiny effort to call attention to its continued existence.

The sky is so blue today... I want to absorb its clarity beyond the green cottonwood leaves. I want to climb up into it and ask it to feed me.


Sheryl said...

What an elegant entry over complex issues!

Emmy said...

Hi Sheryl: Thanks for reading this and good to see you, as my students say, in EPT.

LitByFire said...

You may not feel you have said anything new, but you said it passionately and clearly. Good post.

Emmy said...

Hi litbyfire: Thank you so much for reading the entry and for your generous feedback.