What U.S. Society Says About Spanish: An Analysis of Language Use in Afro-Latinx Literature
By Alejandro Zuleta
Living in the United States for Latinxs means hearing, “This is America! Speak English or get the fuck out!” As White Americans yell this out, they subject Latinxs to an erasure of identity. And even if they aren’t as vocal, the message is still conveyed clearly: “We don’t accept Spanish in this country.” To speak our mother tongue means exposing ourselves to the fiery tempest of systemic discrimination. Ironically, a means to communicate becomes the very erasure of one’s voice, thoughts, and experiences when speaking a language foreign to the ears of those set in their racist ideologies. In order to prevent this erasure, Latinxs are forced to translate themselves and their words into English. A renowned Afro-Dominican-American slam poet champion, author, and illustrator of Latinx cultures and experiences, Elizabeth Acevedo communicates the complex issues of race and gender that result from discrimination, such as this rejection of Latinx voices. Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel, The Poet X, illustrates the forceful assimilation and usage of the English language through the character of Xiomara Batista, a young Afro-Dominican woman, who often foregoes her mother tongue for the dominant tongue in the United States. The story takes place through a series of journal entries, often documented as poems, that follow the life of Xiomara in the U.S. as she engages tumultuous emotions as a young adult underrepresented by society. Searching for her voice, which seems hidden by the structures hellbent on assimilating her, Xiomara eventually discovers a space where she no longer fears speaking aloud—spoken-word poetry. Her story, however, shows us the effect of U.S. societal beliefs on Latinxs. Xiomara’s input and translation of Spanish in The Poet X uncovers hesitancy in its usage in the United States because of the institutional erasure of voice and experience that may arise from its use, especially for an Afro-Latina.
The assumed illegibility of Spanish in the United States, and the fear of erasure it creates, drives Xiomara’s dominant use of, and translation of her experiences into, English for legibility. Jonathan Rosa, an Assistant Professor at Stanford and sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist, analyzes this problem in his book, Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad. In an interview with Jessica López-Espino, Rosa describes it as an issue that “various aspects of Latinx communicative practices are illegible, distorted, or erased from mainstream institutional perspectives,” while delving into “modes of legibility and illegibility that are cultivated within and fundamental to mainstream institutions.”
In The Poet X, the poem “Writing” displays this hesitance to speak Spanish given its perceived illegibility. Xiomara writes, “Every time I think about being away from home / from English, from Twin and Caridad, I feel like a ship lost at sea: / all the possibilities to end up anywhere I want, / all the possibilities to be lost” (Acevedo 237). Within the poem, English becomes equivalent to home, family, and friends. Acting as a metaphor for Xiomara’s fear of isolation, the ship and sea represent the loneliness and ‘othering’ that occurs in society if, for example, you stray from the English language. Xiomara mentions the possibilities that could lead her anywhere she desires if she returns to Spanish, but she also notes their fragility and, as a result, her fear and hesitance in exposing herself to the erasure of her voice, her experience—herself.
As English isolates Spanish speakers, it asserts its legibility and the illegibility of Spanish. Isolating becomes a method of turning the experiences of Xiomara individual and, in doing so, amplifies her need to be deemed legible. A direct example of this need surfaces in two poems, “A Poem Mami Will Never Read” and its translated version, “In Translation” (Acevedo 233-234). The first appears as the only poem written in Spanish throughout the novel; the latter, by being named “In Translation,” depicts an acknowledgement of the fact that such translation is needed. It’s as if—to be legible—Xiomara must translate her raw and unfiltered feelings immediately after expressing them. By filtering herself through English, Xiomara escapes part of the insignificance she is made to feel in Spanish. However, her actions detract and effectively erase much of her life experience as a result of institutional pressures to do so.
Through this erasure, Xiomara indirectly suggests her desire to conceal her Spanish alongside her thoughts of Mami in the poem, “A Poem Mami Will Never Read.” By expressing her desire to hide the poem (from her mother), paired with the poem’s status as the only Spanish poem in the novel, an indirect message to conceal Spanish is given. The title unveils more layers in these two poems, as the English title of a poem written in Spanish can be viewed an attempt to make Xiomara’s feelings legible. The complex relationship of writing in Spanish and English is well-articulated by Holly R. Cashman, an Associate Professor of Spanish Linguistics at the University of New Hampshire, in her piece “Language Choice in U.S. Latina First Person Narrative: The Effects of Language Standardization and Subordination.” Cashman writes:
This process of linguistic colonization results in the fact that for many U.S. Latinas, English is the language of education and writing, while Spanish proficiency is limited to the private sphere and to spoken language. Therefore many U.S. Latina writers who might otherwise want to use Spanish are prevented from doing so by their loss of the language (Cashman 136).
Within this passage, Cashman references the education system within the United States and its English-dominated classrooms. By labeling English as the language of education and writing, Spanish is indirectly viewed as “uneducated” and, thus, primitive. Cashman’s words also add nuance to Xiomara’s writing choices as this may prove to be the reason that Xiomara rarely writes in Spanish. Similarly, the poem “Mami Says,” which is written in English, may result from this differentiation of English and Spanish as written and spoken respectively, since it is more likely for Mami to have spoken in Spanish than in English. This differentiation, however, is disproven by the poem “Verses,” a heated exchange between Xiomara and her mother after her mother burns her book of poems. In this poem, Acevedo contrasts Mami yelling her prayers in Spanish with Xiomara’s English-dominant poetry, indirectly undermining Mami’s words and emphasizing Xiomara’s words under the interpretation of the legibility of English (Acevedo 306-307). As a result, the dominance of English over Spanish in relation to the majority of Xiomara’s interactions with Mami reflects the possibility that Xiomara translates her mother’s words for the sake of legibility.
Thus, the title of “A Poem Mami Will Never Read” as well as the use of English in the poem “Mami Says,” raises the question: is Mami bilingual? Or does Xiomara purposely translate her mother’s words throughout the novel to make them legible? In general, it would be more common for Mami to be monolingually Spanish. If she is interpreted in this way, then the poem “Mami Says” must have been translated from Mami’s actual words, even as the poem itself is surrounded by quotation marks (207). “Verses,” adds further confusion as Mami yells in Spanish, supporting Cashman in her depiction of Spanish in the private sphere, but not in the academic. Xiomara continues to be an example of Cashman’s analysis as her translations of Spanish into English may serve as a way to combat the perceptions of Spanish as uneducated—a thought that ends up further proving the desire for legibility among Spanish speakers.
Let’s dig into Xiomara’s English translations of Spanish words in the poems “Cuero” and “Dominican Spanish Lesson.” These are two poems that stand out as Xiomara and her mother interact in both. In the first, however, is an explicit example of Xiomara translating her mother’s words. Elizabeth Acevedo writes, “‘Cuero,’” she calls me to my face. The Dominican word for ho” (Acevedo 205). Although this is a translation after Mami speaks rather than as she speaks, this example perpetuates Xiomara’s need to explain herself. Without explaining herself, it can be argued that the same impact is not achieved if the readers do not understand what cuero means. However, explaining herself demonstrates the institutional erasure of her voice and experience. A lack of explanation denotes a failure to be validated by the audience, but the presence of explanation reflects her hesitancy in speaking Spanish. Constantly requiring validation becomes an exhausting endeavor, but it becomes a necessary action for Xiomara. Otherwise, Xiomara’s voice and experience would never be truly acknowledged.
In the second poem, Acevedo writes, “Brava (feminine ending), adj. meaning fierce, ferocious, mad tempered” (Acevedo 274). The trend continues as a dictionary definition is given, almost compulsorily. A dictionary definition is as close as you can get to gaining legibility and legitimacy as to erase doubts on the reality and value of her words and, also, her voice. Cashman’s passage supports this necessary input of dictionary definitions because it denotes an attempt to legitimize Spanish. Thus, the institutional erasure of voice and experience results in Xiomara’s efforts to use a part of the institution itself through this educational definition to, in a sense, institutionally validate herself and her experiences.
The attitude in Spanish speaking in The Poet X differs from that of Junot Díaz’s in his novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where Díaz writes in a mixture of Spanish and English, unapologetically and without need of validation. In just the first chapter of the novel, detailing young Oscar’s life, Díaz writes, “In the DR during summer visits to his family digs in Baní he was the worst, would stand in front of Nena Inca’s house and would call out to passing women—Tú eres guapa! Tú eres guapa!” (Díaz 13). Representative of the entire book, Díaz refuses to translate his writing and often interchanges between English, Spanish, or Spanglish, almost with a sense of pride and claiming of his oppressed identity. Díaz himself is a highly controversial figure because of his past of sexual violence against women. His writing also notably reflects his misogynistic thinking. When Díaz states the times Oscar “was the worst,” he is not combatting the objectification of woman that Oscar was raised to think was fine since he was young. Instead, he uses “worst” to highlight the memorable moments, rather than condemning Oscar’s actions. He actually supports them when he says, “Ese muchacho está bueno! (Did it hurt that he was earnest and clearly attention-deprived? Not at all!)” (13).
Although Díaz himself is controversial and misogynistic, what his writing does accomplish is illustrating a realistic picture of the life of a young, ostracized Dominican-American, that fails to truly gain acceptance and acknowledgement of his voice and experiences. Rather, what Oscar shows is not so much a lack of need of validation as much as a failure to be recognized and a failure to find a space to do so. After all, Oscar Wao, the protagonist of the novel, speaks not only Spanish, but the language of comic nerds as well, showing what results from possessing a different culture than what is institutionally and dominantly accepted.
In Díaz’s own unapologetic writing of Spanish, he intermingles Spanish and English, but also confirms the necessary translation of language when aiming to find a voice. For example, when writing about Oscar’s ostracization Díaz writes, “The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Dominicano soy” (Díaz 49). In Oscar’s isolation and outsiders’ denial of his identity, he parallels Xiomara in the sense that both are unable to voice themselves in the face of an unwilling audience. For Oscar, his anguished revolts are ignored even by other marginalized and oppressed people. At the same time, his experience exposes the ‘othering’ of Afro-Latinxs within Black and Latinx communities. While Latinx and Black communities struggle with marginalization, Afro-Latinxs fall victim to the suppression and invalidation of their experiences by the actions of these communities. As an Afro-Latino, Oscar must prove himself to both the Latinx and Black community. For Xiomara, her voice is ignored by society’s oppression of minorities, while she also faces a minoritization in her interconnected identity of being a woman. As an Afro-Latina, she faces the same dilemma as Oscar. In the end, the passage emphasizes the need to translate in front of an audience; Oscar’s audience needs him to prove himself by translating into Spanish, but Xiomara needs to prove herself to society through English.
What all of these examples within The Poet X indicate is the institutional oppression that Xiomara experiences in her identity as an Afro-Latina, and partially as a result of her use of Spanish. In the United States, speaking Spanish means categorizing yourself, as others categorize you, as an ‘other.’ Spanish, as a foreign language subject to discriminatory and stereotyped remarks, is institutionally erased or deemed illegible. As it is erased and illegitimated, those who speak it must look for other avenues to express their voices and experiences that have been erased alongside their Spanish. Xiomara and many other Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs turn to English to do so and begin to limit their Spanish speaking because of the constant self-validation that is required when using it. Xiomara’s lack of Spanish use and hesitancy to use it results from mainstream institutional forces in the United States. Whether she explicitly recognized it or not, her Spanish contributed to what she recognized as the lack of value in her voice. The notion of legibility is, after all, firmly imprinted in her writing as it characterizes her struggle of voicing her experiences.
And what this supports, with her intersecting identities of being Black and a woman in the United States, is the knowledge of the problematic and damaging ways that institutions work in the U.S., as well as another challenge that is put on Latinxs, and especially Afro-Latinxs: finding a voice and space for themselves as institutions work to prevent that from happening. After all, Xiomara is representative, intentionally or unintentionally, of the Afro-Latina experience. Therefore, although much of the focus of Xiomara’s struggle to find her voice in The Poet X is placed on the overarching subjugation of Spanish in the United States, it is necessary to understand that patriarchal norms and racial rejections also contribute and compound in their institutional oppression.
Alejandro can be reached via email at email@example.com
Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. New York, HarperCollins, 2018.
Cashman, Holly R. “Language Choice in U.S. Latina First Person Narrative: The Effects of
Language Standardization and Subordination.” Discourse, vol. 21, no. 3, 1999, pp. 132–150. www.jstor.org/stable/41389549.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Riverhead, 2007.
Rosa, Jonathan. Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and
the Learning of Latinidad. Oxford University Press, 2019.