29 octubre 2010

A story about growing up Latina: Part 2 & a poem

Tú me quieres alba,
Me quieres de espumas,
Me quieres de nácar.
Que sea azucena
Sobre todas, casta.
De perfume tenue.
Corola cerrada
Ni un rayo de luna
Filtrado me haya.
Ni una margarita
Se diga mi hermana.
Tú me quieres nívea,
Tú me quieres blanca,
Tú me quieres alba.
Tú que hubiste todas
Las copas a mano,
De frutos y mieles
Los labios morados.
Tú que en el banquete
Cubierto de pámpanos
Dejaste las carnes
Festejando a Baco.
Tú que en los jardines
Negros del Engaño
Vestido de rojo
Corriste al Estrago.
Tú que el esqueleto
Conservas intacto
No sé todavía
Por cuáles milagros,
Me pretendes blanca
(Dios te lo perdone),
Me pretendes casta
(Dios te lo perdone),
¡Me pretendes alba!
Huye hacia los bosques,
Vete a la montaña;
Límpiate la boca;
Vive en las cabañas;
Toca con las manos
La tierra mojada;
Alimenta el cuerpo
Con raíz amarga;
Bebe de las rocas;
Duerme sobre escarcha;
Renueva tejidos
Con salitre y agua;
Habla con los pájaros
Y lévate al alba.
Y cuando las carnes
Te sean tornadas,
Y cuando hayas puesto
En ellas el alma
Que por las alcobas
Se quedó enredada,
Entonces, buen hombre,
Preténdeme blanca,
Preténdeme nívea,
Preténdeme casta.

por Alfonsina Storni, "Tú me quieres blanca" & for those of you who do not read Spanish, you can access an English translation of the poem courtesy of VivirLatino.

There are some days when a particular subject may be on your mind and suddenly everything relates back to it. This has happened with the topic about which I thought to blog with regard to growing up Latina.

Lately, I've been thinking about how significant my background has been for me and how my identity very much solidified after leaving California and moving to the Midwest with my mother as a child. I was, admittedly, very resistant with regard to speaking and learning Spanish as a child. My family would laugh whenever I said anything but as an adult looking back on it, I realize that they laughed because they thought I was adorable - or they were total hyper-critical assholes, either is possible. Moving, however, changed this slowly but surely as I watched my step-family ostracize my mother because of her communication style and accent. They would pull out her driver's license and declare it a fake, declare her age a fake, and there was always some sort of suspicion revolving around her age which, of course, is just another way of implying suspicion with regard to identity.

Her accent was enough to have some potential home buyers (she worked in real estate for a time) tell her to learn English before working in the US. She had lived here, at the time, for over fifteen years. Outside of the fact that she has an accent, her English is better than fine. I wonder what they would have said if we would have repeated the same whenever they pronounced 'wash' as 'warsh.'

Hearing my mother tell me that she wished she did not have her accent broke my heart. The shame she felt, and was made to feel, made me more rebellious against such racist & ethnocentric, anti-immigrant sentiment. I wanted to be strong for someone who had always been strong for me. And the truth of the matter is that accent or no, her immigration was imprinted on her skin and her experience of migrating. They would always find her problematic.

I spent more time learning Spanish in college than I ever did in any previous years. When I say 'learning' I mean the grammatical aspect of it. I learned why it was I said what I said because I couldn't tell you for the life of me why you would use 'por' instead of 'para' only that I knew what sounded best. I was a genuine heritage speaker. My accent wasn't that of someone learning for the first time but of someone who had a working grasp of the language since she began speaking any language whatsoever.

And then came grad school and then came California. Being more politically literate - and being older - allowed me to catch what I did not as a child growing up in Los Angeles. Perhaps that sort of animosity in the Midwest allowed me to read between the lines on the west coast whereas some of my friends who have spent their entire lives here might just read a comment as a normal part of speech. Anti-Latin@ statements have long since been incorporated into daily life in Southern California, as a border state, so much so that at times people might not even recognize it.

For as liberal as the population finds itself (the same state that passed Prop 8) racial tensions are fueled by jokes at the expense of migrant workers, the insistence on referring to immigrants as 'illegals,' the dismissal of Spanish as having a legitimate place in the country, the privatization of state schools making it more and more difficult for communities of colour to access higher education, and of course, the constant reminder of who is the 'model minority' and who just can't get it right. The latter, one that is always on my mind, is not too dissimilar from that age old talk of house and field slave - model or not, the key term is minority. No matter how favourable we are in comparison with othered groups, we are all, never the less, othered.

And this is what it has meant to me to grow up Latina. I am constantly aware that my heritage and language is under attack and I've been given the tools to recognize it and I've been given the support of my family (for the most part) and my friends (always) to fight it and to be strong.

Yesterday we talked about courses designed with heritage speakers - like myself - in mind. I've been told that according to many studies, Spanish heritage speakers have lower success rates as a result of feelings of inferiority with regard to culture & language. Hearing that made tears come to my eyes because I cannot tell you how often I've felt caught between two worlds, feeling inadequate linguistically, and feeling as though I must be true to one culture. That's just not the case, we don't need to feel that we have to pick one or the other, because our reality is a mix of cultures - lo mestizaje - and we need to embrace that with pride.

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