Sometimes when I speak in English, it feel effortless; just a walk in the park; words strolling around conveying my thoughts to my audience. Some days it feels like a carnival: full of noise, scrambled ideas jumping around out of order. And, some other times, my mouth is a desert, and I hear the wind howling; every utterance is awkward and difficult: afraid soldiers going to battle, stones falling from my face. I moved to New York from Colombia after I got my pregrado (the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree). I was in my early twenties. I could read in English and I made an effort to get better at it. I could communicate but there were many occasions when language got in my way, like the day that I ended up with a Strawberry Jam and Cheese sandwich instead of the Ham and Cheese that I wanted to buy (eventually, I learned that the guy at the counter spoke perfect Spanish). Most of the professional, academic and literary work that I had ended up doing it has been in Spanish and around language itself. Spanish has been a central skill that has allowed me to pay my rent for most of this time.
For the first time during my teaching career, I had the opportunity to participate/teach in a classroom full of Spanish speakers. As part of the Latin American literature class at LaGuardia Community College, I was looking forward to meet some of the 2509 students coming of Latin American countries that comprise the 19% of the student body; or to meet some of 8620 students -42.6%- that are considered of Hispanic ethnicity (whatever that means). There I was, at the first day of class with the idea that we were ready to meet in a common ground and start a journey of discovery of our countries through works of literature. At the beginning, it was Silence, but eventually I started to notice that for some students (categorized under the Hispanic ethnicity, whatever that means) speaking in Spanish in an academic setting was challenging. This is a tale of many tales: the odyssey of immigration, the fear of not belonging, the need to become, the knowledge that has to be sacrificed. It’s the story of generations split apart, not only by geography, but also by the very words that are supposed to connect them together. These students are not to blame, their families are not to blame. In many cases, we haven’t given them enough tools and reasons to hold dear the tongue of their ancestors as a place of knowledge. Some students, first generation immigrants, also struggle to present their ideas in the class setting. By moving here during their early education, they missed out a lot of learning about the history and culture of their home countries. Taking a class in Latin American literature is challenging: they are forced to face what they don’t know but somehow believe they’re supposed to. This happens to me a lot, while walking at a tightrope between languages, we look for a word just to find that it’s gone.
As a teacher, the problem of the language that we speak is a challenge. We have to recognize and we have to learn how to deal with it in the classroom. We have to foster an environment where students feel comfortable enough to reclaim their tongue. As communities and institutions, the challenge is even bigger. We have to respond, urgently, to the needs of the Spanish speaking students living in New York. As Professor Ana Maria Hernandez often points out, Spanish in the U.S. has been present from the very beginning. Hector Tobar, a writer born in Los Angeles from Guatemalan descent, recently pointed out the importance of bilingual education after voters in California approved its expansion in public schools:
“For Latino immigrant children, Spanish is the key that unlocks the untranslatable wisdom of their elders, and that reveals the subtle truths in their family histories. It’s a source of self-knowledge, a form of cultural capital. They are smarter, in fact, for each bit of Spanish they keep alive in their bilingual brains. And they are more likely to see the absurdity in the rants of xenophobes and racists.”
At this uncertain time, when the language that you speak or the accent that you have could make you a target of hate and violence, we -as part of an intellectual community fostered in the teaching and learning of the humanities- need to redouble our efforts. Multilingualism and Global perspectives are an important component of teaching in a diverse setting, but we also have to give the students the opportunity to assert the value of their cultural identities as professionals and members of this community.