[xmca] telling tongues

From: deborah downing-wilson <ddowningw who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Sun Jul 08 2007 - 18:36:07 PDT

"Telling Tongues: A Latino Anthology on Language Experience" is reviewed in
this morning's San Diego Union Tribune -

My daughter plans to use some of the pieces in her 8th grade Literature
class - I thought others might find it interesting or useful.


*Reading between the words

Do you speak Spanish? Now there's a trick question

Reviewed by Pablo Jaime Sáinz
July 8, 2007

For Latinos, language can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, mainstream America is telling us to assimilate, to forget
about Spanish and to learn English in order to be successful. On the other
hand, if you're Latino and you don't speak Spanish fluently, other Latinos,
especially the older generations, make you feel like a traitor, a vendido, a

 Telling Tongues: A Latin@ Anthology on Language Experience
Edited by Louis G. Mendoza and Toni Nelson Herrera; Calaca Press/Red Salmon
Press, 224 pages, $15
Some of us prefer to find a middle ground between English and Spanish – a
safe zone where we can switch from one language to the other, sometimes
without noticing it, in the same sentence.

While many people define Latino as a Spanish-speaking person, a new book
recently published by National City's Calaca Press proves that there's a
whole range of diverse experiences on language when it comes to the Latino
community. In "Telling Tongues: A Latin@ Anthology on Language Experience,"
edited by Louis G. Mendoza and Toni Nelson Herrera, 32 Latino writers share
their experiences, positive and negative, with the wide array of languages
they've encountered – from the formal, standard English found in an academic
setting (many of the writers in the anthology have graduate degrees) to the
Spanglish found in the streets of East Los Angeles; from the intimate,
familiar sounds of Spanish at home to the different accents of English one
can hear all over the U.S.

The book is divided into two sections: one for poetry and the other for
prose, which includes fiction, creative nonfiction, personal essays and

Through these texts, we can see that language for Latinos becomes a
political, spiritual, ethnic, cultural, family and intimate issue – all at
the same time. But the most common example that comes up in the book is that
of the Latino who, for any reason, doesn't speak Spanish – or at least
doesn't speak it fluently.

Mexican and you don't know how to speak Spanish? I didn't say I didn't know.
I said I wasn't great. And what kind of a question is that? Does she really
expect me to answer? Or does she expect me to justify myself? Do I even have
a choice?" writes Vida Mia García in "This Wild Tongue Tamed: A Memoir, a
Eulogy, a Diatribe, a Prayer."

One aspect of the book that gives a more realistic view of Latino life is
that it is not only limited to the experiences of writers of Mexican
descent, or Chicanos. Instead, it includes an array of voices from the
Latino experience in the United States: Cubanos, Puertorriqueños, Panameños,
Dominicanos, Españoles, Salvadoreños, and those from multiethnic
backgrounds. There are "those moments when I feel neither fluent nor
articulate enough to express anything in English nor in Spanish," writes
Panamanian-American Cecilia Isabel Mendez in "El teatro de la cocina/Drama
of the Kitchen." (Although there are three texts written by immigrant
writers completely in Spanish, none of them was written by a Mexican.)

This book is great reading for those who are interested in a wide range of
issues, from the bilingual education and English-only debate to the
immigration experiences of recent immigrants, from the generation gap found
in Latino families due to language to the psychological complexes language
can create in a child.

In the poem "The First Day of School," Joe Sainz writes about the language
barriers a young immigrant boy encounters: I walk into a room full of
nine-year-old strangers;/ The teacher comes near./ She welcomes me and
motions me to sit;/ I don't understand what she says./ ... I hear
meaningless words around me ... " While some of the themes in the texts are
repetitive ("I'm Latino and I don't speak Spanish. So what?"), "Telling
Tongues: A Latino Anthology on Language Experience" highlights experiences
similar to many Latinos who live and grow up in los Estados Unidos.

It is a great testimony of the power of language in our daily lives. And be
sure to have a Spanish dictionary handy when reading the book. Or better
yet: Pick up a Spanglish dictionary.

*A Latin@ Anthology on Language Experience*

*Edited by Louis G. Mendoza & Toni Nelson Herrera*

*(Calaca Press and Red Salmon Press, 2007)*

In this book about language experiences,

the contributors express their sentiments

about language usage among U.S.

Latin@s. Language gets straight to the

heart of how they see themselves and

interact with the world: the writings are

highly personal and political at the same

time. With the seemingly cyclical waves

of anti-immigrant bashing, including

direct efforts to block the usage of

languages other than English, Latin@

s are regularly targeted and labeled

as outsiders. The writers in *Telling*

*Tongues *speak against the simplistic

notions upon which these public debates

rely, and demonstrate the complexities

of life as manifested in language usage

by Latin@s. These authors also make

tangible the effects of efforts to impose

monolingualism and make clear that

language practices are not just political but really at the

core of identity. Readers will appreciate the diversity of

voices speaking from different geographies and cultural

heritages that make up the mosaic of being U.S.


An excerpt from the anthology:

"Lengua Americana, Corazón Chicano: Finding My

Voice" by Louis Mendoza

Compulsory monolingualism strips people of their natural

voice—to sing, to shout, to express love and rage in their

native tongue. My story is one about the secondary effects

of racial violence caused by institutional racism and social

prejudice, forces that rob people not only of their native

language but their authentic voice. My story may not be

a story about the loss of a particular language (can one

lose what one never had?) as much as it is about my quest

to regain my voice so I could use it—as an art form, a

weapon, and a bridge to understanding.

Somewhere in my childhood, understanding and love

transcended language—or at least my understanding and

experience of love was not limited to

language. When I was a child our large

family's Sunday visits to our maternal

and paternal grandparents were as

regular as church. We tumbled out of the

station wagon and paid homage to our

grandparents, whose small houses smelt

like the inside of a cedar chest and were as

neat and clean as they were dark and cool.

The visits started off formally with a ritual

hug, kiss, and pinch of the cheek followed

by a survey of our appearance. We kids

marveled at how these small two bedroom

wood-frame houses had managed to hold

our parents' larger families of six and

nine children respectively. Invariably,

after our grandparents asked us how

school was going in their halting English,

the conversation between grandma and

grandpa and mom and dad would take

place almost exclusively in Spanish. Sometimes we stayed

listening in amazement at how they could understand each

other when it seemed everyone was talking as fast as they

could all at the same time. You didn't hear that kind of

simultaneous exchange among English speakers. Why

was it that the English in our house required that only

one person at a time speak? Usually we drifted off and

wandered outside to play in the yard or sit on the porch.

Sometimes one or more of us stayed around and let the

conversation wash over us like a cool summer breeze

hypnotizing us with its rich cadence and often lulling us to

sleep because, in truth, though there was something nice

about witnessing the exchange of familial intimacies and

intricacies of life between the generations, we understood

almost nothing being said.

Grandma and grandpa on both sides of the family spoke

little English despite having lived in Texas the vast

majority of their lives. Driven from their home country

by the Mexican Revolution and lured here by promises

of economic opportunity, they each arrived separately in

Texas sometime between 1911 and 1915. Fifty and sixty

years later they could look back upon their lives of work, of survival, of
hardship, of tenacity, and yes, of dignity and

progress despite an often unwelcome social and political climate. Though I
know they loved us, their children's children,

dearly, our relationship was mitigated by our mutual language limits.
Separated from them by only a generation our fi rst

language was English. So it was that we moved among them with respect, a
respect not unlike our Catholicism, borne of

fear and love—undergirded by these qualities, our relationship was also
limited by our ignorance of the particulars of their


Poem from *Telling Tongues*

by Paul Martinez Pompa

Commercial Break

Are your images inefficient?

Does your diction feel bland?

Are you tired of writing poetry

that simply does not work?

If you answered yes to any of these questions,

consider what a Mexican can do for you.

Strategically placed, a Mexican will stimulate

and fire up your drab, white poem.

Here at Pretty White Poetry,

we have an inventory of Mexicans

in all shades of brown.

Need an authentic-indigenous tone?

Try our mud-brown, Indian Mexican.

Your audience will taste the lust

in Montezuma's loins as they devour

your poem. Want a little spice

but not too much pepper?

A pale-brown, Spanish concentrated

Mexican is the perfect touch.

Maria, tortilla, mango, trabajo—

just a sample of the hundreds of exotic

words on sale waiting to decorate

your lines. Even Hispanic poets sprinkle

our Latin Lingo into their writing.

If our selection brings authenticity

to their work, imagine what it can do for yours!

Just listen to what happens to the following

lines after being pumped with a little Español:

Before it's—

Grandma at the stove.

The open window pulls

bacon & eggs

smell to my nose

as I pass the house.

And after it's—

Abuelita at the comal, her skin

like café con leche. The open

window pulls huevos

con chorizo to my nose

as I pass the casita.

Pretty White Poetry understands the difficulty

of crafting well-paced rhythmic lines.

So we've imported Salsa-smooth

Puerto Rican vernacular* to make your diction

dance and your syntax sway.

Don't worry about mixing Mexican >>>

and Puerto Rican imagery—

most of your readers won't know the difference!

Trouble with line breaks?

Our Mexicans specialize

in knowing exactly where it's safe

to break a line. After all, that's how some

got into the country in the first place!

Deborah Downing Wilson
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California San Diego
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Received on Sun Jul 8 18:37 PDT 2007

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