Thursday night (November 20th) I invited some folks to talk to my students about the politics of culture and language. The topic emerged from some of the things students were conveying to me about their own experiences, straddling home and campus. The conversation started slow, until I decided to get out of the way and let everyone speak candidly. And by the time it was over, I think my guests spoke in ways that resonated with many of the things students have been preoccupied with. This was important because one of the overarching themes to emerge here is that there is a need for space and language to express themselves.
Below I’ve recreated some of the important takeaway points of the night. The discussion was framed with questions that the students generated in advance. But we didn’t always follow the format, so my notes are not perfect. To help recreate some of the more important moments, I have done a good deal of paraphrasing and I modified the sequence of comments to fit more closely with the questions.
We might call this night something like Three Cultural Activists and a Sidekick Professor. Each of our guests is a common face in the NY/NJ Latino arts and intellectual scenes. Over the last year, I have been fortunate enough to spend time with these folks, both in person and in our online communities. When I am in their presence I always learn something new. And for that reason, I am happy to be able to share them with you tonight. They are all very charming, funny, smart, and quite dedicated to preserving and passing on culture, though they do this work in very different ways.
That noted, there is a second point to be made here. On campus, we have a rich history of students wanting to do work that contributes to the betterment of society and our communities. But sometimes we don’t always know how to go about that, whether it be weekend community service, or as a career. What I would highlight is that Rich, Blanca, and Cynthia will share with us a nice mix of their own stories of Latinidad, the cultures they carry, and the unique ways in which they do their work. And in doing so, they are also showing us different ways to be activists and do good things for our communities.
Cynthia Renta is a Jersey City resident, Youth Program Director for the YMCA, and a performing artist who specializes in poetry, music and dance, especially Bomba y Plena from Puerto Rico. In the past she’s been involved with Bomberas de la Bahia, California’s first all women’s bomba ensemble), Monstergirl Media’s NYC production of Welfare Queen, and currently she directs the Bembe collective here in Jersey City – an Afro-Caribbean/Latino dance theater company. Among that group’s many accomplishments is a performance of Día de los Muertos that synthesizes indigenous and Afro-Caribbean aesthetics.
Blanca Vega is a resident of Harlem and a doctoral student at Teacher’s College, Colombia University. Her subject of interest is how students and administrators experience and perceive discrimination on college campuses. She’s also a dancer, blogger and a legitimate up and coming voice in our community. Her blog is called Race-work, Race-love. Through the eyes of a Latina/Ecuadorian-American Educator, whose life work revolves around racial justice, her writing explores how race work affects the way we love, and conversely, how love affects and contributes to race work.
Rich Villar is from Patterson, NJ and a wonderful poet whose work appears in many outlets, including his new book Comprehending Forever. He has a blog called El Literati Boricua, Essays, Poems, Latino Literature, Culture and Occasional Jackassery. Also, Coffee. And we also know him to be a community historian, currently sorting out some new material he’s collected on the Young Lords movement in NYC and Chicago. If you should ever find yourself wandering around E. Harlem (or giving your students a tour of the neighborhood), you might bump into Rich around Lexington and 103rd. And if you do, be ready to take notes because you are sure to get an earful of local knowledge that you cannot yet buy in books.
The Discussion and the Takeaways
Question 1: What Does it Mean to Become Americanized?
Cynthia: The question implies that there is something happening to you and that there was something there before…
Blanca: Becoming Americanized is a process filled with unhealthy challenges, from micro-aggressions to institutionalized racism and discrimination (e.g. racial profiling and the prison industrial complex). It is over-simplistic to compare today’s Americanization/acclimation processes with those of the past, or to compare different groups without concern for the nuances. We have to talk about these differences to understand what is happening to us.
Rich: Americanization always wants you to explain yourself in awkward percentages, like sections in a map. I’ve chosen to stop being 50% Cuban and 50% Puerto Rican and just 100% all of them because my life isn’t really divided up that way.
I love flags and I hate flags…and the older I get, the more I don’t want anything to do with flags…
Question 2: Where do racial and ethnic stereotypes come from? Why do they persist? How do they affect culture?
Alex: Picking up on the comments about language… We come from a place where language insecurity exists on both sides: In our home countries, we are historic second-class citizens to Spain, unless we declare independence and that includes our own versions of language and Spanish. Latin American culture is more than Spain or Castellano … Historically we are also second-class citizens to the U.S. And once in the U.S., we are stigmatized for poor Spanish (e.g. not Castellano and not complete) even though we are more than Castellano and the education system does not train us in Spanish, and for poor English, even though that learning process is also affected by income level, poor schooling and, again, not learning in Spanish before we know English.
Rich: There is a false narrative that English is a proper language. But we do not speak the “Queen’s English” and even that is a hybrid.
Question 3: What are some of the things that make it difficult for parents to maintain their cultural practices and/or pass them on to their children?
Parents are in their own struggle to acclimate and sometimes they are learning from us how to do it.
Blanca: …and sometimes the factors that go into this equation are more than just our families. The U.S. education system is set up for us to lose Spanish. As if reading/writing English isn’t hard enough for everyone with years of training, K-8 does not educate you in Spanish or the rest of your culture. High school and college tries to suddenly throw it in. And it often does so by privileging Spain, and stigmatizing our home countries/cultures.
Rich: That said, we should not be afraid to think critically about our culture and there might even be times when it is good to challenge or modify it. Think about the meaning of the song: Aquel Viejo Motel. We sing the words, we dance to the tune and we imagine our family’s past and our connection to it… But the song is saying that the one night stand (or even implying that the man taking her virginity) is what makes her a woman:
“Aquel viejo motel…trae el recuerdo el dia que te hice mujer.”
Then there’s language in it about:
“tu te negabas, yo insistiendo.”
Question 4: What can we do to challenge barriers to preserving and passing on culture and language?
Rich: I write poetry because it allows me to play with language in a way that fits how I experience the world.
Cynthia: I dance because it connects me to my past but also allows me into a future.
Blanca: Communicate your story – your history, your struggles, your successes. Write. Blog. Instagram. Do research. I do research and share with my students and others. I blog. I tweet. I let others know what I look like in all my personalities so they can know what I look like and stop being afraid of me.
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Zora Neale Hurston
Audience Question 1: How do you get people to mobilize and participate in important issues?
Blanca: Don’t worry about numbers. Start your movement with 5 people. When I started the first Latino History Month at Brandeis, not even the Latino student group wanted to participate. But I went forward… Just do it and people will see hat you’re doing.
Audience Question 2: I don’t always feel comfortable being myself on campus and speaking Spanish, which I can’t really help sometimes. Someone recently told me not to…how should I feel about that?
Don’t let people shut down your language and culture.
As students, you have the right to make demands of your university and other institutions.
Nobody ever said that freedom of speech has to be in English.