As the title suggests, I have two things on my mind to share this week:
First, I want to spread the word of the upcoming deadline for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a no-entry fee competition which “supports the publication of a first full-length book of poems by a Latinx poet residing in the United States.” Find out more information here.
Second, the “thoughts” bit. This week in teaching my Latinx Literature class and discussing Rhina P. Espaillat’s poem, “Bilingual/Bilingüe,” I found myself musing briefly on how this poem is a microcosm of some of the controversies surrounding Latinx poetry and the different practices in publishing work in both English and Spanish.
Specifically, I have learned and seen over the years within the Latinx community arguments for and against italicizing Spanish words in a text; arguments for and against including definitions and/or translations with a bilingual text; arguments for and against even mixing the two languages. These arguments hold a nuanced weight and the conclusions are different for each writer because they strike at the core of one’s identity and agency.
In terms of identity, there is much to be said about representation, how having un poco de Spanish can make one feel seen, a little less alone among a sea of English. A decision to include or not include Spanish is often one that factors in audience. Who is this work for? Who has access to it?
In terms of agency, being able to represent one’s full authentic self on the page is essential. More importantly, having the power to make that decision is key to feeling respected as a writer. Often the decision to italicize Spanish used in a text is the choice of an editor or publisher; when this happens, a writer feels othered, made to feel different and exoticized. One need only look at the unquestioned, unothered use of Latin and French phrases in texts to see how these feelings naturally arise.
In Espaillat’s poem, there is a purposeful intent in the handling of Spanish words (something which she shares insights on in this lovely interview). This poem shares a narrative of a daughter being told not to speak Spanish at home while at the same time being encouraged to find a place in the world of English words. The Spanish early in the poem is intentionally kept in parentheses, a move that parallels the daughter’s need to separate her languages in order to obey her father’s wishes.
It is only at the ending couplet that both father and daughter–as well as English and Spanish–come together:
he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.
This travel of Spanish down the poem from parentheses to taking up its own space proper had me going off a bit. I hope it made sense to my students. I hope it makes sense to y’all.