Hey Baby ¿Que Paso? Reflections of a Linguistic Contortionist

Video: Jamila Lyiscott: 3 ways to speak English

“Sometimes I don’t speak right, but yet I know what I’m talking about.” ~ WAR

I have a visceral reaction when people correct what I say. Sometimes, I use the wrong tense, or wrong word altogether, when I am speaking. Sometimes, I can’t seem to find the right word. At work I use extra energy to fight through my brain fog. At home I can be a mess of words as I’m more relaxed and less self-conscious.

As a bilingual person, I wondered if this had a factor in the experience. I grew up in a bilingual household and community. My parent’s were bilingual in English and Spanish, and they chose to speak primarily in Spanish. So much so that my siblings and I spoke to them only in Spanish/Spanglish and often translated for them in English. I mainly spoke English and Spanglish with my brothers, sisters, and school friends. When I had English speaking teachers it was English only, and when I had Bilingual teachers, I spoke in English, Spanish, or Spanglish. The whole process of switching and mixing languages just happened naturally.

As a young pup I enjoyed English/Language Arts in school. I was good at spelling and loved to write books as a kid. In middle and high school I continued to enjoy writing and was acknowledged for my work. Simultaneously, I had the neighborhood pocho slang down thanks to my brothers, sisters, and older neighborhood kids. I also had the tendency to speak really fast and was at one point called Speedy because of it. Navigating between English, Spanish, and the DIY Chicano/a Spanish of my community didn’t seem confusing or complicated as a child. Over time that would change.

As I grew older, I lost a lot of my Spanish as I mainly spoke in English or Spanglish. When it was brought to my attention that speaking too fast was a hindrance, the pace of my speech slowed down. As time passed, and college entered my life, I lost my neighborhood accent and the use of sayings such as “aye” (fuckin’ aye), and “how stupid!” (emphasis on the “u”). I adopted what I call academic English. You know, the kind of English that works great for resumes, academic papers, and job interviews. With family, old friends, and other Chicano/as, I spoke Spanglish. At work and school I spoke “good English”. What was once effortless language gymnastics became an issue of purposeful self-consciousness and social acceptance. I wanted to be “good enough” on all fronts.

What I notice lately is that with age and various moves across states, cities, and communities it seems harder to find the right words and my tenses get mixed up in any language. I often find myself saying “Como se dice…” and “What’s the word/saying for…?” It’s as if all languages are at war in my brain. I find it harder to find the words to express what I mean. I’m simply at  a loss for words in any language.

Two years ago, while in graduate school, one of my professors commented that my “native language” may have something to do with my writing errors. At first I was offended. Then I realized that the academic world requires an active voice where the subjects do, and are not done to. For example, an active voice would say “Marlene fed the dog” instead of “The dog was fed by Marlene”. Casual Spanish tends to commonly use passive language, and in my opinion, it adds a beauty that is hard to translate. An active voice lacks depth and emotion. In my opinion, it is cold and dry, which is why I think it works for academic writing.

I never knew how much my passive voice dominated my papers. Although I am thankful for the lessons in writing in an active voice, I also believe that there is nothing wrong with the use of a passive voice. There is a place for each, and once again, it’s linguistic contortionism. On a side note, I understand why that way of speaking/writing is considered passive, and that term does not sit well with me. Don’t mistaken my passive way of speaking for being a passive person.

When I began writing this post I thought it was just my bilingual background that was a factor, then with more introspection, I began to question if there was something else at play.  Over the last four years I have grown into my emotional self, meaning I am much more connected to my emotions than before. This has helped me have a more balanced emotional life and deeper connection to myself in general. Because I experience things on this level, I often find that what I experience is hard to be captured by words. Which makes sense because the English language has its limitations in capturing emotions. The article “21 Emotions For Which There Are No English Words” provides a few examples of emotional experiences captured in other languages, that English has no equivalent for. I suppose, it is the limitations of the English speaking part of my brain that hasn’t caught up with my heart yet.

Which brings me back to how I react when people correct what I am saying. I feel angry, sad, and insulted. It recalls moments where my intelligence was questioned. It slices right into the place where I have felt like I wasn’t good enough.  Over the course of my life, my intelligence has been questioned because I am a woman, a Mestiza, a U.S. citizen, Mexican, American, Chicana, fat, not wealthy, under-educated.

In these moments of cultural complexity, I turn to Chicana voices to guide me. Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisnseros, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherríe Moraga. They have become my living and non-living saints. My connection to the Creator when I feel alone and in-between. I take in their words and re-calibrate my heart, soul, and mind. I become reconnected to the person I buried underneath all the societal “shoulds” I adopted over time.

“But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally. Change, evolución, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por invención o adopción have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.” ~ Gloria E. Anzaldúa, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”

I have spent my adulthood trying to undo all those places of inadequacy. Speaking English “right”, speaking Spanish “right”, going to college, losing weight, and trying to build a career. So when what I say is corrected it’s as if my body screams “What the fuck! Is it never good enough?!?” I know what I am saying. You know what I am saying. Does it really matter that it’s not “correct”? Being corrected feels like chains. Like punishment. Like trying to break a wild horse. It feels limiting and conforming. Like forcing a snake not to shed it’s skin. I feel resistant to it. I’m tired of undoing places of inadequacy. I have no space for it since I am growing into a place of self-acceptance. If my speech does not sit well with you, it’s not my problem to fix.

My language is a self-defined living language that cannot be heard by ears eager for acceptance through conforming. My language cannot be heard by ears not fully connected to emotions. If you can hear me, crooked speech and all, then you experience me fully.

The way I speak is not merely about code switching or speaking Spanglish or pocho. It’s inclusive of my emotional self, that has yet to find words. Like eager children, my words come rushing out with mix-matched clothing and uncombed hair. My words may not follow correct grammar, but they are alive in a new playground. My younger years learned the rules of old playgrounds, and followed them with ease. However now, I am allowing myself to un-learn mental rigidity, and embrace this messy, rich, and exciting language free of rules and “shoulds”.

Now, I’m not saying that there is no value or need in speaking or writing any language well and correctly. For a time I considered myself a member of the grammar police, and I still cringe a little when people misuse their, there, and they’re. However, I disagree with the concept that grammar = intelligence. It doesn’t. In my past, English, writing, and grammar were my strengths. With time this has changed, and my skills in these areas aren’t as relevant to my personal life.

When I hear Calo, Pocho, and/or Spanglish, I hear home. I smell earth and dreams. I hear unfiltered heart and soul. When I hear English I hear academia, adventure, and possibility. When I hear Spanish I hear he balance of heart and soul with words that capture emotion and experience in a humorous and sophisticated way. I never became familiar with the language of my indigenous/Rarámuri heritage. It is a loss and I am aware that, although Spanish is the language I grew up with, it is still the colonizer’s language (which opens a new discussion on identify and pathology altogether).

My life has become a mash-up of these experiences, and so I suppose it’s fitting that my language reflects this as well. With the addition of my emotional language, I suppose I am more multilingual than bi-lingual.

“I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue-my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”  ~ Gloria E. Anzaldúa, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”


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