Edited by Louis G. Mendoza & Toni Nelson Herrera. Cover art by Nuvia Crisol Guerra. ISBN 0-9717035-8-2 / 2007. Perfectbound / 224 pages / $15
A powerful feeling of deja vu sweeps over me while leafing through the pages of Telling Tongues, a poetry/prose anthology about English Spanish speech, published in 2007 by Calaca Press and Red Salmon Press.
The editors take pains to collect accessible material on issues that swirl around the role a triad of languages--Spanish, English, Code-switching-- play in the Chicana Chicano community. The present volume may indeed be the first published "vulgate," i.e. not academic, collection on Chicano linguistics. It's a worthwhile assemblage that should go onto the resource shelf of any school teacher.
If you want a single reason to own the collection, it's the first poem, Olga A. Garcia Echeverria's absochingaolutely perfect "Lengualistic Algo: Spoken-Broken Word." (Search around Calaca's site for an MP3 file of the poet reading her work.)
The deja vu comes in eerie (to me) coincidences between Telling Tongues and the first published collection of literature with the "Chicano" subtitle, Quinto Sol's El Espejo: The Mirror in 1972. Romano and Rios include Ernie Padilla's "Ohming Instick," a farmworker child's monologue about the horrors of being a monolingual in a monolingual classroom. It ends with the child estimating the amount of cotton he could pick tomorrow instead of sitting in classroom torment. Joe Sainz' "The First Day of School" echoes Padilla's lament of 35 years ago. A monolingual child thinks, "The sidewalk is my only friend." He goes through the day bouncing from confusion to dependence. "there is no language in eating" he thinks, "I can eat; I've done that before." First he must learn what "caf" means. Even music is foreign, "I can hum, I've done that before. / The music is stranger than the words; / I open my mouth and pretend." As at the end of "Ohming Instick" tomorrow promises worse. The boy imagines, "I think about tomorrow,/and I tremble."
Among the classic actos of Chicana Chicano teatro is Luis Valdez' "Los Vendidos." A gem of absurdity, the play is set at Honest Sancho's Used Mexicans sales lot, where a glib salesman offers a variety of stereotypes, each offering a complement of hilarious features, advantages, benefits. Paying a poet's hommage to il miglior fabbro comes Paul Martinez Pompa's "Commercial Break," covering much the same ground as Valdez.
"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."
In place of Honest Sancho, Pompa posits "Pretty White Poetry", adding a backhand to an uninformed reader, "Don't worry about mixing Mexican / and Puerto Rican imagery--/ most of your readers won't know the difference!"
Closing the poetry section, a scant 55 pages, is raulrsalinas, who also appears in El Espejo, where "A Trip Through the Mindjail" was among the poet's masterpieces of tecato poetry. The poet now speaks with the voice of an elder in "Loud and Proud." The title evokes a popular 1968 James Brown song, more of the El Espejo era, que no? Salinas also evokes Omar Salinas' "Robstown," a WWII poem, that alluded to a soldier's being refused service in a local cafe, the town's refusal to bury a local medal winner in the anglo cemetery. Salinas remembers, and updates the story, "Flying of the flags/used to disguise body bags/ that carried medal of honor winners/ back to hick towns of/ coffe-serving refusals/ & cemetery of heroes burial denials."
Telling Tongues is a book about language, bilingualism, code-switching. The poet Pompa raises a provocative issue that occupies the prose essayists of the book's bottom half. Who's Pompa skewering? The monolingual latina latino who "ought to be" bicultural but isn't? the non-latin fad-follower, the comfortable white liberals who buy books?
Several writers confess--that's the right word--to having once been monolingual in English and came late to their bilingualism. It's a fiercely political identity issue, as several essayists examine. For example, Aureliano Maria DeSoto in "A Querencia of One's Own" explains, "so often it seems as if some essential quality of latinidad is grounded in language. For Anglos and Latinos alike, lingistic ability in Spanish appears as the basis from which identity springs." Ana M. Lara in "A Change of Manta, Santo Domingo, 2004", takes a similar stance, noting, "The legacy of nationalism is alive and well in our use of language: it fosters insecurity around identity that leads to the creation of a strict, narrow definition of belonging. That is the legacy that I resist". Typical of the confessional approach is the sad remembrance by Stephanie Li, "The Secret American" who's Chinese Mexican ancestry added an extra dimension to assimilationist pressures on the child. She remembers in fifth grade, "A group of girls named themselves after their cleaning ladies. Tosa, Elena, and Dolores. I giggled along with them even though my family didn't have a cleaning lady, and one of my favorite tias is named Rosa. But no one knew that, and no one would."
I am not complaining about the deja vu. Yes, I am--that here's a 2007 copyright covering the same territory-- because not much seems to have changed for gente who live within the cultural mainstream. Language prejudice persists, as in the story of the Ivy League "Professor X" who accuses a woman of having no culture because she has no Spanish. Ethnic divisions continue to plague raza of all stripes, and from within and outside las colonias, barrios, and tony neighborhoods we populate. Such persistent exigencies make a collection like Telling Tongues so necessary. A teacher will inevitably confront the issues dealt with in the poems and stories. It's one thing for an old veterana veterano to tell the class, "back when I was your age...", it's another to open a book and have a kid read out loud personal experiences that have telling reverberations across their culture.
A final word about the inflection of Spanish and the lack thereof in English. I wish to high Hell folks would drop the unpronounceable @ to substitute for the gender markers. There's an irony in the book's subtitle; to me, the @ represents a kind of linguistic nationalism that forces another language's rules upon the lingua franca of most Chicana Chicano readers. Then there's the subvocalic violence the @ does. In Spanish, the character is called "arroba", in English web addressess pronounce "at". Hence, "chican@" [sic] would be pronounced either, "chicanarroba" or "chicanat", unless one calls @ ideographic in which case it might be said "chicana-ow". Sheesh, gente, just type both words, Chicana Chicano, Latina Latino, Pendeja Pendejo.
Con cariño, un abrazo,
Bottom Line: Calaca Press is a small, Chicana Chicano owned business. Distribution through commercial channels doesn't extend to fine resources like Calaca, so readers need to buy direct, or contact the publisher to learn a local bookseller who can order Calaca's catalog for you. Their web is linked in the title above or here.
Until next week, looking forward to your comments on the above or any related subject, ate,