​English Only, Please

“Because we speak with tongues of fire we are culturally crucified. Racially, culturally, and linguistically somos huérfanos—we speak an orphan tongue.” —Gloria Anzaldúa, How to Tame a Wild Tongue

Borderlands/La Frontera

Ruben: Porque esta phrase está escrita en Español, la mayoría de nuestros compañeros tendrán dificultades entendiendo. Pero, that’s the belleza of it. Growing up in a household where my mother spoke mostly Spanish and my father spoke both Spanish and English, I learned the beautiful duality of Spanglish. It was an entirely new language, one born in the borderlands, one birthed of American military involvement in El Salvador, and one that is sweeter than any other language I’ve tried to learn. But, aunque ahora no me sorprende, I’ve learned that it makes people uncomfortable at Harvard.

Zoe: We were in a place shrouded in shadows, the lights were dimmed—it was almost time. Happiness. I can only remember un sentimiento completo de felicidad. We were in a room mixed con gente de culturas diferentes, but dominated by the majority—white space, white place—como un mar de gringos con specks de color. I started with a story in the language que quería hablar, el idioma de mi cultura, de chisme. “No puedo creer que eso ocurrió...” I told Ruben with a smile, as our event hadn’t started just yet. “Hey!” I turned to look at this girl, my friend, una sonrisa lista, about to ask her what was up. “English only, please,” she said authoritatively, aggressively. My face fell, my heart racing. Silencio. No pude responder.

R: The startling thing about being told “English only” was that it didn’t happen in some all-white town or as we shopped in a mall in Kentucky—it happened at Harvard. It happened in a space we’ve come to make home and where our writing has grown. Y lo mas frustrating es que we weren’t even speaking about anyone in that room. We were simply talking about chisme, y las confesiones de amor we had just seen ten minutes before. But because we switched from English to Spanish, instead of trying to conceal our private conversation in whispers, it was wrong. It was as if Spanglish was an invalid language, even though it’s not. It has its own set of grammatical structures, represents mastery of both English and Spanish, and has scores of academic papers dedicated to studying it. Pero cuando it makes people uncomfortable on this campus, they send the message that it isn’t beautiful or natural or acceptable, aunque nosotros sabemos que si lo es.

Z: Mis memorias de Español son de canciones, quinceañeras, mis abuelitos hablando con mi sobre sus días. They are of amor y comunidad. Of chisme in rooms and laughter, always laughter. Until that moment, my only worry when I spoke Spanish was of messing up my grammar, nervously tripping over words that I felt like a failure of a Latina for not knowing. Español is the language of the Latin lover and of the poems that can be quoted in speeches to white crowds—unless your body is brown. Porque palabras del idioma de mi gente born from lips attached to a brown body automatically signify difference. Soy morena, soy mexicana, entonces when a word that isn’t English is released from my lips, I’m reprimanded as if it’s wrong, as if I’m wrong. How do I reconcile that with the personal pride I feel in knowing that cada palabra I say is delivered with care and comfort, taken from knowledge I worked to learn over time? They tell me it’s rude, con miedo of this unknown language in their eyes. But it doesn’t make sense: why are they so afraid?

R: It’s difficult to be brown and loud at a crushingly white institution. The policing of our bodies and our politics is difficult enough to deal with, so there’s no reason to police our tongues as well. Cuando era niño, I saw the way not knowing English dehumanizes people of color in the United States, even though white people pay demasiado dinero sending their kids to bilingual Montessori schools. If I don’t speak Spanish, I’ll lose it, and my children will lose it. The loss of mi cultura y mi historia is not worth your comfort, so I’ll continue to hablar en la combination de Español y Ingles que amo tanto.

Z: It’s considered wrong, because it’s believed to be rude to speak a foreign language when people who don’t speak that language are present. But what if that's the language I feel most comfortable speaking at that moment? Mis palabras no son su propiedad. Why do you feel like every word overheard is yours? As if, cada historia, cada oración, is your right to know. Español es el idioma de mi comunidad, es el idioma de mi crecimiento, y es el idioma que tengo el derecho de hablar con mis amigos. Just because you don’t know what is being said doesn’t mean it’s about you. No es un secreto. It has nothing to do with you. ¿Me entiendes?

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Their column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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