By Monica Torres
When I sign my name, it’s Monica, not Mónica. When I order pupusas at my favorite restaurant, the waiter will give my accent an approving nod, as if to say, you’re one of us. But it will only take a harder question for me to reveal the lie. I speak Spanish at a remedial 7th grade level. I can only write this essay in English.
To this day, my father has followed my teachers’ suggestions and speaks exclusively to me in English, even though he cannot fully express himself in it. It was my perfect SAT verbal score that earned me the interest of top schools, and it was my minority status that sweetened my deal with many of them. My mother is frustrated by the rejection of my first language, and when she questions me in Spanish, I answer her in English, unwilling to communicate in the staccato rhythms of a song learned half-heartedly. Language is a battleground, and I prefer to fight in the tongue with which I am best armed. That lesson was passed down from my parents. My parents fought to their divorce in Spanish, the language of lovers, and when I was told everything was going to be fine, it was told to me in English, because in English, it doesn’t have to be true.
I’m an English major. It is a language of conquest.
What does it say that I’m mastering the same language that was used to make my mother feel inferior? Growing up, I had a white friend who used to laugh whenever my mother spoke English, amused by the way she rolled her r’s. My sister and I tease Mami about her accent too, but it’s different when we do it, or is it? The echoes of colonization linger in my voice. The weapons of the death squads that pushed my mother out of El Salvador were U.S.-funded. When Nixon promised, “We’re going to smash him!” it was said in his native tongue, and when the Chilean president he smashed used his last words to promise, “Long live Chile!” it was said in his. And when my family told me the story of my grandfather’s arrest by the dictatorship that followed, my grandfather stayed silent, and meeting his eyes, I cried, understanding that there were no words big enough for loss.
English is a language of conquest. I benefit from its richness, but I’m not exempt from its limitations. I am ‘that girl’ in your English classes, the one who is tired of talking about dead white dudes. But I’m still complicit with the system, reading nineteenth-century British literature to graduate.
Diversity in my high school and college English literature courses is too often reduced to a month, week, or day where the author of the book is seen as the narrator of the novel. The multiplicity of U.S. minority voices is palatably packaged into a singular representation for our consumption. I read Junot Díaz and now I understand not only the Dominican-American experience, but what it means to be Latina/o in America. Jhumpa Lahiri inspired me to study abroad in India. Sherman Alexie calls himself an Indian, so now it’s ok for me to call all Indians that, too. We will read Toni Morrison’s Beloved to understand the horrors of slavery, but we won’t watch her takedowns on white supremacy.
Even the English courses that analyze race and diasporas in meaningful ways are still limited by the time constraints of the semester. Reading Shakespeare is required, but reading Paolo Javier and Mónica de la Torre is extra credit. My Experimental Minority Writing class is cross-listed at the most difficult level, as a 400-level course in the Africana Studies, Latina/o Studies, and American Studies departments, but in my English department, it is listed as a 300-level. I am reminded of Orwellian democracy: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
In order to graduate from my college, you must take one course that “actively promotes a self-conscious and critical engagement with diversity.” It’s called the Exploring Diversity Initiative. Columbus called it exploration, too. Michel Rolph-Trouillot called it a sweeter word for conquest. In theory, the goals of exploring diversity–empathetic understanding, critical theorization, comparative studies of cultures and societies, and examining power and privilege– should produce my favorite kind of course, but the conversation shifts depending on who’s in the room. Conflicts arise when students try to map the trajectory of race from Point A to Point B without studying any of the legend. Without realizing that their landmarks may not match mine.
When my English professor asked my class to relate the recent campus hate crimes to the topic of captivity in America, I braced myself. I held myself back until the pressure under my ribs reached my lips, and I was buoyed by its depth.
I disagreed with the student who said that the solution to our campus hate crimes is to mentally rehabilitate the ones who do it. I disagreed with the student who said that she was a freshman who was not there for last year’s hate crime, and could therefore have no opinion on it. I disagreed with my professor who could not get his students to care about slave narratives and had to resort to provoking students with reductive questions. Would you have freed your slaves if you were a slaveowner? What is diversity and why has it failed at our school?
After I spoke, no one else did, not because they agreed with my statements, but because, in order to speak up, they would have to look me in the eye. I faked my bravery, jutting my chin and daring someone to contradict me. I am glad no one else could hear the blood pounding in my ear as my heart worried, Fight or flight? Fight or flight?
The professor took no one’s side, distancing our arguments as she said/he said, while reminding us that the problem of America is our miscommunication with one another. After class was dismissed, the boy who sat next to me turned to the boy who refused to look at me, and said, “You just can’t reason with those kinds of people.” Those kinds of people being me. The Angry Minority label is a label that once stuck, will never peel away. As a freshman, I avoided it, speaking carefully, never calling anyone out, and framing racism as something that only happens between pages, in faraway cities, but never to us. It took a campus bias incident, a campus hate crime, and all of my Ethnic Studies courses to articulate my rage into a language that could not be dismissed so easily. Speaking and writing English are considered necessary requirements for playing the political game of the American education system. Crying and complaining get you disqualified, but if you appropriate their words of statistics, of fancy book learning, of speaking when it’s your turn, you can play the game of English thrones, and possibly win it. Checkmate by the Angry Minority. E1 to FU.
But there’s no prize for winning. The game is played with or without your consent. You are never quite sure who is this year’s gamemaster: is it our schools? is it the media? is it the government? is it you? The rules shift for each player, but one rule remains the same for the minority: you may wear the jersey, but you’re not on our team. I am reminded of this division when my favorite English teacher compliments me for speaking English so well. I am reminded of this in AP Spanish Language, where I’m the one whose accent needs to be Standardized. I am reminded of this when my career counselor tells me I need to italicize the foreign, to separate Spanish from English for the sake of my white interviewers. I am reminded of this when my mother’s misspelled pleas to a lawyer are never answered, but my politely worded complaint earns me a reply.
I have been the only person of color in my creative writing courses. I have been the only person writing about persons of color in my creative writing courses. I was never just a writer, but I never wanted to be just anything. The only grammar lesson I enjoyed promised me that in good writing, you never qualify someone as just-. Some minority writers don’t want to be hyphenated, and that is their right, but I welcome its conjunction. I don’t want you to forget that when I address ‘you’ in my stories, it is not always to you. The first attempts in a creative writing course are often thinly veiled versions of ourselves, but when I got the peer critique, Your white character needs to be more sympathetic, I was still stung by its implication. Why does any character need to be sympathetic at all? I wrote myself into the white stepmother as much as I did the cheating Latino father, the disillusioned Latina mother, the Latina child caught in the middle of it all. But out of all the characters in that story, it was the white woman that my reader was most concerned with saving. The U.S. education system trains you to read the universal voice as a white heterosexual male’s voice, and too many deviations from that path get you sent to the Ethnic Fiction section. I reject the notion that writing realistically means accepting a sympathetically sterilized vision of the world. “Historically,” “realistically,” “in my experience,” are the qualifiers that let literary genres off the hook because it’s easier to qualify your ignorance as a product of the system than to admit that you share responsibility.
For the dominant majority, I can pass for white: I speak their kind of English, my skin is their shade of white, I wear their kinds of clothes, and I go to their kind of school. I don’t want to tell you which school, not to let my administration off the hook, but to demonstrate that this exclusion is not a problem limited to one institution. The older I get, the more aware I become of the contours of exclusion, and its shape does not fit the easy metaphor of a barrier. There are not only two sides, and participating in any side doesn’t mean you’re a member of it. Hegemony requires your consent, and when it opened its door to me, I held the door open for those that followed. I told my younger sister she needed to do better in English, not Spanish, if she wanted the good kind of college to notice her. When my close white friend told me those kind of girls were all so ghetto, I did not correct her.
My family and I have all fallen prey to the intoxicating allure of the American Dream, the vague, unsatisfying answer of America as a “better life.” To help me claim this “better life,” my mother gave me a name that could be accepted in both English and Spanish, accented and unaccented. How many ways can you say a name? This was the acting exercise I failed. I thought that if I stretched the syllable hard enough, the word would break even, and it would be enough to pay the toll –Miss Mahnn-i-cuh for my teachers, Monica for my classmates, Mónica for my relatives, and Móni for my family. How is the name meant to sound? It depends on who’s in the room. I carry my father in my last name and my mother in my middle name; the first name is mine to accent, at my privilege. For their daughters, my parents stretched their wallets and then their marriage, and one did not break even. My sister and I are the remainder of this fraction, and I am indebted to my parents, who gave up their dreams so I could major in my own.
In a few months, I will have a fancy degree in English, but my parents are more fluent in language than I am. To master a language, you have to understand differences that no grammar book can teach you. So much comes down to tone. No one wants their speaker to be unclear. After my father and I got into a fight about his money and my future, he sent me a long email explaining himself through Google translator. I’m the daughter who never calls him enough, and argues in heavy English consonants when I want to confuse him. He is the father who bolded would do anything for you, and said he loved, loves, and is always loving me. His English was not grammatically correct, but it was more emotionally honest than my feelings shielded in sarcasm. I pull it up when I need a reminder of my complicated, contradictory love for a hybridized language that is ours alone.
“I am extremely happy for Google Translator and spell check. I typed very slowly so don’t expect me to email you every time. I wish I could speak English better because I know your english is good but unfortunately I don’t write spanish well either.