The muse speaks to Irene Márquez in both English and Spanish, and Márquez’ stories spill forth in that polyglot prose: English sprinkled with Spanish endearments, phrases and sayings.
Four years ago, the San Diego poet and storyteller started Los Bilingual Writers, a nonprofit that nurtures writers whose native tongue isn’t solely Spanish or English but a mixture of both, cobbled out of a bilingual experience.
Her students include Latino youth, adults and elders whose work is sometimes overlooked by publishers skeptical of whether multilingual literature has a market. Márquez defied that notion: Los Bilingual Writers is publishing its third anthology this year, and the amber-eyed grandmother is seeking a publisher for a novel of her own. And Los Bilingual Writers is expanding to include storytellers whose second language is Vietnamese, Mandarin, Somali or any other non-English tongue.
Márquez set her manuscripts aside to talk about language, assimilation, the Aztec sewer system and the definition of Spanglish with voiceofsandiego.org.
As a child, what different roles did Spanish and English play in your life?
At home, it was all Spanish. And in school, it was all English. From kindergarten to third grade, I picked up all my English. Up to the age of eight, we absorb language all over our brain. After that the vocabulary and syntax becomes separated, which makes it a bit more difficult to speak.
But by the time I was in third grade, it was virtually all English, so that my mother who had raised me with a tremendous amount of pride in my Mexican ancestry, she said, when you come in the door, it’s all got to be in Spanish.
So I would come in and I’d start telling her about my day at school, and she’d completely ignore me, as if I wasn’t there. My mother and my father both spoke English but my mother insisted that we speak Spanish at home. So immediately I would have to switch. I’d walk in the door, and I’d immediately go into Spanish. I’d walk back out the door, and immediately go into English. And that’s how most of us become bilingual. (pause) Well — I shouldn’t say that.
Because there is such a resistance to speaking other languages in this country. It was as prevalent when I was a young girl. So many of my cousins did not learn to speak Spanish because their parents only wanted them to speak English, so that they could assimilate and they wouldn’t experience that racism. That wasn’t the case in my family. My mother said, you will learn Spanish, and you will continue to speak it. In Spanish we have a saying that the person who speaks two languages is as good as two people.
When bilingual writers are restricted to writing in only one language, what gets lost?
The nuances. When we write — and this is a cliché — we are drawing a picture with words. But more profoundly, we are creating a feeling. When you remember a really good book you read, it wasn’t because it was so eloquent. It was the feeling that touched your heart. It’s either heartwrenching or it brings you joy or you remember it, if it’s something philosophical like Ayn Rand. Mostly, it touches the heart … . What gets lost is that particular way a story can affect your reader. In Spanish we have a very respectful way that we speak. It’s always “Usted” (a formal version of the word “you”) until someone says, please, it’s “Tú” — you, the informal. So if you’re writing and you use “Usted,” you know immediately that there is a layer there, of somebody who is either older or has authority. Which changes the whole scene.
And there’s no shorthand for that, in English.
You don’t have “Usted” in English. In Spanish, we also have the terms of endearment that are just so sweet: “M’ijita,” “m’ijito” — my little son, and my little daughter — even if they’re 60 years old. It’s also “my dear one.” So when you have characters and you want to express this deep love between them, you write “m’ijita.” But in English (it is) my dear one. (shrugs) So? So the nuances of evoking emotion are lost.
What inhibits writers from using both languages, and how do you unlock that for them?
So much of it is society, especially in these times and in this area. Either you are going to be so grounded in your ancestry to a fault, like when we had the (immigration) protests and the Mexican flag was waving. That just enrages even more the anti-immigration sentiment. On the other end, you completely adopt what your parents told you, assimilate as much as you can, so that there isn’t any mistaking that you are American, and it will be easier for you. Statistics tell us that by the second generation (in the U.S.) there is more English than Spanish, and by the third generation it’s all English.
As a border city, San Diego seems an especially fertile place for bilingual writing. Yet there’s also a strong current of anti-Spanish feeling here. How do you explain that paradox?
Fear. Fear is one of the elements of racism — that I’m afraid that you are going to take what I have, or you are going to get what I have. Yet there are a number of us, like myself, who take tremendous pride in our ancestry. There are only three civilizations that had a written language: the Mesopotamians, the Chinese and the Mayans. We had a written language. The Aztecs created the capital, Mexico City. They had already built a sewer system. You didn’t even see that in Europe yet. So there’s a lot of tunnel vision, by both sides, there’s a lot of misconceptions …
That’s why the art of writing is so important. Through that, we can make an immense impact, change opinions. And if art is reflected through the people, then the people themselves will change.
What challenges do bilingual writers face in getting their work published, or even getting exposure for their work?
It is challenging, but it is changing. Ten years ago I wrote a novel mostly in English with a little Spanish in it. I was educated here, and I’m most comfortable writing in English, but there’s things I have to say in Spanish. I sent the novel to agents, I had literary representation, and they’d send it to publishing houses, and my agent would call me and say, “This publishing house is really excited about what you’ve written.” But (they think) it’s not commercially viable, because Latins don’t read. So they won’t be able to sell it. “If she writes something else, get in touch with us.” I even had a local publishing agent here in La Jolla tell me the same thing.
Things are changing. And that was really the impetus for Los Bilingual Writers, which is really for the young writers. The sheer numbers are going to impact how we view storytelling — that it doesn’t have to be in one particular language. It’s not just Spanish. It’s Somalians. It’s the Vietnamese. It’s all of us, who make this part of the country so diverse.
How do you respond to language purists who say, “Just write in Spanish,” or “Just write in English?”
The muse speaks to us in whispers and she’s very insistent on the way she wants to be heard. There are some who say [one language is] the only way I want to write, and I respect that. There are some of us who say, I need to mix them. As long as you’re telling a really good story and someone’s going to like it and it may change their life, who cares? You can’t get caught up in that. Because you lose sight of your writing. We want someone to enjoy what we’ve written and maybe change something. So what difference does it make, as long as you’re impacting and changing something?
How do you feel about Spanglish — altering the languages instead of switching between them?
Because language is living, mixture is inevitable. Personally, I find it intriguing how we will create language driven by our need to communicate, as well as reflect culture and in our border case, location. Language art — no pun intended — standards are important, in order for all of us to be on the same page in either language, but flexibility is key because over a period of time, those words, ironically enough, become standard. I’d like to be purist … “she” and “I” instead of “she” and “me,” or “she” and “her,” “estacionamiento” (Spanish for parking) instead of “parkar,” (a term that does not exist in formal Spanish) but language conforms to us, not the other way around. Personally, I like to speak or write “correctly” in either language, but it is a personal choice.
Then there is the whole issue of short-cuts used for text messaging. Japan is publishing some young people’s books only using text-messaging “words.” So written language will evolve there as well. Fascinating, eh?
Specific to Spanglish, my experience with my bilingual writers, young and adult, is that we are purist in our writing. Unless it speaks to describing a character, we maintain language standards, regardless of what tongue. As a matter of fact, to a fault. And that is the rub — it is tricky to then not only be “pure” in the language, but now maintain the nuance of what was meant. Translations are challenging, therefore, we code-switch: interjecting in another language. One word or phrase may not have the impact in English, so Spanish is used. Or there may be not be a translation, [for instance] “Usted”.
Which was the impetus of Los Bilingual Writers. Why translate? Use the word or phrase and appreciate the full power of the text.
If there’s one thing you could make sure that the young writers you mentor learn from you, what would it be?
Bilingual storytelling is just as valid as any other storytelling all over the world. We all have stories. And they’re all fascinating. And they all have a common thread. We all cry. We all have joy. We’re all angry. It’s nothing new. We share that as human beings and it gets muddled up with other stuff because of fears or misunderstandings that we have. But all storytelling is valid. Regardless of the language or whether you mix [languages] up — for me, anyway. It’s exciting.
(laughs) That’s why I’m so anxiety-ridden, being interviewed! I like to hear other people’s stories.