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Latinx Voices at Carolina
Professor, Romance Studies
My identity — or the person I thought I was — has been challenged through most of my life. I remember walking to grade school in my native Cuba, dressed in the pale blue uniform with the Jewish star that identified me as a student of the Colegio Hebreo Autónomo, and having to cross the street or quicken my pace because some children from the neighboring non-denominational school were shouting “Polaca” (‘you polack’) as I approached. I was well aware that they didn’t mean it as a compliment, just as I was aware that they hailed this insult because to them I was an “other”; to them — though I thought I was as Cuban as they were — I did not belong.
A couple of years later, in 1961, I moved to Miami, where no one seemed to challenge my being Cuban, but where that label was now reason for rejection. I was even rejected by fellow American Jews who at first found it hard to believe that someone who spoke Spanish could also be Jewish. In a crowded bus in Miami Beach, one afternoon shortly after my arrival, my older sister and I overheard with surprise a group of elderly people sitting right behind us complaining in Yiddish (a language we had both studied daily in our Jewish school in Cuba) that Cubans were taking over Miami and should be sent back home. I still remember the shock in their faces when I turned around and told them (in Yiddish) what I thought of their remark. But, how ironic: now I was being insulted in Yiddish for being Cuban!
A similar incident happened in Boston, where my family and I had relocated upon their arrival to the United States. We had been in the Dorchester and Mattapan area for about seven years, I was a senior at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, we pretty much felt like we belonged (I certainly did). One morning, as I was rushing to my parked car to get to a 9 a.m. class (I was typically running late — proof positive that I am Cuban), I discovered that my rear tires were completely flat. I thought it was just a case of bad luck until I noticed a note on the windshield that read, “You people should go back home.” When I recovered from my initial shock (who would do such a thing? who were “you people?”), I ran home and called the police, who came up dry. I was certain that the note and the odious prank were the product of a zealous Jewish neighbor’s desire to cleanse his or her territory of invaders who spoke Spanish, people like my family and myself. But did this person know we were Jewish? Would that have made a difference? I’ve often wondered about that.
Many years later, as I was getting ready to move out of my apartment in Chapel Hill, I discovered that someone had written on the back of the name plate on our apartment door the words – -in pencil — “Go home, spik.” The message shocked me, both because I couldn’t imagine who could have done such a thing and because after 20 years in the U.S. I thought I was home. But, at least for the anonymous writer of this succinct message, my name (at that time my married name was Pérez) indicated unequivocally that I belonged somewhere else, that, as the Nuyorican writer Piri Thomas would put it, I was on “alien turf.” Again.
So where is home? Where do I belong? I was a Jew in Cuba, a Cuban in Miami, a spik in the United States. To put it another way, just as confounding, where am I from? Where do I belong? These are questions that haunt me, but the incidents that precipitated this self-questioning — you might call them my defining moments — have in a sense made me what and who I am; they, I believe, have guided me into the place and the space where I am today. Why am I in academia? Why did I choose Sor Juana, a feisty, brilliant Mexican nun from the 17th century as the subject of my dissertation? Why do I continue to read and teach Colonial Spanish American literature? Why did I introduce a first-year seminar on Latino literature at my university?
I think one possible answer is that the world of academia gives me the security and freedom to say and be all that I am: Cuban, Jewish, American, etc. I choose to believe that my diversity, my hyphenated identity, makes me more rather than less, and the same can be said about many of the authors that I study and teach. Take Sor Juana, a woman writer and cloistered nun in a world dominated by men, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who felt like a Spaniard in Peru and like an Indian in Spain, Sandra Cisneros, whose experiences as a Chicana have allowed her to write moving stories about prejudice and poverty in the slums of Chicago and elsewhere; Nicholasa Mohr, whose stories about Puerto Ricans in New York describe the difficult and emotional mediations between the island and the mainland. So, I found a haven of sorts in the world of academia, in the borough of the Department of Romance Studies, among my university colleagues and these friends, these multicultural, multi-racial authors and characters who, like me, had to face up to the challenge of living in or between two worlds.
But all this comes at a cost. As a woman in academia, a Hispanic or Hispano-Jewish woman who entered the field in the late ‘70s, I’ve had to work hard to distinguish myself in a world where women were a rarity and administrators found it hard to trust people of color. My training, which took place entirely in the United States, placed me farther away, physically and intellectually (and culturally as well) from my mother country and, perhaps more importantly, farther away from my mother tongue. My studies in Hispanic literature returned me to my roots, to the language that this Cuban in Boston feared she might have lost forever.
But, though strong, my Spanish has been marked by my training in the teaching of grammar and my exposure to more literary than living texts. I work hard at keeping my Cuban accent — in Spanish as well as English — and using as many Cubanisms and colloquial expressions as I possibly can. But when undergraduate students come to me looking for what they call in their linguistic projects a “native informant,” I secretly wonder whether I qualify, and wonder whether I should warn them that I am an impostor, that my answers may be too literary, too grammatically correct, too self-consciously contrived.
So here is yet another question to add to my pile: what is my native language? I am now, if anything, a native of the academic world, and as such I have a native language (make that two, and maybe three) that define and describe me. I sometimes connect with Spanish, with my being Hispanic or Latina, through English; sometimes I do it through my faltering Yiddish, which I speak with a detectable Spanish accent!; sometimes I do it through my academic discourse; and sometimes through Spanglish, by which I mean not the creation of mixed words but the liberal use of Spanish mixed with English (or vice versa), or what a friend of mine in Miami tells me is now called Engañol.
I am the sum of my languages. Every time I speak Spanish I return to my country of origin, but every time I speak English, I do the same. Somewhere along the line I stopped being Cuban and became Cuban-American. Too bad “Cuban-American” is not an appropriate response to the question of where I am from. That place — maybe, and only maybe — may be the world of academia, where being from somewhere else is often the norm (and in some departments it’s even considered an asset), and where people generally pay more attention to pedigree than pronunciation.
Definition, of course, is not borne out of adversity alone. I have had many positive experiences in my life (as a professor, a writer, a mother), and they have played an important part in making me who I am. But I thought it would somehow be more useful to you to hear of the not-so-wonderful-but-still-significant moments. Even though for many of you the answers to my questions of origin and belonging may not be as problematic, you might find it useful to consider them metaphorically. Where are you from? Where do you belong? Where are you going and who are you bound to become? I believe it’s up to us to carve out a space for ourselves, to search out our identity, to treasure our ethnicity, to turn adversity into definition and achievement into strength.