Between Arizona and a Hard Place

A meandering review of Ilan Stavan’s Lengua Fresca.

The Grand Canyon State recently stepped into the spotlight of public opinion, passing a controversial immigration law that authorizes law enforcement agents to stop any ‘suspicious person’ at any time and demand to see documentation of their legal status in the US. Reactions to the legislation have ranged from a vague sense of queasiness at the thought of living in a country in which anyone could be forced to produce their papers on command, to concrete concerns about racial profiling, to a series of boycotts of the state by tourists, artists, and the city of San Francisco.

Although the case of Arizona is extreme, the legislation raises a number of important questions. What does it mean to belong to a place? Does that feeling come with a piece of paper – a birth certificate, a green card – or is it something more ephemeral? How do you hold on to tradition while making a place for yourself in a new culture? Where does language fit in?

The literary tradition built up around these questions dates back to the first Spanish and Latin American writers to live in the US, whether by choice or political necessity. Upon moving to the States in 1872, George Santayana exchanged Spanish for English as casually as though he were changing his shirt, claiming that language was, for him, simply an instrument that had no bearing on his inner world. Pedro Salinas, on the other hand, felt compelled to defend the Spanish language from Anglophone influence and frequently spoke out against the dangers of neologism during his tenure at the University of Puerto Rico. Luis Cernuda hated the US so much (both its culture and its language, which he found insufferably abrasive) that he gave up a comfortable lectureship at Mount Holyoke to struggle by in Mexico, where he lived a spare but happy existence.

More recently, these questions of language and identity have been raised not by intellectuals living in exile, but by writers and artists of Hispanic descent born in the United States. In the 1980s, Nuyorican poets like Tato Laviera and Giannina Braschi and the Chicano movement, sparked largely by the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, used language – namely, the no-man’s-land between English and Spanish in which they felt they existed – as a means of addressing deeper questions of identity and belonging. Junot Díaz brought a new level of visibility to Latino literature with his widely acclaimed Drown and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What these writers have in common is that each – in his or her own way – is working through the interplay of the multiple and often widely disparate elements that constitute his or her identity.

Ilan Stavans jumps into the fray of this negotiation with an edited volume titled Lengua Fresca (2006), in which the personal and cultural tensions described above are addressed by a new generation of writers in remarkably divergent ways. Some writers compose entirely in English, while others employ Spanglish and still others a bilingual discourse comprised of both English and Spanish as distinct but interwoven languages. Lalo Lopez Alcaraz uses predominantly single-frame cartoons to launch political commentary about relations along the US-Mexico border and North American cultural imperialism, while the Hernandez bros. offer a meditation on racism and images of the Other told from the perspective of a group of kids in graphic novel form. A number of authors opt to invoke canonical literary figures from Pablo Neruda to Wallace Stevens as they negotiate their place in the cultural landscape, while Stavans himself contributes a few pages of his translation of Don Quixote into Spanglish. Here is his version of the work’s famous first lines:

In un placete de La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme, vivía, not so long ago, uno de esos gentlemen who always tienen una lanza in the rack, una buckler antigua, a skinny caballo y un grayhound para el chase.

While I admire Stavans’ enthusiasm, I can’t say that his rendition of the classic resonates with me. I think that here, as in his exuberant discussion of The Parrot Club in Puerto Rico, which boasts a bilingual menu, his desire to glimpse the future in the crystal ball of Spanglish gets the better of him. I’ve walked past the restaurant he’s talking about – it’s a tourist trap and its bilingualism (presented as “the most fun way to describe our food”) is clearly geared toward an Anglophone North American customer who wants to hop on a plane and, for the cost of an appetizer, access an ‘exotic’ culture. There’s an important difference between literary innovation and clever marketing, and I think Stavans misses the mark here.

As an editor, on the other hand, he has moments of brilliance. Particularly strong is the first story of the collection, a piece entitled “Chango” by Oscar Casares about a not-so-young man who can’t work up the energy to get a job and move out of his parents’ house, but whose complacent existence is shaken up with a strange encounter, and an even stranger friendship. The opening lines of the story set the tone nicely:

Bony was walking back from the Jiffy-Mart when he found the monkey’s head. There it was, under a small palm tree in the front yard, just staring up at him like an old friend who couldn’t remember his name.

Another stand-out piece is Salvador Plascencia‘s “The People of Paper” – a subtle and beautifully crafted story about the paths that cross on the eternal search for home.* A summary wouldn’t really do justice to the delicacy of the threads that are woven together here, so I’ll just quote a bit:

Cameroon kept the bees a secret, hiding them deep in her closet and covering the jars with towels. In the bathtub, while pretending to shave, she plucked the stingers from her arms. And the fever that kept her hot and sweating she blamed on the pneumonia she could never shake.

Natalia and Quinones dedicated their married lives to each other and hotel management. And as Francophobes, never forgiving the French invasion of Puebla, they also dedicated much of their free time to dispelling many of the aphorisms Napoleon Bonaparte had popularized.

If there is something to be learned from the frightening shift toward isolationism in Arizona and throughout the country, it may be that the problem of identity – the definition and maintenance of borders, whether they be personal or political – is a universal question, and one without easy answers. What is so powerful about this volume is not so much the culture clash it is purported to depict, but the fact that it is, for the most part, simply a collection of excellent writing. In English, in Spanish, and in everything in between.

* Refers to the text printed in Lengua Fresca – a work of the same title was also published as an independent volume, and reviewed here by The Quarterly Conversation.




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