Monday, April 9, 2012

Excuse me, Perdón. And other translations

I have become so keenly aware of my difference.  Who would've thought it could be greater?  As a ten-year-old Chilean immigrant girl, I worked so hard to lose my "otherness."  I watched hours of American TV sitcoms, adopted the mannerisms, accents, and sarcasm.  I "whitened" or Americanized more than my siblings did, at least at first.  I studied and learned English so well so I could know it as well as all the other kids in my grade--I needed to be their equal.  I became "Beni" since they couldn't say name.  I wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to accept me and make myself as "normal" as possible so I wouldn't stand out--you know, in middle school when standing out was a bad thing.

Even though I worked so hard to "be like them," I realize I will never be one of them.  Little things over time hinted at it.  There are things that I just can't express as well in English, some memories and feelings that are more potent and beautiful in Spanish.
When I became a citizen, I was expected to forsake my country for the United States.  But how can they not understand?  El amor que se trae en la sangre no se puede borrar.  You can't have a Bloody Mary without the tomato juice in it.
(just bear with my metaphors, please).

In the end... even if I am now a United States citizen, I am still different.
"Naturalized," not "natural born."  The difference remains.

While those words can define it concretely, the difference as I have come to recognize vividly in grad school comes from life and lived experience, in moments, emotions, relationships and people.  What I have come to understand is that I was born into and grew up with a completely different dictionary and encyclopedia of world experiences that make sense of my life and my world.  
Those around me who have not lived that experience do not understand me.  I live life differently.  I form relationships differently.  I value work and family and friends and my time differently.  Touch and actual contact are part of my livelihood.  I communicate and connect and survive through relationships and emotional exchanges with those I am close to.  My family is equivalent to the blood running through my veins.  And a delicious meal can literally make me dance.  (Cuban coffee, sweet plantains, manjar—where was I?  Ah yes…).

Translation has become a constant part of my existence as I try to explain myself, my experiences, my stories to those around me.  And it is no stranger to the academic world.

As far as I can see, it is our burden as Latina/o Communication Studies scholars to explain ourselves, excuse ourselves, give reason for ourselves.  If I am wrong in this, I ask that you tell me so!  As readers, people need to be compelled by something in order to engage it.  In some form it must matter, or relate, or affect them.

Currently, I feel like the drop of oil in an ocean of water.  I’m here.  I’m floating.  I’m hanging out.  I am seen.  But no one is absorbing me.  Or worst yet, I’ve swallowed one of El Chapulín Colorado’s Pastillas de Chiquitolina’s and I am Lilliputian in stature, and it doesn’t matter how much I flail my arms.  I am still just a spec of dust in the grand scheme of the academic world.  Who cares?! I’m just another minority group trying to talk about my subaltern experience.  What’s new?!

I guess in the end what I am finding—and I apologize for my nihilistic perspective.  Maybe it’s because it’s April (taxes, you know)—is that that difference I am facing all too often becomes equivalent to feeling insignificant, ignored, unimportant.  Too different to be concerned with.  Etc., etc.

So what say you, internets?  Any hope to spare for a novice academic?



  1. I appreciate this post because I feel so similar sometimes. It helps to have spaces like this where we don't have to translate, but I feel compelled to mention that we are on the frontlines. This does not excuse ignorance or the lack of courage by some to take us on own terms, but it is a reminder that we are a part of a long history of struggle. I am honored to have you beside me as we face the next step of our march against injustice together. Abrazos.

  2. Tough reflections, but I too enjoyed this post. I would guess that many of us go into the academy because of similar experiences of otherness, of questioning, of difference. I know my personal struggle with my religious identity, which took a 90-degree turn when I was 17, has played a big part in shaping both my rhetorical theory and my daily life (he writes, as if the two were somehow separable...).

    My response is to rethink your perspective of "[explaining . . . excusing . . . giving reason]" as a "burden" and think of it again as an opportunity. My adviser and I both like a quote from the Jewish text Pirkei Avot: "It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it." (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:20). As another role model of mine here likes to say, "We are very lucky in the academy. We get to play with ideas." As for finding your place in the ocean of water, it's all about finding the intersection between what is meaningful to you and what is meaningful to others. I would love to chat more about your ideas, and I'm excited to work directly with you for the next few years.