By Noemi Gamel
“Motherf—s will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
— Junot Diaz, Professor of Writing at MIT
Junot speaks plainly. This quote was the MIT professor’s response when asked why he used Spanish phrases in his writing. As a Mexican-American writer, whose first language was Spanish but was educated entirely in English, this topic strikes a raw chord with me.
I write in English, even the dialogue that is spoken by primarily Spanish-speaking characters, but I often interject Spanish phrases in my prose. From a strictly technical perspective, I do this because my cognition is in English and my Spanish writing level is poor. To remind the reader that the character speaks Spanish, I interject occasional phrases in Spanish that serve as electric literary language shocks. From a social and emotional perspective, there are three more complex and profound reasons for my use of Spanish phrases in my writing.
1. Because I must.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
— Maya Angelou, Author and Poet
I blend Spanish with English because the language is an indelible part of me. It was my first language. I also use Spanish phrases to reflect the reality of the marriage of both languages in characters that grew up along the Texas-Mexican border, as I did. I may think in English. I may write better in English. Heck, I think I even speak English better than I do Spanish (but please don’t tell my parents!). In spite of the effects of American assimilation, Spanish is the untold story I bear inside of me. The Spanish words flow out of my hands just like carbon dioxide flows out with my breath. It is effortless, inevitable, and life-sustaining.
2. To teach children that speaking a second language is a gift.
“We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community – and this nation.”
— Cesar Chavez, Mexican-American farm worker and activist
I attended an elementary school in the south side of McAllen, Texas. McAllen is a small city less than 10 miles from the border with Mexico. There were maybe two children in my grade level whose parents spoke English at home. Most of the teachers at the school were of Mexican descent. Yet, we were not allowed to speak Spanish at school. The Spanish language was treated as a blemish that had to be obliterated.
Fast forward two decades (OK, maybe three) later, and I am astonished to see how many Texas public schools have dual language programs. My children attended a private Montessori school that included Spanish in the curriculum. Private Spanish immersion schools are popping up everywhere. Finally, the Texas education system has received a clue from the words of Cesar Chavez. The power and value of speaking two languages is fully recognized. Most importantly, educators no longer treat Spanish as a shameful entity. Latino children are given the freedom to be proud of their native language.
I interject Spanish phrases into my writing to reinforce that sentiment. I want Latino children to feel the same pride I felt when I first heard Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” on the radio. The more these children see their native language in the media, whether it is books, television, or movies, the more that sense of pride and belonging is reinforced. Speaking a language in addition to English is not something to be swept under the rug. They should display it with pride.
3. To share the beauty of the Latino culture.
“A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.”
Growing up as the daughter of immigrants and living as an expatriate in Costa Rica as an adult has taught me about the intrinsic importance of language in cultural adaptation and acceptance. I use Spanish phrases in my writing to share the beauty of my culture with others. Spanish is just one of the flowers that make up the bouquet of diversity in America that adds to the natural beauty of the people that make up its population.
Spanish is a rhythmic, flowery language filled with metaphors. I often can capture an emotion better with a Spanish term or phrase than I can in English. I hope that when I do that, the reader, especially if they are not Latino, catches a glimpse into the colorful Latino culture.
In the recent months, the lack of diversity in children’s literature has taken the spotlight in part as a result of the formidable efforts of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team. As a writer, I have felt validated by this group regarding my use of Spanish words and phrases in my writing. I hope other writers follow suit. As a reader, I am excited to think that I may now encounter other languages in the books that I read. There is no reason to be afraid.
Noemi Gamel was born and raised in south Texas along the Mexican border. She practiced as a physician for eight years before putting her career on hold to write diverse children’s fantasy books and to travel the world with her partner, Chris, and their two children. She wrote The Black Rose and Other Scary Stories That Happened To Me! as an homage to the Mexican folktales of her childhood. The Iris of Issoria, a children’s fantasy novel, will be available October 7, 2014. For more information, visit her at www.NoemiGamel.com or follow her on Twitter at @NoemiGamel.