Friday, April 17, 2009

Inside and Outside Names

A NY Times piece by Richard Rodriguez was the first time I thought this through. Speaking Spanish at home and English out in the world, at a young age Rodriguez realized that the safety and comfort of home was embodied in the private, family-only names he was called there. He was a different person, with different expectations, inside and outside his home.

Yesterday, I heard Alberto Alvaro Rios speak at the library. The author of the OneBookAZ selection for 2009, Capirotada, he, too, grew up bi-lingual. Listening to him read from his (completely delightful and often quite ins ,  ightful) stories, I was struck by what happened when he read names. Matilde .... Consuela .... Obregon His voice caressed each syllable. His eyes crinkled and looked at something I couldn't see. His shoulders rolled just a little and his mouth had a teeny tiny almost couldn't see it but you knew it was there grin. And the whole thing was more than each part - he was in another place. Just for that instant, the Regents' Professor at ASU was gone and there was the kid who lived behind the Catholic church in Nogales in an apartment filled with love. The moments passed quickly, and the stories flowed beautifully as he turned the pages, but the difference struck me.

G'ma tells this story about a day in elementary school: The teacher wanted to know what languages were spoken at home. "Raise your hand if you speak Italian" "German" "Yiddish" "Russian". The numbers didn't add up. She tried again. Something was still wrong. She had everyone stand up and went through the list again. At the end, only G'ma was still standing. "Go home and ask your mother" and, quaking in her shoes, she did just that. Her mother stopped, thought, and said "Zog tu ir English" *.

That fluidity between cultures often argues with the swaddling clothes security which comes within the walls of the burrow. Until you learn that one is "better" than the other assimilation is a meaningless term. You are. Not "You are Jewish". Not "You speak Spanish". You are. How you come to terms with "the other", now that's another story.

*"Tell her English"

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