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  • jo reyes-boitel

todx vuelven: translingualism is about the language that lives in us.

Reprinted from Boundless, the anthology of the Valley International Poetry Festival 2023 with permission of the author. We encourage you to buy a copy of the anthology and learn more about the festival.

 

I learned the word semaphore today. I am one of those who grew up in underfunded schools where I had to grab at whatever book I could because I wanted to read. I still have words floating around my head that I don’t always know how to use or how to pronounce. Still, I realized I knew a version of this word in another way. Semaphores are flags, signals, across great distances, like the flag folks who direct planes on the tarmac. Or the way I can share eyes with a friend when one first enters a cafe where the other has been waiting. Flags will show apology, excitement, and questioning all in one wave. Held momentarily on the face of the person across from you. Like a secret between just you two. It asks you to be aware.

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I’ve been thinking about seahorses, the way the males parent their unhatched babies, while the women skirt across waters having completed their job. I wasn’t thinking of this part of their life necessarily. But it reminded me of the graphic making its way through social media of a black horse walking. It’s a gif. A moveable picture. The frame of the image asked if we saw it walking forward or backward as backward meant we were right brained and the expectation that we are more creative is offered to us like a gift. As though we’ve run through horses to fight for our art, caught under foot, dust plumes in our face, coloring our clothing. As though we have to suffer to produce. Well, I realize now I’ve bought into the idea, this way of selling myself and my work. Our ideas and our identity is created piecemeal but this doesn’t mean we are less valuable.


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There’s a horse in the brain. Well, a sea horse, or from the proto-German harss, a horse-like monster shaped like the hook and s of a seahorse, with its skeletal rigidity too. It sits as our hippocampus, which rules our drive for embodied knowledge through a cocktail of memory, emotion, and the nervous system. These work together to consolidate memory into something we can access and continually return to.[1] The etymology of the word hippocampus is hippo from the Latin for horse and kampus meaning sea monster. I’m still thinking of language too, at least passively, which my multilingual brain tries to find connections for.


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I didn’t mean to move away from the word semaphore but much of language is about associations and memory so I shouldn’t be surprised when semaphore reminds me of Ruben Blades’ song “En El Semaforo”, a narrative song about the intersection of two streets[2]. A streetlight. A momentary idea. A scene unfolding before our eyes. Blades is older now than when the song first came out, now with a ton of records under his belt and even a presidential run, but I still think of Blades on the rooftop in the movie Crossover Dreams,[3] where, after all the success of a salsa career has disappeared, he returns to the sound of the city and his two espresso-tinted clave sticks hitting 1-2 / 1-2-3. Rhythm is the root of language. It carries meaning. It's no surprise sounds like mmm sooth. Mama, mamey, mambo, mano, milk, mouth. Words that let you sink in. Language is a sea monster, floating through our bodies, intimate, often unknowable. But it wants us to know ourselves. As much as we can in a world where memory is herencia but inheritance isn’t guaranteed. As Rubén Blades sings: “bajo el árbol del pasado / cuantas veces nos ponemos a sonar / todos vuelven por la ruta del recuerdo…”


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Translingualism is a phenomenon newly named but that has always been a part of our language, our cultural expression, and our attempt at self and wholeness – from the first moment we attributed meaning to the sounds rising in our mouths. Trans- meaning across and lingual meaning having to do with languages/tongues. Across tongues feels like something Gloria Anzaldúa would say, situating it in nepantla. Translingualism was something she did easily both in her seminal work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza and in person, switching from friendly – nearly flirty – to scholarly, to necessary. Here I claim that even if using one recognizable language the way we express ourselves is a translingual expression because we speak in multiplicities. Who we are is tethered to all of what has been passed down, what we have experienced, and what we have managed to cultivate. Think of the sea horse, how it tethers itself to coral or another sea horse to stay in communication. The root of us is language but that language is ever reaching. If you doubt this consider the many ways a parent calls out your name and how, instinctively, there’s an understanding of their mood, what they may need, and the reminder of what childhood guilt you might be carrying. Or the good friend who you don’t call by name but by diosa, hermosa, querida, cabrona. Or the raised eyebrow of a drag performer when you hand them a $5 bill because they sang “El Chico del Apartamento 512” while dressed up as Selena and you realize how much your heart needed this. Like food. Like touch.


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And still sometimes we are that horse, running over everything in our wake, smashing it until every recognizable piece becomes a sandy powder clinging like glitter. This makes me think of sentence diagrams, where a simple phrase carries multiple meanings. Flags, if you will, or subway station routes, directing us to multiple endings. Take this line from a mini-poetic essay I wrote a while back about my mother:


“I shouldn’t have had kids,” she finally says to me, not looking in my direction. She took a role she never wanted and somehow, she thought she was expected to hold the weight of that decision until the lilt of freedom was truly gone.[4][5]


My voice here is passive, quietly threaded into this line because my “narrator” voice is equally devastated and empathetic to the powerless but angry moment my mother is in. This voice raises awareness but it also distances, pushed further by the rolling feel of the opening words’ iambic pentameter. The “she” repeated again and again indicates the incredible role this person has to the narrator but also the weight of what she carries. The word “lilt” is one of the few stressed syllables that also carries a lightness, only to be defused by the double unstressed ending. And the sentence itself is so long! It is almost impossible to say the whole thing in one breath. Thankfully there’s a comma but the desperation for another breath appears just before “lilt”, making the possibility for freedom nearly impossible. Don’t forget that silence is also a language we hold. Like the person, arms flailing, who flags to the largeness before them despite the incredible effort needed to corral it all. I could have stayed joyous in this prose piece but the only way we really rejoice is to acknowledge all that this world offers us, whether beneficial or heartbreaking.


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Translingualism gives us freedom to say hard things.


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I nearly lost one language when I entered school. With that shift my grandfather was increasingly hard to reach out to. I held the new vocabulary of silence when I knew my own queerness but couldn’t find others who were similar. My own upbringing left me with a language I have had to disengage from because of its violent origins. Countless events stop our growth in one language but overlap with another. Translingualism is about pulling together these surviving fragments to claim wholeness. Anzaldúa, when asked which part of her is her primary self, asserts “every single little piece has all of me.”[6]


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We have no choice but to combine the multiple languages we carry – tones, registers, English, Spanish, Spanglish, creole, French, Celia Cruz’ Azucar! declarations, ALL the ways through. Language lives in our bodies. Language arrives as music and is delivered through a poetry uniquely ours. It is an act of decolonization if we want to get academic, where our speaking out is an insistence that sets fire to what American culture asks us to slink down into. Indeed translingualism is now studied and pedagogy has been developed that incorporates it – but isn’t decoloniality, for writers, another way of saying here is what roots me and here is what I rejoice in and here is what I have experienced that has changed me but has not killed me.


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Tethered but buoyant. Changed but constant. Finding the clave in our bodies, that 1-2 / 1-2-3 alerting our mind to the world around us. Giving us voice and with voice the opportunity to change and manifest new futures.


 

Notes:



 

jo reyes-boitel is a poet, playwright, and scholar, queer mixed Latinx, and parent now working on their MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, where they also serve as a teaching assistant. Their publications include Michael + Josephine (FlowerSong Press, 2019) and the chapbook mouth (Neon Hemlock, 2021). Their next book of poetry, centered on their upbringing, is forthcoming from Next Page Press in November 2023.









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