MEGAN: Welcome to the Vocal Fries Podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
CARRIE: I’m Carrie Gillon.
MEGAN: And I’m Megan Figueroa. Today we have a very special guest. We have with us Alberto Alvaro Rios. Is that how you pronounce it? Did I do-
ALBERTO: Alberto ALvaro –
MEGAN: Yes. Forgive my Spanish. He was born in 1952 in Nogales, Arizona, and is the author of 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, three collections of short stories and in memoire about growing up on the Mexican/Arizona border, which I’m really excited about to talk about. He went to the University of Arizona, where I’m going right now. He graduated with an MFA and he’s currently a Regents professor at Arizona State University, where he has taught for 35 years, I believe.
ALBERTO: That’s right.
MEGAN: And he where he holds the further distinction of the Katherine C Turner endowed chair in English. This is how Carrie knows him, right?
CARRIE: Yeah, we had our offices almost right next to each other for a while.
MEGAN: In 2013, then Arizona Governor Jan Brewer named Rios the state’s first poet laureate, which is very exciting. It was very exciting for me because he is Chicano and to see a Chicano as the first poet laureate of Arizona was so thrilling. Rios is the recipient of numerous awards for his work. His work has been translated. It’s even been adapted to dance, which is very fun. Just last month his book A Small Story about the Sky was recently chosen for inclusion in the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read Initiative. So that’s very exciting. We’re very excited to have you Alberto.
ALBERTO: Oh thank you. Excited to be here! This is a great topic. I’m ready to go.
ALBERTO: The entire field of linguistics! Let’s go!
MEGAN: Yes, let’s just break it down-
ALBERTO: It’s kind of funny we’re talking about language IN language, which feels a little incestuous to me.
CARRIE: That’s what we have to do.
ALBERTO: And yet, that’s what we have. I thought maybe we can handle this with grunts.
MEGAN: Alberto, you identify Chicano, correct?
ALBERTO: Correct, very much, yes.
MEGAN: I also identify as Chicana. I thought – Carrie, you noted of course that we should probably give a little history what “Chicano” and “Chicana” mean – and it might be best if we just kind of describe what we think it means? It’s because no one can really agree. There does seem to be some agreement that there’s possibly two ways it came about. The first hypothesis is that it comes from the Nahuatl term “Mexica” [meːʃiʔkaʔ], which is the indigenous word, better known for evolving into the modern-day word “Mexico”. Others think that “Chicano” is just a variation of the Spanish “Mexicano”. I’ve heard both of those as hypotheses for where “Chicano” came from. Chicana is important to identify with because it recognizes indigenous roots that we have as being in America and having Mexican American roots, or having Mexican roots. It connects us with the indigenous, connects us with the land. It kind of for me also rejects the colonization a bit by the Spanish, even though my last name Figueroa is definitely from Spain. Most Figueroas in the world are in Mexico at this point. A lot of more conservative Mexican Americans might reject the term, because of how it identifies with leftist politics. Because Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers identified as Chicano and Chicana, and also the Chicano rights movement in the 1960s. So it’s kind of liberation stuff. Not everyone identifies as Chicano. But I do.
CARRIE: How do you think about the term?
ALBERTO: I’ll tell you what I think about the term. I think that’s a perfectly useful discussion, but I didn’t grow up in an environment where we sat around debating what to call ourselves or anything else. That’s a politicized term and I don’t mean that it’s left-right, up-down, whatever – it’s just not a day-to-day life term. We didn’t have a name for ourselves, except whatever our names were. I grew up being called “Mexicano”, being called guero, being called-
MEGAN: Ah yes. I’m guera!
ALBERTO: That’s right, you are. Being called “Chicano”, being called “Latino”, “Hispanic”. There was a litany of names, and ultimately the name list could go on to a hundred, it didn’t matter. You did what you did, you were who you were, and you got through your day. I think it’s a luxury to think about a name like that. I didn’t grow up in a milieu in which we had the luxury of self-definition. You had to do whatever needed to be done, which was beyond vocabulary in that sense.
MEGAN: It was kind of about survival, right? Like do what needed to be done.
ALBERTO: Exactly. And as I got older and got into a context of, “what are you?” and that sort of stuff, then all those terms certainly had their moment. It was always amazing to me that there was a kind of chameleon-like nature to them. If you were with your friends, you weren’t really Chicanos; you were Mexicanos. It was something a little more that I don’t think the outer world would have necessarily understood. It didn’t mean you were FROM Mexico. You were more centralized in that definition of a Mexicanismo. Where you just had a sense of that. When I think of “Chicano” or ALL of those terms, it’s all about growing up on the border, but I don’t mean necessarily or only the geographical border. It was a cultural border. If you were in-between two cultures, specifically Mexico, not so much Latin American in the wider spectrum – very much where I grew up, Mexico and US or whatever Anglicization mix might have been in there. My mother was born in England. My father was born in southern Mexico. So I was very much in that hybrid zone, where I got called a lot of things. For good or for bad, I was able to fit into a lot of groups. I had to learn for myself where I fit. Because if you fit everywhere, you fit nowhere. It’s a strange kind of odd truism I’ve learned over time: to learn how to embed and to be part of and whatever. It is a limitation that’s actually in some ways very healthy and an embracing thing. We think of limitation as a narrowing, when in fact it is not narrowing in the way that we might traditionally define that.
CARRIE: Yeah, I always think about when you’re trying to do something creative, actually having limitations makes it easier in some sense.
ALBERTO: Sure. That’s the whole Oulipo movement and going back to surrealism, Dada and whatever. The idea of putting constraints in your way. In the most surprisingly outcomeish way, things happen that wouldn’t have happened because of that barrier. So struggle – this is gonna seem like the strangest thing and it’s something that I talk about with friends, but it’s not something you say publicly, but having had to battle various things made everybody stronger, smarter, more energetic, not less. It made us invent. Which was a great act of the imagination, which I think is the way to get through all of these things.
CARRIE: Another thing I was thinking about while you were talking is that this reminds me of how Obama talks about himself, as well. Because he’s at the border of two cultures, very much.
MEGAN: Yeah, and for us too, as gueros, we could kind of be chameleons, which is very good for survival. I see it differently for you. It was much different for you, but for me, it’s true: I have the privilege of being able to call myself Chicana. The people in the 1960s did the marches and did all that work for me to be able to call myself that. I’m really appreciative of the work that has come before me.
ALBERTO: I was there!
MEGAN: Yeah exactly! My dad, who’s from Bisbee – also border –
ALBERTO: Oh wow, okay.
MEGAN: I read this blog post by Cheech Marin, who identifies as Chicano, and he said, “in the early days the connotation of calling someone a Chicano was that they were poor, illiterate, destitute people living in tin shacks along the border”, and my dad literally grew up in a place in Bisbee called Tintown, because the roofs are all tin.
ALBERTO: Oh funny: Tintown.
MEGAN: I read that, and I immediately thought of him. He too says he prefers to be called Mexicano, and then it eventually got to Chicano in the 60s.
ALBERTO: It was a pejorative term. It was.
MEGAN: It was, yeah. He also actually feels that sometimes when some people just say, “oh you’re Mexican”, he doesn’t like to hear “Mexican” anymore, because it feels pejorative now by a lot of people in the US. Which is unfortunate.
ALBERTO: It feels entirely pejorative to me when I hear it.
CARRIE: That’s so unfortunate.
MEGAN: I know, right?
ALBERTO: It’s totally unfortunate. I can’t feel a generosity of spirit. When I hear it, it just feels slanted. It doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t know if it’s me, I don’t know if it’s them. I’ve given up trying to figure out what that is, but it feels odd.
CARRIE: I think it’s because the wider society in the United States is very racist towards Mexicans. That’s not coming from you. It’s not. It’s wider.
MEGAN: It might be a defense mechanism, honestly. I feel like my dad passed it on to me – I hear “Mexican”, I look at the person, are they judging it? Where are they coming from? It always feels negative. It’s a gut reaction.
ALBERTO: There’s a piece of insider information here though too – within the Latino community, the term “Mexican” is sometimes pejorative WITHIN the group.
ALBERTO: That’s a little harder and more complex. You don’t just get rid of all prejudice because you’re within the group.
ALBERTO: There is inner group prejudice as well, and it just manifests in different ways, but yes but it’s there too. So it’s just a loaded – so unfortunately – loaded term.
CARRIE: It should be neutral, but as we’ve talked before, neutral terms take on pejorative meanings. Megan brought this up, when we were talking about this a long time ago, that The Office even talks about how “Mexican” has become a slur. Michael Scott doesn’t want to call Oscar Mexican, because he thinks it is a slur.
STEVE CARELL: Oscar, right here. You’re on!
OSCAR NUNEZ: Okay. Michael. Um. Uh. Both my parents were born in Mexico.
STEVE CARELL: [whispers] Oh yeah.
OSCAR NUNEZ: And, uh, they moved to the United States a year before I was born.
STEVE CARELL: [softly] Yeah.
OSCAR NUNEZ: So I grew up in the United States.
STEVE CARELL: [softly] Wow.
OSCAR NUNEZ: My parents are Mexican.
STEVE CARELL: Wow. Wow. That is, that is a great story. That’s the American dream right there, right?
OSCAR NUNEZ: Right, yeah.
STEVE CARELL: Um, let me ask you: is there a term besides “Mexican” that you prefer? Something less offensive?
OSCAR NUNEZ: “Mexican” isn’t offensive.
STEVE CARELL: Well, it has certain connotations.
CARRIE: It’s upsetting.
CARRIE: One of the things that you guys both brought up was this name – or term – guero or guera. Could you describe that?
ALBERTO: Light-skinned, blondie, something along those lines. In Latino culture – and I’m just gonna use that term, we can decide what we want to define that as – but in Latino culture, the sobrenombre, or the nickname, is a very common kind of thing. It’s often familial, but not always. In a community, you can often with abandon yell across the street, “órale, guero!” or make some other physical observation, and it’s not meant to be offensive or anything – even though a lot of them, like maybe mocho or something, means “hey you with the missing hand, over there!”
CARRIE: Oh wow.
ALBERTO: But it has never been meant to be offensive. It is simply an act of clarification. It’s actually an embrace by the community that says we recognize you’re there! You don’t have a hand, or you’re short, or you’re fat, or you’re whatever! We don’t mean anything by it. It’s just a clarification. Incidentally that term guero – there was a wonderful story in South Phoenix – this has got to be about 15 years ago – where there was a stabbing or something in a bar, and it was kind of a seedy bar, and the police were describing this in this news report, but it was the news writer who said “well, you know, everybody in the bar said they didn’t know who did it!” They named these clearly Latino names, and then there’s some guy named like “John Smith”, and they were describing him: he’s light-skinned or whatever. But everybody could agree that it was guero who did it! So he’s right there! And they didn’t know what the name meant. They just were looking for somebody named Guero.
MEGAN: That’s so funny!
CARRIE: Oh my god, that’s exactly like Arrested Development! Hermano!
MEGAN: Oh yeah.
CARRIE: Someone named hermano!
WILL ARNETT: You’re a good guy, mon frère. That means “brother” in French. I don’t know why I know that. I took four years of Spanish! … It’s all because of you fratello. It’s Italian for “brother”, so. Now all I’ve got to do is find this “hermano” guy. I’m gonna kill him.
TONY HALE: She is the love that’s forbidden. The love of my hermano.
WILL ARNETT: Wait a second: what?! You know hermano?!
TONY HALE: Hermano is “brother” in Spanish. As in, “hey, hermano!”
WILL ARNETT: “Brother.” Hermano means “brother”? Well. Sounds like hermano is about to get his ass kicked.
MEGAN: When I was little, one of my cousins, we called him gordo. I wasn’t raised speaking Spanish, unfortunately, but I thought his name was Gordo.
MEGAN: And I thought that was the worst name!
ALBERTO: That’s a name!
MEGAN: I’m sorry! And that means “chunky”.
ALBERTO: The edge is softened, because there’s often a further diminutive, like gordito or gordita. It’s meant to be loving. It’s not offensive. Certainly, if you’re on the other end of it, you may take it that way. But if you grow up with it, you get it. It’s different from a name, where – my name for example is Alberto – and the immediate diminutive of that is Betito, which is what my grandmother called me, and then that shortens to either Beto or Tito. And as Carrie would know, people know me as Tito, largely because I grew up in the state. I didn’t get away, so many people know me that you don’t escape that childhood nickname. But it’s a familial nickname. In Latino culture, it doesn’t mean you can presume to go forward and call somebody by that nickname, the same way that you might call somebody Bob with abandon and feel more licensed in some fashion to do that. It’s an active community and a closed community to have those nicknames, but they’re very sweet, they’re tender, and you can almost bet everybody has one. The fact that you don’t know what it is, means you’re not on the inside of it. Again, that’s not meant to keep people out, it just says we grew up together.
CARRIE: Yeah. It’s a community-building thing.
ALBERTO: This is an interesting linguistic true fact – it’s a nice one – there’s a term tocayo. And tocayo, I don’t know if you’ve heard that, but it is a presumed relationship by first name, not last name. If somebody comes up to me in an audience, and I’ve done a reading or something, they come up afterward and they say, “hola tacayo!” I know that person’s name is “Alberto”. We are like first cousins in that moment, by virtue of both having grown up with whatever the experiences are of having been called Alberto your whole life.
CARRIE: Wow. That’s fascinating.
ALBERTO: It is, and I get it pretty regularly, but nobody else would get what that means. It is a very, again, communal assumption that you have grown up with certain things, because of that first name. It’s kind of a nice idea.
CARRIE: That’s really cool. I can’t think of anything equivalent in my culture.
ALBERTO: No. Yeah, well we always assume relationship to come from last name. But the community is family is extended into that presumption of first name shared experience.
CARRIE: That’s interesting.
ALBERTO: In Latin America and certainly when I was growing up in Latino Mexicano communities or families, there is a greater sense of community. We talk about that kind of blithely, but few people sort of sit down to define what that means. There are all sorts of markers. One of my favorites is, in growing up, we celebrated our Saints days, not our birthdays. Birthdays in this country are what make you special. That’s what separates you from your community. But a Saints Day is what actually connects you to your community. It’s what you have in common with other people. It’s not about what separates you, it’s what joins you to that community. There are other things like that, but that idea of shared experience and connectivity, in a communal sense, is very real.
MEGAN: It is real. It’s lovely to grow up with and I carry it with me still. I feel like everything I do, I do for them, for my community. I feel like it’s a really great way to live.
ALBERTO: Whether you want to or not. We presume that to be a positive statement, but you know.
MEGAN: We wanted to ask you what it was like to grow up on the border. We kind of have the border as not a physical border, we mean that too – and from your memoire, I want to read one phrase that you called the border. You say, “it is a neat fence along somebody’s huge yard or it is a bad scarring on the land a badly healed appendix incision.” I thought that was really beautiful, and also very sad. It made me very sad when I read that. I guess the question is: what’s it like to grow up on that kind of border at Nogales, and also the border of English and Spanish. That’s a really long question.
ALBERTO: And I have a very long set of answers to that as you can imagine. I’ve talked about that all my life. I lived it first. That’s a very important thing: it’s got to come from a life lived, not a life studied. So, as scholars, to come onto the scene and try to figure that out, there’s something inherently missing in that paradigm. It’s important first to factor in time. I grew up in the 50s, and the border in the 50s was a distinctly, wildly, just incredibly different experience. It was nothing like what it is now. Celebrations like the fifth of May or dieciséis de septiembre, these big celebrations that were, in some fashion, as Nogales, Arizonaish as they were Nogales, Sonoraish. O those days, it was like a fair day. You just threw open the border, you just threw open the fence. Everybody created a big parade. It started on the far side of Nogales, Sonora and then it marched to the courthouse on the Nogales, Arizona side, and everybody just went back and forth. And the resonant thing that comes out of that is, at the end of the day, everybody just went home. There’s not a big panic. “Oh my god, everybody’s trying to go over here and take this and get that!” It was a celebration, as it should be. Oddly enough, characterized by a militaristic presence, but you have to remember this was post-war. And Mexicanos fought with great distinction, and we’re very proud. In those parades, the Mexican schools from the Senora side, they were always and only drum and bugle corps – so they were dramatic, because when you came through the little Canyon of the little Street with the storefronts, and the “bong bong”, you’re hitting all these drums in unison. It was great! I say, as a kid, and as an adult, I realize, of course, they had no other resources. That’s all they could do. But they made a lot with what they had. I have to say, that was that was so striking to me as a child. I loved that. That’s what rock and roll would later become – an act of the body. It just went into you in those moments. And to have like 50 drums hitting a beat all at once in July, it’s startling and wonderful. And you go “alright!”
CARRIE: I love drums.
ALBERTO: I know. I know. And the unfortunate part, of course, is that it was militaristic. There were a lot of VFW and the different groups who were all part of the parade. It was all post-war. And what that kind of meant is, when you watched a parade or on these fair days, you were – I’m gonna make a wild generalization – you were with your mother and your siblings. Because your dad was marching. And that was an act of community and community with the world. It wasn’t just that it was your family – it’s somebody had gone somewhere to do something. And that was very affecting. It was very moving. What I will never forget, as a kid – because I didn’t get it, like your dad, why would he do this? All of the soldiers who were marching and, at this point, they were wearing the VFW or the American Legion hats, and different things, when they marched, their eyes would look straight forward. It’s gonna make me cry now, but I know that if they had looked to the side, they would cry. I have never forgotten, and I didn’t understand it as a kid. I didn’t understand what that focus on just the person ahead of you meant. But I know now. I know now what I think they were feeling on some level. It is amazing that the militarism was – however you look at your bar graph or your chart – was north-south, it wasn’t east-west it wasn’t left-right, like the border fence is now, which is very militarized. It was back and forth. That is a that is a very – if you think about what that means, that is just stunning. Those fair days – by the way, I can tell you when those fair days ended. It was the year, it was the day John Kennedy was shot.
CARRIE: Oh my god.
MEGAN: Oh wow.
ALBERTO: That day was a Friday. I will never forget it. It happened to be a teacher conference type thing, so as kids we were released early that day. I was part of something that, to this day, it’s the funniest thing in the world to me. This is the civic authorities, the mayor and the council, they were always trying to devise ways to keep kids from getting into trouble. Well a bowling alley had just opened, and so they put us all in bowling leagues, which of course that’s a skill for life right there! Right, that’s a great one. So we walked from the school, and the funny part is, the walk from the school to the bowling alley – it was probably the most dangerous thing you could do. But they had us walk, so we would walk to the bowling alley. We were going to our bowling leagues, and in Nogales, in those days, there were two echo chambers. The one that everybody knew: the Catholic Church. Big chamber, right, and of course they would always tell you “Shh”, when you were in church. Which is the last thing you wanted to do as a kid. You wanted to shout. The other echo chamber was the newly opened bowling alley, which was full of noise. All these pins going down, and kids shouting, and it was just mayhem. There was this great place to be. There was all this noise going on, we were there. We were bowling, and I’m sure arguing about whose turn it was. And then all of a sudden, a phone call came in. And a kid is called up. That’s very rare. And more phone calls started to come in, and it turned out that what people don’t know – you may know this as a Canadian – but the day John Kennedy was shot, all of the borders to this country were closed.
CARRIE: I did not know that.
ALBERTO: Totally. But when I say closed, I mean totally closed. No traffic, nothing, no flow whatsoever. Now remember these kids that I was going to school with, lived over there. When these phone calls started coming in, it was from parents saying, “they’ve closed the border. I don’t know how to come and get you yet.” In theory everybody was supposed to have a – this is from the Cold War – you’re supposed to have a plan. Oddly enough, people sort of knew that was in the air, but it was just sort of right after all of those Cold War plans, and the ammonia bottles full of water, and all of that sort of stuff. But the second or third phone call, one of the kids just starts to cry. As you can imagine, I was in fifth grade and so there were kids from like 3rd – I don’t think there were 2nd graders, but somewhere in that age range up to about 6th grade – it’s elementary school. One kid starts to cry, and it’s the unspoken bond of kidness that if one kid cries, man it doesn’t matter why, you just jump in, and it’s a show of support. What I won’t forget is that echo chamber of a bowling alley that suddenly had all of these kids crying. They didn’t know why they were crying. Was it for Kennedy? Was it for getting home? It was so complex in that moment. Later, my father came to pick me up and he took me home and then he went back, as many of the parents did, and took the kids who were there to the border. Everyone took somebody there. I asked my parents many years later – and many times – is this true? They said, “absolutely”. They stayed there with the kids and they would not let the kids cross the border, even at the local crossing, until about 5:00 in the morning. The scene was mothers on one side or parents on one side, with interlocked fingers through the chain-link fence. Everybody crying and sitting down against the thing. I guess it’s possible one of these 4th graders could have assassinated the president in Dallas, but not likely. It was where that act of just oblique distant force of law, whatever it is, tries to impose something on this moment in this group. And again that’s what we’re seeing now. This is being revisited big time. When they closed the border, that’s the first time anybody had ever seen that. It had never done that, never felt like that, and it was never the same again. People tried and there were attempts to keep it going, but we knew something had changed. Added to this, culturally, you can’t underestimate the meaning of John Kennedy to Latin America.
MEGAN: Oh. Catholicism.
ALBERTO: That’s it in a nutshell. I had family all over Mexico, and we would take these big trips. In houses, in Mexico, you will often see a little altar, with pictures of relatives or somebody who’s away fighting. But the eerie thing is, when I was a kid traveling, there was always a picture of John Kennedy. In Mexico. In Mexico.
ALBERTO: It was the signature of hope. It was the first time that Latin America thought there is a chance for something – we don’t know what it is. Of course it was Catholicism, but it felt bigger than that. It felt like an opening moment, and John Kennedy embodied it, and John Kennedy was the US. So when he got shot, it was a big deal. And then when the US government closed the border – the impact of that was tremendous. Again, as a kid, you’re not sitting around thinking about it that way, but in a stranger sensibility, you’re feeling it. We forget that we come to the mind as we get older. When you’re a kid you are still in the body. Let me go back. You asked a question about language. And growing up on the border. It’s tethered to that. As kids, the truth of it is, you don’t speak English or Spanish or Spanglish or anything else, you speak whatever language gets you dinner. It’s not different anywhere! You speak a common language throughout the world. You just say whatever words are the magic words. They say, “I want quesadillas!” or whatever you want. The truth of it is, I grew up around my father’s family. My mother, as I say, was born in England. She was an outsider in town. She had not learned Spanish yet. She would; she hadn’t yet. I grew up around my father’s family, and my caregivers were all my father’s family, and really my first language – I have said for years – was Spanish, which I think is true. As I’ve thought about it, of course my first language was the same as anybody’s language. We forget to say it this way, but my first language was the language of listening. Just like anybody. It wasn’t what came out of my mouth, that made no sense. It’s what came into my ears that made sense. So redoubling that, it was Spanish, along with my mother. But my mother was such an outsider that my brother and I never called her “mother” or “mama” and actually didn’t even comfortably call her that later in life. As a result of this, we caught we called her as kids “Agnes”, just like everybody else did, because she was an outsider. She was like whatever, and everybody called her that! She didn’t speak quite the same way. It was not hard to understand what outsider means, if you’re a kid. So we grew up. And the truth of it is – and we can talk about language later, what words I was saying, but it was just a wonderful fruit salad of languages that included English and Spanish, primarily, and Hiaki/Yaqui, and made up words for the border, and other things. Words you had read. You also need to remember that was a huge French influence in Mexico that is very important to remember as well. So we were speaking all these languages, which I have to say, if I just had to give it a name, it was Spanish. The same way that English is a great alphabet soup of things. It was Spanish in that sense. We had no trouble with this, it was great, fine. Everybody, you know, whatever, until we got to 1st grade in the 1950s. And on the border especially, where these issues were even more strident. I remember being in 1st grade classroom and we were all talking. Teacher comes in and we’re all speaking in Spanish. Of course, the first thing she says, “class! or whatever, student! You can’t speak Spanish in here!” We all looked at each other, and to this day, it’s still one of the funniest retorts I’ve ever heard. Somebody raised their hand said, “se ???” “Of course we can, just listen!” She said, “no, no. What I mean is you are not to speak Spanish, and if you do we’re gonna swat you.” Alright. We overreact to that today, on some levels. We underreact to it on others. But as a kid – you gotta remember we’re sitting in that 1st grade classroom, and this is not our house. This is a room that has very specifically first-grader stuff. Man, it’s got clay and cubbyholes and kick balls that aren’t flat, and it’s got stuff! So you’re sitting around, you’re a first grader, you can’t speak Spanish whatever. And remember, you speak whatever language you can to get dinner.
MEGAN: Did you know English at that time?
ALBERTO: I personally had a much better grasp of it, than I would say most of my –
CARRIE: Because of your mother, probably.
ALBERTO: Because of my mother, right. Did I know English? I think to this day, I am amazed to go back to Nogales and understand how much of your daily-ness is Spanish.
CARRIE: Wow, that’s cool.
ALBERTO: So I had a handle on it, but the important thing to know is that, if you’re a kid, it is not this big thing. It’s this immediate thing of playing the game. If it took learning English to get that stuff, we could do that! How long could that? Take two weeks tops. You’re a kid, you’re gonna do whatever it takes. The thing about kids, though, is they don’t limit what they learn. You don’t close the book on this. We knew that because we came from good homes – I think all of us did – you got swatted, very carefully explained to us, for doing something bad. We didn’t just learn our first lesson in language. We got our first lesson in making an equation. Our parents had also said, “listen to your teacher. Do what your teacher -” – and the term maestro in Spanish is a term of respect. It has nothing to do with a school building; it’s an elder. Anybody who teaches you something. So you respect your teacher, and “if you don’t, we’re gonna swat you!” It’s still the days of the belt and all that kind of stuff. Well, okay, alright. You’re in first grade and you know that you’re gonna get swatted for speaking Spanish, and you know that you speak Spanish, and you know that you get swatted for doing something – so you make the equation. It’s not that you sit around in an algebra Club and debate this: here’s an equation for you! You have to remember that you’re feeling this with the body. Second grade comes around, and you learn that equation widens out and your body is a little bigger, and it fits more now. Because now it’s been demonstrated, you’ll get swatted for speaking Spanish, different people get swatted, and they get carried off, they’ve got to go see the vice-principal, and all that sort of stuff. You start to recognize by second grade that your parents speak Spanish. Your families speak Spanish. And if Spanish is bad, they then must be bad. Now, you don’t say that out loud.
CARRIE: No, of course not.
ALBERTO: You have learned it through the mechanisms of the body, not the intellect. So you can imagine what our PTA meetings were like. As far as I know, we didn’t have any! Because if you’re a kid, you’re suddenly put in this position of protecting your parents. And there are all kinds of variations of this. One is “alright class, take this note written in English home to your parents and tell them to come to the -.” “Yes, yes miss.” Of course you put your note in your in your notebook, and then, after school, we went on school buses – and one thing I’ll never forget. There was a trash can next to the school bus and it had stenciled on to it the word “basura”. Which means “trash”. They had stenciled it on in Spanish, because if you want somebody to do something, you speak to them in the language obviously they’re going to understand. So we had the note in English and the word “basura” on the trashcan. You can see our little ballet. We would we would all walk by and it was just de rigueur. We would each pull out our note, and with great ceremony, we would drop it into the trashcan, because we loved our parents. Because we knew that if we took those notes home – they were parents, all of them. If they could be written in Chinese, they would figure out what that note meant. And just the fact that it came from school, they would come. There was a lot of respect for school. We knew – I knew that if my parents came, which of course they would, my father would come. And if my father came, he liked to talk! I knew that if he spoke, he would speak in Spanish. And that if he did, he would have to get in the swat line.
ALBERTO: I laugh about that now. To me, it’s very funny. That’s such second-grader reasoning. But as a second grader, it’s the only reasoning you have. And so it wasn’t funny, and it was very real. That’s how it was. You can imagine by the time we got to fifth grade, sixth grade, junior high – I will say for myself, I couldn’t speak Spanish. Which is purely to say, I didn’t want to. I had learned how not to get hurt. The same way I wouldn’t dodge into a dodge ball, I’d dodge away from it! That’s of course what you would do. It wasn’t til my later years, in junior high and in high school, that I relearned Spanish. But I didn’t relearn Spanish! It hadn’t gone anywhere! I had to relearn my attitude toward it – but not everybody did. I’m part of a whole generation that learned this with their bodies. One of the great issues in the Chicano community is language. “You do speak Spanish well.” “You don’t speak Spanish at all.” You whatever, whatever. It’s sort of beating each other up, which is kind of ridiculous. One of the great rejoinders is, “well, you’re a smart guy just take a Spanish class or just get a book and just read this. It’s probably 30 pages and it’s solved!” What is missing in that advice and, again, it’s that idea of the overture, a big central authority come in coming and trying to put a law in on those little kids. What’s missing is that in first grade, second grade, where you’re still literally learning the world with your body, you’re learning to do a number of things like ride a bike. You have to learn that with your body. You can’t learn it with your head!
CARRIE: You can’t intellectualize it or you’ll fall down!
ALBERTO: You can’t intellectualize it. Right. If you think of that, at that same time, what we were learning, linguistically, if you can think of that as a linguistic bicycle, you’ve got balance right in the middle, and if you lean a little too far to the left. you’re gonna fall over, dummy! You’re gonna fall over and you’re gonna get hurt! And, linguistically, if you speak Spanish, you lean to the left, you’re gonna fall over, you’re gonna get hurt! Here’s the surprising revelation of this metaphor: if you lean a little too far to the right, same thing! You’re gonna fall over on the bike, you’re gonna get hurt! So, linguistically, if you say quote unquote bad words, dirty words -again making another equation – to what then Spanish is beyond just bad.
CARRIE: It’s profanity.
ALBERTO: Yeah. But it’s still that same bicycle. You’re getting it. Alright, you learn to ride the bike, alright, so later, you’re an adult, you haven’t ridden a bike for five years, and you get on and what the first thing people say? You never forget. You never forget how to ride a bike. If you can place this intellectual argument now into the body, you can understand why somebody doesn’t open up a book and just figure or take a class. It’s gonna hurt! You can tell me it isn’t, you can show me it isn’t, you can whatever, but it’s gonna hurt. Something inside of you is so grounded in, that again, it’s not funny. It’s not solvable if we don’t address the body.
MEGAN: Did you teach your children Spanish?
ALBERTO: Yes. I have one son. His name is Joaquin. There’s a funny story. My mother-in-law, who spoke no English – my wife was born in Mexico, but grew up in Tucson, and became a citizen, and her mother, her parents didn’t speak English, but lived in Tucson. This is not uncommon, by the way. They lived in a barrio in the south part of Tucson. But she did not speak English. Nevertheless, when we had our son, we were living in Chandler area, which is about you know an hour and a half, two hours from Tucson. He never had a babysitter. My mother-in-law would come on the bus every single week up to Chandler. I would pick her up and she would take care of our son. I was teaching at the University at that point, but I was able to pretty much have freedom to do what I needed to do on Thursdays and Fridays. So she would come up for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then I would take her home on Thursday morning. My son grew up – now if HE wanted to eat dinner, he had to learn, so yes he learned Spanish, in that context of his grandmother, which I think was a wonderful way to learn it. I have to say I had a comparative to that. Maybe I can read something?
CARRIE: Yes, of course.
ALBERTO: Let me dig this out. Let me tell you what this story is, and you can decide. When I was in that time period where I thought I could not speak Spanish. Later elementary school, beginning of junior high school. Nogales was not a big town in those days. I would go to my grandmother’s house. I would walk over for lunch, once a week. My grandmother spoke no English whatsoever, and I thought I spoke no Spanish. You would think we had a problem. But a grandmother and a grandson sitting down for lunch is not a problem. If language was going to get in our way – what we did, intuitively, is we invented a third language. Not English, or Spanish, a language that was just ours. It’s very simple to explain, and I think any intercultural – anybody who’s had that kind of an upbringing will get this. She would cook and I would eat. And that’s how we talked. And it tasted good, and I can hear her still. I have a poem I’ve written about that, if I can read this.
CARRIE: Yes, please.
ALBERTO: This is an early poem that has been in a lot of anthologies. If you listen, she really says virtually nothing in the poem. And yet we’re talking, and it’s this way of talking that we had. It’s called Nani, which is the diminutive of Nana, which seems to be a kind of a universal word, you can go to the planet Pluto and ask where the Nanas are and they’ll send you to the grandmothers.
Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albondigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.
I watch the mamá warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
Nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?
She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.
ALBERTO: Have you ever tried to tell your grandmother you don’t want more to eat?
ALBERTO: It doesn’t matter what language you’re saying that in, it will not work.
CARRIE: You have to leave a little bit on the plate, or they won’t stop.
ALBERTO: That’s it. That’s it.
CARRIE: That was very beautiful, thank you.
ALBERTO: Thank you.
MEGAN: I hear that and I know that people listening are going to have some memory that they’re gonna connect to that. Everyone listening will have one.
ALBERTO: Sure. It is a sweet moment. I later relearned or had to rethink how to converse with my grandmother. Because for so long, I sort of didn’t, or didn’t feel I could, or just listened, or just ate, or whatever. And it takes a while. I think it was in so many ways – we talked earlier about putting a barrier in front of something – in the most curious of ways, it made me appreciate her in so many more complex senses later. Things I probably wouldn’t have worked to invent or rethink, and yet was forced to – including writing. One of the things that, as a young writer – I wrote that many years ago. Writing that line about what will she take of me when she dies. She wasn’t dead when I wrote that. And then suddenly, you’re reading a poem and then it comes to pass. You realize that even you, yourself, with the words you’re using, you’ve got to be mindful of something that is stronger than you think. It’s not that I predicted her death. But she died. And I said she was going to.
CARRIE: Do you feel some guilt about that?
ALBERTO: I feel weird about it, yeah. That those lines are there, and we all have that inside of us. “Wait, did I do that? I didn’t mean to!” Of course, that’s absurd, but you know you have that little complication, that little implication that you were you were in on that, somehow. And it bothers you, yeah.
CARRIE: Even though, everybody dies.
ALBERTO: Yeah. That said, I am really glad I wrote that poem.
CARRIE: Yeah. Complicated feelings. As everything is.
ALBERTO: Everything is.
CARRIE: Especially about language. Because when you were talking earlier about how basically the school tried to make you feel bad about Spanish, and it worked. To me, that’s horrible, but it’s very common. We had talked about this when we talked about Rez English, how the boarding schools in the United States and the residential schools in Canada literally beat the Indian out of these children. They weren’t allowed to speak their languages either.
ALBERTO: But the idea of language, by the way – can I just jump in on that. I did a lot of work on what was then called the Papago reservation, now the Tohono O’odham.
MEGAN: Tohono O’odham, yeah.
ALBERTO: I was working out at a Santa Rosa day school, which was a boarding school type thing, outside of Sells, near Tucson. I’ll never forget what those kids taught me. I worked with a group of – I believe they were third graders, who when I got there they said, “you’re probably gonna not want to do this, but boy it would be great if you would.” They said, “would you work with our disabled?” There was no adequate language to describe what was wrong but it was physical disablement, mental impairment and on top of that they did not speak English. Could I, as a writer, work with them? I said, “oh, well, okay, I’ll see what we can do!” I know we were laughing earlier about talking about linguistics – language with using language. When I got to that classroom the first week it was just such a failure, although they loved having a stranger in the room. There’s a charm to that that will last for a little while. But it was clear. There were a number of aids in the class, so it wasn’t out of control, and different things were happening, but it’s clear that there were windows of five minute attention spans, and things you just had to work with. I spent the weekend after that first week thinking, “man. Here I am. If I’m a writer coming in and we’re talking about language, how can language be the problem?” Which is something I have from – it’s from this very specific instance that I say everywhere I go now, languages are solutions, they’re not problems. And I had to think about what I had done with my grandmother. So what I ended up doing is creating smell bags. I got these lunch bags, and I put smells into them, like Aqua Velva and Prell. I remember Prell shampoo. Other things that had distinct smells that would last the morning. Then I wrapped them with ribbon, so they look like presents. I took them in and I said, “I’ve got some surprises for you.” I told them, “I have been to all of your houses and I have brought something from them.” They’re all going, “no you didn’t! No you didn’t! You couldn’t do that!” or variations of that. They couldn’t speak English, but they were saying that. That little conversation, of course, took about 45 minutes to get through. But everybody’s looking at this thing and I said, “well. Here’s what we’re gonna do. Each one of you, I’m gonna give you one of these and you’re gonna unwrap it, but you’re not gonna look inside. You’re gonna look with your nose. And you’re gonna tell me what you see.” Everybody’s going, “oh, how do you do that?” The first boy – and this could not have been scripted – first boy opens it up and there was Aqua Velva, I’m sure was in there, he opens it up, and he was all enthusiastic. He was ready. He puts his nose straight in, and he comes up with his eyes huge. He said, “it’s my father in there!” I said, “what is he doing?” “He’s shaving!” I’ve never forgotten that. He said that all in Papago [Tohono O’odham], but he was like I had done some big magic trick. I realized that whatever school was giving them was not their life. It’s not what they could talk about, that’s not where their language, their understanding, their sensibility was centered. School was a struggle. So was home, but in a very different way. And to be able to connect to that, to find a language that could connect to that, was the way. I’ve never forgotten that myself. What I taught to myself in that moment, what that little boy taught to me, is something I’ve never forgotten about language. There are lots of ways.
MEGAN: This is similar to how you described learning through the body for you and the equation that you learned that Spanish equals bad. It seems like they were getting the same message.
ALBERTO: Very much.
MEGAN: Unfortunately it’s still happening in schools today. That young children are getting the message that Spanish is still bad.
CARRIE: Or that all languages except for a select few are bad.
CARRIE: Except for English and French and maybe Mandarin.
MEGAN: That goes back to what we talk about on the podcast about how this is all a proxy for other things, a proxy for discrimination against Mexicanos or against the Papago or the Tohono O’odham. It’s actually the reason – my dad had a very similar experience to you, and his lesson from all that was that Spanish was bad. It gets you hurt, it gets you tracked into some classes, you don’t get to go to college. All these things. He didn’t teach me Spanish for that reason. It was my first introduction to what linguistic discrimination is, and how that manifests.
ALBERTO: Sure. We have to understand that it’s not simply linguistic discrimination, because the blueprint for a culture is embedded in language. When anybody conquers anybody, you take that away, right? Or you do something to it. What that does is such a narrowing of worldview that it’s astounding, if we can step back and take a look at that. We just got through Day of the Dead, la Día de Muertos. Which is celebrated with great abandon here. It’s all very quite wonderful and misunderstood. It’s so conflated with Halloween now. People don’t understand what is going on. If I can just use languages as a way into that, for a moment. The actual Day of the Dead is November 2nd. November 1st is All Saints Day, or Día de Todos los Santos. For children who died before, what they call – there’s this wonderful word in Spanish, for babies were born you know just young. They’re called creaturas – just creatures. That’s a very tender and wonderful word. So that’s November 1st. November 2nd is like All Souls Day, everybody gets it. But if we just change the article to a pronoun, you immediately understand what it means in Latino culture. It’s not the Day of THE Dead. It’s the day of MY dead. That changes everything. That changes everything. It’s not that you think there are ghosts walking around – it’s that you don’t know if there are. Now you need to know that’s a fine distinction, but a very important one. It’s so easily demonstrable in language. If I’m holding a pen – let’s imagine I’m holding a pen in my hand – and I drop it. You’re gonna hear this on the table. [clatter] I would say in English, “I dropped the pen”. I capitalized, front of the sentence, dropped – what does it matter, it could have been anything, happened to be the pen this time, end of the sentence. Alright. It’s rugged individualism in its smallest incarnation in language. I did it. _I_ did it. That same moment, in a Romance language, is rendered in a completely, foundationally different way. So if I do that again [clatter] and I drop that pen, and you hear it, you would say something like, “se me cayó la pluma”. Or the pen – everybody at this table is looking at me – let’s look at the pen too! We were there together! We were partners in the moment! The pen, it fell from me! Maybe I dropped it. Maybe it wanted to fall. I literally don’t know. I’m not God. I’m not in control of the universe. We can conceptualize that as rugged pluralism in its smallest incarnation in language. We’re all in it together. This suggests the possibility of an inherent life in things. Something beyond us. If you struggle to learn a Romance language, it’s genderized, which is very hard for people to talk about today. It’s very confusing with gender discrimination, but the idea of a genderized language suggests that the world is alive with itself. la pluma, el techo, the woman pen and the man ceiling, the man roof. Maybe they’re gonna get at me, after I leave! Maybe they’re gonna get together and create – I don’t know – bumblebees! I don’t know what they’re gonna do. But they have the innate potential for doing that, whereas in English I would say “the pen” and “the roof”. I would completely neutralize or neuter the world. Take away that possibility that there’s anything beyond me. When we go back to Day of the Dead, it suggests that anything is possible. I just don’t know. I am willing to accept that I don’t know. I have cared about people who have come before me. I care about them still. If they’re there, I want to say, “hi”. There’s something just so significant and human about that, that is not assuming that we are in control of everything. Incidentally Asian languages, as you may know, would render that moment even more severely, with no verb. Just pen in hand, pen on the ground. You figure out what happened. Two states of being.
CARRIE: Yeah – not all of them, but yes.
ALBERTO: Okay two states of being, right. We are complicit in trying to understand the world without knowing really how that happened, but having to understand that as humans we’ve got to fill in the gaps, and we may or may not be right.
CARRIE: All languages do that to a certain extent. All of them have gaps that we fill in with our own knowledge. But you’re right, in the dropping thing, it’s very different.
ALBERTO: Yeah, and so it resensibilitizes our notions of what Day of the Dead might be, and other things like that. That the world is alive with itself, that we’re part of it, that we’re not in control of it. Also, a lot of people can mistake that for culturally – the very, very far side of where that’s damaging is, if you go into a barrio, and somebody’s car broke down in the front yard, and it’s still there, and they haven’t cleaned it up, and you go ask them, “well, what’s your car doing out front??” They said, “well, that’s where it broke down!” We have that very American notion of “well? Do something about it!” As opposed to, “I don’t know what it’s gonna do!” It’s humorous, but you can see the far side of that idea of what would seem to be inefficiency or not taking charge of things and not participating can have a downside too. I get it. I get it. And you can see what it can lead to, but also it’s just such a misunderstanding of possibility. Maybe it will sprout wings and take flight. I don’t know. I don’t want to limit my broken-down car.
CARRIE: Everything we’ve been talking about sort of touches on this idea of the border. Maybe you can read The Border as well?
ALBERTO: I would. Can I just talk a little bit about the amazing odyssey this particular poem has taken?
CARRIE: Of course!
ALBERTO: I got a note from my son a little while back, who said, “U2!” – he got a he got a text message from one of his friends who was at a U2 concert in LA, and his friend is saying, “I think they are using one of your dad’s – they’re ripping off one of your dad’s poems! I don’t know who’s doing it. I think it’s that the people who are setting up the venue!” They were flashing up a poem before U2 started. I said, “well, it’s possible, stuff like that happens all the time.” A day or two later, I got a call from my editor, my publisher, who’s laughing his head off. He says, “you’re not gonna believe what happened!” He said, “somebody from U2 just came and was securing the rights to using your poem for their the entirety of their tour!” I said, “what?!?!?” I’m gonna read this poem. It’s a little long, but this is written in a form – it’s called The Border: A Double Sonnet. Sonnet is a very Anglo kind of form, but the actual form I’m using, quite subversively, is called a greguería, which is a one-line form that was invented by a Spanish writer named Ramon Gomez de la Serna. The turn of the century, early 1900s. They’re meant to be – he was sort of Emily Dickinson to Spanish literature, in the way that Cervantes was Whitman. He wrote what we probably are tempted to call “one-liners”, but they are one-line poems. They are meant to include humor and metaphor, and they are meant to reach out to the listener, in order to make a connection to something. Just to help us understand something better in that moment. Different from when you started, at the beginning of that line. So it’s asking a lot of that moment. These are really 28 – it’s a double sonnet – the idea of a border, even between the sonnets, written in this Spanish form. This poem repeats the words “the border”, and the reason I loved that is the absolute total insistence of something. It does not go away. It is there every turn of phrase, every conceptualization. It insinuates itself into it. This is called The Border: A Double Sonnet.
The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carelessly in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.
The border is a brand, the “Double-X” of barbed wire scarred into the skin of so many.
The border has always been a welcome stopping place but is now a stop sign, always red.
The border is a jump rope still there even after the game is finished.
The border is a real crack in an imaginary dam.
The border used to be an actual place, but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.
The border, the word border, sounds like order, but in this place they do not rhyme.
The border is a handshake that becomes a squeezing contest.
The border smells like cars at noon and wood smoke in the evening.
The border is the place between the two pages in a book where the spine is bent too far.
The border is two men in love with the same woman.
The border is an equation in search of an equals sign.
The border is the location of the factory where lightning and thunder are made.
The border is “NoNo” The Clown, who can’t make anyone laugh.
The border is a locked door that has been promoted.
The border is a moat but without a castle on either side.
The border has become Checkpoint Chale.
The border is a place of plans constantly broken and repaired and broken.
The border is mighty, but even the parting of the seas created a path, not a barrier.
The border is a big, neat, clean, clear black line on a map that does not exist.
The border is the line in new bifocals: below, small things get bigger; above, nothing changes.
The border is a skunk with a white line down its back.
CARRIE: Thank you for that.
MEGAN: Yes, thank you so much.
ALBERTO: You’re welcome. I have a very redemptive story that follows this. The last time I was down at the border, which has become very militarized. They want to pretend like it’s not, but it totally is. I was there at about, right close to dusk, with a friend. And we had not brought passports, which is now, unfortunately, you need to get even, if you just want to go across, which my whole childhood is about that. You need a passport to your childhood now. Instead, we were walking from Morley Avenue, which is where the local crossing is, and there’s this little sort of overpass where all the traffic goes by to Grand Avenue, which is the main thoroughfare. When we were there, it was about dusk, and there are all these lights, like you would see if somebody’s working on the highway. They’ve got all these temporary lights and they’re big and massive. They’re supposed to be temporary, but clearly they’re not temporary. They’re there. As it’s getting slightly dark, we hear some boys on the other side of the border, right there, on the fence, the wall. We’re hearing them, and they’re kind of talking. You can sort of see their heads, and I can’t tell what they’re saying. Suddenly the lights come on. The boys go, “whoa! Yeah!” They threw their hands up, and they start bouncing a basketball. They had attached a basketball hoop to the wall, and they were letting the Border Patrol lights light up their night basketball game. I thought, “that’s the Nogales I remember!”
MEGAN: I think to wrap up: I’ve heard so many things from you that have been sad about Spanish, right, about how schools were, and about how you kind of felt like you lost it, and this equation that you’ve grown up with, that Spanish equals bad. How do you feel about it now, because I know, since we do talk about this discrimination, how language is used as a proxy of discrimination of Chicanos or of other aspects of our lives. How do you feel about Spanish, now?
ALBERTO: What we’re describing, that’s an that’s an adult overlay. I need to tell you that I loved school. Now it’s as adults that we say well look at all this that you were not – I loved school. I got in trouble in school. I got busted in second grade by my teacher for committing the egregious second grader crime of daydreaming. What’s so funny to me now is I was excited by school. I loved learning. I wanted to be there. Today we have that other adult overlay of all these kids misbehaving and jumping off the – they got too much sugar and ADHD and other alphabets and everybody’s got all these – but nobody says that those kids are excited about something they just heard. Nobody. I’ve never heard anybody say that. I can remember distinct moments where I learned something, like when I learned what the days of the week meant. The moment, when that teacher, when my teacher explained it, I was suddenly privy to something that was from the knowledge of the centuries. As a kid! I thought that. I thought that. I went home and actually told my little gang all about days of the week and especially when it came to Thursday – Thor’s day – we all were big readers of Thor comics books, the original round, and in the beginning. On that Thursday, that first Thursday that came, we all went and got from our parents’ toolboxes hammers, and we started the first week or two by throwing hammers at each other, as a way of connecting to the world. Later we learned, throwing them off into the distance was probably smarter. We must have done that for like three months afterward. That was because we were excited about learning something. I remember carrying that on the school bus and bursting. I’m sure I was strange kid. But bursting with the idea of ideas. CARRIE: I had a similar experience. I loved the idea that Thor was the reason we called it “Thursday”.
ALBERTO: Absolutely. It was it was not only something that was appealing to me. It connected me to something, I got I, understood, that I was doing. This is sacrilegious, but if you think of it as a kid, you’re reading a Thor comic book, it becomes biblical in that sense. “That’s where it is, it’s right there! I know what happens on Thursdays! I know what it looks like!” Which is a version of cleromancy. Only, you’re finding it in a comic book as a kid. Cleromancy is just finding divination. You’re picking a line and finding some guidance system, because of it. It suddenly was connecting it on terms that I got that were meaningful to me in school. If you’re a kid, and you’re paying attention, it’s like when you finally get that bike going right. “Yeah, excellent!” But it doesn’t just stop at that. We don’t register that with kids. “Did you have one of those days today? Did you have an epiphany?” “What’s that? I don’t know what an epiphany is. But I learned how to ride my bike!” We want to overlay it on two kids and we forget that they are busy creating the vocabulary of themselves. And that it matters. And that it’s not the same as an adult vocabulary. That’s their language. That was mine.
CARRIE: Very cool! I also loved school, but I’m obviously a nerd. I also did not have the overlay of having my language be denigrated because I am a monolingual, basically, English speaker.
MEGAN: Is there any last words that you wanted to share?
ALBERTO: I just want to say: we want to use this word – excuse me – problematize all of this. But we have to remember to celebrate it too.
ALBERTO: We have to celebrate the problem. I know that sounds like an oxymoron and just weird. But a lot of joy came out of this. I have to say that all of those problems that we’ve identified are probably what made me a writer, in that, by giving language taken away, and by understanding as a kid that language must be powerful – Spanish is as powerful as a dirty word, and dirty words were pretty powerful – that it made me pay double and triple attention to language. It didn’t dissuade me from it, it focused me on it. And in the most curious of ways. I think it made me become a writer. It also helped me understand as an adult thinker that if I’m holding up this same pen again, and if I only have the word “pen” for it, I own it. End of the story. Pen, I can move on to a dinner plate. But if that word “pen” – if I know it’s also called a pluma, it suddenly has two ways of being. If I know it’s also a “plume”, it has three ways of being. And if it has three, it has nine, and if has nine, it has forty. And suddenly this pen is wild in my hand. And that is a very different way to think about possibility in the world, and I do think that’s what made me a writer.
CARRIE: Wow, that’s a really beautiful way of thinking about the problem with taking Spanish away.
MEGAN: Yeah. ALBERTO: And a poet in particular. That attention.
CARRIE: Yeah. Cuz poets have to be REALLY careful about picking words – more so than fiction writers.
ALBERTO: Yeah, take that, fiction writers.
CARRIE: I love fiction, FYI.
MEGAN: I do want to say, since that was your ending words, that you have seriously just given me an epiphany, because I realize now that because I was not taught Spanish that I am a linguist today, and that I pursued this work, and that I advocate for children that speak Spanish at K-12. So yes, that’s really beautiful, and I want to cry now. I knew that I was here for these reasons and that it drove who I am, but it’s true.
ALBERTO: I’m glad. I’m glad.
MEGAN: I hope others find it hopeful too.
ALBERTO: I hope so too, I hope so too.
CARRIE: I’m sure at least a few people will find it inspirational, because there’s always at least there was one or two people that you get to.
ALBERTO: Absolutely true.
CARRIE: Okay, well thank you so for being one of our guests!
ALBERTO: It’s been a pleasure.
MEGAN: Thank you.
CARRIE: And, don’t be an asshole!
MEGAN: Yes, our last thing to say is do not be an asshole
ALBERTO: Okay, alright.
MEGAN: Thank you, bye.
CARRIE: The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by Chris Ayers for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.