On Alert: Writing in Spanish in the United States Today

Mexamérica / dossier / Mayo de 2018

Cristina Rivera Garza

Traducción de: Sarah Booker


One of the first acts of Donald Trump’s presidency was to erase the Spanish text from the official White House website. It was not, as some explained at the time, a transitory measure to allow the administration to improve the information contained on the site, but a true declaration of principles. Erasure is the name of the game. To pretend that more than fifty million Spanish-speakers do not live and work and produce in the United States, the country with the second-most Spanish-speakers in the world (only after Mexico). Those that were still hopeful that the nationalist bravado that characterized Trump’s campaign would be transformed, once he was president, into more moderate methods, understood then that the true winter had barely begun. Trump’s attacks against immigrants, especially against poor and dark-skinned immigrants from Latin America and, among them, primarily those from Mexico, are the stamp of an agenda that promises to return the white and homogenous greatness to the United States. That nostalgia for a world that never existed in this nation of migrants is what led hundreds of thousands to take part in those insane chants that called for the construction of great border walls, the proliferation of guns in our daily lives, and the punishment of diversity and difference. Perhaps it wasn’t a mere coincidence, then, that we inaugurated the PhD in Spanish Creative Writing at the University of Houston in the Fall semester of 2017, just months after Trump took power. Creative writing programs in the United States have long been present and their history is well-documented. They began at the beginning of the twentieth century and were consolidated in the sixties with the proliferation of what Eric Bennett calls “workshops of empire” when, within the context of the Cold War, the teaching of creative writing played an important role in the dissemination of North American values around the globe.1 While the emergence of creative writing programs in Spanish is more recent, it is important to keep in mind the fundamental presence of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in bilingual writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, directed, until quite recently, by Professor Luis Arturo Ramos, as well as the more recent foundation of the programs housed at the University of Iowa, with the Spanish poet Ana Merino in charge, and at the University of New York, with writers such as Lila Zemborain, Sergio Chefjec, and Diamela Eltit among their professors. It is not an exaggeration to claim that beginning a program in creative writing in Spanish at the doctorate level precisely in these times is an act of militancy fair and square. Public universities, especially those designated as Hispanic Serving Institutions, are still favorable terrains from which to fight against the neoliberal surge that is resolved to rip public education from the lives of the majority. Nor is it a coincidence that it is on one of them, on one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, located, moreover, in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the United States, where this initiative emerges. The PhD in Spanish Creative Writing not only brings writing to the heart of North American academia but also its traditions of resistance, its unredeemed plurality, its multiple accents, its continuous vociferation. It arrives, I mean, not so much to adapt itself to the established rules, but to contribute its vision and its pedagogies, its objectives, and its modes of quotidian practices. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have already spoken about the presence of the undercommons in the university—that group of raging maroons that, far from adapting to university debt, to university authority, to the verticality of the university, employ their time and their multiple sets of knowledge to open doors and windows.2 That is where winds of our present enter. That is where the winds of our contemporaneity enter. It is a long story, however. And it is impacted not only by the demographic changes of recent years and the increase of institutions where Spanish is not only a language of labor, but also a language that is equally and proudly used for thinking and creating. There is also, of course, the increasing migration of Latin American writers into the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. Here, I am less interested in the identity politics involved in these questions—do those who write in Spanish in the United States become “American,” “Mexican-American,” “pocho” writers?—, and more in the politics of writing, which are politics surrounding the materiality of language and that characterize or could characterize the practice of writing in Spanish in the United States.3 I’m interested, then, in its potential.

Photography by Graciela Iturbide

It is clear that when McOndo and Se habla español: Voces latinas en Estados Unidos were published in 1996 and 2000, respectively, these controversial anthologies reflected the rising presence of the United States in the imaginary of Latin American writers.4 But, as Diana Palaversich notes in her discussion of these books, “out of the thirty-six voices included in the book, only fourteen are Latino voices, the other twenty-two belong to authors that live in Latin America, the vast majority of which have never lived in the northern country.”5 Indeed, much in the manner of Boom writers, whom at least McOndistas perceived as the canonical enemy they vowed to uproot and replace, some of these authors developed a fragile or intermittent relationship with the United States, giving talks here and there or teaching entire semesters at various universities, but seldom establishing themselves in the United States. Those were the privileged Latin American professors that would teach class, but as visiting professors rarely had to attend committee meetings or carry out the enormous—though sometimes invisible—work that keeps the university running. The panorama could not look more different only sixteen years later. Pushed by the economic crisis in Spain—a highly regarded migratory route for many Latin American writers throughout the twentieth century—and lured by the economic opportunities offered by Departments of Hispanic Studies—which do not require authors to speak English—in the United States, many writers from Latin America managed to find a place to live and a place to write in this country and they continued their writing careers, which more often than not they continued to develop in Spanish and in close conversation with Latin American traditions. Gustavo Sáinz and Jorge Aguilar Mora are among those who crossed the border to live and work in US universities for stretches of time back in the 1970s, constituting an early generation of “American” writers born in Mexico while living and producing in the United States.6 But teaching positions in Departments of Literature or Spanish would not have been enough to steadily attract the attention of writers from Latin America for long periods of time. These writers—most of them children of the middle class—not only needed a place to live and work, but also a context, an atmosphere conducive to writing, and writing in Spanish at that, in conditions they had to perceive as safe and advantageous compared to what they left behind. Two intertwined processes emerged in the early twenty-first century: on the one hand, the already mentioned emergence of MFA Programs in Creative Writing in Spanish and, on the other hand, and quite simultaneously, the increasing awareness in the literary field that writing and academia were not necessarily opposing arenas, but most surely complementary ones. Years of professionalization promoted by the State—as in the case of Mexico where grants and publication support has fueled much of the writing pouring out of the country in recent years—or by the market—as in Spain, where large publishing houses and literary agencies took root in the middle of the twentieth century—were instrumental in weakening the romantic belief that writers—true writers—lived outside of academia, and society altogether. How many ways do we have of saying that the ivory tower of the tormented genius has come to an end?

Photography by Graciela Iturbide

A new generation of migrating writers from Latin America—which includes but is not limited to Edmundo Paz Soldán, Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, Lina Meruane, Pedro Ángel Palou, Álvaro Enrigue, Rodrigo Hasbún, Claudia Salzar, Carlos Yushimito, Carmen Boullosa—had published important books before establishing themselves in California, New Orleans, or New York, but the majority of their recent work has been envisaged and developed while living and working in the United States. While for some it has been easy to label, and often dismiss, the writing experience of these migrating Latin American writers in the United States as somehow the evident result of processes of globalization that makes them ready to adapt and adopt the manners of the empire, I am interested in framing this experience within what Spivak called planetarity: a concept that, instead of emphasizing the circulation of commodities and capital, underlines the experiences of bodies when they come into contact—tense, volatile, dynamic—with a globe in which nature and culture are inextricably linked.7 Indeed, much can be gained by replacing the “global agent” of a seemingly smooth capitalist world with a “planetary subject” able to embrace a sense of alterity as “continuously derived from us.” For, as Spivak argued, “alterity is not our dialectic negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away.” The crossing of planetary borders between Latin American and the United States involves a complex geopolitical operation that involves coloniality and its limits. As many immigrants to the United States coming from peripheral areas of the world that are rich in natural resources and heavy on labor exploitation know, speaking/writing in Spanish—a language perceived by many in the United States as belonging to labor and not necessarily to literary artistry or creation—is not so simple. Migrating Latin American authors face difficult dilemmas with what Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has called a ch’ixi epistemology: “an awareness of the border or a border consciousness… a contact zone that allows us to live inside and outside of the capitalist machine, using and simultaneously demolishing the instrumental reason born from its very entrails.”8 In her analysis of contemporary Aymara culture within the larger context of capitalist exploitation in Bolivia and Latin America at large, Cusicanqui has placed special emphasis on the various ways in which “semiotic movers” generate “methods of translation and integration of present and future entities.” She shows, above all, a special interest in the production of “ch’ixi languages, polluted and tainted, an aymarized Spanish that allows a critical dialogue with state development and initiatives for the rural world.”9 Just as Guaman Poma de Ayala wrote to the King of Spain in Spanish, these migrating Latin American writers write both in Spanish and English with the “vigilant colonial ego” in check, while allowing their writing to embrace a plethora of “social, vital, and even cosmic elements able to articulate what words cannot in a society of colonial silences.”10 Marjorie Perloff has called the practice of incorporating foreign words or syntax into texts that are otherwise written in conventional English exophonic writing.11 Her examples go as far back as T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound and extend to include recent works by Caroline Bergvall, the Norwegian-French writer and artist, or Yoko Tawada, the Japanese-born novelist who also writes in German. Eschewing the political and colonial contexts in which these exchanges take place and limiting her analysis to the formal implications of these practices, Perloff undercuts the political dimension of those who write, to put it in Cusicanqui’s terms, from “both inside and outside of the capitalist machine… using and simultaneously demolishing the instrumental reason” and its many languages. Mixe linguist Yásnaya Aguilar has persuasively argued that the only difference between indigenous and other languages in the Americas is that the former ones live and manage to thrive without the backing of a State—or even in spite of having one working against them. They are languages without a standing army. Spanish, the language imposed by the conquest and an experience of colonization that lasted at least three hundred years, is indeed a language with a State and an army within the territories we know as Latin America (with the clear exception of Brazil and a few other countries). Yet, once Spanish crosses one of the most powerful and dramatic borders of our globalized world on the backs and in the mouths of undocumented migrants, it too becomes a language without a State and without an army. A ch’ixi language. A ch’ixi consciousness embodied in polluted and tainted words, in grammatical constructions and peculiar syntax that, immediately, go on to occupy the lowest rung among the hierarchies of languages protected by the North American State. And oh, how we have felt the sharpening of this situation in the Trump era. Resulting from both migratory experiences and a contested context in which struggles over colonization takes prominence, ch’ixi languages cannot simply be described as a mere blend or fusion of tongues. It is not the Spanglish that characterized much of Chicana literature, for example. Always aware of the many layers of the colonial experience, each ch’ixi enunciation would look for ways to both “use and demolish” the very context out of which it emerges.

Photography by Graciela Iturbide

Also writing in the first decade of the twenty-first century, poet Juliana Spahr notes in her essay “The ’90s” a trend among contemporary bilingual or multilingual writers to move away from conventional English. She perceives that this practice is linked to “the disquieting linguistic disorientation of immigration.”12 In her view,

There is a sort of contemporary writing that is mainly about the representation and preservation of cultural identity in which the author writes a bi- or multilingual work in an English mixed with a language they associate with their identity. Or in the case of what often gets called “experimental,” the author tears into English-language conventions and writes in an altered English. But what I have come to see is that, by the end of the century, while many writers continue to bring other languages into their English, they do this less to talk about their personal identity and more to talk about English and its histories.13

There has never been a better time—even a more urgent time—to talk about Spanish and its many histories, its many histories in/with the United States, and its many histories with/within English. Written in Spanish in an English-speaking context—either with or against, for or below—, the works of these migrating Latin American writers contain traces, material marks, dents of sorts, of the myriad strategies of opposition, adaptation, in short, negotiation in which willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously these writers participate. For, while writers are, or should be, in control of their tools, they are not expected to be fully aware, much less in control of, the materials with which they work. Reading this kind of writing in all its complexity might require us to move well beyond the identity matrix that has dominated the literary field—and, more specifically, the Latin American literary field of study in the United States—to fully grapple with “what exceeds from this subjective capture and from where it exceeds” in writings written in Spanish that emerge from within the United States.14 With a rising number of translations from Spanish into English—a current movement notably led by female writers and female translators—and a good number of Spanish-speaking authors writing both in English and in Spanish—which include but are not limited to Daniel Alarcón, Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, Maura Javier Cárdenas and, more recently, Valeria Luiselli and Pola Oloixarac—, it is possible that these planetary authors that write in ch’ixi languages might teach us something about what it is like to live both inside and outside the beast. They, in other words, might teach us something about the exercise of writing as a critical practice and as a state of alertness.

Cover Image: Photography by Graciela Iturbide

  1. Eric Bennett, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, University of Iowa Press, 2015. For those interested in the relationship between creative writing and international politics during the Cold War, see also: Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Harvard University Press, 2011; Francis Stonor, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, The New Press, 2013. 

  2. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013. 

  3. In other words, I’m less interested in what Alberto Moreiras calls the “Latin Americanism of the self” and more in what Juliana Spahr calls the compromised history of English with other languages. Helpful for thinking about this is Alberto Moreiras, “La fatalidad de (mi) subalternismo,” Marranismo e inscripción, o el abandono de la conciencia desdichada, Escolar y Mayo Editores, 2016, pp. 77-102; and “El segundo giro de la deconstrucción,” pp. 117-35. 

  4. Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez, eds., McOndo, Mondadori, 1996. Edmundo Paz Soldán and Alberto Fuguet, eds., Se habla español. Voces latinas en Estados Unidos, Alfaguara, 2000. 

  5. Diana Palaversich wrote a magnificent book, De Macondo a McOndo: Senderos de la postmodernidad latinoamericana, Plaza y Valdés, 2005; but here I’m using her article “McOndo y otros mitos”, available at www.literaturas.com, june 2033. 

  6. I use the adjective “American” in reference to the following description of the writer Salvador Plascencia, author of the novel The People of Paper, McSweeney’s, 2005; Harvest Books, 2006, in Wikipedia: “American writer, born December 21, 1976 in Guadalajara, México.” 

  7. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Planetarity,” Death of a Discipline, Columbia University, 2005, p. 73. 

  8. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Pensando desde el Nayrapacha: una reflexión sobre los lenguajes simbólicos como práctia teórica,” Sociología de la imagen. Miradas ch’ixi desde la historia Andina, Tinta Limón, 2015, p. 207. 

  9. Ibid., 213. 

  10. Ibid., 213. 

  11. Marjorie Perloff, “Language in Migration. Multiculturalism and Exophonic Writing in the New Poetics,” Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, University of Chicago Press, 2012. 

  12. Juliana Spahr, “The ’90s,” Boundary 2, vol. 36, no. 3, 2009, p. 164. 

  13. Ibid., 164. 

  14. Alberto Moreiras, “Conversación en torno a la noción de infrapolítica”, Marranismo e inscripción, o el abandono de la conciencia desdichada, Escolar y Mayo Editores, 2016, p. 201.