A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Who’s Speaking? Italics In Bilingual Poetry, by Steven Sanchez

I’m not bilingual but sometimes Spanish enters my poems.

Since most people are (probably) familiar with the arguments for and against using italics, I’ll just give a basic description of them: some argue italics are a colonial aesthetic that makes non-English languages become a secondary and/or exotic language; others say that including italics helps readers navigate a poem when they are unfamiliar with the non-English language. I’ve encountered poets I deeply admire and respect who fall into both categories, so I won’t argue for one side or the other because it seems counterproductive to what both these groups of poets are trying to do: reveal dimensions of our culture that are often overlooked. Instead, I want to talk about the concerns I have when I use Spanish in a poem as a non-native, non-fluent speaker.

Growing up, my grandma was a third parent to me. Whenever I spent the night at her house, I always asked her to tell me about La Llorona and El Cucuy before going to bed. But before we went to sleep each night, she made sure to end the stories with a prayer in Spanish I didn’t quite understand. My grandma was also the person who went with me to church every Sunday. It was a smaller church with creaky wooden pews and a musty brown carpet. All the hymnal books were beautiful, though; they had gold paper edges with sleek, black covers that smelled like leather. They were written exclusively in Spanish. The pastor’s sermons were also in Spanish, although he sometimes threw in English translations as an afterthought. As a kid, I think I associated Spanish with the mythic and the things I didn’t quite understand: God, death, sprits, monsters, and the possibility of an afterlife.

My mom knows Spanish, too, although we only ever spoke English in our house. Early on, she taught me how to read and write exclusively in English and as a result, I was able to read and write sentences before I started kindergarten. I remember telling her Grandma says you need to teach me Spanish, too, and her responses were usually some variation of you don’t need it. When I was in third grade, I was placed in a bilingual class and my mom was concerned. Eventually, I was transferred to a different class. I began seeing English as a better language, and by extension, began avoiding the students in the bilingual class by trying to befriend my new white classmates. I don’t know how much of that was a conscious decision. I remember going into the bathroom during recess one day with some of my friends in my new class and seeing our reflections in the mirror. I couldn’t help but notice how much darker my skin was than theirs. I still think about that moment whenever I look into a mirror.

I didn’t realize until I was in graduate school how much racism I had internalized. I’ve talked to my mom about the resistance to Spanish, and I know now that it came from a place of love, fear, and experience. She describes knowing Spanish as being a burden, and by burden, she refers to being the only person at her work who can translate for Spanish-speaking patients, but it makes her feel inadequate because she can hear her Anglo accent and she sometimes struggles to find the right words. By burden, I think she might also be referring to her own experiences in school, growing up in a small town where she knew people looked down at her for being Mexican. By enforcing English so heavily, I think she was trying to protect me from having her experiences.

I share these anecdotes in hopes of showing how deciding to use Spanish in a poem, for me at least, is a personal choice that comes with political implications. I don’t take the reader into consideration when deciding how to use italics because my choice to include or exclude Spanish in a certain poem reflects my own relationship with Spanish and the people in my poems who speak it. Since I don’t speak Spanish fluently and my accent is heavy, the speakers in my poems never use Spanish directly. When I speak Spanish out loud, it feels like I’m speaking in italics and I haven’t written a poem yet where I want those connotations of otherness to appear. For me, a speaker should own every word that isn’t italicized and if a word is italicized, it reads to me as if the speaker is struggling to say it.

Aesthetically, I tend to resist quotation marks and reserve italics for when somebody else is speaking in a poem, which is how Spanish enters my poems—through the voices of other people. Voices don’t exist in a vacuum, they bounce off objects and people, and those objects and people absorb the voices. Voices create subtle differences in their environment and voices travel through language.

I once attended a craft lecture where Camille Dungy asked us to read poems and look at who’s speaking, who is silent but present, and who is absent. She then asked us how much weight each presence had in each poem and how that affected the construction of power within each poem. Now, I think about this every time I use Spanish in a poem. To write exclusively in English doesn’t seem like an option because so many of my experiences have been shaped by another language, yet to use Spanish as if I’m fluent feels like appropriation to me, even if I identify as Latino. I’d encourage poets who want to use a language they aren’t fluent in to include the language anyway, but approach it from a place beyond their speaker, because we live in a world where we encounter different cultures, languages, and experiences every day—to be afraid to write about those experiences risks erasing those experiences. Just remember how important it is to allow voices in another language to have their own power and agency.

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