Monday, May 2, 2011

Language = Culture?

Shemise Evans
I went to high school with a female student name Paula for four years. She had very pale skin, thick, dark hair, brown eyes, and in many ways possessed physical features associated with individuals of Jewish or Israeli decent. Small earrings and a nose ring were the only forms of jewelry she wore. She, like myself, was a Visual Arts major, lived around the same North West area of Philadelphia and was a Lutheran Christian. During the four years that I shared classes with her, I never heard her utter a single word in Spanish, and based on her social and linguistic performances, I had no reason to assume she spoke or knew Spanish. During my final weeks of high school however, another student informed me that Paula was Puerto Rican.  As I think back to my interactions with Paula, it’s interesting to consider why this revelation of her Hispanic identity was so surprising. I realize that my ideologies about Hispanic identity in high school were constructed around one’s use and knowledge of the Spanish language. To be Hispanic meant you spoke, read and understood Spanish to some degree. Nothing about Paula fit within this construct nor signaled or resembled norms associated with Hispanic females. She seemed very anglicized and even after learning that she was Hispanic, and that her last name was Rivera, her linguistic and social practices, specifically her unaccented English, made it difficult for me to associate her with the Hispanic or Latino culture. In her article “Whose Spanish? The tension between linguistic correctness and cultural identity,” Bonnie Urciuoli states, “linguistic and cultural identities are generated in practice, taking time to develop, and they develop in ways that index the conditions in which they develop, particularly the racial, class and institutional conditions” (5). As someone who was surrounded by native English speakers, I presumed that Paula and her friends were white, and therefore racialized her language use.
Urciuoli frames my encounter with Paula and my encounter another individual, which I’ll discuss later. She states that in the U.S. “language is [considered] “natural” to one’s cultural condition” (13) and goes on to state “language has a complicated place in these processes of identity formation. It occupies a place in the list of things one “has” when one “has” a culture. But the link is not a necessary one, it is not always there, and when it is there it may or may not signify belonging” (11).  An interesting example of this can be found in the opening scene of Michael Bay’s 2007 summer blockbuster Transformers. In the case of the Hispanic male solider, his use of Spanish creates his linguistic and cultural identity amongst non-Spanish speakers. It would be interesting to see whether his use of Spanish would align or separate him from other Spanish speakers based on variations of dialect. The nature of his Spanish could also be examined in the context of his performance as an actual Hispanic actor portraying a Hispanic character in a film. Is the Spanish he utilizes a reflection of his natural Spanish practices, or has he based his performance on some variation? 

The question, “Whose Spanish,” which is featured in the article’s title was the question I grappled with as I thought about Paula, and is the question I now currently seek to understand in the context of my own life.  Like most people, I had a folk notion of race. From an out-group perspective, I understood Hispanic identity to be directly associated the Spanish language. After the many discussions and reading from this class, the idea that language creates one’s identity no longer holds as much truth. Yet, there are still those who do assert their cultural and social identity based in language. What made my reading of Paula complex was that she identified herself as Hispanic, yet surrounded herself with Caucasians. Since none of the white students she associated with spoke Spanish, she never used the language at school. Her use of English was by far, as naturally unaccented as English can be and her lack of accent was interpreted as non-Hispanic, or standard white, American English. Her linguistic practices and outward social performance were unfamiliar to what I had come to understand as Hispanic. I encountered a similar situation with my older brother’s college roommate and best friend. Like Paula he has a traditional Hispanic name and dark hair, however, neither his linguistic practices nor social performances signaled the folk notion of Hispanic identity. Having graduated college with a degree in engineering, he uses standard, academic English and has been in a relationship with his Caucasians girlfriend for about six years. Like many of the subjects Urciuoli interviews, he was a member of a multicultural organization in college along with my brother. He, like Paula, had no problem self-identifying as Hispanic, specifically Puerto Rican. It was my interpretation that placed him in a category of whiteness, rather than Hispanic. What I don’t know about both individuals is their fluency in Spanish and how it has change after high school and college.
Within the article Urciuoli states that  “linguistic and cultural identities are generated in practice, taking time to develop, and they develop in ways that index the conditions in which they develop, particularly the racial, class and institutional conditions” (5). Once it is realized that race is social construction as apposed to a biological one, the task becomes learning how to “understand the intersection of language and culture”. Urciuoli includes statements from Latino students who grew up speaking Spanish, yet used very little Spanish in college and university setting. For these student, it is not that they do not know the language, but rather that there is no opportunity for them to use it. The cultural shift in how bilingualism is viewed directly relates to how Hispanic students view themselves. Urciuoli also discusses the conflicts regarding “regional varieties” of Spanish and how they can be use to judge and signify one’s social and economic status (16).
What’s most valuable from this article is the idea that one can personalize his or her identity, creating an alternative portrayal of self that is contrary to what others expect. Both Paula and Ricardo were able to do this and in many ways, all individuals are capable of this, and are most likely already doing this. While there are certainly linguistic and behavioral norms that link people socially, all of these practices and performances are specific to the individual.

No comments:

Post a Comment