Inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera
After my first day of first grade I came home with my eyes red, swollen, and stinging from crying. As a six year old, the fear and confusion of trying to understand a language I had never heard before welled up inside my throat. Blubbering as I got off the bus, I told my mother I was not going back. I could not understand my teacher who spoke to me only in Spanish all day. Soy gringa. I am not a native speaker.
My first grade year was the inception of a two-way bilingual program in my public elementary school and I spent the next decade of my schooling taking classes in English and in Spanish. There were forty of us, twenty native English speakers and twenty native Spanish speakers, who shared our lenguas and our lives with each other. Armenia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Israel, El Salvador, Italy, Republica Dominicana, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Poland, Honduras. Whether they immigrated two-hundred years ago, or five years ago, these were where our families had come from. We were Jews, Catholics, and Jehovahs. In the cafeteria we shared matzo ball soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, plátanos, fruit by the foot, and arrequipe. We went to each others’ Bar Mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens, and Quinceñeras. Everyday of my youth I spent in a bilingual atmosphere. Over time I learned Spanish and I formed a multicultural identity. But, as I grew up my obvious whiteness began creeping into my conscious.
I was eight years old when I crossed the U.S.-Mexican Border for the first time. I remember walking with my family on a sidewalk suspended above the highway. We entered Tijuana through metal turnstiles and I thought it was like entering Disneyland. Quickly me dio cuenta that Mickey was not on the other side. Women in torn skirts lined the streets asking for dinero, comida, anything we could give. Tocándome, trying to put flowers into my hands, asking for money. I can feel the emotions that engulfed me. Temor. Confusión. Asco. Poverty, and in turn my white skin, me enfrentó. Although I could not conceptualize it, I was encountering my privilege. My privilege that meant the disadvantages of the brown faces that surrounded me.
The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. –Gloria Anzaldúa
My ancestors came to the United States from Ireland in 1820. The ticket for the voyage from Dublin to Boston was expensive, so they bought a ticket for Montreal instead. Knowing that they might have better opportunities in the United States, my family crossed the border and illegally settled in Vermont. Mi legado es de mickanos, mickitos, mickeros y mickbacks.
May the road rise up to meet you. -Irish Blessing
A century ago “Irish Need Not Apply” signs displayed prominently in shop windows. Micks are dirty drunks and reproduce like jackrabbits. Hoy día, Patrick Buchanan y Bill O’Reilly son los campeones de la xenofobia. How quickly we forget our past. Es la ficcion de la superioridad blanca.
No soy nativa. No soy gringa.
Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation– Derek Walcott
Standing up on my tippy-toes I stared over the podium at a row of old white men. The place was jam packed in protest of a bilingual education bill that Massachusetts was trying to pass. “Me llamo Aislinn y soy una estudiante de un programa bilingue aquí en Massachusetts,” I finally said. “For those of you who are not lucky enough to be able to understand me, I’ll translate…” Before I could continue the arena exploded in cheers and whistles. A white girl speaking in Spanish like that? As I left people patted my back and congratulated me. I wondered if one of my native Spanish speaking classmates had been up there instead of me and had spoken impeccable English and Spanish if they would have received the same reaction. Why was it so exceptional that I was bilingual?
The man creates a pseudonym and hides behind it like a worm.- Sylvia Plath
¿Listo? I asked my bilingual brother as we started walking to the beach on a summer day when I was in between third and fourth grade. My older cousin threw a wiffle ball at my head. “Why you talking in Spanish? Are you trying to be something you’re not?” In the world beyond my school others defined my identity by my skin color and last name. I am a gringa and I should act that way. Yet for me being white meant being blank, boring, vacio.
By my senior year in high school I had worked to fill that blankness. I dyed my hair red, went to Catholic Mass every Sunday, taught myself Irish, and got a shamrock tattoo. In my diverse hometown I embraced my Irish Catholic heritage to find my individuality. I graduated and went to the school of the Fighting Irish and found myself in a pond full of others identifying as “white Irish-American Catholics.” Popped collars and conservative values. I cringed and retreated. No soy gringa, I told myself.
Educación aka The Injustice That We All Live With
Los niños en seventh-grade piden lápices con futuro. –Tino Villanueva
Some of the jóvenes I work with cannot go on to college in the United States because their parents moved here when they were babies. Son indocumentados, although they have lived here all their lives. They do not have the legal rights to opportunities they want and I think they deserve. They are angry. They are frustrated.
harás por ti
lo que no pudo el salón de clase.
Un joven tells me, how can I compete with the white kids in the suburbs quienes tienen escuelas nuevas con lápices con futuro. You know, they say that todos pueden pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I nod my head in agreement, and think: Yeah, wasn’t I one of those white kids? Why do I think that I can help? What am I even doing here? Is education where I belong?
La ficción de la superioridad blanca.
Estoy un turista today. Beach towel. Fine, white sand. Book of poems. I can sit here without being shooed away like my students are. I feel guilty, but I am burning out. The callejón is weighing me down. I need an escape from the bucket baths and the catcalls; from witnessing the hunger and abuse. “¿Señora, quieres otra Cuba Libre?” Yes, please.
One must travel, to learn. -Mark Twain
I am in the minority here, and I am reminded of my whiteness almost every moment of every day. It gives me preferential treatment even though I am an outsider, and I hold a lot of power. Every night I think in circles. Raza. Ciudadanía. Educación. Privilegio. There are too many layers, and I am uncomfortable all the time. I am throwing in the knapsack.
Me botaste. I am sorry. I can’t stay here anymore. I am running away. I am running home.
The White State/My State of Whiteness
We bought a house in Vermont. The 2nd whitest state in the US. I am in a catatonic state of apathy. At work, at the farmers market, at the gym, on top of Mount Mansfield-all around me all I see is whiteness, English, privilege. Cómodo. Fácil. Aburrido. Vacio. My boundaries are rarely pushed. I want to live in a diverse, integrated community, but somehow we ended up here. Was it subliminal? What does that say about us?
Of your back gardens varicose
With shrubs, make an ugly sister
Of you suburbia.-Eavan Boland
I talk to the dog in Spanish. And sometimes my husband. But that’s it.When I meet hispanohablantes, I want to speak, but all they’ll see is a white, Irish-American and my que lo que would probably offend them. I have lost part of my identity. Mi identidad. Or maybe I am just discovering who I really am.
I can’t stand your ground. I am sick of calling your recklessness the law. Each night, I count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, I count the holes they leave.-Danez Smith
Why is it okay for me to identify as Irish-American when my family immigrated here 200 years ago, I’ve never been to Ireland, and I don’t have any connection to Irish culture. I am white, I have lost much of my Spanish, my name is Irish. I do not have a choice-it is decided for me. No soy Latina.
At the same time, la raza no es biológica. It is a structure of the social imagination. Es una herida abierta.
As an educator and graduate student, exploring my identity is essential to the work I hope to do. In this piece I use writing as a form of inquiry – a way to honor the location of self as I think about my own identity in the context of education. In finding my own methodology as a researcher I ask: What does it mean to request that readers enter into writing that does not explain itself at the outset? Where writing is a process to discover rather than a way of knowing in advance? The writing here unfolds to position the reader as curious, questioning, and perhaps uncomfortable, evoking the sense that exploring identity can be a similar process.
(Thank you to Prof. Kelly Clark\Keefe for her feedback and insight on this work.)