EL PASO – Ricardo Piglia says that when we tell a story we always tell two stories. In my family, take this further, we end up telling more than three stories. My stories, though, are related. I promise so.
Story 1. The spanish.
I am a spanish teacher’s daughter (which is as good or as bad as being a math or a science teacher’s daughter). In my case it meant, I was taught to read and write at a very early age, I learned about grammar before the Padre Nuestro. My early “lingüistics” brought me friends: I was the one who wrote the love letters; but also brought me enemies: miss-correct-em-all, Ay la grammar police. Because I am mexican, spanish, was suppose to be my means of communication, yes, but to me it was more than that, I started an uncommon relationship with the idea of language itself. I had a thing with the esdrújulas, a thing with words with z or qu. The strangeness of words was a magnet. Then came the inventing of sentences. As Lyn Hejinian once said “I wanted to release the flow of accumulated syntax.”
I wish I could end this first story by stating: “when I was 8 I realized I wanted to be a writer” but, I wanted to be a cashier or a flight attendant.
Story 2. The english
My mother decided I had to study english. I guess she forecasted a future where bilingüalism was going to save our lives or she just didn’t know what to do with me. Why, oh, why?, I asked. My mother gave me the strongest reason a mother can give: because I say so.
Oh, Lord. English was like the stepmother you don’t like, because, to begin with, she is not your mother, she has her own ways, has these modals and, por si fuera poco, a long list of irregular verbs. It was not going to work, she all snob and strict, me with mis sinónimos, mi eñe, mi erre con erre cigarro. I thought I would never learn. I wondered how was Mrs. Lilia, my first english teacher, going to transfer everything I knew in spanish in this other language? What was to happen to the sounds, the textures, the taste del español en español? How was she going to translate my world of words?
She taught me to think in english. My brain didn’t have to do a long thinking process, it just had to act, react. I saw an object and called the name without thinking what it was in spanish. My word games were translated. So there you have it: I had a mother tongue, and a stepmother tongue that was as loving and sweet as mine, one that could –as Ben Saenz says- turn everything into a verb.
In my selfish imagination I gained power: the luxury of being bilingüal, although it only meant that I could –and had to- order for my whole family at a McDonalds. I became the language servant. In all those years my spanish didn’t fight back, both got along pretty well. I didn’t mix them though, I would use each according to my needs. Yes, that was the big realization of that time. I began to be aware that language is there to meet our needs.
Story 3. Translation
We don’t look for obsessions, obsessions find us. The obsession for literature found me in 1993. Years went by and then boom: I started to write and really, it made sense. Paulo Leminski used to say that poetry is born from the love between poet and language. My writing was born from the love between english, spanish and language. Writing helped me shape the languages that I had been carrying on my shoulders.
Translation came along later, I have Rosa Alcala from UTEP to thank for that. I have just defended a thesis which is the translation of a beautiful and brutal book of poetry, Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson. This book tells the story of the life and death of Nelson’s aunt Jane Mixer. She was one of the seven victims of a serial killer in 1960s. Translating this book has placed in a strange position and, at the same time, in the position I needed to be, because what better place to translate about the violence against women than El Paso, Texas, so close to Ciudad Juárez, México? What better moment to do it than now when my country seems to be under siege? This, for me, is the power of language. Bilingüalism was there to meet my need, my need for translating a book that expands the notion of what poetry can do.
My three stories may be summarized in this statement: My early approach to languages modeled my life. It made me a reader, a writer, a translator but it also made me a believer –maybe a naive believer- that the awareness of language forces us to see the world in a different way.