Let's Call It Home: Learning Language, Translation, and Literary Citizenship

  • Juan Morales

Ever since I started writing, I have been guided by my parents—an Ecuadorian mother and a Puerto Rican father—who both carried a lifetime of stories. I consider myself lucky that they didn’t hold back the stories of earthquakes and ghosts that my mother shared, or the tales of war and battle zones that my father related. They encouraged me to preserve story within poetry, and story found its way into my first two poetry collections, Friday and the Year That Followed and The Siren World.

When my parents recounted family stories, it was hard to predict whether I would hear the stories in Spanish, English, or Spanglish. I would have to make sure I understood everything and usually asked for important moments to be repeated again in English. This back-and-forth revealed an important tension inside me. I knew I was at home hearing mama y papa telling their cuentos, but I didn’t feel completely comfortable with my limited proficiency in Spanish. As a Latinx writer, I have carried this as a shame and insecurity, but I have since learned that I am not alone. Like me, many Latinx writers in the United States were raised to speak English and did not learn Spanish, the language of our parents and forbearers.

And so I have endeavored to learn Spanish and to get into touch with my family roots. As a heritage speaker, one who has heard the language and experienced my mother tongue all my life, my learning process had to evolve past the old teaching methods of strict recitation and repetition. Just like my writing process, it had to be done with trial and lots of error and stumbling to find the correct words. After all, language acquisition works better with immersion. It requires us to swim in the river of words, to embrace the pregnant pauses as code switches in our brains, and to undertake the internal search for the exact phrases we want to use.

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Poco a poco” is the mantra my parents taught me to tackle everything. Little by little, I learned about the persistence and patience required to become bilingual and a writer.

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For almost three years, I have been confronting my personal insecurity by using a free app to practice Spanish. I tried auditing classes until I convinced myself I was too busy, and I flamed out on plans to use self-guided lessons from Spanish textbooks since I couldn’t assemble a proper structure. Now, I take time each morning to complete three brief lessons, under the guidance of a green cartoon bird. I translate, type, repeat, and listen to phrases. I repeat them out loud so I can feel the words in my mouth. The lessons tap into my competitive brain by using streaks and points to keep me motivated. My knowledge of Spanish grammar and syntax improves. Connections form. Synapses fire. The gamification of language learning exposes my weak points—pronoun placement, consistent gender agreement, misplaced accents, and verb tenses—as I continue fortifying my proficiency. When I make mistakes, I slow down and note the errors I’ve made. Every day, my phone conversations and Facebook messages with my mother go a little longer, become more complex, and flow a little better. I feel closer to her when she brags about what I’ve learned. It is helping me to own my sources of personal shame and insecurity, so I can discover what other parts of speech to nurture.

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You see, a few years ago, I asked my mom to speak to me only in Spanish. It would be a challenge, and it would allow me to stay immersed and accountable. Of course, when she followed through, I grew flustered during our phone calls. I struggled to weave her sentences together even with all the phrases I could comprehend. She successfully deflected every attempt I made to shift the conversation into English. Like a good parent, she dragged me along, kicking and screaming.

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I know my parents meant well when they made the decision not to teach me Spanish. I know there was no family meeting where they debated the pros and cons to arrive at a decision; it just happened. The shadows and ghosts of discrimination loomed over them as memories of people telling them to speak English or punishments for speaking Spanish. I still cannot fully understand the struggles they faced. I can only acknowledge them. Looking back, I see it as a regretful choice they made, but I tend to overlook my own decisions from that time. I can now admit how much the younger me took Spanish for granted. I didn’t take enough interest in learning it, coasting on the basics throughout school. With my youth, I also carried the arrogance that the world should speak the same language as me. I became frustrated by my parents’ conversations, catching scraps that I knew, asking who was Julio when they meant the month of July, noting the musicality of my dad saying “Qué opera!” when he was mad, and recognizing all the cognates sprinkled in their conversations that gave me hints on the topic. These were the given clues, and all of it humbled me fast.

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As I always remind my university students, we must contribute to our literary communities with what we call literary citizenship. Literary citizenship is made up of the small gestures that allow us to give back and to advocate for fellow writers and our writing communities. These small gestures might include reading slush for a lit magazine; harnessing the courage to read at an open mic; starting a writing group in town; subscribing to the small magazines we love; or even sharing and dialoguing with a lit mag’s social media. Our literary magazine, Pilgrimage, is one that has been around for more than 40 years, and it has made its home in Pueblo for almost a decade. Its established mission, story, spirit, witness, and place in and beyond the greater Southwest make it easy to serve the literary community. We not only want to support emerging writers, but we also seek out diverse voices as regular staples in each issue. We want our contributors’ pages to mingle writers from all over the US with international authors and accented names. Our southern Colorado geography and our proximity to the borderlands inspire us to continue to find ways we can open the borders.

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It wasn’t until I started college that I realized my parents had accents. A friend mentioned that he couldn’t always understand them. It surprised me. I lived hearing their syntax and speech patterns for so long that I had never thought of them as accents. Their voices always felt natural. I was accustomed to their jumps between English and Spanish and then back. As I keep studying Spanish, there are times now when it seems like my native English feels awkward because I find myself thinking in Spanish. Maybe someday I will have an accent, too?

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Home was the Spanish tongue they spoke and the one I thought I didn’t want. It was me dozing through church services and Bible study held in Spanish. It was the trips to new countries that had been home to mom and dad’s younger years where I felt alone at first. Spanish manifested again as homesickness and teenage angst. To my family, I was a gringo, teased for not knowing enough Spanish. “Hello, John Wayne,” some cousins mocked, laughing and sometimes even calling me a Yankee. But then, as I got older, I tried to look beyond the jokes, and Spanish started to stir in my writing. I journaled and kept writing poems, discovering moments where the right word didn’t exist in English, and Spanish was no longer used just for flavor. Later on, I became grateful to my extended family when they taught me Spanish words and tried their hand at English. I learned quickly that the teasing was an important way of expressing affection.

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Someone once told me you have succeeded in learning a language when you dream in it. I feel hopeful when I have dreams that drudge up the foggy memories of my first trips to Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Mexico, or reflect the imagined experience of the other Latin American countries I will visit in the future. My language study on the app continues every morning, and now my journal entries are sometimes written in Spanish. My practice is coffee for my mind. It’s a challenge that emboldens me to keep going, to take the next steps—to read Spanish books, journal with this new tongue, and translate my own poems.

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Following the lead of other lit mags we admire, Pilgrimage started publishing a translation folio that showcases at least two poets and writers doing important work. Translation expands our worldview and opens our eyes to give access to more voices and cultures. We appointed a translation editor, put out the call for submissions, and didn’t look back. In a short period, we have featured translations of Honduran poets, Iraqi poets, and poets from the borderlands, along with works in Hebrew, Hindi, Polish, and Chinese. Whenever possible, we publish the translation beside the work in the original language. It’s important to witness the story or poem in its original language. As editors, we have learned that publishing translations is another way that literary magazines can reach out across continents and oceans to unify us through storytelling. Translations from other cultures and other parts of the world transcend conflict, stand up to combative administrations and regimes, and challenge government policies that strip away humanity. It is another small way we can give back, an important form of literary citizenship. We observe the world more freely when we learn how it is perceived and described in other languages.

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Almost a year ago, my father passed away very suddenly. I still fear that I have lost a part of myself. I am trying to understand that this is a natural feeling that comes with grief. My father used to walk three miles each morning, until one morning he had a fall that caused the head injury that ultimately cost him his life. He immediately lost the ability to speak and then became unresponsive for approximately five days. His voice was gone. It devastated me to watch so many stories slipping away along with him.

While the family and I gathered around him in the ICU, we shared our stories about him, family members called, my parents’ church congregation prayed over him, and we waited for family to come in time to say their goodbyes. All the while, I thought of stories I wanted to hear again and questions I meant to ask him. When he was alive, we mostly spoke in English. It was our mode, even though I knew my father felt more comfortable with Spanish. On those days in the ICU, I spoke to him and the family in both languages, going where the conversations dictated. When the time arrived, I said my goodbyes in Spanish and English, all the while coming to understand that we have to use language to overcome grief, to bring us closer to the ones we have lost, to our culture, to the ones we want to hold onto, and, ultimately, in order to show the world who we really are. I kept repeating to him my promise, “I will tell your story,” with surprising fluency in Spanish that I didn’t know I had. After all the lessons and work over the years, I was finally at home with the language in my mouth.