By Valerie Martínez, Executive Director and Core Artist, Littleglobe
How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.—Black Hawk
The tongue is but three inches long, yet it can kill a man six feet high.—Japanese Proverb
Several years ago, during a memoir-writing workshop at a senior center, I heard an exchange between two elders getting to know each other after sharing some of their writing. One elder was Navajo, the other Hispanic. Both were born in New Mexico and had lived in the state all of their lives. The Hispanic elder was talking about “turning over a new leaf” and starting his life over again. The Navajo woman laughed politely and said, “Your leaf is one leaf and it’s been turning forever.”
I am still struck by this exchange, and it serves as one of many lessons I am learning about how we mark our similarities and differences through language. Embedded in the elder man’s words—“turning over a new leaf”—is a view of one’s life as segmented, with endings and new beginnings. The woman’s response implies that there is no stopping and starting one’s life, that time is continuous, however changing. It made me think about the different worldviews and legacies we inherit from our migratory ancestors (who moved from continent to continent—“world” to “world”), from our indigenous ancestors (who inhabit the same land from which they emerged at creation). We know that many native peoples view the past, the present and the future as simultaneous realms of time and space, layered one upon the other. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Joy Harjo’s poetry and other literature by American Indian writers help us know and experience these continuous worlds.
The conversation, above, was not in any way hostile but marked the difference in world views between two elders who have shared the same geographical terrain for decades. We have all heard more pronounced (and even hostile) exchanges when language incites the differences between us. Because I am a poet and because my work with Littleglobe seeks to “foster life-affirming connections across the boundaries that divide us,” I am very interested in how language includes or excludes (both subtly and boldly) and how we, as artists, we can develop our use of language as a practice of inclusion. I’m interested less in the more obvious racial epithets (which I hope we readily recognize as violent, inciteful, exclusive) than in the more subtle ways that language separates or draws us together.
The first step in this practice is developing an awareness of how our language demarcates “otherness.” In the southwest, for example, the word “Hispanic” can be exclusive, even offensive. For some members of my own family, this term communicates a certain pride of heritage, a recognition of our descent from 16th-century Spaniards who came to the Americas. For others (also members of my own family) the use of “Hispanic” signals a symbolic embrace of the atrocities committed by the Spanish conquistadores and the denial of our Pueblo and Navajo bloodlines. On the other hand, calling ourselves “mestizo” (mixed blood) sometimes offends in my family; one relative feels that it denies us the opportunity to claim our specific heritage/heritages and others seem uncomfortable with claiming Native American blood at all. The word “Latino” creates similar controversy in the southwest—the term is considered to be either erroneous (we are not Latin American) or too broadly inclusive (encompassing all who speak languages derived from Latin).
Another example: many indigenous people of the southwest prefer to be called “Indian” (pronounced “Indyin”) rather than “Native American.” It doesn’t matter that some consider the term “Indian” a misnomer—the people the Spaniards expected to encounter when they set out for India in 1492. For many native people, the term feels comfortable and familiar, even intimate. And many native southwesterners consider “Native American” much less desirable, less “indigenous,” even a term imposed on them by White academics.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel presentation in which the moderator said, as a warning, “If your name is Gonzalez and you don’t speak Spanish, you have lost at least half of your culture.” At first this seemed a fairly innocuous statement, but it gnawed on me for the rest of the day. Hours later I realized why. In the southwest, there are thousands of American Indians with Spanish last names given to them when they were christened and “converted” to Catholicism by the Spaniards. These surnames have been passed down for generations. Many do not speak Spanish and many reject Spanish as the language of the colonizer. But the moderator’s statement (with the loss of language there is a loss of culture) did not take into account the complex history of how language comes to a people (often by a colonizer and by force) and how it is often used in an attempt to erase identity and culture.
While the use of all the above terms is still fairly common, I’m aware of the “repetition of otherness” that might result from our use of these words in a diverse setting. I believe that a more conscious, sensitive and informed language is possible, a language that can and does evolve for the purposes of inclusion or, more simply, awareness. So, as artists and cultural workers, our awareness of the kind of language we use to describe ourselves and others, and the effects of this language, is an important first step.
A second step/practice is “re-languaging.” My recognition of the impact of certain terms and phrases urges me to form a new language. I will remember to use “Indian” in addition to “Native American,” for example. I might forego “Hispanic” and “Latino” for “New Mexican” or “Norteño.” Or I might mention all of these and acknowledge their inadequacies. If I use the word “White,” for example, I might add that some in the southwest prefer “Anglo” (to distinguish European descendents from Spain from European descendents from the U.K.) and that “White” can also mean Italian-American, Swedish-American, descendents from Russian Jews and others. Even using the phrase “Mexican” is complicated; there are those who like to be called “Mexican” or “Mexican-American” or “Chicano/Xicano.” I have witnessed fellow artists and cultural workers simply acknowledge that words are inadequate by asking, “What term do you use? What term do you prefer?”
Asking someone, in a community circle, “What word/term do you prefer?” suggests another step/practice in developing inclusive language—the practice of asking for guidance and permission. When we become aware of the inadequacy or exclusiveness of our words, we can ask others to guide the way. The practice of asking others for the words sends a strong message—I need your help; I’m unsure of my words; I care about using language more inclusively. In addition to signaling that my role as facilitator is dependent on the group, asking for guidance pushes “authority” away from me. It also allows the circle to create a common language together.
Asking permission also creates a space for dialogue about the words we use and how they affect us. When this happens, issues of inclusion and exclusion, tolerance and intolerance, sensitivity and insensitivity, inevitably come up. The practice thus creates an opening for discussion and (hopefully) deeper connection and sensitivity. I know that I have always learned about my own “language of exclusion” from listening to others talk about how they have felt excluded, by being confronted with something offensive that I’ve said, and by feeling excluded by language myself. As artists and cultural workers, we might welcome these “encounters,” make sure to nurture a safe space for dialogue, and encourage discussion in the context of learning from each other. We might contextualize such a discussion and its importance by sharing our own experiences about the practice of linguistic inclusion. I have said, more than once, as a facilitator:
I know that I have offended more than one person, over the years, by calling them “Black” before I’ve asked them for the term they prefer or about the specifics of their heritage. I have been mystified by my mistake, embarrassed by it (after all, when someone calls me “Hispanic” I’m quick to let them know I’m Mixed-Blood), and even angry for having been “called out.” This is always followed by a deep sense of guilt for not being as sensitive as I believed I was.
I can also share that I have always been grateful (if and when the guilt wears off) for such encounters and for taking the time to compassionately talk through the misunderstanding or offense. And I’ve always felt a stronger connection to the person who has helped me realize how I might evolve my use of language.
It is worth asking, here (though it would deserve an essay of its own), whether this applies to the nonverbal language that is central to creative engagement work. If words mark otherness, include and exclude, alienate, then is this also true of the images we might use during exercises? Gestures and movements? Musical phrases or entire pieces? Video clips? I’m sure it’s so. Just think of the stereotypical image of a Mexican sleeping under a sombrero. Attention to the reactions we both hear and SEE in our community circles is crucial. This is why facilitation is a continual process of deepening our abilities to move a session plan forward while being extremely present and aware of verbal and nonverbal reactions to the “materials” (words, images, music) that we choose or encounter during our sessions. In essence, the center of gravity for this practice is AWARENESS.
Linguistic “encounters” may take some time and attention to address (and we should be prepared to facilitate such a discussion) but the potential for community-building, as a result, is great. As we know, deeper connections are most often nurtured by the things that go “verbally wrong” and the generative/regenerative practice of not letting these pass undetected, unmentioned and unmediated. It is well worth our time, regardless of the interruption or postponement of the rest of our session plan, to take every opportunity for conflict mediation/dialogue/raising awareness/community building.
At the same time, our session plans can be specifically designed to generate discussion about how our use of language affects others. I have spent a lifetime creating messages from my very own “language,” the language of my poetry. In five books of poetry, I have spoken to the world in a language crafted from my own very specific reality, imagination, body:
We have the body of a woman, an arch over the ground, but there is no danger. Her hair falls, spine bowed, but no one is with her. The desert, yes, with its cacti, bursage, sidewinders. She is not in danger. If we notice, there are the tracks of animals moving east toward the sunrise. And the light is about to touch a woman’s body without possession. Here, there are no girl’s bones in the earth, marked with violence. A cholla blooms, just two feet away. It blooms.
—from “It is Not,” Absence, Luminescent, 1999
One of the reasons why I consider poetry (in community circles) a very powerful and transformative artistic practice is because it encourages us to consider the ways that words WORK. I am most enamored with poems that “radiate” their meanings in images, symbols and metaphors that force us to consider multiple meanings, multiple emotions. At the same time, poetry is very personal. Talking about poems, writing and sharing poems gives us the opportunity to talk in deep ways about how words work (and don’t work) to express what we want to say. And discussion of our own poems almost always makes us aware of how others “interpret” our words. For these reasons, poetry can be used very effectively to encourage self-awareness, group awareness and linguistic awareness.
Learn a new language and get a new soul.—Czech Proverb
As I write this essay, I am more and more keenly aware that I have internalized a kind of dictionary of words and phrases that almost always force me to seek guidance and/or permission to “re-language.” Here is just part of that dictionary (with a focus on words that come up in my work in the southwest): Black, Chicano, community art, empower, end-of-the-world, fine art, handicapped, Hispanic, Hispano, immigrant/migrant, Indian, indigenous, impoverished, Latino, Native, Native American, Gay, Lesbian, turning over a new leaf, poverty-stricken, pro-life, rural poor, underserved, undocumented. Each of these words and phrases could be “unpacked” to reveal a range of assumptions, ideologies and perspectives that would make for interesting dialogue. And unpacking these terms with others could take us a long way on the road to understanding both ourselves and each other—one of the central practices of building strong communities.
Wittgenstein’s famous quote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” is a constant reminder of the way that we contract or expand our vision of the world in the ways we communicate with each other. With each experience of working in community, I am challenged to develop a language that is more sensitive, tolerant, compassionate and capable. As I ask for language from others, as I re-language, I feel my own way of communicating growing larger and more conscious, more inclusive and more collaborative. And though it’s hard to imagine a world in which words—our own and others—do not have the capacity to divide us, I do believe we can move in the direction of a language that binds us all more closely and beautifully together.