On language and the state of the world today
i’m going to start by referring to a german author whose name i can’t remember. i don’t even remember the exact way the quote goes, but it’s something in the neighborhood of this: “one of the things that appalled me the most about nazism was their appropriation of the german language. they seemed to have sequestered the language of goethe and turned it into a language of hatred and discrimination”. something like that.
nowadays, i’m having similar feelings about english. i’m a mexican english graduate. as a living, i teach english and i translate from and to english. english has been a part of my life since i was very young, nearly as far as i can remember. i grew up in mexico’s late 80s-early 90s, which was a time of seclusion for the country. back then, mexico had more similarities to an eastern european bloc than to its northern neighbor. it was very difficult to obtain products from the us, cable television was a luxury only few people could pay for, and there was only a handful of bilingual/bicultural schools. at least here in mexico city.
my family has always been oriented towards the left, both politically and economically, and they were raised to look at the united states with a lot of suspicions. we (that is, the younger generation, my brother, my cousins and me) were raised to believe that the us had nothing to offer and that they were imperialists opposing and imposing on everything that could be deemed as a threat to their interests, which were only money and oil. in terms of culture, to our eyes, they were sterile and thieves. i wouldn’t say that they were considered the devil, because my family is also atheist, but you get the idea. i can’t recall the exact moment when or how it happened, but at one point my mother decided she had had enough of this point of view and enrolled me and my brother in a bilingual/bicultural elementary school and i began to learn english as a second language. i couldn’t say i was fascinated or that my life took an 180 degree turn because i was too young to notice that kind of stuff, but i began my exposure to music, comic books, movies, and tv. being that young, learning english came easy to me and suddenly i was able to keep a conversation, understand movies without having to read the captions, read entire novels and so on. my mother decided to take advantage of this and enrolled me in an english school to master my skills and by the time i turned 15 i was 100% bilingual with a neutral accent and perfect spelling.
cut to the moment when i had to choose what to study at college. the choice came relatively easy and i went to pick english (or english literature as it is named here). before that, i had taken the language for granted and it was natural to read and write it, but after the first couple of semesters i began to notices its richness, the vast complexities it has, the amazing journey it has had since it was first spoken and set on paper, the astounding connections with other european languages, the acrobatic shifts in its pronunciation, the fact that it is ever changing and how it is basically a different language in every country where it is spoken. i also understood its presence in the culture of the two mayor countries where it is spoken. i specialized in the us because of how it was a touchy matter in my family. the us seemed to me a mysterious and deeply complex land and as soon as i was aware of their cultural contributions to the world, i discarded the notion my family had had for years and that they had tried to inflict upon me.
today, after all the mess that’s been happening for the past year and a half or so, i’m having a problem with the relationship language-culture-people. the two countries i studied in college are sunk in a mishmash of bigotry, unfounded fear, uncertainty, and everything that we have been seeing in the news lately. i’m having trouble trying to understand how the language and the background that has produced such artisans as william faulkner, ernest hemingway, f. scott fitzgerald, thomas pynchon, raymond carver, jack kerouac, is being twisted beyond recognition into a a rhetoric of hate. adjectives like “huge”, “beautiful”, “wonderful” are being applied to describe instruments of fear and division.
i refuse to accept that.
i want those, and other adjectives, to remain in our fingers and our voices to refer to the works of miles davis, leonard bernstein, bob dylan, johnny cash, john coltrane, nina simone, television, the ramones, the beastie boys, the beach boys, nwa, nirvana, beck, james brown, marvin gaye, the ronettes, joan jett & the blackhearts, woody guthrie, leadbelly, robert johnson. to the paintings of edward hopper, jackson pollock, grant wood, mark rothko, john register. to the books by all the authors i mentioned above plus edith wharton, kurt vonnegut, william gibson, frank miller, emily dickinson, herman melville, ee cummings, william carlos williams, saul bellow, stephen king, harvey pekar, robert crumb, daniel clowes, don delillo, malcolm lowry, junot díaz. to the movies by martin scorsese, wes anderson, stanley kubrick, quentin tarantino, michael mann, david fincher, terence malick, brian de palma, francis ford coppola, the coen brothers, spike lee, john singleton, steven spielberg, billy wilder, john carpenter, robert zemeckis, sam raimi, kevin smith, steven soderbergh, todd haynes.
i don’t asume my words will have a lot of resonance, but i will do my part to keep the language as a tool to describe and defend all that is just, fair, and worth experiencing without fear or intimidation.