The Perpetual Attempt to Translate My Spanish Language Self

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I never knew not speaking Spanish for more than eight hours a day would cause me a physical reaction like a headache.

Five years ago I left Puerto Rico as a leap of faith, embracing the unknown and the full understanding that I would spend, at least, nine months of my life in what I considered my place in the world: New York City. I got accepted to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism where I would pursue a master’s in Arts and Culture reporting, and that acceptance letter marked the beginning of redefining my life as I knew it.

I didn’t quite grasp how hard it would hit me to leave my primarily Spanish speaking days behind. Over the years, I profiled several significant artists and other cultural notables, including Marina Abramovic, John Malkovich, Oliver Stone, and Jane Goodall for El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora newspapers where I covered culture and lifestyle in Puerto Rico. But it was one thing to speak fluently English and a very different thing to write in English as comfortably as I felt in my mother tongue.

In 2014, the same year I got accepted to Columbia, my first book Huele a bomba: la paradójica esencia del periodismo de Avance, which traced the history of ‘Avance’, the groundbreaking Puerto Rican magazine of the seventies, came out.

I abruptly left behind the success I was just starting to receive in Puerto Rico, seeking a professional change before life further complicated itself.

The happiness I experienced in New York City started to intertwine with a nostalgia for the language that I master, the language that I feel so confident with as a journalist and a writer, the language in which I’m able to convey my emotions and thoughts with precise words and colorful images.

No matter how much English I continue to absorb, that challenge of wanting to level my English self to my Spanish self, I believe, won’t ever leave my system.

During those first days in Columbia, between the long readings, the academic jargon, and my new friends and professors, I experienced a severe longing for Spanish words and metaphors. When I heard that three of my classmates spoke Spanish, I went straight to them, wanting to hug them in an embrace of the cultural code that we shared.

“¿Hablas español? ¿De dónde eres?” I asked in the most urgent way possible.

In those first few weeks in Manhattan, right before I was about to pursue journalism in English, nostalgia for my mother tongue quickly changed to anxiety: Would I be able to write and speak in a way that would do justice to my exact emotions and ideas, just like I am able to do in Spanish?

My intense rigor was activating dozens of voices in my head as if I were another person wrestling with my linguistic identity. English is taught as a second language in Puerto Rico and, as I grew up, I felt extremely comfortable navigating that other way of writing and speaking that allowed me to explore the magic of another language.

For a brief period, soon after I started talking, I would combine Spanish and English sounds to create alternative words like “pisiz,” my own Spanglish version for ‘pencil’ and its equivalent ‘lápiz’. Between Nickelodeon and Disney, I mainly watched English language programs at home (ask my mom about my cravings at 2 am for Dumbo, the live-action/puppet television series that aired on Disney Channel) and somehow my Spanish life language got a bit confused in those early linguistic stages.

Growing up, my tío Manolo, who was one of my grandfather’s brothers, called me “La Americana” because I dearly enjoyed speaking English with him whenever he called or visited from Michigan.

MTV, VH1 and the Sweet Valley High books were my other English friends. But Spanish was still my life and as I grew older, I fell in love with its beauty, its rich grammar and infinite ways of expressing ideas. At bedtime, when Mami read stories and Papi sang ‘Muñequita Linda’, it was in Spanish.

All of my grandparents passed away within the last five years and their physical absence is now a reminder of how key they were, apart from hundreds of other aspects of my life, to my Spanish ways.

My maternal grandmother was a Spanish teacher and also one of the first women to wear pants in Utuado, my hometown in Puerto Rico’s central region. She and I spoke about Gabriel García Márquez, among other writers that adults were reading. My paternal grandmother did not finish high school but her wisdom, her curse words and wickedly funny phrases, and her loving ways gave me an intimate sense of language that still I feel when I code-switch between English and Spanish.

Both of my grandfathers encouraged my pursuit of knowledge by reading me stories or giving me access to secrets that lie in encyclopedias or dictionaries.

My deep attachment to Spanish isn’t just a “living in the US” yearning, but a clear intention of holding onto my personal history and my cultural identity as a person that navigates English while feeling, thinking, and still dreaming in Spanish. I never knew Walt Whitman’s line, “I contain multitudes,” would feel so close.

One warm day in Columbia, I hit the lawns between the J-School building and Butler Library when one of my classmates noticed my ring that was inscribed with the letter ‘G’.

“What does the ‘G’ stand for?” he asked.

“I am G. Actually, my full name is Carmen Graciela,” I said in what felt as a coming out with the name that truly reflected me. I’ve always felt more of a Graciela than a Carmen. But I identified as Carmen to English speakers to avoid troubling them pronouncing ‘Graciela’.

We were at an advanced point in our nine-month master’s program at the time and my revelation felt not only a discovery for them but even for myself: I would never again conceal any part of who I am as a very Spanish-driven being. Now I introduce myself as Graciela, or as Carmen Graciela (only occasionally as Carmen) without thinking of accommodating others but rather showing what truly forms me.

Columbia gave me what I consider my first important English long-form piece in journalism: my thesis on Manuel Ramos Otero, the most important openly gay Puerto Rican writer of the twentieth century who gave voice to an out gay experience. He spent 20 years in New York and also had similarly strong feelings on his Spanish language work.

Thanks to my thesis director Alisa Solomon, I was able to finally write in English with the power of my Spanish coming through vivid and precise descriptions. It was then that I found my Spanish language force in English. Today that discovery is still perplexing.

Years have since gone by and now my professional life is 80% in English between my job as a communications manager at an association of both public and private arts and culture funders and teaching journalism at Lehman College. (Some months after publishing this essay, I began to co-teach a Journalism course -in Spanish!- at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.) The remaining 20% of my professional life is for freelance writing, mainly in Spanish because I want and need that bond.

Now, even though most of my life is in English, I don’t have headaches anymore. I also don’t tone down my personality anymore because words and phrases don’t escape me as I move between Spanish and English thoughts.

Living in the New York City area makes me humbly aware of being surrounded by multiple languages and of the notion that my attachment to Spanish, that can sometimes even border into an obsession is just reflective of how thousands of us have to constantly negotiate our identities in the languages we speak in all the beautiful and precarious situations we face.

My perpetual attempt to translate my Spanish language self, as I find the precise words and images to convey my voice, is now another aspect of who I am.

Time transforms all feeling, and now, the translation and linguistic mediation of my identity is not a heavy load but a joyful journey on the path of discovering who I am, heavy -and prideful- accent forever included.

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