In the Contact Zone: Code-Switching Strategies by Latino/a Writers

Article excerpt

   The fact that I
   am writing to you
   in English
   already falsifies what I
   wanted to tell you
   My subject:
   how to explain to you that I
   don't belong to English
   though I belong nowhere else

      --Gustavo Perez Firmat 3

The Rise of New "Englishes"

In Weird English, Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch'ien examines the innovative renditions of English produced by immigrant and postcolonial writers. She argues that writers such as Arundhati Roy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Salman Rushdie, and Junot Diaz share a desire to create a new English that represents their "third-world" perspective in a world that seeks to marginalize the voices of these writers' communities. She states, "Weird English wants to do more with English than communicate what the subject is; it also wants to show who the speaker is and how the speaker can appropriate the language" (8). While she studies a disparate group of writers, she argues that the new Englishes they produce destabilize the established standard language and permit other languages to share the status enjoyed by English; these writers also unapologetically break the rules of English. Their reworked varieties of English often implicate other languages by incorporating elements from their structure and sound system, if not the "foreign" words themselves. By producing a "balancing act of intelligibility and experiment" (Ch'ien 11), immigrant and postcolonial writers create a new variety without completely assimilating the norms and conventions of the dominant language. As outsiders, such writers appropriate English from a novel perspective.

Much of the Latino/a literature written in English in the US incorporates Spanish at some level. Code-switching, the alternation of two languages in a verbal or written text, is often featured in poetry, drama, and performance art, particularly work that is published by Latino/a presses. Many analyses of code-switching in Chicano/a and Nuyorican poetry discuss the significance of this practice. Critics such as Keller, Lipski, and Aparicio agree that code-switching is an artistic choice with political ramifications. Using Spanish in an English language text serves to legitimize the much-maligned practice of mixing codes in vernacular speech. (1) In the United States, the presence of large and small Latino/a communities across the country, increasing numbers of Latino/a immigrants, and the US/Mexican border means that code-switching in literature is not only metaphorical, but represents a reality where segments of the population are living between cultures and languages; literary language actualizes the discourse of the border and bilingual/bicultural communities.

In this essay, I focus on one mainstream space where Spanish and English are in contact; specifically, I analyze the use of Spanish in Latino/a literary texts written since the 1990s in the United States. Through strategies that range from very infrequent and transparent use of Spanish to prose that requires a bilingual reader, Latino/a authors negotiate their relationships to homelands, languages, and transnational identifications. The strategies they use lend themselves to multiple readings and differing levels of accessibility. While the united States is a hostile climate for multilingualism and diverse cultures, Latino/a prose writers who use Spanish in their work continue to impact the literary sphere and to a lesser or greater extent insist on documenting and textualizing the reality of a multilingual America. These strategies that I discuss are manifest in most Latino/a prose fiction published in the last few decades. The specific examples come from a range of recently published Latino/a texts (1990 to 2004); I also choose texts from Latino/a writers who have publicly discussed their use of Spanish in prose writing.

Strategies for Inclusion of Spanish in Latino/a Texts

Divergent opinions concerning the inclusion and function of Spanish in the works of Latino/a writers suggests they choose a variety of strategies to portray a bicultural and bilingual world and that they may have different readers in mind as they craft their texts. …