Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Rewriting American Democracy: Language and Cultural (Dis)locations in Esmeralda Santiago and Julia Alvarez

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Rewriting American Democracy: Language and Cultural (Dis)locations in Esmeralda Santiago and Julia Alvarez

Article excerpt

Upon immigrating with her mother and siblings to the United States, the eight-year-old Puerto Rican American protagonist, Negi, in Esmeralda Santiago's memoir Almost a Woman (1998) lacks the words and concepts to describe her new identity amid a mix of cultures, customs, and languages that results from her relocation to American grounds. In Negi's conversation with her schoolmate, Santiago epitomizes the cultural displacement that ethnic American immigrants experience as they negotiate their diasporic identities between the old and new homelands:

So, if you're Puerto Rican, they call you Hispanic?

Yeah. Anybody who speaks Spanish.

[...] You mean, if you speak Spanish, you're Hispanic?

Well, yeah. No [...] I mean your parents have to be Puerto Rican or Cuban or something.

[...] Okay, your parents are Cuban, let's say, and you're born here, but you don't speak Spanish. Are you Hispanic?

[...] I guess so, she finally said. It has to do with being from a Spanish country. I mean, you or your parents, like, even if you don't speak Spanish, you're Hispanic, you know? [...]

But I didn't know. I'd always been Puerto Rican, and it hadn't occurred to me that in Brooklyn I'd be someone else. (5)

Negi's attempts at formulating workable identity locations for her immigrant experience are indicative of the exile's difficulty achieving placement within mainstream American culture.

The problem of naming and representation, a commonplace issue in diaspora studies, is emblematic of ethnic immigrants' identity negotiations in the United States. Stuart Hall, for instance, defines identity as "a form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable[s] us to discover places from which to speak" (236-37). These places, however, are often ambiguous locations between the old and the new home country as well as between mainstream and non-mainstream American culture. (1) Ien Ang notes, "[t]he very name with which the 'ethnic' is referred to [...] already transposes him or her to, and conjures up the received memory of, another site of symbolic belonging, a site which is not 'here'" (17).

Still, their presence 'here' in the United States itself makes such attempts at discovering places from which to speak, no matter how difficult and frustrating this endeavor may be, an everyday necessity. (2)

Paul Gilroy proposes a set of questions that defines well the duality of a person's diasporic experience: the question about "where you're from" and the question about "where you're at." Gilroy emphasizes that as long as "where you're from" prevails over "where you're at," there is inevitably an implication of a constructed notion of normalcy with which ethnic Americans need to measure themselves in order to determine how well they fit into the homogeneous definitions of mainstream American society. However, the question of "where you're from," this common question about a person's national origin, can be answered without major confusion. On the other hand, the question about "where you're at," which is about a person's identity and location in the United States, often fails to incorporate the complexities of Latin-Caribbean American experiences of diaspora and of ethnic marginality in the United States. This question is difficult to answer because it entails formulating appropriate and adequate terminology to define accurately the location of ethnic minorities in general and ethnic immigrants in particular. It is the question of "where you're from" that leads to the sense of confusion Santiago depicts in the above-quoted dialogue. In that dialogue, these two questions intersect and thus blur aspects of national origin and cultural representation.

In this context of naming and representation of Latin-Caribbean immigrants in the United States, Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman and Julia Alvarez's "An American Childhood in the Dominican Republic" and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents characterize English as an imperialistic imperative in the Caribbean and in the United States. …

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