The Struggle for Language Rights: Naming and Interrogating the Colonial Legacy of "English Only"

By Bartolomé, Lilia I. | Human Architecture, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Struggle for Language Rights: Naming and Interrogating the Colonial Legacy of "English Only"


Bartolomé, Lilia I., Human Architecture


Abstract: In this article, Lilia Bartolomé theorizes about her personal experiences and links the language suppression she experienced to the internal colonization framework that Gloria Anzaldúa utilized to explain the subordinate linguistic and social status of people of color in the United States. Bartolomé also illustrates how the English-only movement functions to domesticate people of color while it serves to integrate white immigrant groups into the dominant culture. In her view, educators who refuse to connect with Anzaldúa's cry for human dignity and liberation will remain complicit and reap benefits from the "tradition of silence." In contrast, educators who are ideologically and politically clear will always transcend the mechanization of teaching and learning so as to denounce the xenophobia that parades itself under the banner of patriotism and "English for the children." Their political clarity will invariably give them the ethical courage to highlight the fact that indigenous people and many Mexican Americans did not cross the border. In fact, the border crossed them. Teachers' political and ideological clarity should also imbue them with enough empathy to understand the inextricable link between language, identity, voice, and hope.

Deslenguadas. (We are de-tongued.) Somos los del español deficiente. [We are those with deficient Spanish.] We are your linguistic nightmare, your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestizaje, the subject of your burla [The subject of your joke]. Because we speak with tongues of fire we are culturally crucified. Racially, culturally and linguistically somos huérfanos [We are orphans]-we speak an orphan tongue. (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 58)

I am one of those Chicanas who early in life was locked into a barrio existence where I was made to feel ashamed of speaking Spanish-shame that painfully reproduced itself as I was devalued yet again for being a non-Standard English speaker. I am one of those "culturally crucified" Chicanas who struggled to understand what it means to be a cultural orphan. This process not only denied me the signposts needed to form a psychologically healthy identity, but also contributed to a form of cultural schizophrenia that Homi Bhabha (1994) appropriately defines as a permanent state of cultural homelessness. I struggled in this state of cultural homelessness, attempting to reconcile the requirement to exterminate my cultural and linguistic selves with the promise that I would at best be a hyphenated American, and at worst be relegated to subhumanity, as Jean Paul Sartre (1967) so accurately described the colonial condition. It was this state of cultural homelessness that led me to Gloria Anzaldúa.

Gloria Anzaldúa has had a tremendous influence on both my professional and my personal life. At a personal level, Anzaldúa helped me understand much of what had troubled me growing up as a Chicana and a member of a historically subordinated cultural group in the United States: She helped me understand why I felt a sense of inferiority and self-hate, why I resented whites, and why I felt shame and rejection whenever I spoke Spanish in places where it was frowned upon and among people who held the expectation that I (and my family members) should assimilate-that is, lose our language and culture in order to become imperfect facsimiles and, ultimately, unacceptable copies of white Americans. I felt this powerful yet unspoken and unnamed shame, and although I wanted to "squeeze the shame out"-as Malcolm X encouraged colonized people to do-I didn't know how. Instead, I often assumed a false bravado and an in-your-face attitude, because anger would overcome me and I did not have the language to express my recognition of efforts to reject me, to subordinate me, and to oppress me.

As a young woman, I had particular difficulty communicating with white peers, whom I perceived as condescending in their treatment of me and other people of color. When I read Anzaldúa and others, I learned to "lovingly" yet vigorously challenge white colleagues who too often took (and still take) it upon themselves to speak for me and other people of color-a skill that comes in handy in the academy, I can assure you. …

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