Treehouse English: Bilingualism and Exclusion in the Puerto Rican Context

When people ask about the fluency of my English, they seem to expect a narrative rooted somewhere other than in my native Puerto Rico. I don’t have a noticeable Hispanic accent, aside from an inability to distinguish ‘ch’ from ‘sh’. (Cheap sheep? Sounds like a good deal.) And other then sometimes mistranslating types of fish and fruits, there are no gaping lacunas in my knowledge of English. Under the guidance of two parents in academia, I had the privilege of traveling to the US from a young age, where I cultivated both my extroversion and a second language to express it. But I never lived outside the island and within its limits, my awareness of the power of bilingualism began, not inside the walls of an institution, but on top of a very large tree.

I grew up playing with the neighborhood boys, a group of four or five kids who would include me in their games very reluctantly. One of their favorite pastimes was to scale a tree of Ent-like proportions, the top branches of which doubled as an exclusive club. A boy’s club, of course, only accessible to stronger legs than mine. But at age eight, after many months of straining my neck to devise a way up, I found myself gripping successfully at the vines, propelled more by self-righteousness than agility. Up here I am triumphant, up here I sit crouched with my hands on my waist. From below, I imagine my body language reads as unmistakably confident. Then my imagination shifts into unpleasant territory, and I’m suddenly terrified. Now the view only shows the impossibility of coming down. But the boys are waiting on the ground. They are measuring time by pulling tails off small lizards, and I feel my stomach writhe in the same way as the dismembered appendages.

This is the first memory I have of feeling conflicted between languages: I could either call for my parents in Spanish, meaning that I would be understood by the taunters and forever and ever (an eight year old’s conception of eternity) be dubbed una boba, or I could resort to the English only spoken by adults. In retrospect, I find it difficult to understand why verbalizing my fear was more embarrassing than the fact that, regardless of the chosen language, I would have to come down with the help of a grown-up. Years after having been pulled down from the tree by a bemused family friend, I find myself going back to that moment, bewildered about choosing English as a tool for exclusion. Not because I expected more out of teeny bopper-me, but because iterations of the same conflict have continued to occur in my life.

Being fully bilingual in Puerto Rico is not exceptional, but it is also not the norm politicians or Puerto Ricans living in the US would suggest. Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a semiautonomous commonwealth under continued American sovereignty. (If that sounds oxymoronic, don’t worry: you’re not alone.) We are American citizens by birth, but the only official language of the island was Spanish until 1993, when English became officialized as well. In the interest of brevity, the political-cultural-economic entanglement of state-sponsored English can be summed up as follows: “It’s either a case of being damned if you do (you’re betraying your Hispanic heritage and giving in to the forces of Americanization from the North) and damned if you don’t (you’re severely limiting your potential for mobility).” [1] That is the official and most widely accepted Morton’s fork, which our government attempts to resolve by declaring that bilingualism is a right, not a privilege.

I did not grow up with an English speaking nanny or babysitter, nor did my parents enroll me in a school with an all-English curriculum. They spoke to me, and still speak to me, only in Spanish. Their own English is accented, not heavily, but enough to make my mom want to pass the phone to me at age ten, frustrated because the operator couldn’t understand her. The political situation in the sixties did not allow my parents to have access to English education from an early age, but things were different for me. I attended an elementary school that allocated several hours a week to English and introduced me to literary canons that, for a long time, I believed represented the realities of my own world. Already at age eight, some part of me was able to recognize my second language as something that I could use to feel superior over others.

Years later, I would talk to my college counselor about the international students I had met during a Model United Nations competition in Boston; I would gesticulate wildly and express my amazement at the possible impossibility of my new friends knowing old friends from back home. I would discover the smallness of the world, and my counselor, with the delicate touch of experience, would proceed to make it implode. “I hope you realize,” she said, “that the students you met represent a specific, privileged and bilingual sample of their nations. Like yourself.” She paused. “It’s important to think about who’s not there, not because they don’t have the abilities, but because they don’t have the language.” At this point, bilingualism had become naturalized into my life, and I suddenly found myself needing to question the exercise of an elite privilege, disguised as a right by pseudo-colonial structures.

Like with most naturalized privileges, bilingual speakers take for granted that they can be understood clearly when they speak. Through its filtered-down American institutions, Puerto Rican bilingualism obscures the fact that not adhering to certain standards is constructed as a disability, leading to the shaming of those who, for example, speak heavily accented English.

Surprisingly enough for many Puerto Ricans, our current governor is included in that category. Last November, a Youtube video of García Padilla (who is not an advocate for statehood) answering a question in English started making the rounds on my Facebook newsfeed. The comments came from upper-middle class Puerto Rican students in the US, and they all followed the same logic: “LOL look at this idiot who can’t even speak English, he’s a moron.” Disregarding the contents of García Padilla’s answers (which can verge on incoherent even in Spanish), the reactions of my Facebook friends came as an unpleasant surprise to me. There was only one instance of ambivalence, only one person who wrote, in Spanish: “An accent is not a disability, it is a mark of knowing more than one language, which is more than what most Americans can say.”

The sad truth is that one of the legacies of Puerto Rico’s pseudo-colonial status has been subpar public education. While decades of government have frustratingly prioritized the identity question as a cure-all for our nation’s many social ills, education in both Spanish and English has been one of the many issues put on the backburner. At the same time, my generation has been raised to believe that bilingualism is the necessary toolbox for replicating the American socioeconomic mold. And, to further complicate things, passionate feelings about Puerto Rican cultural identity result in the island’s citizens criticizing each other for abandoning Hispanic heritage, while constructing imperfect English as a disability.

On that same note, maybe I should be writing this essay in Spanish, and perhaps I soon will. But I’d like to believe that my act of writing isn’t an eight year old toying with power structures she doesn’t understand. I write because I want to understand. Or rather, I am still in the process of understanding that regardless of whether you cling to an ideology within which your native language is essential and unyielding, or you recognize the possibilities of multilingualism as going beyond national politics, you must be aware that, in many and most post-colonial nations, English still serves as a tool for exclusion.

By Maru Pabón, Contributor

[1] Schweers, C. William, Jr., and Jorge A. Vélez. “To Be or Not to Be Bilingual in Puerto Rico: That Is the Issue.” TESOL Journal 2.1 (1992).

Featured Image: Psicoanalisis del vejigante by Rafael Tufiño, oil on linen, 1971.

  1. I applaud you for writing how you feel. Its literature like this that keeps me coming back. I enjoyed reading your story. 🙂

  2. This piece was absolutely touching to me, as a bilingual Puerto Rican. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and have been attending an all-english curriculum since I was three. I understand the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” perspective, and unfortunately, I feel many are subjugated by that ongoing pressure so heavily emphasized in our society, and many crumble in shame. I know I have, however, in the opposite situation, where my Spanish was lost due to my English-dominated education. Despite this, I have taken baby-steps to accept my accent, because even though I have one when I speak Spanish does not take away the fact that I love it with all of my heart. Your story shows flourishing and growth which is highly appreciated, and in my case, admired.

    I also enjoyed how you informed in your essay the current situation present in Puerto Rico with our public education system, and how easily we jump to publicly ridicule.

    Very lovely essay. I enjoyed reading this very much.

  3. For some reason, I failed to “get it” in the larger scheme of things. Let me explain. Two phrases, “semiautonomous commonwealth under continued American sovereignty. (If that sounds oxymoronic, don’t worry: you’re not alone.)” and “pseudo-colonial status” confused me. The first is a bit convoluted and begs the question. The second is clearly absurd:There is no such a thing as a “psudo-colonial status.” It reminds me of an expression a “little pregnant..” This impossibility undermines an otherwise interesting vignette many of us would identify with, by adding another layer of hypocrisy, that continues to “hide” the disgrace of US imperial history and ultimately to “imperial amnesia.”

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