I Left my First Language in a Poem
By Maia R. Becerra
Upon starting my first semester in university in this foreign country, various questions have risen among my peers and friends regarding my upbringing and background. Being born and raised in Mexico, I never really thought too much about having spoken English at school from an early age due to the privileges of private education. The heavy emphasis set on learning English at private “prestigious” Mexican schools never stood out to me as something odd until, I must admit, fairly recently. It was only brought to my attention when discussing these matters with some of my friends back in my hometown and noticing our inability to fully communicate ideas without mixing English and Spanish. I’m certain that there must be a linguistic-based explanation for this phenomenon, related to the degree of exposure teenagers and young kids have to a certain language at school on a daily basis, yet I want to address this on a more personal, and less theoretical level.
This disconnect from my native language became evident to me through the lack of literary pieces I’ve produced in Spanish over the past four years. Although I’ve obviously written numerous essays for my International Baccalaureate Spanish classes in High School and research articles, I have not produced any poetry or prose in Spanish since ninth grade. Despite being considerably familiar with literature originally written in Spanish, and knowledgeable about the impact of the Latin American canon on poetic and prose genres, I have not written a memorable poem in Spanish since I was 14. Unmistakably, conversational and academic Spanish are parts of my everyday life to a normal extent, yet my lack of artistic inclination towards writing in Spanish began to worry me. I started to question the root of this; is it because I’m more comfortable expressing my ideas in English? Do I have a greater vocabulary in this language? Is it easier to get my point across? I doubt any of these are true, I think the real reason for this has nothing to do with English proficiency or my ability to communicate my ideas in either language.
Hence, I’ve come to a realization; when writing poetry or any sort of literary piece, I get a sense of leaving behind a certain degree of emotional vulnerability in those written in English. These pieces do feel mine but are somehow detached from my own indulgent sentimentalism if I craft them in English. Thus, by composing something in English, I have to add an extra layer of attention and intent when it comes to the word choice, as well as the structure of the sentences I’m writing, making it a much more technical process instead of overtly emotional or sentimental. I came to this realization after thinking back on a conversation I had with one of my close friends recently, where I told them about how I broke up with my first boyfriend in English. I simply could not get the words out in Spanish, and it felt like I was not the one “hurting” him if I spoke in English. Now the whole ordeal seems rather comical, yet, when the event had taken place, I felt ashamed—not for having broken up with him (because that was long overdue, if I’m being honest), but because of my inability to express my emotions in my native language. It suddenly felt like I had a blockage set in the part of my brain that controlled my ability to speak in the language I had spoken since I uttered my first words.
Children of immigrant parents discuss the regret felt upon forgetting their mother tongue due to years of assimilation into English, or a lack of reinforcement from their family, but in this case, I’ve spoken Spanish as my first language my entire life, so why is it that I find emotional vulnerability so hard to communicate through it?
This conflict reminded me of Austin Allen’s analysis of Rhina P. Espaillat’s poem Bilingual/Bilingüe, where she’s quoted stating that bilingualism is “the complete mastery of two languages, with no need to supplement either one by injecting into it, words from the other, either orally or in writing,” which brought to my attention how I’ve had to consciously shift the way I speak in Spanish because I often use English words to establish specific meanings, without necessarily having to do so. One of the main themes in Espaillat’s poem is “the way in which language unsettles our words even as it defines them” (Allen, 2020), which is explored by her constant intertwining of words in Spanish in the middle of English lines. This perception of language as something that can exist in a merged and separate manner simultaneously aids me in understanding why I have such trouble expressing vulnerable emotions through my mother tongue. It feels recognizable and personal, instead of detached, which is something I can achieve through writing in English.
I will write a poem in Spanish after this. I miss the raw significance of words that taste like home.
Allen, A. (2020) Rhina P. Espaillat: “Bilingual/Bilingüe” Bridging two languages and generations in one intricate poem. In Poetry Foundation.