02 May 2009

Adan Baca

In the hands of a poet, code-switching becomes a powerful device for symbolizing problems with identity. For example, here are the first lines of Adan Baca's "El Hijo":

My jito is the culmination of years spent searching
for heritage
Geological ancestry
Yo soy Joaquin
With invisibility
Incomprehensible understanding
Looking for meaning
And greedily
Dispelling the erasing of my history.

By inserting the Spanish line "Yo soy Joaquin," the poet signifies how his Spanish ancestry makes him "invisible." Had he written "I am Joaquin," then he would be visible, because he would have been understood by his English-speaking neighbors. The poem works on the idea of language being one of the key markers of invisibility or alienation (as we used to put it in the 1960s).

The poem works on another level: readers that can understand the Spanish line are also invisible, because American and British literature teachers and readers, in general, focus on monolingual English poetry and marginalize poems that contain "foreign" words. Think of how a monolingual English reader of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland differs from a bilingual French-English reader: the monolingual reader cannot get the full impact of "You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!"

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