10 July 2010
Reading Sandra Cisneros
Here is John S. Christie's view of code-switching in Sandra Cisneros's short story "Bien Pretty":
"Code-switching plays a major part in the work of Sandra Cisneros. Take, for instance, a line from her story, 'Bien Pretty': 'If you don't like it Largate, honey.' Her inclusion of the untranslated Spanish provides the emotional power of the advice rendered, the streetwise experience coming exclusively from the Spanish word. In Rechy's Miraculous Day, Amalia's gut reaction to a visit from her adulterous husband's girlfriend is forcibly revealed via the same Spanish expression: 'Largate,' an order of vehemence and scorn along of the lines of 'Get out of here,' but charged with a testiness English can't duplicate except in vulgarity. Cisneros's expression also automatically reveals the relationship between the speaker and her audience; the narrator addressing a peer in a familiar style. The writer uses the shift as one further indication of her narrator's frank, yet informal advice to an audience of women who might share her problems and desires. Embedded in a paragraph condemning the senseless heroines of telenovelas, and exalting the women she has 'known everywhere except on TV, in books and magazines,' the Spanish here emphasizes that such women are not media created beauties, but Latinas: 'Las girlfriends. Las comadres. Our mamas and tias. ... Passionate and powerful, tender and volatile, brave. And, above all, fierce.' The theme of the paragraph, signaled by the code-switching, points us back to the title of the story where the rather flimsy and superficial English word 'pretty' is enclosed in a Spanish grammatical structure and the English connotations of the word are redirected into an assertion that Latinas outrank the media created, stereotypical versions of attractive women. This persona, common in Cisneros's work, has no problem with being a Latina and in fact relishes the vitality of her dual linguistic ability. We see this in her unsympathetic attitude toward the monolingual reader's handicaps, when Cisneros even teases the reader, making it clear that the lack of Spanish is a limitation: 'Pretty in Spanish. But you'll have to take my word for it. In English it just sounds goofy.' Like the word 'pretty,' here the choice of 'goofy' (Disney connotations included) trivializes English, while Spanish throughout the story -- the lists of songs, of herbs, of dances, of instruments -- conveys what is vital and genuine to the writer."
Notice how a study of just two words (Largate and pretty) takes quite a long time to do! This is probably one reason most critics shy away from doing multilingual literary criticism - not just lack of energy or competence but also lack of time.