Language and Violence
I recently completed a month long language immersion course in Spain. During this time, I took grammar courses in the morning and conversation lessons in the afternoon, and all in between was surrounded by Spanish wherever I went.
It was amazing - although also very sad.
Although I am semi-fluent in Spanish, I had decided to take lessons because, up to this point, I had never really formally taken any Spanish lessons at all. My Spanish was learned in the home, as I cooked and cleaned, made the beds for my brothers and watched novelas with my mother. My Spanish was created in the home, meant only for the home, and for the never outside. As a result, although I can understand and even speak a fair bit of Spanish, my knowledge of grammar is abysmal. To help with this, I have started to read Spanish novels, and while I was in Barcelona I bought a stack of books on gender violence during the Franco regime. However, reading these texts has been difficult as I can sense a clear drop in my IQ when I switch from English to Spanish.
How has this occurred? In the course of less than a generation, Spanish has quickly been replaced by English in much of my familial circles, so that by the time my children have children, Spanish probably won't be spoken anymore. I feel so guilty.
But is this guilt all mine? For a very long time, I used to be intensely angry with my mother - why didn't you speak to me in Spanish? (SHE DID), why didn't you insist that I answer you in Spanish? (SHE TRIED). It is only now that I realize how deeply unfair it was of me to hold her supremely responsible for the effects of forced colonization. The fact is, when she migrated, she had had limited access to school in Spanish in Puerto Rico, and when she was sent to New York, she spoke no English at all. The fact that she still held onto her native language, and spoke it to me frequently in the home, is a gift I was bestowed. The real crime was the incessant monolingualism that literally smothered me all those early years.
In other words, my mother was not responsible for the lack of quality bilingual programs in NYC in the 1970s. My mother was not responsible for her own lack of formal schooling in Spanish. My mother was just not responsible,
Once I accepted that my mother was not to blame, I have now taken on the task of trying to learn but learning a language that you already know is hard. At times it makes me feel stupid, but more often it makes me feel mournful. The irony of going to Spain to learn Spanish also does not escape me. I went to Spain to learn Spanish after living in the U.S. where I was not taught Spanish. And so I alternate between one colonizer (the U.S.) and another (Spain). Like someone who has endured years of violence, I am left wondering where do I belong - and perhaps it really was all my fault?
But I know that it is not. Much of the work that I am doing for the grant, eg taking language classes, reading about domestic violence, is helping me understand just that. How I need to extend grace to myself, how i need to understand that my mother was not responsible, and how to some extent, my father too was a victim of violence.
The What and Why of Violence
.The What and Why of Violence
What is domestic violence and how does it occur? As a trained clinical psychologist, I have always had a deep interest in learning about other people’s trauma, but ironically enough, despite my training I have always stayed away from reading about domestic violence. Doing so would only resurface my own old traumas and emotions, I reasoned, and make me remember what I had worked so hard to forget. And perhaps, most frightfully, doing so would most likely produce newer memories with even fresher pain. To date, mine had been a life of purposefully curated experiences and purposeful avoidance where avoidance brought freedom - just as long as I didn’t self-reflect or remember. And while some of you may believe that a lack of such autobiographical memory might present itself as a career hazard for me as a psychologist, I am here to tell you that the temporary freedom gifted from such self-induced episodes of amnesia, was still indeed for me a form of freedom. And while I could not, perhaps, always be present for myself, I certainly tried to be present for others. At the time, being absent from myself, removing myself from myself, only allowed me to be more present for others. And, of course, for diasporic souls like myself, such temporary freedom was oftentimes better than no freedom at all.
Still, as any good psychologist will tell you, the truth is that we never forget, but that we just acquire newer memories built on top of the old ones. Upon such shaky foundations, it is therefore not surprising that old memories, usually with very little provocation, should be the first to come spilling out. The truth is that this violence spares no victims and that long term forgetting, the type of forgetting that is insistent and effortful, is really just another form of violence as well.
But what should I remember and why? To remember is to bear witness but what I first really want you to know is how very loyal my father could be. That whenever I was in need of anything, absolutely anything, he would be the first to give me a ride, give me money, and take me anywhere at anytime, with few questions asked. That whenever, I came home from school, he was always there, ready to greet me, and a la orden, ready to give me anything I wanted to eat. That he cared for my basic needs because that is what a father is supposed to do. This is what I wish to remember because that is what is true - that I not only loved my father but that I also felt deeply loved by him. And that in between the beatings and insults that I witnessed, he was also a man who loved my mother - or at least that is what he told us.
So, what is domestic violence and how does it occur? I am still not quite sure as it is difficult to reconcile the care I experienced with the pain I witnessed. But I do know is that when it does occur, it often occurs slowly, insidiously, and then all at once.
With this Time Out Grant, I hope to try and figure all this out.