Language as a Political Act: Poet Carmen Tafolla and Dissolving Borders
Carmen Tafolla, born July 29, 1951, in San Antonio, Texas, is a globally renowned contemporary Chicana feminist author and scholar. Her work is a powerful and prolific testament to art as activism. Life and language without borders within her communicative practices have always been an important construct shaping her cultural identity and became a powerful tool when she began organizing and publishing in the mid 70’s exposing the injustices she personally experienced and witnessed in relation to race, class, and gender within the discriminatory zeitgeist of social and professional norms. Her use of English, Spanish, Tex-Mex, code switching and code mixing created a powerful “super language” accessing a linguistic repertoire of translingualism, polyglossia, and profound mestizaje and taking agency over the institutionalized demeaning of the socioeconomically disenfranchised.
Tafolla’s tendency toward language as an instrument for creating and reframing meaning within her work continues being a radical affirmation to claim multiple languages, nations, cultures, and all the territories in between. Tafolla suggests that her language attitude is perhaps a reconquest of the Alamo, not claiming the land in the name of Mexico, or the US or Texas, but instead in the name of Yanaguana, the native residents of this domain. Evident in Tafolla’s poetry is her resistance to the long-standing institutional suppression of the use of Spanish (following a 1917 xenophobic state law forbidding the speaking of foreign languages on school grounds, a law not repealed until 1969, the year she graduated from high school). Furthermore, through her writing commingled with community activism, educational projects, and academic programming, Tafolla continues acting against negative positions within a society where language is weaponized, politicized, and used to implement exclusion, discrimination, and violence.
Moreover, Tafolla, as a feminist author and champion of cultural inclusivity, has always spoken against the heavily weighted realities of female-gendered truths imposed by oppressive male-dominant power structures. In her struggle to expose sexism, her writing often addresses the dismantling of gender constraints, paralleling her insistent attitude in the use of a boundless and spirited “super language.” Her poem “Both Sides of the Border” (New and Selected 69) perfectly illustrates her stance:
that deep delicious desire to run on two tracks at the same time, jump back
and forth or let one foot fall inside each track, like a little girl straddle-
sides of a curb
to read the subtitles in Spanish and
hear the English words simultaneously
to write one story in the
legal lines of the legal pad and then to escape and scribble illegal
notes up the margin on a whole different page
or poem or poema.
I was born bilingual- a lullaby between the
Tex and the Mex
Tafolla’s structural use of white space, end-stops, and enjambment provide yet another narrative where the poet persona lives and acts without even the constraints of words, lines, stanzas, or any concepts of defined borders. So much more information is provided beyond and within these spaces, allowing for personal reflection, identification, and orientation for the readers. Additionally, the imagery of the little girl is especially powerful in that her carefree attitude and physical movement further provides a statement of freedom from restraints.
Several more excerpted lines of the poem illustrate an even bolder and seemingly gleeful resistance. It could be that the poet’s voice is further challenging and positioning against broader national and sociopolitical structures in contradiction to global connectedness.
to be deste lado y dese lado
to straddle the concrete curb
one foot falling on this side next foot falling on the other
but more fun when I rode the curb, balancing
above the world of territories
owned laughing in my
freedom from either
The words “deste” and “dese” are still another example of translanguaging. These words are meshed together from the words de este and de ese. Even within the Spanish language, Tafolla enlists a regional use of language commonly used in the Southwest to further demonstrate meaning-making through all of her linguistic capabilities and especially employing cultural connectedness.
In the following lines, the poet’s voice further disentangles themself from imposed societal boundaries and expectations.
I stuff myself with tasty words of
I laugh, am unbroken the donkey who still rears up
on hind legs to jump over the log instead of lifting
one leg at a time, ladylike, to be gentle for passengers
No, forget your hats, hang on to your seats the ride is wild, it’s
not guaranteed, it’s not even defined You don’t know which
of the two dictionaries to use
Expertly, Tafolla interrelates her persistent commitment to self by claiming her use of language by the “opposing origins” of Spanish and English while interweaving an empowered attitude escaping binary assignation and in fact shedding the poet persona altogether from human embodiment, free from any definition.
In these final excerpted lines, the poet’s voice utilizes yet another variation of regional language usage with the words “like,” “got,” and “’m,” and offers an emphatic proclamation of ownership and belonging in the face of othering even without documentation:
I don’t got papers.
But I do got citizenship two of ’m.
Like I got ownership. Without the deeds.
These places are mine. These spaces are mine.
These borders are mine. Both sides of the river.
It’s not that I don’t belong. It’s just that I
belong twice. Don’t we all?
Perhaps the final three words “Don’t we all?” challenge the reader to consider their occupation of spaces and the negative effects of boundaries and borders in a society where, more and more, English is a globalized language belonging to a multitude of cultures. With that comes new and beautiful ways to interact with language and people from around the world. Tafolla, on many occasions has been compared to Walt Whitman and what he called the “Blab of the Pave.” “Walt Whitman too insisted on the need for the American Language to absorb foreign languages in order to renew and regenerate itself” (Durrans, 205).