“I carry my father in my last name
and my mother in my middle name;
the first name is mine to accent,
at my privilege.” — Monica Torres ’13
When I sign my name, it’s Monica, not Mónica. When I order pupusas at my favorite restaurant, the waiter will give my accent an approving nod, as if to say, “You’re one of us.” But it will only take a harder question for me to reveal the lie. I speak Spanish at a remedial seventh-grade level. I can only write this essay in English.
My first-grade teacher saw my potential with English and encouraged my family to continue my lessons at home. To this day, my father speaks exclusively to me in English, even though he cannot fully express himself in it. My mother, frustrated by my rejection of my first language, questions me in Spanish. I answer her in English, unwilling to communicate in the staccato rhythms of a song learned halfheartedly.
The echoes of colonization linger in my voice. The weapons of the death squads that pushed my mother out of El Salvador were U.S.-funded. When Nixon promised “We’re going to smash him!” it was said in his native tongue, and when the Chilean president he smashed used his last words to promise “¡Viva Chile!” it was said in his. And when my family told me the story of my grandfather’s arrest by the dictatorship that followed, my grandfather stayed silent. Meeting his eyes, I cried, understanding that there were no words big enough for his loss.English is a language of conquest. I benefit from its richness, but I’m not exempt from its limitations.
In order to graduate from Williams, students must take one course that “actively promotes a self-conscious and critical engagement with diversity.” This is called the Exploring Diversity Initiative. Columbus called it exploration, too. In theory, the goals of exploring diversity should produce my favorite kind of course, but the conversation shifts depending on who is in the room. Conflicts arise when students try to map the trajectory of race from Point A to Point B without studying the legend—and without realizing that their landmarks may not match mine.
I have been the only person of color in my creative writing courses. I have been the only person writing about persons of color in my creative writing courses. I was never just a writer, but I never wanted to be just anything. The only grammar lesson I enjoyed promised me that in good writing, you never qualify someone as just—.
The first attempts in a creative writing course are often thinly veiled versions of ourselves, but when a peer offered me the critique, “Your white character needs to be more sympathetic,” I was stung by its implication. Why does any character need to be sympathetic at all? I wrote myself into the white stepmother as much as I did the cheating Latino father, the disillusioned Latina mother, the Latina child caught in the middle of it all. But out of all the characters in that story, it was the white woman that my reader was most concerned with saving.
For the dominant majority, I can pass for white: I speak their kind of English, my skin is their shade of white, I wear their kinds of clothes, and I go to their kinds of schools. The older I get, the more aware I become of the contours of exclusion, and its shape does not fit the easy metaphor of a barrier. There are more than just two sides, and participating in any side doesn’t mean you’re a member of it. Hegemony requires consent, and when it opened its door to me, I held the door open for those who followed. I told my younger sister she needed to do better in English, not Spanish, if she wanted the good kind of college to notice her. When my close white friend told me those kinds of girls were “so ghetto,” I did not correct her.
My family and I have fallen prey to the intoxicating allure of the American Dream, the vague, unsatisfying answer of America as a “better life.” To help me claim this “better life,” my mother gave me a name that could be accepted in both English and Spanish, unaccented and accented. How many ways can you say a name? This was the acting exercise I failed.
I thought that if I stretched the syllable hard enough, the word would break even, and it would be enough to pay the toll—Miss Mahnn-i-cuh for my teachers, Monica for my classmates, Mónica for my relatives and Móni for my immediate family. How is the name meant to sound? It depends on who’s in the room.
I carry my father in my last name and my mother in my middle name; the first name is mine to accent, at my privilege. For their daughters, my parents stretched their wallets and then their marriage, and one did not break even. My sister and I are the remainder of this fraction, and I am indebted to my parents, who gave up their dreams so I could major in my own.
After my father and I fought about his money and my future, he sent me a long email explaining himself through Google translator. I’m the daughter, he told me, who never calls him enough and who argues in heavy English consonants when I want to confuse him. He is the father who bolded “would do anything for you” and who “loved, loves and is always loving” me. His English was not grammatically correct, but it was more emotionally honest than my feelings shielded in sarcasm. I pull up his email when I need a reminder of my complicated, contradictory love for a hybridized language that is ours alone:
I am extremely happy for Google Translator and spell check. I typed very slowly so don’t expect me to email you every time. I wish I could speak English better because I know your English is good but unfortunately I don’t write Spanish well either.
Monica Torres ’13 is studying digital innovation at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. At Williams she majored in English and American studies with a concentration in Latina/o studies. The complete version of this essay, written for The Feminist Wire, won a Dunbar Student Life Prize from Williams last spring.
Author photo by Catherine Lamb ’13