"Language is the culture and the culture is the language." I have heard this stated -- or a variant thereof -- in many different forums, from Ho-Chunk language schools to the streets of China. The feel and sounds of the words as well as the nuanced meanings and images that words evoke are untranslatable and create a group identity whose membership is defined by language itself.
      But what about those people whose families have let the language fade into history and adopted the dominant language, but share all other aspects of the culture? Does it make them less of who they are?
      These are some of the issues that Toni Nelson Herrera and Louis Mendoza have grappled with in   "Telling Tongues: A Latin@ Anthology on Language Experience." It is a compelling collection of poetry -- Madison's Oscar Mireles contributed a poem --prose, short plays and other genres, in which the authors reflect on their own experiences. It is a visit with this assortment of authors' private thoughts about their Latino identity and heritage.
      "The anthology was originally my idea," Herrera said after Mendoza and she gave a talk and reading at Rainbow Bookstore on May 6. "I had taken time away from my formal education and wanted to write in a more creative manner and get freer with my writing. So I started writing a few stories and realized the themes that were coming out had to do with language. At that time, I saw Louis and he had an academic book that just came out. And he had similar language experiences that I had. I said  "You know, it would be a lot more powerful than me just trying to get my one story published or you just mention this as an aside in your introduction, if we pulled together stories and opened it up so that other people with similar experiences and stories could hear other people's stories and gather them all in one place, it would be much more powerful and have more impact. It was an interesting process just seeing the range of things coming in. When you open the door, you just don't know what is going to come through. We had our perspective and we made the decision to show the complexity of language experiences."
      For Mendoza, putting "Telling Tongues" together has not only allowed him to explore his own feelings, but it has also opened him up to the language experiences of many other people. "Part of the motivation was there has always been a nagging preoccupation with the question of whether that made us not truly   authentic Chicanos, to not have language as an intrinsic part of our historical identity," Mendoza said. "It's been both a blessing and a curse to struggle to reacquire this language. There are those who saw the contradictions of being part of the so-called  "melting pot" when their language and other visible markers of being different in the society have not really allowed them to melt into the pot. I think that shaped people's politics. We need to have this complicated relationship to the United States where we fit in and make our own place.
      We weren't interested at all in just selecting pieces that just confirmed our experience. We were looking for a whole array of experiences. Being older now and being able to have deeper relationship with the previous generation, we understand their struggle. It added a historical dimension to it to realize different times give different lives a different struggle and to see what that struggle looks like. The diversity of experiences is just a beautiful thing to me. It actually enables me to better understand other's experience."
      Herrera and Mendoza had not met the authors before they set out on their current book promotion tour. All of the communication has been through e-mail. So it has been delightful to Herrera to meet the authors as they travel from one region of the country to the other.
      And each book signing and reading has been unique -- each their own little happening -- because different authors come together to read at each location. And it allows Herrera to gain new insights to that which she had only read before this.
      "Margarita's work reads really well on the page, but when she gets up and speaks about her piece because she's talking about a lot of the different Spanish language dialects -- she can do an Argentinean accent and a Mexican accent and a Cuban accent -- and I can recognize them when I hear them but I could never do them," Herrera said.  "It's really fun to see her perform the work."
      And in reading about the experiences of these authors, it causes the reader to reflect on his or her own language experiences, regardless of cultural background. "The best thing literature can do is by being grounded in the specifics, it becomes universal," Mendoza emphasized. "People can relate it to their own experiences. I think we struck a cord and I think that is a great thing."
      "Telling Tongues" can be purchased at the Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, 426 W. Gilman Street or on the Internet at the websites of Calaca Press, Small Press Distributors, and Red Salmon Press.
Telling Tongues: A Latin@ Anthology on Language
Language emotions
By Jonathan Gramling
Co-editor Toni Nelson Herrera (r) makes a point  about bilingualism in the United States while co-editor Louis Mendoza listens.
May 16, 2007 Archives