Diana Garcia | October/November 1995
Two years ago, I was surprised to find myself unprepared for the emotional outpouring contained in the first in-class writings by my Chicano Studies creative writing students. I had asked them to recount the first time they were teased because they spoke Spanish or because they were Mexican or Chicana/o. I expected that one or two students might confess they had never experienced such a moment. I expected that another couple of students might shy away from exploring such painful territory. What I hadn't expected were 15 bitter accounts of childhood humiliations, accounts that included a playmate's derisive taunt ("You're a dirty Mexican. I'm not going to play with you anymore"), a teacher's well-intended observation ("If you didn't have an accent, people might think you were American").
For the balance of the semester, the students drew from these early accounts to articulate their struggle to define their cultural reality. I encouraged them to write in both English and Spanish. We explored cultural myths and legends. We re-invented personal histories. Sometimes the results reminded me of Gloria Anzaldua's comment that "I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one."
More than half of these students were juniors or seniors. None had ever taken a creative writing course. They all had completed the required nine semester hours of composition and six hours of literature courses through the university's English department. None of them, however, felt they could comfortably express themselves in a creative writing course through that same department. As one student noted, "I want to be a writer, but I want to write what I know. Sometimes what I know I can say only in Spanish." Unfortunately, this meant that two of the best writers in my class, both graduating seniors, probably would never again write creatively.
Their presence in a Chicano Studies creative writing course reminded me of another student who, when I asked if he had ever taken a creative writing course through the English department, answered:
Why should I take creative writing classes? Who was I going to take them from? I met the professor who taught the class. Automatically, from the first Intro to Poetry class, when I showed my poetry to him, he said my imagery was too angry and emotional, and he was coming from the point of view that my situation couldn't be that bad, and he asked if I was sure I wasn't imagining it.
I just didn't think that someone who came from such a privileged background could recognize the reality of what I'm going through.
So many voices are silenced before they are revealed. We fail to acknowledge that in some parts of the country, Spanish weaves its cultural footprint through our daily lives. For many bilingual students, the university is their first experience outside and away from familiar cultural surroundings. Yet many of our creative writing programs overlook this reality. As a result, many bilingual students never explore their creative voices. Unfortunately, those who do enroll in English-department creative writing courses sometimes find themselves in the position of the student who wrote:
I think that some of the professors and some of my creative writing classmates don't think it's important to write in both English and Spanish. What that means is that they don't respect who I am.
Sometimes I'll be reading a novel or a story, and there'll be this whole phrase in French. They don't put it in italics and they don't give you a translation. The idea is, if you don't understand, look it up in your French-English dictionary. In this country people respect you if you speak French, but not if you speak Spanish.
When I took my first creative writing course, the professor told me that I should footnote all my Spanish words and phrases. At first he didn't think it was necessary to use Spanish at all. I showed him other writers were using Spanish and getting published, but he said they weren't leading writers. Then, after he said I could use Spanish, he told me I had to put all of the Spanish words in italics or underline them. I don't have italics on my typewriter. I hate all the underlining. It looks like I'm calling special attention to the Spanish words or like there's something wrong with them.
When I first began questioning how we could recruit more students of color into our creative writing courses, I kept returning to the model with which I was most familiar: the traditional creative writing course offered by the English department. Yet there are two other models with which I am also familiar: the previously described creative writing course I taught in the Chicano Studies department at San Diego State University, and a series of poetry workshops I conducted in two different history classes in that same department.
In the history classes, I began with an overview of the material covered that semester, including pre-Columbian, colonial, and post-colonial history. The students responded with a series of pre-writing exercises. Then I gave the students a series of prompts related to their personal experiences as Chicanos. Finally, I modeled a poem for them, using Sor Juana as my influence. The students responded with poems of their own, focusing on one figure in Mexican history, drawing connections between that figure and experiences from their own lives. The results amazed us.
For the professors, the poems provided a novel insight into how their students processed newly acquired information. The responses went beyond the essay exam and the six-page research paper to incorporate personally relevant images and experiences. For the students, poetry provided a new approach to analyzing and integrating historical material and personal experience. One student, in particular, chronicled her own journey from the barrio to the university, focusing on friends and family who accused her of betraying her culture because she had left her community. Then she compared her experience to that of Malintzin/Malinche, the Aztec princess whose name became synonymous with traitor after she was sold into slavery to become Cortez's translator and later his mistress.
Many of us incorporate contemporary ethnic literature as models in our creative writing courses. How many of us, however, remember to encourage our multilingual and multicultural students to incorporate native languages in their creative work? What discussions and directed exercises could we use to explore our students' cultural myths and legends? How many of us assemble short bibliographies that introduce students to the broader spectrum of works by writers of color? Why not assign oral presentations that focus on those writers?
As creative writers, we enter and create entire worlds through language. We envision possibilities. As creative writing professors, however, we need to imagine the possibility of a larger interdisciplinary approach to creative writing. We need to examine the possibilities of introducing creative writing outside the traditional English-department model. Imagine what might happen if we taught poetry in a humanities program or a creative nonfiction course in a life sciences program. Imagine students crossing over to English-department creative writing courses after rediscovering the magic of expressing themselves creatively in an ethnic studies program. Imagine an explosion of creative writing courses when a growing number of students realize they have something to say. Imagine all the possibilities.
Diana Garcia, fiction writer and poet, teaches in the Department of English at Central Connecticut State University. Her fiction and poetry have been published in numerous journals and anthologized in Pieces of the Heart (Chronicle Press), edited by Gary Soto, and Paper Dance: Fifty-Four Latino Poets (Persea Books), edited by Victor Hernández Cruz, Leroy Quintana, and Virgil Suarez.