July 29, 2020
In the midst of a national reckoning over visual and symbolic representation in the United States—or, the grassroots takedowns and official removals of statues of colonial figures and founders of the nation during the summer of 2020—there are other modalities of representation that continue to elide authentic diversity in and of the public square. Voice is one such modality and there are many people in the United States who, like me, speak several versions of one language; we move in and out of professional voices that are full of office jargons or scholarly lexicons and slide into our everyday speech in which we code-switch and use what I often refer to as my home tone. It’s not a new idea that language is personal; but I’ve found that in scholarly publishing, the historical contexts of one’s language are undervalued and dismissed. This dismissal takes place in the homogenizing editorial process—when a person’s voice is standardized, revised, and refitted for grammatical rules, spelling, and “clarity.”
To be fair, editorial revisions can be helpful; they can push academic writers to grow, moving them closer to more precise statements of purpose. But there are other times when changes made to an author’s voice are exclusionary, reducing the potential or possibility of intellectual thought and meaning, as well as authentic diversity in a shared scholarly discourse. These instances, in my experience, are due to the discomfort an author’s voice causes editors and copyeditors who may believe that grammatical rules are universal and must be adhered to in order for prose to be understood and, perhaps, respected, by their reading audience. In this case, an editor and copyeditor may also request additional notations for misspelled words in works of art from which the author is citing or quoting, as I experienced in a recent round of copyedits for one of my publications.
Rupert Garcia’s Prisoneros and the Case of a “Misspelled” Title
In 1971, Chicano artist Rupert Garcia created an iconic screenprint (poster) that centers on a portrait of Angela Davis and declares in Spanish, ¡Libertad Para Los Prisoneros Politicas! The poster is both a work of art and primary source of history, illuminating the rise of Third World consciousness in the San Francisco Bay Area and a history of decolonial art in the Americas. In broaching a coalitional politics based on intersecting forces of oppression, Garcia code-switched to Spanish to draw Chicanx and US Latinx viewers into the idea of his poster, which suggests a shared struggle against institutional racism and state violence for all people of color. Well-known in Chicana/o art history as well as the Black Arts movement and, to a lesser extent, in the history of American Pop Art, Rupert Garcia (whose last name is spelled with an accent on the website for the American Art collection at the Smithsonian but not on the website for one of his major archives) misspelled prisioneros in Spanish. To be honest, I had never noticed it before. Pero, yo soy Chicana . . .
During the copyediting stage of my manuscript in which I reference Garcia’s poster, the copyeditor was concerned that the readership would assume it was “our typo” and, therefore, inserted an endnote indicating that it was not our mistake. For the copyeditor, the problem with the title of Garcia’s poster seemed to lie in the poster itself and, perhaps, even in Garcia; the copyeditor never considered that the problem was theirs—or, rather, was due to their ignorance of the artwork’s historical significance. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to assume the copyeditor’s ignorance; but in the age of Google, one would assume that a copyeditor would look up an artwork before deciding that the title is, in fact, wrong. On that note, I wonder if the title of Garcia’s poster is simply a typo? Perhaps it signals something more—capturing in real time, and now, as a historical artifact, the oral and aural processes of two languages heard and spoken, ebbing, flowing, and fusing in a Chicano artist’s consciousness?
I often find myself lost in thought about the histories of the languages that people like me speak when confronted by corrections in academic publishing. Nevertheless, I responded flatly that I would take full responsibility for the spelling of prisoneros if the readership was, in fact, unaware of Garcia’s widely recognized poster.
José Montoya y Alurista: Vanguard Chicano Poets
Turning from the visual arts to the textual works of Chicano artists, the copyeditor next suggested I make “silent corrections” of “misspelled” Spanish words that appear in the published poems of Chicano poet José Montoya—the central artist of my manuscript. When I pushed back and inquired as to why the silent corrections were needed, I was told that the Spanish needs to reflect standardized spelling, so that the “general reading audience” understands the text. As if a slight letter change or different spelling of a word in Spanish renders readers of scholarly texts on Chicano/a/x poetry unable to decipher the meaning. I see “colour” and “catalogue” all the time in scholarship and can make out the intentions.
But, more to the point, I wondered, who is this reading audience and what language do they speak? Are they only able to read and speak in one way? Notions of reading audiences and standardized language are not neutral concepts in the United States, or in academic institutions more broadly. I often wonder why editors seem unaware of what is lost when they rewrite the voice of an author, artist, or scholar who is atypical to their scholarly publication space and their notions of its readership. For me, the audience to whom I’m speaking—or, rather, writing—in academic outlets is always elusive, changing each time I publish an article or book on Chicana/o art—from graphic posters to poetry and prose. For José Montoya, the notion of a reading audience eluded him fifty years ago, when he attempted to publish his poetry in scholarly journals and literary magazines.
Initially perceived as lowbrow, Chicana/o poetry was often denied publication by academic and mainstream publishers in the mid to late twentieth century. In response, Chicana/o publishing houses emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s to create outlets for Chicano/a poetry, prose, art, and intellectual discourse. Certainly, Spanish print culture in the United States is nearly as old as the nation itself, and older if one considers the United States as part of the Americas; but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Montoya was among a vanguard generation of Chicano/a poets to publish in journals like El Grito: A Journal Of Mexican American Thought, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, and Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies.
Chicano poet Alberto Urista, better known as Alurista, was “the first to utilize language as many Chicanos speak it in everyday conversation,” and he recalled to Juan Bruce-Novoa in Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (1980) that an editor had once told him that his poetry was “pochismo”— a Mexican American hodgepodge of English and Spanish. The editor further asked him, “Why can’t you write either in Spanish or in English?” Nevertheless, the editor published Alurista’s work and soon “many Chicano and Chicana writers began to publish bilingually.” The wave of bilingual poems that followed Alurista’s included several by José Montoya, who recalled in one of his celebrated essays that he “didn’t see any hope at all” for publication of his work “until I saw the poetry that Alurista published, and that inspired me a lot. I saw the code switching being accepted and being very effective and there it was in print.”
Editorial resistance to Chicana/o bilingual verses was often matched by the discomfort they caused academic and traditional Spanish-speaking audiences. Encouraged to do so by Alurista, Montoya read poetry in Mexicali, Mexico, and in Puerto Rico, receiving lukewarm reactions in both places. After one reading in Mexico, Montoya was approached by the event’s director: “‘Ay, pero usted es chicano, why do you have to speak that way, ay qué lenguaje.’ I said, ‘I know it’s hard. I’m sorry it has that effect on you, but I can only read what I write, and I can only write what I feel and have lived,’ and so on. ‘Pero al hablar con usted, señor Montoya, usted es un hombre inteligente, pero esas palabritas, Dios mío!’” Montoya’s recollection of the exchange alludes to the intellectual crisis that Chicana/o poetry causes several literary canons. His Chicano voice, with its seamless use of two languages and several dialects, signaled a subaltern subject speaking back to power, contesting the rules by which language, as well as poetry and literary canons, are decided and determined.
La Lingua Americana
In the United States, we have a long and wide tradition of dialect literature based on five hundred years of migration and contact that encompasses European colonial settlers and Indigenous peoples; African slavery and Caribbean diasporas; westward expansions through war and annexations; and succeeding waves of major urban immigrations. While nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dialect literature in the US was entrenched in dehumanizing stereotypes of racial and ethnic differences coded as lowbrow humor, it is also an antecedent to powerful histories of multilingual poetry that build on notions of modernism in American arts and letters. We have whole maps of space and time made up of sound and speech: the creole languages of the US South and Caribbean Patois found up and down the east coast; the uniquely Nuyorican Spanish of Loisaida in New York City and the distinctively Hawaiian Pidgin; African American Vernacular English also known as Ebonics and its influence on dialects of Asian American English both in the US east and west; and, finally, Chicana/o caló born in the borderlands of two nations that usurped Indigenous peoples and cultures, producing vernaculars like Spanglish—the one that I am most familiar with in my home region of Northern California. Often the interlingual cadences, rhythms, and oral-aural aesthetics of such multilingual poetry is deemed postmodern in American literature, suggesting that it is a fragmentation of cohesive languages that occurs only after the early twentieth-century modernism of poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Vanguard Chicano poetry scholar Tino Villanueva, however, maps modernism differently, pointing to fifteenth-century letters from Christopher Columbus to the King of Spain “in which he registered Arawak and Taíno words, such ají (red pepper), bohío (hut), canoa (canoe) and cacique (Indian chief)” and, thusly, wrote “the first bilingual text in the New World.” Alongside narratives written in Nahuatl by surviving Indigenous people after the 1521 Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, Villanueva tracks bilingual texts to Peru amid the Spanish imperial forces that eventually defeated the Incas. He notes an ancestral history written and illustrated by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1534–1615) that dates to 1613 (about forty years after the fall of the Inca empire) and written in a “mixture of Quechua and ungrammatical, expressive Spanish.” The manuscript, which is actually a twelve-hundred-page letter to King Philip III of Spain, is an exemplar of what Mary Louise Pratt calls both a form of writing and a literacy that is produced in the contact zones—or places “where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relationships of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.”
Certainly, Villanueva acknowledges European traditions of bilingualism; but he emphasizes the polyglot texts made in the Americas to challenge an Anglocentric literary canon. I don’t disagree with the importance of Eliot and Pound in American poetry; both authors innovated new forms of poetic line and visual and textual bilingualism. But while I celebrate these poets, I do so because I learned about their work and how to appreciate it in school: I was taught repeatedly that they did something important with language, adding a new layer to the look and sound of words in relation to a world far bigger than my adolescent one. Both poets were also central in my college classes on American literature and, later, when I trained in American Studies at the graduate level. My point is that instruction on these poets solidified their importance to my American experience.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about Chicano artist José Montoya until I was in my mid-twenties and long past high school and my college education. Amongst a generation of Mexican American men in the late 1950s to the 1970s, who served in the Armed Forces during WWII, the Korean War, or were drafted into the Vietnam War, Montoya used his GI Bill to attend college in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1950s, and to study art and the humanities. Thus, Montoya encountered Eliot, and Pound, as well as Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and the Beat Poets in college. His lived experiences, which included migrations from New Mexico to California for farmwork, then war and college as a working-class veteran, informed his bilingual verses. Villanueva asserts that the bilingualism of Chicana/o poetry is more existential and less referential or “bookish in its acquisition” of languages than that of Eliot and Pound because of the Chicano/a bicultural reality. Like other Mexican Americans of his generation, Montoya grew up speaking both languages or dialects of each, in between two formative cultures of work and play, family and tradition, and domestic and public life. Because of de facto and de jure school segregation and English-only policies, the line between the two formative cultures was long and wide, and in that space, generations of Mexican American youth moved in between “Joe” and José; “Steve” and Esteban; “Mary” y María. Back and forth along the great divide, many of them lost the accents on their names and the accents on their tongues.
[Sic]: “I can only write what I feel and have lived”
Systemic forces beyond one’s control leave marks on one’s tongue; they have on mine. I wrote a poem in my first year of college declaring my Mexicanidad and my father gently corrected my spelling of la chingada in my opening line: “Yo soy mas Mexicana que la Chingatha!” I had spelled it like I say and hear it. The memory of my phonetic spelling of the mother of all curse words in Spanish explains why I am so fond of a description of a screenprint made by José Montoya and several Chicano artists in his art collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF). In addition to poetry, Montoya made posters and often in collaboration with the Chicano/a artists from his collective. Attributions for these posters are always messy, and in the description or metadata for this particular poster, the archivist notes that there is an “Inscription in red ink on the back of the print [that] reads: ‘Fabela’ [sic].” This is the surname of Chicano artist Ricardo Favela, Montoya’s RCAF colleague and probably, he or Montoya wrote the name on the back of the poster. Either way, the phonetic spelling of Favela juxtaposed with the insertion of “[sic]” by the archivist cracks me up! Basically, the archivist is letting the reading audience know that the spelling error is not ours . . .
The annotation on the spelling of Favela’s name is more historical anecdote than a misspelling of a Spanish word: it’s representative of a historical epoch—a migration of people who worked under a binational labor program and the convergence of pronunciations of languages during a massive cultural shift in the United States. Ricardo Favela came of age in a farmworking family in California’s San Joaquin Valley before attending college in Sacramento and studying art. He went on to create prolific graphic works and ceramics, and to teach generations of artists, educators, and activists. Like Garcia and Montoya, his work is in collection at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Smithsonian’s American Art collection. The oral and aural history of the spelling of Favela’s last name on the back of the poster makes me think about the times I find my own name accented by editors. Often, when my name, Ella Maria Diaz, appears in copyedits and, even, proofs, it is peppered with accents and I can be caught muttering out loud, “as if I don’t know how to spell my own name.” It usually takes a few tries to convince an editor to change my name back. I have been known to say but never write, “thanks for the accents, but I lost them all in the war.”
Difrasisimos, y otras abominaciones chicanas
Just beyond the canonical exclusions and the academic culture of silently correcting working-class, bilingual voices, there is a treasure trove of poetic and aesthetic innovations that exemplify American modernism in verse. In his 1975 poem “El Padre Nuestro and the Park,” José Montoya discovers a neighborhood commons and cries out, “And here it’s been / This park—so near / My house—casi kitty-corner.” Hearing it as I read the line, I am pleased by his clever wordplay in two languages—a connection emphasized by the alliteration. But, unlike “kitty-corner,” which I believe is an adjective or adverb, casi only appears to be an adverb. (Pues, no se, porque I did not study Spanish beyond three years in high school, since it confused the Spanish I already knew how to speak.)
Montoya’s poetic line also stands out to me because of the name of his Chicano band. Montoya loved the adverb casi so much that he and his bandmates called themselves El Trio Casindio, which basically means “The almost Indian Trio.” But, if casi is only an adverb (as la Google me dice,) then the name of the band is grammatically incorrect. Or is it? What is it to be “almost Indian” in the history of the Americas—now Américas—and in the Anglo-American imagination of “the west” and “the frontier”? Is it not a geographical location and a space in time? In the aftermaths of Spanish conquest and colonial rule over Alta Mexico, to be “almost Indian” is in fact a place on the psychic map of a Chicano artist like José Montoya; his voice reflects the colonial turned nationalized mythos of Mexican mestizaje, which clashed then converged with the competing colonial order of the United States, where one drop rules and state-mandated assimilation campaigns reshaped entire communities of mixed-race and multilingual people in the post-1848 annexation of the US Southwest. Did Montoya mean all of this when he said, “El Trio Casindio”?
Moreover, the two words that make up another word share an “i,” and it makes me consider the neologistic quality of the term, Casindio. It also conjures a distant memory of a linguistic concept I encountered briefly in Latin American Studies classes in graduate school as I attempted to learn more about Chicana/o history in the absence of Chicana/o history classes. In Latin American thought and studies of Mesoamerican languages, Difrasismo is a conceptual term used to explain grammatical contractions in which two distinct words are combined to form a single concept, or an abridged term for a longer idea, like an allegory. The semantic and stylistic device was commonly employed throughout Mesoamerica. As mentioned earlier, Chicano poet Alberto Urista, who merged Nahuatl with Spanish and English in his Chicano poems, also combined his names based on oral and aural tones, producing the name Alurista, which utilizes a grammatical contraction to form a single Chicano identity. Perhaps Montoya also used difrasismo. After all, isn’t Casindio a difrasismo? Was Montoya aware of the linguistic concept? Am I even using it correctly in English or in Spanish? Probably not, pero, nevertheless, Casindio certainly is casi kitty-corner to the theoretical premise.
If not Casindio, perhaps “Hispaniel” is an example of two words combined to convey one idea, and a colonial one that created and continues to impact Chicanx identities. In his 1988 long poem, “The Uniform of the Day,” Montoya offers a biting critique of the decades following the heyday of the Chicano movement. He observes a former activist from the frontlines who is now a professor at the local university. On a stroll in Montoya’s barrio, the Chicano professor wears a “Corduroy jacket with elbow patches” and muses over his private thoughts as he walks his Cocker Spaniel. Montoya pauses over the name of the dog’s breed:
. . . why is that sound so succulent?
Well, every uniform should have
a dog—I myself walk the derelict dog.
Montoya names the Cocker Spaniel and mentions his stray one to signal a class distinction between himself and his colleague. But he also shares his oral and aural delight over the coining of a new word: “Hispaniel” is a sly reference to the racial hierarchy brought forward by Spanish colonial rule, as reflected in casta paintings; it especially echoes the dehumanizing terms in the colonial lexicon that designated bi- and multiracial people as animals—from names like “lobo” to “coyote.” Amid US expansion in the nineteenth century, another racial reordering of Indigenous, mestiza/o, and Afro-mestizo/a peoples took place. Thus, the binary of Montoya’s neglected barrio dog and the pedigreed one—and what to call a mixture of both—pokes fun at the purity myth attached to the colonial world of mestizaje, which underpins racism in the United States and upon which assimilation hinges.
Clearly, I could spend hours musing over Montoya’s bilingual poetry. I can’t say the same for Eliot or Pound. Perhaps I could spend time on them by way of Montoya, if those connections were permissible and could exist in a neutral way, as I am told over and over again that race, ethnicity, class, and gender, and the political implications of each, have nothing to do with notions of quality in art and literary achievement. As I mentioned earlier, the copyeditor for my manuscript was more concerned with my and Montoya’s misuse of Spanish on their turf: an official space for academic publishing. I was inundated with comments about misspelled words and other linguistic crises like, “I don’t think [that’s] a real Spanish word.” My first reaction to this comment was that I have never been a real word in Spanish. I am, after all, a word born between two worlds: Yo soy Chicana.
Overly concerned with real Spanish words, the copyeditor and perhaps the audience for which they’re concerned, fails to read the possibilities of meaning in Montoya’s spellings. As he experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, and as I experience decades later when I write about him, the innovations of language he gifted us are held hostage by false standards of language that are still perceived as universal and neutral. It’s nothing personal, I am told. It’s just standard corrections. As if language is not personal.
Chicano artist José Montoya used a variety of spellings for his words in English and Spanish to describe the experience of being neither here nor there, misplaced in two languages, and, thus, forging one of his own; out of two languages, he found a third way, orale wey. Nearly six decades later, I face off with a glowing screen telling me to “silently correct” him. But, what I want you to understand is that phonetic spellings, the absent accents, the bi- and trilingual wordplays tell stories about whole peoples; they are the bread crumbs that mark the path back to the diaspora, but never to the point of origin. They are migratory birds of meaning, taking flight in the spaces in between, where people make art in the contact zone (tu sabes—like “La Mary” Luis Pratt said). Handling with care these published pochismos tracks another kind of knowledge production and history that decenters monological notions of beauty, style, and form, and traces the heteroglossia of grammatically incorrect gems of sound that matter more than the printed page when said out loud in the public square. Like Pedro Pietri on his box on the corner reciting his 1971 poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” and, later, in 2019, when a Puerto Rican undergraduate student tells me after we finish listening to a recording of it, that Pietri’s cadence is the song of the fruit vendor from the island. In that moment in between, I sigh over the connections we are making across space and time. It is because of these connections that I stare for hours at a glowing screen wondering how I could ever silently correct a voice that helped me find my own.
 Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 265, 272.
 José Montoya, “Russian Cowboys, Early Berkeley and Sunstruck Critics: On Being a Chicano Writer,” Metamorfosis 3, no. 1 (1980: 51.
 Wolfgang Binder, ed., “Jose Montoya,” in Partial Autobiographies: Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets (Erlangen, Germany: Palm & Enke, 1985), 132–33.
 Tino Villanueva, “Brief History of Bilingualism in Poetry,” in The Multilingual Anthology of American
Literature, ed. Mark Shell and Werner Sollors, 693–710 (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 700.
 Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 34.
 Pratt, 34.
 Villanueva, “Brief History,” 709.
 Yes, I know I “misspelled” difrasismo, but I could not resist the pochismo, porque yo soy Chicana, c/s.
 Montoya, In Formation: 20 Years of Joda (San Jose, CA: Chusma House, 1992), 112.
 Montoya, 228.
 Montoya, 228.