Friday, October 15, 2010
Writing on the Border: Dreams of a Common Language
At this particular moment in time, I am the chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. I have taught at the University for the past nineteen years and it has been a privilege to have been touched by so many students over those nineteen years. We offer a bilingual MFA (English/Spanish) and bring students together from all over the Americas. Today, I am posting an article I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding our writing program. The original article appeared in the September 24th issue and appeared under the title: "Where Spanish and English are Good for Each Other."
The University of Texas at El Paso is quite literally located on the border of the United States and Mexico, where two languages coexist, collide, clash, and often merge into a third language, which some people refer to as Spanglish or Tex-Mex. In fact, the metropolitan area of El Paso and Juárez, two cities separated by the Rio Grande, has always been a living linguistic laboratory.
The idea to build a bilingual creative-writing program at the university began many years ago. One of its originators was the late Ricardo Aguilar Melantzon, a professor of languages and linguistics who understood that the borderlands serves as a bridge between two countries that were consistently mistranslating each other. Ricardo was one of my professors while I was a graduate student in the English department in the mid-80s. He was a true fronterizo, having held dual citizenship and for many years lived in Juárez. He crossed the downtown bridge on his motorcycle five days a week. He was in love with Mexican and Chicano letters and was convinced that a bilingual writing program would connect the literary cultures of the United States to the literary cultures of the Spanish-speaking countries to the south. It has taken those of us who teach language and literature far too long to realize that living on the border is our greatest asset.
When I graduated from UTEP with a master’s in creative writing, I went on to spend a year at the University of Iowa and four years at Stanford University: two years as a Wallace Stegner Fellow and two years as a Ph.D. student. I returned to teach at El Paso, in 1992, because the English department wanted a writer with bilingual skills. The understanding was that there were plans to develop a bilingual creative-writing program. Another professor, the Mexican writer Luis Arturo Ramos, was hired in the department of languages and linguistics at the same time. Little did I realize that our hirings were the beginning of a long and drawn-out process.
Two years later, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved a proposal put together by members of both departments for a bilingual M.F.A., clearing an important hurdle. It should be noted that the board approved the program precisely because of its bilingual component. At the time, the board was strict about not duplicating other graduate programs in the system.
To say that we stumbled along is something of an understatement. One of the problems that we faced was having our faculty members divided: two in the department of languages and linguistics and four in the English department. In addition to the predictable turf battles, the students who were writing in Spanish had little or no contact with those who were writing in English. How could there be any literary cross-pollination if there was no contact?
After much discussion, we devised a bilingual track, a proposal I designed and fought for. On the new track, students took writing workshops in both languages, although truly bilingual classes, in which both languages were spoken, did not exist at the time. Students could also take interdisciplinary courses—in Mexican history, for example. There was some resistance to that proposal from both departments, for reasons that were not always clear to me. I suspect that there was some mistrust of the term “bilingual.” People who write in Spanish are in love with the Spanish language. People who write in English are in love with the English language. Both parties have strong allegiances to their native languages. And then there are people like me, who are considered linguistic traitors by both sides.
The proposal was debated and finally instituted—mostly because I reminded those opposed to it that a bilingual track would provide an opportunity to write in both languages for the few students who wanted to take advantage of such an option. Those who wanted to remain in their monolingual worlds could do so.
A segregated program was not exactly what I had imagined when I took the position in El Paso. It was not until eight years ago, when we hired a director who was committed to creating a program that was truly bilingual, that we finally took a leap toward becoming what we are today. Under the leadership of Johnny Payne and with the full support of Howard Daudistel, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the creative-writing faculty members voted to form our own department. That may sound like a simple and obvious step, but we were seceding from the Union, and no doubt many felt we were traitors to our home departments—departments that had tenured some of us. Still, we needed to set our own goals, follow our own agendas, and stay true to the idea of creating a unique program, in which students from the Spanish-speaking world could join with students from the English-speaking world.
With a great deal of hard work, we have arrived at a creative writing program that can honestly be called bilingual. In the past eight years, students from such areas of the United States as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, and Lawrence, Kansas, have entered the program, as have students from Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, and various parts of Mexico. All courses, be they workshop or literature classes, are conducted in both languages. Professors go back and forth depending on what is being discussed. All students try speaking in their non-native languages at some point. They try to offer criticism in the language in which the piece under discussion was written. It’s amazing how much time the students spend on one another’s work. I am always moved by their capacity to stretch themselves and the generosity of their minds.
Of course, there were growing pains. At first many of the English-speaking students were resistant and impatient with having to deal with so much Spanish in the workshops. And some Latin American students were unaccustomed to the kind of Spanish that is common on the border. One of the great lessons for all of us was that we had to accept that we speak different versions of Spanish, just as we speak different versions of English.
There were other issues as well. Our Latin American students are quite comfortable with thinking of themselves as intellectuals. Our U.S. students tend to think of themselves as writers but are ambivalent about claiming the term “intellectual.” They are caught up in the anti-intellectual discourse of the United States, just as Latin American students are caught up in the privileging of intellectual and writing identities. Yes, the two groups of students were sometimes suspicious of each other, and suspicious of their professors as well. But as we focused on our writing, the suspicions were left by the wayside. We have all learned to trust.
Placing students together who come from different cultural, political, and literary traditions has been more an asset than a hindrance to their learning experience. Even the fact that they come here with various degrees of skills in their non-native languages seems to add depth to the experience. In the classroom, we are always focused on language and the meaning of words. That means a lot of work, of course, but it keeps us from getting lazy. Language is visible, always. And isn’t that what writers must do—make language intensely visible?
The students who come to study here understand that this is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of a unique program. To our knowledge, we are the only bilingual program in the Americas, and the fact that we are located on the border challenges our students to think creatively in every conceivable way. The border cities of Juárez and El Paso make up a social and cultural ecotone that our students absorb. This is a place of paradoxes. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States, while Juárez is one of the most violent cities in the Americas. Yet they coexist, belong to each other, define each other. And yes, our students talk and write about those issues. I am working with a graduate student who is writing a series of stories based on the chaotic situation in Juárez. She is also a journalist, and her work is stunningly realistic. Another student has become something of a border-culture anthropologist.
This year the graduate bilingual M.F.A. program at the University of Texas at El Paso is at maximum capacity, with 36 full-time students. In addition to our on-campus graduate program, we have an online M.F.A. program and a very healthy undergraduate program, which also offers some bilingual classes. With seven tenured or tenure-track faculty members and two full-time visiting writers, our small department is thriving.
Today, in the Americas, we live in an age of violence and suspicion. Rather than thoughtfully solve the issues that confront us, many choose to speak a language that divides us. There is much talk of building walls. Where is the talk of building bridges? This is the tragedy of our times. But on this border between two countries, in our program, the young people of the Americas come together. They want to write. And when they leave, they leave with dreams of a common language.