I, Too, Sing América
by Julia Alvarez
I grew up in the '50s in a dictatorship on the little Caribbean half-island of the Dominican Republic. Although it was a highly oral culture rich in storytelling, it was not a literary culture. I grew up among people who thought of reading as an antisocial activity that could ruin your health and definitely take the fun out of life.
Reading/studying was not an activity that was encouraged in my family, especially for us girls. My grandmother, who only went up to fourth grade, used to tell the story that she only picked up a book when she heard the teacher's donkey braying as it climbed up the hill to her house.
Boys had to make the sacrificio and get an education in order to earn a living -- but in moderation. My cousin was considered strange because he not only loved to read but as a teenager began to write poetry. "Se va a enfermar," my aunt would say, shaking her head every time she found Juan sitting in a chair, reading a book. "He's going to get sick."
I was also growing up in a repressive and dangerous dictatorship. In a social studies class, a student wrote an essay in which he praised Trujillo, the dictator, as the true father of our country. The teacher commented that certainly Trujillo was one of the fathers of our country, but there were others. The boy, the son of a general, must have gone home and told his father. That night the teacher, his wife, and his two young children disappeared. Intellectuals, people who read and questioned, were suspect. A book in your hands might as well have been contraband.
In 1960, my father's underground activities against Trujillo were discovered, and we were forced to escape the country in a hurry. The minute we landed on American soil we became "spics" who spoke our English with heavy accents, immigrants with no money or prospects. Overnight, we had lost everything, our country, our home, our extended family structure, our language, for Spanish was the language of home, of la familia, of self understanding. We arrived in the United States at a time in history that was not very welcoming to people who were different, whose skins were a different color, whose language didn't sound like English. For the first time in my life I experienced prejudice and playground cruelty. I struggled with a language and a culture I didn't understand. I was homesick and heartbroken.
My sisters and I, being young, soon rallied to the challenge. We learned the new language, the new music, the new ways to dress and behave ourselves. But our success on these fronts soon created another kind of problem in our family. My parents wanted desperately to keep us to the old standards, and yet they also wanted us to succeed in this new culture. How could we study hard and earn all A's and get ahead but be sweet and submissive and let Papi make all the decisions? How could we remember our Spanish when we were forced to speak only English outside the home? How could we keep our mouths shut out of respeto for our parents when in school we were being taught to speak up and debate, if need be, with our teachers? How could we get along with our friends and yet never go over to their houses for parties and sleepovers because they might have older brothers or parents who allowed things my parents did not allow?
My sisters and I were caught between worlds, value systems, languages, customs. And this was our challenge, which is the challenge for many of us who are immigrants into a new world that is different from the old one of childhood: how to maintain a connection to our traditions, our roots, and also to grow and flourish in our new country? How to find creative ways to combine our different worlds, values, conflicting and sometimes warring parts of our selves so that we can become more expansive, not more diminished human beings?
But the problem was that no one was thinking like that back in those days. This was the United States of the early '60s, still locked in the civil rights struggles, pre-women's movement, pre-Equal Rights Amendment movement, pre-multicultural studies, pre-anything but the melting pot, that old assimilationist, mainstreaming model. Those were the days when the model for immigration was that you came to America, you assimilated, you cut off your ties to the past and the old ways, and that was the price you paid for the privilege of being an American citizen.
But sometimes it is these painful moments that can become opportunities for expansion and self-creation. I had become a hybrid -- as all of us who travel beyond an original self or hometown or homeland are bound to become. I was not a mainsteam American girl and I wasn't a totally Dominican girl anymore. And yet I wanted desperately to belong somewhere. It was this intense loneliness and desire to connect with others that led me to books. Homesick and lonely in the USA, I soon discovered that the world of the imagination was a portable homeland where everybody belonged. I began to dream that maybe I, too, could create worlds where no one would be barred.
And so, it was through the wide open doors of its literature that I truly entered this country. Reading Mr. Walt Whitman, I heard America's promise and I fell in love with my new country. "I hear America singing, its varied carols I hear." As for melting all our variety into one mainstream model, Mr. Whitman disagreed: "I am large, I contain multitudes." This country was a nation of nations, a congregation of races. "I resist anything better than my own diversity."
Was this allowed? I wondered, looking over my shoulder. Wasn't this subversive? But Mr. Whitman's poems were printed in my English textbook where he was described as "the poet of America." He was saying what this country was really all about. Although America seemed to have forgotten its promises, its writers remembered and reminded us.
Slowly and not without struggle, America began to listen. As the 1960s progressed into the '70s, the country around me began to change. Under pressure from its own marginalized populations and from its growing number of immigrants, the nation was being forced to acknowledge its own diversity and become more inclusive. Citizens were challenging America to be true to its promises. The first time I attended a march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and was not hauled off to be tortured in a dark prison chamber by the secret police, I understood that a free country was not one that was free of problems or inequalities or even hypocrisies. Such failures came with the territory of being a human being. Freedom was the opportunity to shape a country, to contribute to the ongoing experiment, never tried before, of making out of the many, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. The words were not just rhetoric. It was our right and responsibility to make the words come true, for ourselves and for others.
As the nation changed, our literature began to reflect these changes as well. Not only was there a Mr. Whitman, I discovered, but a Mr. Langston Hughes.
I, too, sing America
I, too, am America.
Oh, that was music to my ears! I understood what Mr. Hughes was saying: he was claiming his place in the chorus of American song. This was an important voice for a young girl of another culture and language and background to hear.
But the publishing world dragged its feet. In the early '80s, when I started sending out my manuscripts, the major publishers and mainstream market were reluctant to take a chance on new voices. Until they noticed that Afro-American literature had become a serious component of many college curriculums. That readers were buying up copies of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Oscar Hijuelos, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Gish Jen. The complexion of literary Americans had changed.
In 1991 when I was 41 years old, after over 25 years of struggling, my first novel, How the García Girls lost Their Accents, was published by a small publisher willing to take a chance on a new voice. Eleven years later the book has been adopted as a text in many high schools and colleges. I, too, am now singing America.
I tell this story of my struggle to become an American writer because it was a struggle I shared with a country that was also struggling to become a more inclusive and representative nation. I feel lucky and privileged to have been part of this historical process. America gave me the gift of helping me discover and cultivate my talents. I would not have become a writer had I not come to this country as a young girl in 1960.
But as President Kennedy said, a few months after our arrival in this country, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." My debt to my country is to pass on that opportunity to others. "The function of freedom," Toni Morrison has said, "is to free someone else." My work as well as my vote contribute to the richness and diversity of the whole. By our active and committed presence as citizens of different ethnicities, races, traditions, and linguistic backgrounds, we challenge America to expand its understanding and compassion and thus grow stronger as a nation. We infuse its literature with new energy. We sing new rhythms, inflections, stories, traditions into the whole.
But my responsibility does not stop within the American borders. Unlike the old model of immigration, many of us immigrants continue to go back to where we originally came from. With the vast migrations and mobility of the second half of this passing century, most of us no longer fit the tight definitions of identity we were born into. Last year in California I met an Afro-Dominican-American who had married a Japanese woman and had a little baby. Their son is an Afro-Dominican-Japanese-American. My Dominicana sister is married to a Danish man; her kids know Danish, English, and Spanish, and you know what they love to eat, arroz con habichuelas with pickled herrings. We are becoming a planet of racial and cultural hybrids. We need an open mind and a big heart and a compassionate imagination to allow for all the combinations we are becoming as a nation and as a human family. Mr. Whitman's words remind us: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. . . Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. . . . and the American bard shall be kosmos. . . glad to pass any thing to any one."
To create this kind of nation is to present a model of a world where we all belong. But this America can only be achieved if each person is free to be the rich and complex person he or she is. The dangers to be reductive are tempting, to hole down in our racial and ethnic bunkers and forget that out of the pluribus we have to make unum, one human family.
I would go even further and say that to embrace our selves in all our complexity and richness and also to embrace the multiplicity of selves out there -- that is our challenge not just as Americans but as human beings. Robert Desnos, the French poet who died in a concentration camp, once said: "The challenge of being a human being is not only to be oneself, but to become each one." Terrence, the Roman slave who freed himself with his writing, put it another way, "I am a human being," he said. " Nothing human is alien to me." By becoming all we can individually be and by never forgetting our responsibility of helping each other achieve that same goal, we can create a nation and a world where everyone belongs and where each and every one of us has our song.
In this spirit, I see myself more and more as an American writer, not just in the national but in the hemispheric sense. With my roots in the southern part of the Americas (my stories, my history, my traditions, my Spanish and Caribbean rhythms) and my training and experience and flowering in the northern part of the hemisphere, I am truly an all-American writer:
I, Too, Sing América.
I know it's been said before
Ya llegó el momento,
So, hit it maestro!
Langston Hughes selection is from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, by Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1994 by the estate of Langston Hughes. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House. Permission also obtained from Harold Ober associates.