Tuesday, November 20, 2007

CLAIMING YOUR PEOPLE: THINK BIG

(Maggie Jochild and daughter, August 1977, Denton, Texas; photo by Mary Austin)

In August of 1977, I was hovering on the brink of major life changes. Since the spring, I had been carried along on a current against my will: My partner of five years left me overnight, brutally, for a woman who had been a family friend, taking our daughter with her. I dropped out of college on the verge of graduation and was rescued from suicide (both direct and indirect means) by my mother and my friends. I was desperate for a solid place to stand as I began my 22nd year.


Out of the floodwaters, a few things emerged as handholds. One is that I wrote Alix Dobkin, at the address on the back of her album, ostensibly a fan letter but it rapidly shifted into a plea for help. True to the ethic of sisterhood, Alix wrote me back right away, a personal letter full of encouragement and advice. She was a superstar in my world, and her caring had a profound effect. I kept her Living with Lesbians album propped up on my dresser, a photo of possibility.


As a result, I wrote to two different lesbian land collectives asking if they would be willing to accept me as a new member. One was RedBird in Burlingon, Vermont; the other was The Wimmin's House in Durango, Colorado. Both wrote me back saying I could come give it a try, see if it worked out.

I was more drawn to RedBird -- it seemed a more radical change, and, I'll be honest, I was very attracted to the fact that their letter was on bright red paper. (It was a novelty in those days.) Plus, Vermont was in the same general region as where Alix, Liza and their kind of dykes were also "living in the country". But I had a bit of a personal connection to Durango: I knew one of the women there, briefly, from shared political action in the Kitty Genovese Project, and my best friend Jean had lived with these women in Durango one summer a year or two earlier. In addition, if my ex ever relented in her obstruction at my seeing our daughter again, getting back to North Texas from Colorado would be much easier.

Years later in San Francisco I wound up living intimately with someone from Burlington and came to know almost all of the women from RedBird. That collective would have eaten me alive. It's a stroke of luck that I went elsewhere.

As I was trying to emerge from my stunned state and make a decision, one of the women from Durango, Mary Szczepanski, decided to come check me out for herself. Working class, from a Polish Catholic background in Buffalo, New York, she suggested we take a trip together: A ten-day trek into Mexico, where she'd longed to visit and was close to Texas. Without knowing her, I accepted.

We each had studied Spanish in high school and college but were not conversationally fluent. We decided that once we crossed the border, we would not speak any English with each other until we were back in Texas. We had a shoestring budget -- in the end, the entire trip cost me $75, of which $15 was the Sanborn's insurance fee and another $10 was a bribe to a cop in Mexico City -- so we planned to camp out and mostly make our own meals.

Looking back on it, I can only conclude it was my lack of self that made me able to embark on such a challenging adventure. Mary was, in essence, interviewing me for a place in her household, and the divide between us wasn't just that I was several years younger than her, I was also politically naive to the point where I didn't comprehend my own class background. But all this exploration had to take place in Spanish.

We became fluent. Rapidly. After four days, I woke up one morning and realized all my dreams of the night before had been in Spanish. I began writing lines of poetry and haiku in Spanish. The exposure to another language -- not just exposure, but immersion -- gave me a doorway out of the emotional constraints that were choking me.

The third and final breakthrough happened right after I returned from Mexico. I went to the second Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and discovered my compleat identity as a woman. I cut off my hair, I went naked in public, I learned ideas by the fistful, I changed my last name to Jochild (a matronymic) and I came back courageous. As in, with a new heart. I announced I was moving to Durango, and by Labor Day, I was there.

It's only recently that I've linked this series of events and its connection to Spanish with another period in my life. When I was 12 and beginning junior high, we were so poor that I had no hope of new clothes in which to begin the school year. My mother pulled a bolt of blue-and-white gingham from her unused fabric pile, very old-fashioned stuff, and made me a dress from an old pattern. I had to wear it three days a week, the other two days wearing one of last year's dresses that was really too tight on me. By the end of the first week, my public humiliation was absolute.

In that South Texas town was a rigid race hierarchy, silently enforced at school by rules which made speaking Spanish on school property grounds for expulsion. Only perhaps 25% of the population was white, but they controlled the local government and the schools. My family was at the rock bottom of the white pecking order, but we were still a paradigm above all the Latino/a inhabitants.

But my second week of junior high, I tossed my white privilege. When I got to school before they opened the doors to let us in, instead of joining the small cluster of "Anglo" girls in their spot, I walked by everyone to the group of Chicanas who hung out by the back entrance -- the girls who were the smartest, the lippiest, and the most mature of us all. Girls who defiantly spoke Spanish -- in whispers, but we heard them.

They went silent when I approached and did not say hi at first, eyeing me with suspicion. I had on the hateful dress. But then one of them, Alveisa, grinned at me and said "You wanna learn a word in Spanish?"

"Sure" I said. The others began giggling. Alveisa said "Chingao", and got me to repeat it. Now they were all in hysterics. I had no idea what it meant, and I didn't care -- I knew it was a bad word, that was obvious, but I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. After the fun of having me repeat it wore off, Alveisa and then Mariola taught me a few other words, not profanity this time. By the time the bell rang, I was grudgingly accepted by them and had been cast out socially by the white girls.

At the end of that semester, I sided with my father in his quest to have us move and we left for Brazil. In that relocation, I found a wormhole out of class degradation and molestation, but it began with becoming a race traitor. If you're a member of a non-target group, becoming a traitor and losing your "privilege" is extremely easy: All you have to do is stand up publicly for truth and justice. And it will be the making of you. Even if they kill you for it.

(Quote from Ricky Sherover-Marcuse)

I've now lost my fluency in spoken Spanish but can still read it fairly well. More to the point, I understand that when xenophobes rail against the presence of Spanish in American life, they are pushing back against not only racial diversity but also the mind expansion that arrives with bilingualism.

And I'm astounded at how stupid these same people are about English. According to Wikipedia, "English today is probably the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. However, when combining native and non-native speakers it is probably the most commonly spoken language in the world." It became the dominant lingua franca (so to speak) partly from centuries of colonialism by the British Empire, but also (to my mind, equally if not more importantly) because as a language it is enormously flexible and nondiscriminatory. America is not the hoped-for beacon to all that Jewish lesbian Emma Lazarus composed her lines about, but English gladly welcomes vocabulary from anywhere, no xenophobia there.

There's no need to force English on populations, or to "protect" it from diversity -- its very strength lies in exposure to other languages. The fact it, the majority of its everyday vocabulary is Germanic in origin. Next in line is Latinate. It has minimal inflection, a hodgepodge of spelling and grammar, and has "developed features such as modal verbs and word order as rich resources for conveying meaning." It's a strongly stressed intonation-based language, lending itself to personal expression across a broad scale. And it has developed in these directions organically, to meet the needs of its diverse speakers, not to fit a political or religious mandate. Boxing it in will destroy what makes it valuable.


So when I read at Pam's House Blend that "two Hispanic surnames are now among the top ten most common in the U.S.", I feel pride and relief. It helps to offset the loss I feel when I read "While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them."

(To get behind the New York Times firewall for the original article about the census finding, check here.)

Further, as someone who studies genealogy, I know full well that surname distribution changes constantly over time as part of the natural order. Hundreds of surnames found on the 1790 census for the United States no longer exist anywhere in the country. Among English surnames, "...no clue can be obtained from the surname alone as to the original nationality or racial origin of a family". Even more to the point, until the last decade or two, all "family names" in America were divested of 50% of their ancestral data per generation (the females), and were culturally meaningless when forced on African-Americans and Indians.

So, let's stay grounded in reality when seeking to claim our cultural identity, because it will assist us in claiming a larger source. I once heard a genealogist who had no use for white-dominated lineage "societies" say he was forming a new group whose membership would be limited to those who were Descendants of Eleventh Century Peasants. (Which includes everyone now alive on the planet.) Yeah, sign me up.

For those of you curious, the two new surnames in the census Top Ten, Garcia and Rodriquez, have the following origins/meanings:

GARCIA: Definition: Surname is of uncertain origin but could possibly have and of the following meanings: 1) From a medieval given name meaning "like a fox." 2) a descendant of Garcia, Spanish form of Gerald 3) one who came from Garcia, in Spain. According to Elsdon C. Smith, the name Garcia could mean either "descendant of Garcia, Spanish form of Gerald" or "one who came from Garcia, in Spain."

RODRIGUEZ: Definition: A patronymic name meaning "son of Rodrigo." The "ez or es" added to the root signifies "descendant of." The given name Rodrigo is the Spanish form of Roderick, meaning "famous power," from the Germanic elements "hrod, fame and "ric," power.

Thus, even Rodriguez has a Germanic origin.

I'm reminded of the irony in Elder Lapp's admonishment to the Harrison Ford character at the end of Witness to "Be careful out there among those Englisch!" But -- belonging has a permeable border because human survival depends on it. So, instead, I send you off on your day with the following:

Déme su cansado, sus pobres,
Sus masas amontonadas que anhelan respirar libremente,
La basura desgraciada de su orilla de vertido.
Envíe éstos, el nómada, tempestad-sacudido a mí,
Levanto mi lámpara al lado de la puerta de oro!"

1 comment:

kat said...

I loves me some bilingualism. With language comes (some) culture, with knowledge of another culture minds can open.....so dangerous, that open mind!

Very cool post. You're a fascinating woman, and each of these little peeks into your life teach me tons about the world, life, you name it!
thanks Maggie!