Latinx Voices: The Politics of Language in Borderland, America

Latinx Voices: The Politics of Language in Borderland, America (The Border Tuner, an installation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that interconnects the cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua at the Cesar Chavez Border Highway by Bowie High School. Photo: Antonio Villaseñor-Baca. )

Being a Borderlander means navigating more than physical checkpoints. We maneuver through accents, words, phrases, entire languages. 

I don’t just mean inventing new terms on the fly that aren’t Spanish or English but a mixture of both. And I don’t just mean spotting the partly-hidden exit signs on Interstate-10 that point me from El Paso, Texas to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Life on the border hangs on every tweet and speech a president gives. Words can bridge divides or split households. On the border, language causes tragedies and heals us from them. 

Words have a history of power on the border. It’s not too long ago that my grandparents would cross the bridge from Ciudad Juarez into downtown El Paso for school at Texas Western College in the 50s. On their way to class, they’d be hit with messages that told them they didn’t belong.

“Tomaba el camión de mi casa en Juárez y luego tomaría el tranvía y luego otro camión a Catedral (la prepa) o terminamos caminando,” mi abuelo explica. “Nunca se me olvidará, una vez nos bajamos del tranvía en la calle de El Paso, y caminando hacia San Jacinto Plaza, había un restaurante y en la ventana decía “no dogs, negroes, or Mexicans allowed.”

“I would have to take the bus from my house in Juarez and then take the streetcar and then take the bus to Cathedral (High School) or we ended up walking,” my grandfather remembers. “I’ll never forget, once we got off the streetcar en la calle de El Paso, and walking toward the San Jacinto Plaza, there was a restaurant and there was a big sign on the window that said ‘no dogs, negroes, or Mexicans allowed.’”

As my grandfather knows first-hand, the border has always been at the forefront of U.S. politics and some of the darker aspects of history. In fact, the U.S.-Mexico border was actually where the Nazis found the idea of using toxic chemicals for the gas chambers

But as Viridiana Villa, a DACA recipient and Borderlander said in a report for Radio Bilingue, “El término ‘frontera’ es de uso externo.” I agree. “Border” is often a talking point framed by external forces. But those forces are powerful. Language shapes most if not all aspects of life on the border, and for people who live here, there is nothing foreign in how we speak or see ourselves. And yet, our words can create a disconnect in how we relate to the world.  

Just look at the pets I grew up with. My mother named her two dogs, Mozart and Picasso, after an Austrian composer and Spanish painter respectively. My uncle chose a French literary figure and Italian painter for his dogs, Dante and Da Vinci. As a family rooted on the border with stronger ties to Chihuahua than to the state of Texas, let alone any European culture, why was it that my family’s influences seemed to originate in France and not the country we actually came from? 

My mother went to an all-girls private Catholic high school in El Paso and is now a tenured professor of Rhetoric & Writing Studies at the University of Texas. 

“Por la escuela; me enseñaron de estos artistas y tomamos una clase de las humanidades. Ahí es donde aprendí de todos estos artistas…No lo vi como algo ‘Americano’. Lo vi como si me estuvieran enseñando cultura,” ella dijo.

“Because of my schooling. I was taught about the arts and we took a class on the humanities. That’s where I learned about all these artists…I didn’t see it as ‘American.’ I saw it as being taught about culture,” she said.  

But what about Mexican culture? Maybe members of my family on the Texas side of the border sometimes turn away from the culture of their parents because the generations who immigrated before them saw the U.S. as a land of opportunity. 

The exception to this affinity for U.S. culture, however, shows up in politics. Latinx voter rates in the U.S. are low despite perpetual rises in the Latinx eligible voting pool. This is especially true on the border, where — if the primaries in El Paso were any indication — young voters are much less likely to head to the polls than older ones. As a self-identifying Chicanx voter, I attribute these rates at least in part to a linguistic exclusion of my community in the political realm. 

I don’t mean a lack of Spanish written pamphlets and ads either. 

The border is a place where voters can be engaged or lost with the utterance of a single term or phrase. Are you speaking to someone who identifies as Latino? Latinx? Hispanic? Mexican? Mexican-American? Guatemalan? Or Chicano or Chicanx, terms that are slowly but surely coming back into use by people my age, who see the term as inclusive and politically powerful.  

2016 was a telling year: an election that resulted in a win for a president who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and “bad hombres.” Remember when he considered invading Venezuela and mistook Mexico for a continent? 

But if we look back, Hilary Clinton’s campaign efforts to appeal to Latino voters fell a few zarapes short, too. Tim Cain speaking broken Spanish and one commercial with Vicente Fernandez weren’t enough to awaken what Jorge Ramos called “the sleeping giant” that was the Latino vote. How is it that the party that supposedly advocates for immigration reform and gave us the Dreamers’ Act seems to be losing its grip on the Latinx vote? 

Since that 2016 election, the Democratic Party’s two most prominent Latinx political figures have struggled as much within their own party as against the one they oppose. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julian Castro had how much time at the Democratic National Convention? That’s fine though, because we totally needed to hear from John Kerry and Bill Clinton…

With the pandemic-riddled year of 2020 coming to an end, we are seeing more concrete examples of how language is used politically and the direct impacts it can have on representation in political spheres — and even how we tell our own stories. 

On the border, I see it every day because Spanish is a gendered language, and at my university, students are pushing for linguistic forms that don’t play into the gender binary. I’m the online editor and a reporter at Minero Magazine, a bilingual publication at the University of Texas at El Paso. Our newsroom recently switched to inclusive language. The change came about accidentally, when I turned in a story using non-gendered words, inserting an “x” whenever a gender-assuming article or modifier was used. The magazine’s leadership made the decision to make inclusive language the new standard. 

“There have been various efforts to make Spanish more inclusive,” said Grecia Sanchez, who was Editor-in-Chief of Minero Magazine at the time. “First, the ‘@’ was used, instead of todos/todas, tod@s was used. After that came the ‘x.’ The problem with these morphemes is that you can’t pronounce them. You can’t use that orally. Simply, ‘e’ is the one being used to satisfy the oral aspect of the change. And that’s the only difference. They have the same purpose, of including and to conceive of the existence of non-binary people and other identities in the Spanish language.” 

These changes have major implications for political reporting. We make space for people that language had been excluding, even if that goes against the style guidelines of the Associated Press. 

“For Minero, it is huge,” Sanchez said. “It’s not only that we’re making sure that reporters ask for people’s pronouns, but also that the commitment, at least for Minero, goes beyond bilingualism now. It’s more of respecting people’s identities and making sure they are represented in the media, in their stories, and accurately represented in what they talked about when doing interviews with us.”

Maria Ramos is the new Editor-in-Chief at Minero who took over leadership of the magazine this academic year. 

“So right now above all else, the most important thing is respecting who a person is, what they are feeling, and how they feel, how they want to be represented,” said Ramos. Just as the Associated Press recently changed its rules and now capitalizes the “B” in Black, Ramos is hoping in the future, the AP will update its standards for inclusive language to name and cite Spanish-speaking communities. 

This is the politics of language. 

Small publications like Minero can be a driving force behind larger institutions like the AP accepting these changes. Likewise it is the voter who can and must force changes on our governing institutions. Or sometimes it’s the individual politician who’s willing to speak out against the powerful. When AOC delivered that scathing rant on the floor of congress after a Republican senator referred to her with a misogynistic slur, she challenged not only him, but more so the men who watched it happen, the boys growing up and seeing these words used who may still be unsure of their power and symbolism. 

Black and Brown voters cannot be ploys to win elections. We are constituents helping to shape the political sphere, with every word we speak. 

As I begin my final year in an MFA program, I realize that some of the most important lessons in writing have come from outside my workshops and had little to do with craft. A poem, a short story, a novel, an article, any piece of writing: it isn’t powerful because it was written well or sounds pretty. It only starts to matter when it gives readers agency. It matters when it helps people to heal — and act.

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