Spanish, English or Both?

By Fanny Garcia

Analyzing the poem Bilingual/Bilingüe by Rhina Espaillat helped me identify why I like to intersperse my plays with Spanish, my native language. One of the questions that arose several times during the workshop production of The Rosalila was why there was so much Spanish in the play. I’ve struggled between wanting to translate the dialogue so that a wider audience will understand it, and leaving the Spanish intact because in my imagination, that is the language my characters speak. Below is a youtube video of the poem and my thoughts about it.

Rhina Espaillat is a Dominican-born poet who writes in English and Spanish. Her poem “Bilingual/Bilingue” is told from the point of view of the poet as a young girl trying to navigate her education between two languages. She is discovering the beauty of words and relishes exploring the world that words open up for her. However, she must also keep a balance between her need to absorb as much as possible and her father’s insistence on maintaining rules and boundaries to her learning.

The young girl’s father likes to keep English and Spanish separate, “English outside this door, Spanish inside,” as if this will ensure that his daughter will not be lost forever to American culture.  The father may not be learning the language as quickly as she is and therefore feels that she may lose her connection to her roots if English becomes her primary language.  He is afraid that English will, “cut in two his daughter’s heart/ (el corazon) and lock the alien part,” which he identifies with, “with a key he could not claim.” The alien part that is mentioned in the poem is his Dominican identity, which the young girl may see as foreign because she is rapidly assimilating to American culture.  In contrast, the key he can’t use to relate to her is the new language she is quickly owning.

The young poet is stubborn. She defies her father’s wishes to keep the two languages separate and sneaks reading material in English into the house and reads, “until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run/ where his stumbled.” In several lines of the poem the words in Spanish are in parenthesis. It represents the poet following her father’s wishes to keep Spanish and English separate. However, as she grows up the young poet discovers that the two languages don’t need to be separate. They can co-exist and provide a view of a unique American experience, one that is sprinkled with Spanish words alongside English ones. The author makes this distinction well in her poem. She infuses Spanish where she may not need it but the language’s syllables enhance the rhythm of the poem. She uses words like “corazon” and “nombre” that are common and well known to most people even if they are not fluent in Spanish. But she uses the word “testaruda” which is the word for stubborn in Spanish. It is a hard word to pronounce for non-Spanish speakers and in using it, the author expresses her defiance towards what can and cannot be used in literature. She says it first in English, the language currently holding her fascination, but the translation in Spanish reminds her (and the reader) that Spanish is the language in her heart and imagination.  It is her father’s voice and one that she cannot easily relinquish.

The poem’s conclusion is the thoughts of the young girl as an adult and a poet. She expresses that she would like to believe her father is proud of her education and the writing she has produced, “he stood outside mis versos, half in fear/ of words he loved but wanted not to hear.” The poet does not put parentheses around the Spanish “mis versos” because she no longer needs to. She has embraced her bilingualism. Her father’s fears of losing his daughter to English and Americanization did not occur. She is both Dominican and American. She writes in English and in Spanish and his Dominican influence and culture are present in what she writes because they are hers as well.

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