New York’s El Museo del Barrio was the object of controversy recently when it chose to name its spoken word series “Spic Up/Speak Out” in an attempt to re-contextualize the traditional anti-Hispanic slur, spic (a word that was used to mock the heavily accented English of some Latinos) [also see Museo del Barrio’s controversial “Spic” project].
Some of the participating poets embraced the title as a “symbolic inversion” that neutralizes the word’s original derogatory connotation, even perhaps rendering it empowering. Opponents find nothing empowering about the term and are not accepting the museum’s apologies. Rich Villar, a co-founder of the Acentos poetry group, rejected the museum´s explanations and hinted at the use of spic as “cheap promotional gimmick.” He does not believe that the sting of the derogatory word can be easily erased. “Word’s don’t retain power simply because they have definitions and redefinitions,” he wrote. “Words, like tools, only have power when they are used in context. I’m for letting dead words, useless words, words that work violence, stay dead.”
A statement posted on El Museo’s web site announced that the series would now be called “Speak Up/Speak Out.” The statement said the change was “out of sensitivity to those who have expressed concerns with the use of the term and with profound respect for those for whom this term is offensive.” The museum reiterated that the original choice of the slur was meant as a means of reappropriation and redefinition, noting that other writers, including Pedro Pietri, one of the standard bearers of the Nuyorican poetry movement, had used it in his poems.
Julian Zugazagoitia, the museum’s director and chief executive, says that the argument over the word presented the danger of overshadowing the popular series, explaining that what is important is the institution’s commitment to the spoken word. He adds, “When this started to take on a bigger dimension and the feelings were expressed with thoughtfulness, we decided to refocus the series on the creativity and talent that has been happening here for two years, and away from the sensitive issue of that word.”
Image: Detail from the 2008 “Spic Up, Speak Out” poster.