Child of the Proudest People in the World: An Interview with Noel Quiñones

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Centro Voices presents the third interview in a series that focuses on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. As Ivelisse Rodriguez explains, Noel Quiñones is an Afro-Boricua educator, writer, and performer born and raised in the Bronx. He has received fellowships from Poets House, CantoMundo, and the Watering Hole, and his work is forthcoming or published in the Latin American Review, Kweli Journal, and elsewhere. Here are excerpts; read the full article at Centro Voices:

Ivelisse Rodriguez: Not speaking Spanish is a source of consternation in your poems. This lack is described as a “lengua turned to water”; as a tongue that “…tries to bribe / its way past borders…,” and as a “…small death / of tongues….” According to Pew Research Center data from 2013, 62% of Puerto Ricans born on the US mainland are English-dominant and 16% mainly use Spanish. Forty percent to sixty-three percent of the other Hispanic groups surveyed mainly used Spanish. While the data denotes use of language and not knowledge of it, it is still noteworthy that Puerto Ricans had the lowest rate of dominant use of Spanish. With Puerto Ricans migrating to the continental US for over 100 years, the lack of Spanish speaking ability seems like a casualty of ongoing migration. Nonetheless, in 2017, the loss of Spanish is acutely felt in your poems. In your generation, what does speaking Spanish mean to you?

Noel Quiñones: For many years, speaking Spanish meant a divide between a shared Latinx identity and myself. I knew I was Latino when I looked into the mirror, but I was perceived as a false Brown by those who found out I was not fluent. Growing up, there were many conflicting messages: my family telling me I was Latino but calling me a gringo when I stumbled through a sentence, teachers telling me I should be in the native speakers class even though I explained I had no foundation in the language, strangers demanding I was a liar for saying I wasn’t fluent because I had conversational proficiency. I believed the myth that speaking Spanish was the only true way to be Latino and that my skin tone somehow required fluency of my tongue.

Ongoing migration to the US is the definite cause of loss of fluency in Spanish, but internalized colonial notions of identity and linguistic integrity amongst our own people fuel the percentages you quoted. The truth is my generation can no longer afford to hold onto this myth that speaking Spanish, specifically a Spanish from Spain, is the gateway to a shared Latinx identity. The debate of fluency continues to weaken our communities as we create a linguistic divide amongst ourselves. Specifically, we put down one another rather than accepting and embracing as symbols of our multifaceted identity our varying levels of proficiency, innovation, and resilience. Is it not cause for celebration that Spanglish is now permeating American pop culture on television (Jane the Virgin); on social media (Remezcla, We Are Mitú, Pero Like, etc.); and on the radio (J Balvin, Nicky Jam, etc.)? The language of Latinx identity has always been a fluid one, but rather than continue to demand it be taught in one colonial way and ridicule those who do not learn it as others do, we must support our people in their individual journeys through Spanish. If we do that, I have no doubt many more of us will be open to learning. [. . .]

For the full interview, see https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/letras/child-proudest-people-world-interview-noel-qui%C3%B1ones

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