La Lengua Mezcla: Latinx Artists Blending Boundaries in Art
By Audrey Valbuena
I grew up speaking perfect Spanglish.
As a child, my Spanish flowed into English, morphing into a language of my own. A jumble of “Mama, quiero agua. I’m thirsty. Por favor,” slipped from my mouth. I craved agua and I spoke about mis padres. This was my normal: living and thinking at the intersection of these two worlds. This happy little language I had crafted quickly faded with age. When I grew old enough to talk to others about mi gato and called her Calle (her full name being Ratita de la Calle since we’d found her on the street), others said “Callie” and I began to understand that my words were foreign to these English-trained ears. These experiences forced my mind to translate quickly and built a border in my brain between Spanish and English, separating language and identity.
In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of Hispanic/Lantinx representation in art with movies like “Coco” and celebrated artists like Guillermo Del Toro, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. Their art celebrates the duality of Hispanic/Latinx Americans by using Spanglish as its true tongue. “Jane the Virgin” and “Mozart in the Jungle” borrow from acclaimed writer Junot Diaz by featuring bilingual characters who seamlessly switch between Spanish and English without a second thought. As I interact with this art, I slip back into a mixed mode of language that celebrates my half-and-half Spanglish mind.
Below are a few Hispanic/Latinx artists whose works celebrate this fluidity and provoke others to think in this same way:
Spoken Word Poet
“This is Spanish for me. Everything that should be but quite isn’t, just like coming home but all the furniture is different.”
Yesika Salgado shares words that have the power to make me smile in agreement, laugh in understanding and crumble at the weight of their truth. With raw performances in both English and Spanish, she guides listeners through the experiences of being caught between two languages and her resulting love-hate relationships with others and herself. Her nuanced words blend the most beautiful parts of her soul and her language, intertwining cultures to make sense of this difference and her internal confusion. For those at the intersection of both cultures, her experiences hit home as she examines how her culture can deny her art and how speaking Spanish is like coming home.
Watch her poem, “Translation”, here.
“if you ask me if i am fluent in Spanish i will tell you my Spanish is an itchy
phantom limb - reaching for words & only finding air."
In a shameless act of self-love, Lozada-Olivia titled her book “Peluda” (meaning “hairy” or “hairy-beast”). The short and sweet title captures her exploration of her Latina identity, her relationship with her hair, her mother, her class and her immigration story within its pages. “Peluda”, is packed full of biting language that forces us to question our willingness to relinquish an identity – especially one that guides the shape of our bodies, the mix of our language and the way we are perceived by the world. Lozada-Olivia takes us through a journey of questioning and solitude as she fearlessly explores herself through these rough-cut poems, calling us to summon up our courage and reevaluate why we emancipate ourselves of this culture that frames how face the world and accept it as ours. But beyond its grit and honesty, “Peluda” carries a dignified confidence that reminds us there is a pride in being Latina — a pride in being honest and open and accepting the pelo that regrows no matter how many times it is shaven off.
Based in Los Angeles, this self-described pintura uses her art to bring walls to life and capture the first-generation chicana experience. Much of her art depicts colorful women who, to her, embody various aspects of being a Latinx woman in America. She also paints her politics: Cesar Chavez quotes strategically placed above a scene of black and white protesters and a woman crying into her hands surrounded by the words “agua” and “water”. Her art has a gentle vibrancy that is celebratory and real, capturing both the solemness of womanhood along with its unexplainable beauty. Not only does her work live on these walls that dot the city, but in the minds and hearts of all who happen to pass by.
On My Block
*Spoiler alert* Many typical coming-of-age shows feature kids who struggle with friendships, first loves, and school dances while negotiating their identities. However, “On My Block” is a fictional story that takes place in South Central LA and the characters are real: Monse is a girl raised without a mother, Jamal is a boy struggling to tell his parents he actually hates football, and Olivia is the neighborhood’s resident cool girl. But the two who steal the show are Cesar and Ruby. Cesar, born into the gang Los Santos, starts off as their unwilling new member, but he is so much more: he worries about math tests, his romantic relationships with Olivia and Monse and his older brother (leader of Los Santos). Even though his life is full of danger, it does not revolve around it. The real and dynamic character develops his own hopes and dreams, a step beyond the stale stale, overtold stereotype of the young Latino who lost his way in a gang. Ruby, too, gets to be real: he is a nerd who is stuck on his first crush, wrestles with incoherent thought patterns and loves his friends undyingly. The bilingual character speaks English to parents who then respond in Spanish, demonstrating a fluidity that is one of the fairest representations of first-generation children that has been given airtime in many years. The show portrays what it’s like to be a teenager without falling into the stereotypical portrayal of a low-income kid from a broken home riddled with gang violence. Instead of seeing a lost cause, you see young person who is all of these things while experiencing the drama of crushes, kisses and sports teams that come with high school and experience all of their “firsts” alongside them.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
“The half-life of love is forever.”
Junot Diaz is not new to the game. This is How You Lose Her came out in 2012, but it has lost neither its power nor its grace. This must-read is gritty: it follows Yunior as he remembers the women he has loved and lost throughout his life. His struggle to express love and respect is a vehicle for exploring masculinity and Hispanic/Latinx culture. Diaz gracefully intertwines English and Spanish in the narrative and references parts of his identity without apology or difference, such as life in Dominica versus life in America. The writing, like Yunior, occasionally brash and reckless in being equal parts humorous, crude and gentle. The novel’s overarching theme is love in every sense, whether it’s be familial, romantic, or platonic.
Also see Junot Diaz’s The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma for more perspective on Diaz.
**Careful: there are references to his struggle with sexual abuse that partly shaped this book.