Spanish Classroom Chronicles: Elles, Muxes, and Identities.
“Without a sense of identity, there can be no struggle.” (Freire)
A lot has happened, really a lot: pandemic, social unrest, fighting for racial justice, and liberation… You know this already. Your social media timelines probably have plenty of quick-paced information and notifications. When you see what is trending these days, whether you’re an NPR podcast listener, or an avid consumer of TikToks summarizing in 2 minutes useful and important ABAR reminders, you might want to take a break from all of that and read a very personal, vulnerable story.
This testimonio was written originally, en español, about a year ago, a bit before this current pandemic, and I’ve decided to bring this story, in English, as an act of love and resistance to my past, current, and future non-binary students and colleagues.
Si quieres leer esto en español mexicano, con un toque de chilango, y otro más de guayabo (Cuernavaca Morelos) Aquí está la versión original:
Ready? Set? Testimonio!
There was a time, many many otoños ago when I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Teaching Spanish as a Second Language. There is always the excitement -or the anxiety- of the first class of the first school year. That being said, I remember vividly when one of my college professors told me:
“The very first 15 minutes of your first class will determine how the rest of the year will go for you”
There it was. The Jiminy Cricket voice; softly whispering that reminder over and over again every time I was about to start the first class of the school year.
Someone said once that you don’t always have second chances to make great first impressions. This has been -and up to this day- continues to be, really, really important to me as a self-reflecting tool.
Even more important when you enter that classroom, position yourself in front of the entire class. All of them staring at you. Almost as if they were actually scanning me, looking for a QR code in my guayabera, in a very small and old 1930’s rural New England classroom.
Once upon a time, there was I, waltzing in the classroom. A cold morning in late September. Triple shot espresso in an insulated mug, and ready for the warm-up activity prior to starting classes.
Fall foliage at its peak. Well, almost! Oaks and birches nearby competed to show which foliage look prettier. Where did the summer go? Nah, it’s gone!
Class time, and actually starting on time… well. almost! Introductions, names? likes? dislikes? you know the drill: small talk here and there: who you are, where are you from?
No! Sorry! I meant to say: where is home for you these days? Why did you choose this school, on a hilltop, in the middle of nowhere, Vermont? Why are you taking Spanish?
Then, it was their turn to speak.
This person was actually kind of late. One thing I remember is that the outfit was dark, styled with an amazingly beautiful and colorful handwoven scarf. Short, dark hair. You could easily notice something was off with this person’s eyes. There was fear, anxiety. The student noticed the only empty spot left and quickly sat down.
We looked at each other for a minute, and finally, asked the first question:
-Hola, ¿cómo te llamas?
-Me llamo Fabian, y mis pronombres son elle/elles
That was the first time many students in the room heard someone using the singular They/Them alternative en español! It reminded me of my own journey of learning, unlearning, and relearning in this particular exchange.
Ready for more storytime? Are you following? Bet? Here we go!
I’m a Mexican national, immigrant, cishet, very much the stereotypical Latino in the media by many of my white colleague's standards. I arrived in this country at age 23, and I didn't know how to speak or write the language back then. I learned English out of necessity. I was given a full ride to study for my master’s degree at a school in Ohio. I took the opportunity very seriously and made the most out of that life experience.
Fortunately, most of the grad courses were almost entirely in español, and I’m lucky enough to have learned English thanks to my own immersion outside of the typical ELL/ESOL class. I took a lot of risks learning new idioms, slang, carrying a pocket dictionary, and many more embarrassing moments of speaking with an accent. However, you also need to know something about me before immigrating to this country.
My adolescent years were filled with stereotypes, jokes that would signify a free pass to the popular circles back in my hometown in Cuernavaca Mexico. To be the cool guy many times meant to crack a sexist joke or make fun of anyone who didn’t look or sounded like you.
For better or for worse, if those jokes were full of curse words, you’d be like Bruh, that’s dope! to these guys. They were the epitome of the macho culture. I also remember listening to standup comedy where the person would mock a gay attitude, or make fun of the gender roles played in my society.
Back in the day, I didn’t have any social media. Insta what? Snapchat? Tik-qué chingados es eso? Facebook and WhatsApp were a utopia in the years where the Internet was still that horrible dial-sound before connecting.
For me, those were street food survival times. Estudiambre: estudiante con hambre. A poor hangry college student making the most of Dorilocos, plenty of lime and salsa Valentina. Pouring una coca (cola) in a plastic bag with a pink straw.
I never heard such things as sustainability back then, and my constant use of plastic splattered street food was the least of my concerns as long as I could taste the shockingly good taco sudado: a ridiculously cheap greasy 50 cent taco.
I’ll admit that when things got better, I used to buy recorded tapes with hours and hours of stand up comedians in the fayuca: the black market. Those were literally recorded from venues, illegally, with cheap interview recorders, and I even used to play them in my cheap yellow walkman. My head registered, both consciously and subconsciously, hours and hours of those sexist, misogynistic, racist, homophobic jokes.
I didn't know, but those standup comedians were making fun of minorities, underrepresented classes, and racialized people who were not normal in their standards. There were many dialogues with plenty of examples from colorism, classism, and there was I, laughing, normalizing implicitly and explicitly these behaviors, many times, por que así es la cultura.
I even vividly remember how anxious and excited I was whenever I had the chance to tell those jokes to my friends, family, or when I wanted to fit in in reunions and parties. It almost felt like a rite of passage. Maybe internalizing how those jokes would bump me up to improve my social status. That’s what I felt. That’s how I remembered those memories.
Back to the classroom. Remember Fabian? Well, at that moment, I said out loud to them: I want you to know that this is a safe space for you. As you know, Spanish is a very hyper gendered language. Even if La Real Academia does not accept the singular They/Them en español, and even if there are many linguists and literate, educated, eurocentric/ethnocentric voices making fun or dismissing the alternative of elle/ellx, for as long as I’m a teacher in this place, you and everybody else should totally feel empowered to use the “-e” when you think it necessary.
I’m checking my privilege here for a minute. I’m very aware of the controversies and debates among the “-x” or “-e” in “LatinX/LatinE”, and the push back not only among some Spanish teachers but also, the native speaker Spanish teachers.
I also remember how there was a part of me ready to just jump in, energized, and rant about everything surrounding the evolution of our hyper gendered languages, but for a brief moment, I could only think about centering the story around Fabian and their identity. Making sure they felt seen as a human being, value them as an individual, to make them feel at peace.
Then, I continued:
-Si él es alto, y ella es alta, tú, Fabian, puedes decir que eres alte. Si él es bueno, y ella es buena, tú eres buene. Si él es paciente, y ella es tolerante, tú eres valiente, inteligente, perseverante, admirable, respetable…
The class clearly understood that those very first 15 minutes of the class would be a safe and validating space for all identities present. Fabian seemed to understand that with me, elle could feel safe, segure, affirmed, afirmade, valued, valorade. They seemed to understand that my purpose at that moment wasn’t really trying to challenge the RAE, but simply to create a meaningful and safe space where conversations around identity and gender could happen, just happen, by only adding a third option: “-e”, right next to the traditional masculine/femenine endings “-o/-a”
It’s not about erasing, but actually enriching the linguistic repertoire. Introducing the concept of the idiolect, the geolect, the dialect.
El español “puro” no existe. Why people insist on defending the purity of the language?
Later, we had a unique opportunity to talk about a group of people from my country. The Muxe community.
Fabian and many students were able to hear more stories about individuals who transgress the notions of gender and the binary in a small town in the state of Oaxaca Mexico. Representation is crucial these days in our classrooms. Listening to stories from Lukas Avendaño, a Muxe anthropologist, and from seeing the cover of Vogue Mexico with a Muxe model, Estrella Vazquez, and one of the most beloved street taco vendors, Francisco Marven, was not only a powerful and affirmative moment for Fabian, but for every person who still had the idea that Mexico was reduced to stereotypical tropes shown in many classroom materials these days.
I’m very aware of my own limitations. I code-switch with my family to talk about “normal Mexican Spanish”, and with my colleagues about decolonizing the eurocentrism and ethnocentrism present in many curriculum materials. I can’t really talk with my former teachers, or even with some close friends whom I really respect and admire. Thanks to Fabian, I’ve learned to pick my fights. I know, deep down, that I can control what I can control, and I can only leave Fabian and many of my current and former non-binary students with positive memories of that identity affirming affinity space. A safe space, an oasis. The world out there is harsh and cruel, and my students are fully aware that this is a journey full of ups and downs.
All I can say is that if you read through this, make it an opportunity to start asking yourself: what if instead of assuming, I just asked? What if instead of centering my materials around what RAE says, I also made room for the identities not present in the grammar and vocabulary? What else would you do if you had a trans/non-binary student, and that pronoun is more than a grammar mistake, and you saw it as an act of love? Resistance? Solidarity?
Our students are taking note not only of our actions but also of our inactions.
Listen. To Them!