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‘Spic Up!’ & why ‘US Hispanics Don’t Count’

By Craig Santos Perez

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thanks to all those who entered the contests! i had a blast reading the submissions! and the winners are: marthe reed, eric landon, kate powell shine, gary fitzgerald, and john shaw (who wins 3 books!). please browse the omnidawn catalog and email me your book choice(s) with mailing address (you will find my email in the comments section).

[update: i missed one entry from the contest! add to the list of winners 'J Mitch'. J, please email me to claim your prize.]

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continuing our discussion on the racialized pun, i want to draw attention to another recent example of how the aesthetics of a racialized pun can overshadow the ethics of its use. please read below the fold:

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‘SPIC UP! SPEAK OUT!’ ON THE RACIALIZED PUN (2)

el museo del barrio, in east harlem, named a reading series ‘spic up!speak out!’ [note the use of exclamation marks! afro picks!!! anyone] this title caused quite a controversy, garnering coverage in the NY Times last November here.

Emmanuel Xavier, one of the organizers, explains why they used the derogatory term:

“For me, it’s about empowerment,” Mr. Xavier said. “Look at everything we have done and accomplished. And it is a play on the word. We are speaking out our truths and identities in very perfect English.”

poet aracelis girmay expressed a different perspective:

“I guess I get it, but I don’t like the joke,” said Aracelis Girmay, a young poet who declined to participate. “It would be one thing if it were some underground place, but it’s at an institution. El Museo del Barrio is supposed to be the place that I would expect would guard our culture respectfully. This is giving dangerous permission to that word. It’s inviting it through the front door.”

one of the strongest voices against the use of ‘spic’ was the poet rich villar. in a powerful essay on his blog, he writes:

We didn’t hear ['spic'] from other Latinos. We didn’t inoculate ourselves against its weight by hollering it from our cars, or our hallways, or our windows. In our homes, our parents never used it. Because our parents were chased by it, had it bounced off their skulls, found a fist at the end of it. Because we knew better. Because we were taught better.

[...] But we didn’t use ['spic'] for identifier, salve, naming, or renaming. We didn’t invent it like we invented Nuyorican, Xicano, Latino. It was invented for us, like slavery and colonialism was invented for us. And we reject it.

Thanks, but we have our own names. We have our own stories, and we have survived every attempt to make us disappear. And because we won’t disappear, our kids often prefer to call themselves Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or Cuban or Mexican or Ecuadorian. Guatemalan. Honduran. Latino. Latino-Americano. Americano. American.

But not spic. Not now. Not ever.

Why do I have to remind you of this?

as you can see from this follow-up article in the NY Times, the museo decided to change the name of its series to ‘speak up/speak out.’

lesson: don’t f*ck with rich villar.

question: what are your thoughts on this debate? did el museo del barrio make a good choice by changing their name? or should they have kept the controversy/conversation going?

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‘US HISPANICS DONT COUNT’

raymond bianchi (whom i’ve discussed in the past) responds to the end of the decade reflections found on this website:

There is nothing in this essay about the 400 million people in this hemisphere who do not speak english, and US Hispanics dont count they are Americans what I am talking about are the millions of poetry READERS in places like Brazil, Mexico an Argentina.

He goes further in a recent post at his own blog:

A strong criticism of the Poetry Foundation’s Decade in Review is that in all of these short articles there was nothing about global poetry. [...]

It is important as well to not delude ourselves that “multi cultural poetry’ in the US is Global Poetry it is not. A Hispanic or Asian origin poet writing in the US is a unique expression but it is not the river of poetry being written globally and needs to be defined as what it is an immigrant literature.

In China there are poets who are sitting in jail cells for writing poems critical of their government or environmental degradation. there are poets in Iran who are persecuted for their work and one who were killed . There are poets in Brazil whose work is quoted in major media yet none of these poets were deemed important for these articles.

i’m not sure yet what i think about these statements. what does “global” poetry mean? isn’t any US poetry global poetry since only a naive sense of american exceptionalism would suggest that US poetry somehow transcends the global? what is “immigrant” literature? isnt all white-american poetry also immigrant literature? what are your thoughts & opinions of bianchi’s claims? well, this is my last post for this week so i hope we can have a nice discussion in the comment field these next couple of days.

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Comments (42)

  • On January 13, 2010 at 3:36 am Craig Santos Perez wrote:

    email me here: c s p e r e z 0 6 a t g m a i l d o t c o m

  • On January 13, 2010 at 10:25 am Wendy Babiak wrote:

    This reminds me of when I was a foreign-exchange student in Valencia, Spain (back in 1984), and one time myself and the class communist, Enrique, were kicked out of religion class for asking difficult questions. We ended up chatting out in the hall, waiting for our next class, and of course we started talking about politics. He asked me if I was a republican or a democrat (I considered myself an anarchist), and was shocked to learn that there were people in the estados unidos who were neither. Then he asked me if I’d mind if he called me a yanqi. Being from Florida and considering the term derogatory, I asked him back if he’d mind if I called him a spic. What’s that, he wanted to know. I told him it was a derogatory term for hispanics. You have a bad name for us?

    We have a bad name for EVERYONE.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 10:45 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Wendy, as someone who grew up in Latin America and has spent considerable time there in adulthood, I can assure you that the term “yanqui” there in no way carries the same derogatory charge as the term “spic” does here!

    • On January 13, 2010 at 11:01 am Matt wrote:

      yankee carries derogatory charge for hicks. not saying anyone here is a hick.

    • On January 13, 2010 at 11:12 am Wendy Babiak wrote:

      Kent, I’m well aware.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 10:55 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    By the way, with apologies for being “off-topic,” how about the Poetry Foundation do a big-name fund-raiser reading for Haiti?

  • On January 13, 2010 at 11:26 am Don Share wrote:

    Alas, it would be improper for me to accept a prize, so I hope a suitable runner-up can be found. I shall savor the honor, however. Back to your terrific post here, CSP, for which also many thanks.

    • On January 13, 2010 at 1:31 pm csperez wrote:

      alas you are such a gentleman. for what’s it’s worth, i thought your submission was pretty awesome! c

  • On January 13, 2010 at 12:13 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    despite many interesting attempts late last century, the appropriation of derogatory language has proven to be a fairly futile effort.

    • On January 13, 2010 at 1:20 pm Matt wrote:

      it has? what about “queer” and “nigga”? seems like people have been successful at reappropriating those (even if the spelling had to be changed in the case of the N word).

      • On January 13, 2010 at 1:36 pm sassjemleon wrote:

        matt, really, think hard now, are queer and nigger any less offensive when used to insult somebody?

        • On January 13, 2010 at 1:48 pm Matt wrote:

          i wasn’t talking about when they’re used as insults. i was talking about when they’re reappropriated by the very people they were formerly used against. that’s what reappropriation is.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 1:35 pm csperez wrote:

    @ wendy: thx for sharing this story. it’s sad but true. and i think highlights how contextual racially derogatory terms can be.

    @ sass & matt: i think you both make good points. in terms of poetry, it seems to me that ‘queer’ has a much firmer ground than ‘nigga’–in terms of positive appropriation. do you think that’s true? if so, i wonder why.

    c

    • On January 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm sassjemleon wrote:

      csperez, just because there are “queer studies” and “queer eyes for straight guys” doesn’t mean the term is any less or more offensive. i would not suggest to my straight children that it is okay to refer to any of their gay classmates as queers or fags for that matter. gay itself is still a term of various uses and levels of offense. how do stop a 12 yr old from describing everything that isn’t cool as gay?

      • On January 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm Matt wrote:

        if your straight children were to use “queer” (especially in an unthinking way), it would not be *reappropriation*. you seem to be missing the point.

        • On January 13, 2010 at 2:15 pm sassjemleon wrote:

          matt, i am saying you cannot own spontaneous speech, so there is nothing to appropriate. run nigga run is foolishness. run jeter run is the ideal.

          • On January 13, 2010 at 2:48 pm Matt wrote:

            “you cannot own spontaneous speech, so there is nothing to appropriate”

            i have no idea what this means

            • On January 13, 2010 at 3:25 pm sassjemleon wrote:

              matt, appropriation is mostly about ownership. all i was saying is you cannot own language. since you cannot own language, you cannot appropriate words. you cannot cheapen or deepen language simply by attempting to alter its meaning by making it more comfortable to you or your friends; you cannot divest certain words of their central powers, their mojo, so to speak. therefore, in my mind–and my household–nigga, a derivative misadventure in an attempt soften a very hard word to deal with, is no less derogatory than nigger.

            • On January 13, 2010 at 3:39 pm Matt wrote:

              wow. no, it’s not about literally owning language, like with money. it’s about *using* it. anyway, this has been fun, but i have an appointment to talk to a brick wall at 4, and i don’t want to be late.

    • On January 13, 2010 at 2:00 pm Matt wrote:

      i was just thinking mainly of daily life, teenagers on the subway, say, who don’t seem to have a problem with it. it’s like every other word is the n-word.

      i was in the laundromat during the world series and when jeter got a hit this girl next to me was like, “run nigga run nigga run nigga run!!”

      • On January 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm sassjemleon wrote:

        matt, please forgive me, but most teenagers are, by nature, retarded.

        • On January 13, 2010 at 2:32 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

          Watch it, Sass. You just used “retarded” pejoratively. People with mental disabilities may be offended.

    • On January 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

      Yes, context is everything. Enrique wasn’t offended…he didn’t even know the word. Nor, as a European, was he in the habit of thinking of himself as an oppressed person. In fact, they used to love to repeat an old adage about a time when the sun never set on Spain. Colonialism and all. Of which they were still proud, though some were beginning to understand there may be reason not to be.

      Another story: I knew a Houma man down south who REALLY hated the word Injun, because every time he’d heard it actually directed at him, it was in the sentence, “The only good injun’s a dead injun,” which he had heard three times in his life, each time preceding a knife or gunshot wound.

      The idea of Injun Studies or curating a group of injun art pieces would be rather shocking. I think “spic” is rather in that group of words.

      Because of the difficulty with all these words, I think punning with them is pretty much always going to be a mistake, even if done by someone on the “inside.” Maybe I should work on a collection of feminist poetics. I’ll call it “The Broads’ Broadsides.”

  • On January 13, 2010 at 2:14 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    Hey Craig,

    One point that was made re: the “Spic Up! …” discussions/debates was whether or not the current Museo del Barrio was even connected with its local community, and if so, did they ever ask this local community what they thought of using the contested term. On the other hand, if the Museo was/is not connected with the local community, then this is a problem larger than the use of the term (in which case, use of the term is a symptom).

    On Ray Bianchi’s point that USA-based poetry from “Hispanic” or Asian origins is not global poetry (American exceptionalism as creating global poetry? I don’t think so.) but still, not necessarily “immigrant poetry,” I mean, what about writers who come from current and former US territories?

    Anyway, all this to say I am finding all of the above terms kind of limiting.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 2:25 pm csperez wrote:

    @ sass: well, without generalizing about the mental capacities of teenagers, i think it’s very possible & important to simply talk with them and emphasize the importance of speaking respectfully about/to people.

    but i really appreciate how you & matt are taking a comparative approach to understanding the phenomenon of reappropriating derogatory terms. certainly, of ‘nigga’ ‘spic’ and ‘queer’, ‘queer has been the most positively reappropriated. but as you mention, sass, some people still find it/use it offensively, despite its culture/academic acceptance by some.

    with that in mind, we would NEVER see Publisher’s weekly do a feature on Latin@ lit called “spic picks!” nor would we ever see a show called ‘nigga eyes for the white guy’.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm csperez wrote:

    hey b,

    great point about the importance of being connected to the community–and actually asking the community. tho i guess this speaks to the difficulty of community…or the complexity of community (as in some thot this was a good idea while others didnt).

    yeah, that’s what i was thinking too. bianchi seems to want to contain ‘hispanic origin’ poetry and poets within the borders of the US, erasing the complex, transnational experiences of many of these writers. i’m thinking of writers like monica de la torre, gabriela jauregui, and javier o huerta–to name a few.

    c

    • On January 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

      Hey Craig, yes on the complexity of community. I do think it’s pretty important to have those dialogues, however messy and contentious, and preferably before airing the community’s *stuff* in public. There’s a problem when institutions dictate or prescribe terms, language, etc for the community without having ongoing dialogue and collaboration.

      So, yes also on transnational poets, indigenous poets, undocumented poets, etc. Of course, there are also immigrant poets in the USA, and these are not limited to “Hispanic” and Asian origins.

  • On January 13, 2010 at 11:25 pm Lee Herrick wrote:

    Bravo, Craig—I’m loving your posts here. Bravo, Villar. Good things in the new year.

  • On January 14, 2010 at 1:16 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    “A Hispanic or Asian origin poet writing in the US is a unique expression but it is not the river of poetry being written globally and needs to be defined as what it is an immigrant literature.”: assumes perhaps the binary of origination? Not sure. The logic around the immigrant doesn’t sit quite right…

  • On January 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm pam lu wrote:

    Barbara said: “Anyway, all this to say I am finding all of the above terms kind of limiting.”

    Second that. Categorical distinctions are sometimes useful but sometimes they can promote rather un-useful binaries. One being the binary of origination that Bhanu & you & Barbara talk about above re: transnational concerns & affinities. Another un-useful either/or binary is one that posits U.S. poetry as non/apolitical vs. poetry of conscience written outside the U.S., as there is plenty of U.S. poetry crying out to be read as political poetry from both national & international perspectives.

    My sense is that Bianchi does not intend to perpetuate these un-useful binaries (although the term “immigrant poetry” is unfortunately one that relegates these works to a status outside that of poetry proper). My sense is he’s trying to tackle two issues at once:

    1.) The un-useful lumping together of so-called U.S. immigrant writing with writing from countries outside the U.S. Un-useful in one sense b/c it perpetuates the false notion of U.S. (immigrant or whatever) writers as being foreign & other, whereas their presence in the landscape of U.S. lit functions both as a critique of U.S. nationality and a revision & continued building of that nationality. (U.S. national identity having been conceived from the get-go as something constructed not given. I should put scare quotes around “nationality” and “identity” but you get the idea.)

    2.) The complacent, isolationist tendency of writers/readers in the U.S. to only pay attention to writing that originates from the U.S. Making for a kind of national provincialism. I think this was discussed some time ago here on a Harriet article/blogspot about Bolano: how comparatively well-read non-U.S. writers were in U.S. lit, how comparatively unaware U.S. writers were about lit outside the U.S.

    It’s complicated. A misinterpretation of #1 and #2 can too easily be used as a wedge to create a false “versus” binary between groups that would otherwise be allied or affiliated. I don’t know if this is a flaw in the rhetoric, in the terms of discourse, or just a stubborn residue of the culture wars, but in any case the wedge is deeply un-useful.

  • On January 14, 2010 at 4:43 pm csperez wrote:

    @ lee: thanks! i look forward to your future comments here on harriet

    @ bhanu: great to hear from you! i def agree. i dont think bianchi really thinks thru either ‘origin’ or ‘immigration’.

    @ pam: thx for your thoughtful comment!

    in terms of your #1 point, i find it annoying when people compare either the persecution or popularity of poets living in china or argentina, let’s say, as a way to de-legitimize the political work of ethnic writers in the US. there’s almost a double romanticism going on: that all ‘global’ poetry is hyper-political and all US ethnic poetry is hyper-immigrant (assimilated to a flattened “americanness”). again, this is too simple: many “global” poets are NOT political or in prison or in the newspaper & many US ethnic poets are transnational and political, as you say.

    towards #2: i think bianchi again is too simplistic here. yes, some US writers/readers are provincial, but many are not. many of us read widely in non-US lit. secondly, it’s ridiculous to claim that non-US readers are comparatively well-read in US lit…i mean really how many texts by US ethnic writers get translated into french, or spanish, or chinese? and if non-US readers do read english, how many of them are actually reading US ethnic writers?

    c

    • On January 14, 2010 at 7:07 pm pam lu wrote:

      Good points. When I remember that Bianchi’s note was written in response to the poetry decade article, his statement about #1 cannot be read as anything but pointed, more intentionally wedge-driving than I’d first thought.

  • On January 15, 2010 at 2:33 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Isn’t there only one truly meaningful way forward? Every single American child should be forced to learn and be fluent in both Spanish and English. Harsh treatment? It wouldn’t kill anyone.

    • On January 15, 2010 at 10:17 am Don Share wrote:

      Hm. I was educated that way, but it hasn’t really made me a better person. True, it didn’t cause any great harm.

      • On January 15, 2010 at 10:30 am Old 333 wrote:

        That’s probably why it didn’t make you a better person – people grow well under heavy pruning. Did I ever bore your ears of with my peony discourse? Likely not, unless you’re particularly unlucky and need to watch out for lightning-storms. Anyway, I figure that we need the frames of peony (owch) to grow well, because our heads are so heavy, man. There, that was quick, wasn’t it? And now for continued consumption of the juice of the sapphu.

        • On January 15, 2010 at 10:32 am Old 333 wrote:

          Aw, typoed. Of for off, oog. Typooed. Should be drinking typhoo ‘stead of sapphu, then i wouldn’t muff these dinky little keys. i need duplo keyboard.

          • On January 16, 2010 at 12:45 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

            Oh, and I meant to add, after that Spanish should be made a full second official language right through to the halls of power in Washington. True, it probably won’t make anyone a better person nor engineer a better more enlightened polity, but I’m wagering it won’t destroy America and, who knows, it may ultimately open the door to other languages and help our species evolve, once and for all, beyond homo monoglotus.

  • On January 15, 2010 at 8:26 am Ol' 333 wrote:

    Viv sez: “Every single American child should be forced…”

    I agree. Daily. Make the little bastards shave every morning whether they need to or not, for that matter.

    Or, we could try isolating them with wolves, to find out if Romulans speak Hebrew in the wild.

  • On January 15, 2010 at 11:55 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    A project I’m pursuing at the time with poets and linguists from U.S. and Mexico might have some relation to this topic: We’re attempting to initiate a “Talleres de la palabra” (Workshops of the word) program in the Nahuatl-speaking region outside Puebla. The idea would be pair, for each taller, a U.S. Hispanic writer with a leading Nahuatl writer to conduct poesia/narrativa workshops in San Miguel de Canoa and other towns where Nahautl is widely spoken. Part of the idea would be to work with the writers involved in translating Nahautl texts into Spanish and English, and vice versa. There is a great deal of excitement for the project in Mexico (at the local level and among folks at the UNAM and U of Puebla), and we also have strong expressions of interest from major figures in the Latino poetry community here, including from an internationally promient poet, who has agreed to co-lead the first workshop with a leading Nahuatl-language poet. If funding develops, the idea will be to conduct these a couple times a year, with different poets traveling to the Puebla region to lead workshops, give readings, and so forth.

    If anyone has funding suggestions, please let us know! We feel the project could develop in very interesting directions if we can just get it going.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 by Craig Santos Perez.