I had the privilege of speaking to “underprivileged” high school students in El Paso’s lower valley last Friday. My Arte Publico Press contact—when I asked what I was supposed to talk about—said that I should just read my poems and share my “personal story,” The librarians and counselors who invited me to speak hoped students would connect with my “personal story” and be able to envision themselves succeeding academically despite their economic and language barriers. I wanted to say, please let’s not talk academic success until I pass my qualifying exams; I wanted to say, I really didn’t have it all that bad. What goes unnoticed, or at least unremarked, is how my personal story of underprivilege has afforded me certain privileges.
“Privilege” is used too often as an accusation. For example, when someone disagrees with us on an issue like politics and poetry, we tend to say something about how the other person’s privileged situation blinds him or her to the political nature of language. This type of charge is meant not to further debate but to end it. It should be added to the official list of logical fallacies. Call it ad privilegium. Those accused of “privilege” tend to take offense and deny the charge by citing some distant ancestor who may have had it rough at one point or another. Neither the accuser nor the accused admit their privileged status. “Privilege” is a dirty word, and no one wants to claim it.

The head librarian of the first high school at which I was to speak picked me up at 8 in the morning from the Camino Real Hotel. (It was a privilege to stay there.) During the drive, she offered details about the students at her school: many either come from Juarez or have parents who are from Juarez; many are ESL students; many have working class parents. I acknowledged that I have a lot in common with her students. From Nuevo Laredo to Berkeley—that’s quite a journey, she remarked. I thought of how dumb luck had just as much to do with being at Berkeley than any qualifications I may or may not have had. It was a fortunate coincidence that my paper on the presence of accentual syllabic meter in Whitman was read by the one professor in the English department who works on generative metrics. Then there’s the Impostor Complex: I do not belong. My ‘personal story,” I know, helped me get funding for graduate school. After some silence and hesitation, I told the head librarian that my close friends always say that I fall ass-backwards into my success. She laughs, then says I probably shouldn’t mention the “ass-backwards” thing to the students. I agreed.
While I waited for the students to come in and settle in their seats in the library, I was uncomfortable with the idea of having to share and discuss my personal story. I noticed a blackboard next to the podium I was supposed to stand in front of. Instead of “speaking” I took advantage of the blackboard and delivered my mini-lecture on the Bilingual Pun, which allowed me to discuss their language acquisition status as privilege not limitation. Of course, I could not avoid my personal story for too long during the Q and A. A young student asked what inspired the poem comparing a young man scrubbing his ink-stained hands with a cleaning lady scrubbing a toilet. I explained “the epic simile” and the “ars poetica,” but the student wanted to know who the cleaning lady is supposed to be. I answered by speaking to the students of the privilege of having hard working parents, the privilege of writing such needless things as poems while our single mothers work two jobs to support our younger brothers. This acknowledged privilege, I told them, is behind every poem I write.
At the second high school, I was reminded by one of the counselors to emphasize the importance of education. I was to speak in the cafeteria in front of 200 or so students. There was no blackboard, no chalk. Only a podium and a microphone and 200 or so staring faces. I wanted to start off by saying, “So what’s the deal with homework? You’re not working on your home.” (I doubted they would get the allusion. Seinfeld is a privilege.) Perhaps the counselors expected an inspirational speech. I don’t think inspiration is my thing, but I winged it the best I could. Say something about education, I remembered. I told them of my relationship with the English language: How I had to repeat the second grade when I first arrived in the United States; How when I arrived in Houston a Texas State Code denied funding to any public school that admitted undocumented students; How I had the privilege of attending an alternative school established by the Houston-Galveston Diocese; How advocates for undocumented students fought the state of Texas all the way to the Supreme Court; How the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision ruled in favor of the students saying, 1. Children cannot be held accountable for the actions of their parents 2. Undocumented students are considered “persons” and thus protected by the Fourteenth Amendment; How Justice Marshall declared that education should be a right not a privilege; How two decades later I am still studying and learning English. If I know this background, this history, it is not because I was aware of the situation while I was living it; it is only because I had the privilege of being in a Mexican-American studies course (a privilege that was fought for by Chicanos in the movimiento.) covering the subject of Plyler v. Doe and Its Children.
I emphasized that my University education was only possible because I received the privilege of amnesty (another dirty word). Legalization has allowed me to join the Navy, to attend University, to study creative writing, to win the CLLP from UC Irvine (you have to be at least a resident to submit your manuscript), and to publish my book. As I said this, I remembered that maybe many of the students in the audience may still have undocumented status. Their dreams have been deferred. (I am making a reference to Congress’s failure to pass the DREAM Act.) I told them that just this last week the 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled Monday that AB540 conflicts with federal law, endangering thousands of current college students in California.
It is important to acknowledge not only our privilege but also the responsibility that comes with it.
The one thing I wish I had made clear to all of the students is the fact their presence in school is what makes a fully bilingual book like mine possible. They are my ideal audience because they can follow me from one language to another, from one experience to another, from one barrier to another, from one privilege to another.
Of my biographers I require only that they get this one thing right: I have always been a privileged child.

Originally Published: September 24th, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. September 24, 2008

    I'm not sure I agree that pointing out one's privileged status is necessarily an accusation and/or a fallacy. I do think people tend to interpret it as an accusation, whether or not it's meant that way. I don't see why it can't be accepted as fact that some people are more "privileged" than others (i.e. born into situations that are inherently more advantageous) while acknowledging that this is not the privileged individual's fault.
    I was born and grew up in El Paso. But on the privileged side. :D

  2. September 24, 2008
     Javier Huerta

    Hi Elisa,
    I guess we're all El Pasoans.
    The fallacy isn't pointing out that some people are more privileged than others; the fallacy is refuting someone's argument on the basis of that privilege.

  3. September 24, 2008
     Juan Sánchez

    It is a mater of interpretation, just that more often than not the interpretation is negative, resentful even caustic. I agree there is no fault in being born into an advantageous situation, but is there fault in choosing to exploit it?
    Coincidentally, I too was once asked to speak at a high school about my academic “success.” Very awkward, not something I’d ever actively seek out, but when asked I felt a sense of debt based on a sense of, well, newfound privilege. So I accepted, and to my surprise I was informed it would be at my alma mater! Heavy. I too tried to dance around the Cinderella story because, well, to be honest the shoe didn’t really fit. I was not underprivileged nor was I privileged (both the sort of currency we’re talking about right?), but in time I could swing or allow myself to be swung between the two states. Soon, depending on whom you asked, or what was at stake, I was one or the other. In some ways, I really had no say in the matter, or so I thought.
    I grew up in a US border city, bordered by two other cities, my high school the closest HS to the border. Sound like a good bio/blurb? Sorry. For the longest time, I resisted what one might call the trappings and/or the trap associated with identity poetics. I identified this poetics with romantic bilingual diction, Spanglish, code switching, the dreaded “bilingual pun.”
    I was wrong. I discovered (very recently) that my identity was my privilege. It was this privilege/insight complex that allowed me to participate in the bilingual pun not only to appreciate it as a literary ludic device, but also as an aesthetic, cultural and political statement. It is this “play” between languages, traditions, values, this hermeneutic “gap” that I am now engrossed with and by. My current project is to let everyone in on the pun. As an example, I’m focusing on: the process of composing, (mis)translating, (mis)understanding, (mis)interpreting, (mis)editing bilingual pieces; on the symbolic potential of cognates AND false cognates; on the exchange of vernacular speech crisscrossing into both languages and the often lovely garble; on the political rhetoric employed by two neighboring governments who from one day to the next move from amigos to enemigos… blah, blah.
    Again, part of my hang up was that I resented being associated with that kind of privilege and, ultimately, that kind of “success.” One writer recently said in an interview (roughly) he wanted to be recognized not as a good Chicano writer, but as a good writer who is Chicano. Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomate, tomatl? You choose.
    Thanks for the blog Javier. And humbly, for the record, Some Clarifications y otros poemas is the book that made me acknowledge and/or choose my privilege.
    Gracias. -juan

  4. September 25, 2008
     Javier Huerta

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
    Yes, I always feel that sense of debt. I also feel a sense of respect for the teachers, librarians, and counselors who are directly engaged in the education of these students.
    And yes, we should not fear the false cognate.

  5. September 28, 2008
     Carmen M. Seda

    I am a teacher of just those children.
    I am privileged to serve them.