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.
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...