Write what you know. But I don't know! The floor creaks when I walk up the steps, even when I'm not there. I am facing a national personality triage. The nation is not america but poesie, the personality is not body but name. A doppleganged fissure prancing out of my comfort hook has been going around town, claiming swoon and swag, as my name. After years of hiding behind my last name, actually disregarding nationality to expunge on process, I've just been outed as a spic poet. A what, you say? Exactly! Spic: a derogatory term from the fifties that no one uses now — the cultural elite having graduated to sliceier tidbits. (oozing sarcasm, he lays his sword down)

 But West Side Story's got those catchy songs, "even if our liberation tells us the sixties are over?"...so says the gringo bus driver, running a blur of identities into one locale. Get your head straight, vato, this here's a name talking, not a mouthpiece. Like your run-of-the-mill border citizen, using fusion to get high. Yo, we got our own n word. Oh yeah? Yeah, Nuyorican. Please that's nothing like the original n word. Papi, you say that like you're proud. No pride just fact bro, don't even compare. Here's another n word, nock nock. Who dat? Nothing. Huh! Nada, aint no one here. And that's your n word? We all need one. Even if it's nothing? We all need nada.

I'm back at El Museo Del Barrio this weekend for a reading series called "Spic Up! Speak Out!" A healthy email exchange took place over the summer among the participants over institutionalizing a derogatory term to claim it as any sort of victory, a decision I still have problems with but am thankful for the issues brewing. A reminder to shake under the quiver of the living beast called po, to honor its depth, to remind me of mine. And to the museum's credit, that firey exchange will be used as a foreward for the lavishly-designed program over the run of the series. The witness infantata in me rears up, pssst look here, just make your comment and then get back to that nothing you know so well, son.

So I'm thrust into reflection over name-calling versus body-being. Saliva sweetens the heat, out in the fields, the migratory open field between the edge and where edge comes from. Spit regurgitates as Spic, when you're trying to clear your gang-throat in the 1950's and you're looking for base-denominator-insult. My question rhetoric; to instigate change, if asked to read a poem inside a burning building and handed asbestos gloves with rubberized microphone, is it better to flood from the inside, break down from within the structure, or hose from the outside and keep your dress clean for a new day? Say, I am better than one word. Claim word as name. Say yes, and face what name brings.

 And when does name become strangle? More likely, when does word not become poet? Does writing become word before becoming I ? See, I was satisfied in the distance, the dismissal I'd been given disguised as range. I was hoping for all sorts of who in my head to pop out at this point. Dripping through the limbic insular called digit, and letting it flop on a micro-cosmic landing pad called lingo. This name thing, how skin it's become, how jailed to remain in something given.

I was adhereing to an ancient tome erratta, a sort of bean-pole existence that I could swirl around, or get behind, like the fact of thing becoming sound before word. This house is still settling, the physical one I live in and the meta one I write in. Reminding me of who came before, that I was only a holder before the bag showed up. Back to the burning building, screaming from the outside, if I am a flame, who holds the hose? Notice how I've neglected to divert history from its perch, how Nuyorican has not been explained or dissected. Because this isn't about that.

 The beauty boy in long hair and molasses scopes the beach for suckers, carrying cookies on silver plates, selling every crumb as if it were the cookie. And sand claims itself as wish. And who is it that writes only their name when they sign something? And who hears color before accent? And that italic membrane over your second skin, who's gonna pick up that little bit of no and give it a whirl?

Originally Published: November 19th, 2009

A self-proclaimed “lingualisualist” rooted in the languages of sight and sound, Edwin Torres was born in the Bronx and is a longtime resident of New York City. He is a poet whose highly acclaimed performances and live shows combine vocal and physical improvisation and theater. He is the author of...

  1. November 20, 2009

    Doesn't "reclaiming" a racist word just give the racists an excuse to use it against you? Also, in the curious case of the n-word(s), there's a big difference between the one that ends in "gga" and the one that ends in "gger," right?

  2. November 21, 2009
     michael james

    Reclaiming a racist word doesn't give the racists an excuse to use it against you. Whatever power it had it will have and continue to have over you, whether it is reclaimed or not. The "gga" was of course an outgrowth to convert power (not necessarily remove) from negative to positive. The power of "gger" remained as it was. And still remains. But the power isn't in the word as it is in the thoughts/state of minds which lie behind the racist word being used (moving here from a specific racist word to all words used in that way).\r

    When a racist word is used -- In my personal experience -- the idea rises whether this person is using this word out of ignorance because social constructs have forced him/her to have this gut reaction of using this specific word associated with this specific ethnicity when anger/frustrated/or with feelings of being wronged or perhaps some sort of complex and they do not actually feel that way. Whichever. Or it could mean they actually do feel that way (another form of ignorance). There are many possibilities. Whether people chose to believe this or not, I believe it isn't always about the word(s) being used but the ignorance behind having to use such a word.\r

    "So I’m thrust into reflection over name-calling versus body-being"\r


    "Say, I am better than one word. Claim word as name. Say yes, and face what name brings."\r

    Body-being, yes. I like this. But I do not wish to claim word as name. I wish to claim body as name to move body beyond name and name beyond body. When two are one two no longer can exist, it is now one.\r

    We are better than one word, but can one be better than a global construction of 'ways of thinking'? Such as distinctions between being black/brown/white/yellow/red, when, scientifically speaking, we are all various shades of brown. And even when you pointing out this obvious linguistic mistake by holding up a black object and a white object, for example, and asking people if they are either of these colors, they tend to scoff. It must take the deconstruction of constructed (with purpose) thought, to move beyond the cycle of what "claiming word as name" brings. Then we're only getting on a bus that drives in concentric circles; the illusion of movement.

  3. November 23, 2009
     Edwin Torres

    To 'move body beyond name', is exactly right...'to claim word as name' is a springboard for that statement to have come to life–"word" meaning "language" not "spic." The thought of standing behind a name implies standing behind an ethnicity. My hope is to move beyond ethnicity, beyond my name to create art from body, a move towards "body-being" the goal.\r

    The body looks to absorb the world it's in. A larger world than one country, one name. When "place" is determined as "name," is when body disappears. I lose identity in 'identity-based' work because I don't want to relate to "your name" I want to relate to "your body." Person-to-person-light. Body-being is my claim, my challenge...to remain relevant to a world in constant motion.\r

    If our molecular mass is in concert with the earth's gyration, getting stuck in racist tags is what shuts the flowering body, keeps it from its natural state of evolving. In the re-invention of identity beyond "being" into "language", is there a chance of a word's existence as my new identity? Do I re-appropriate racism if my territory is no longer a nation but a letter, a poem?\r

    As advanced as the mainstream may feel that society has become, this is a reminder that dismissing our differences is another obstacle to our natural state.

  4. November 28, 2009

    The folks who make programming decesions at most museums in New York when it comes to people of color play intellectually, culturally, and politically fast and loose. Here is a museum that was founded by Puerto Ricans now giving "license" to the word "spic" as if it can be decontextualized from a racist social and political history. In other words, walk out to the corner of Madison and 104th Street and discuss the viability of the word "spic" with the folks in Spanish Harlem. See what "they" have to say.\r

    Can you imagine if a New York museum funded a series called "Kike/Kite: Speak Out?" Do you think members of the Jewish community would be sitting around discussing the post-modern importance of "kike."\r

    The larger fallacy is for Latinos/Latinas to go to colleges and universities and then adopt the theories of white folks wholesale and then apply them to Latino/Latina culture without any real examination.\r

    El-Museo does not have to resort to gimmicks to develop programming. As if stands now, it is already culturally de-linked from the very Latino community that it is a part of (which is a conversation in itself) and this program merely demonstrates why it might as well be just like any other white museum in New York City that has no regard for the real cultural contributions of Latinos/Latinas.