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Ana Celia Zentella on Anthropolitical Linguistics, Tato Laviera, and the Power of Nuyorican Poetry

In the forthcoming interview with Ana Celia Zentella (CENTRO Journal 2016), Yomaira Figueroa discusses the intellectual and community-driven contributions of the prominent linguistics and ethnic studies scholar. In it Zentella openly speaks about the stigmatization of certain varieties of Spanish, legislation targeted at bilingual students, the role of Spanglish in New York, the challenges of raising bilingual children, and the importance of diasporic Latina/o poetics. Featured below is a snippet of the interview featuring Zentella’s concept of Anthropolitical Linguistics and a touching moment with the late Tato Laviera.

Yomaira C. Figueroa: One of the main contributions of your work is the notion of Anthropolitical Linguistics? What is it, how did it come to be, and is it still useful?

Ana Celia Zentella: Anthropolitical linguistics places language in its social context and acknowledges that there is no language without power. In other words, issues of power are deeply embedded in all aspects of language. I think [this idea is] never going to go out of style or to be irrelevant. Today, people are trying to look at multiple Latino identities, is Chicano one identity? Does it include Guatemalans on the West Coast and Salvadorans? Who is the authentic Puerto Rican? Do we have the right to speak about the gran familia puertorriqueña including people in the diaspora? All of these are seemingly limited questions in terms of identity and language but actually cannot be answered without looking at relations of power and hierarchy and the ways in which race and class are embedded in the notions of authenticity.

[These questions also trouble] notions of linguistic contamination and racial separation that are embedded in particular national identities or notions of who is an authentic member of a particular nation. [The] other part of anthropolitical linguistics is not only unmasking the hidden, it is also doing something about it.  It is not enough to just interview children, or interview parents, or tape record people in their communities. You have to be willing to take some direct action that is going to interrupt the reproduction of social inequality. That is the main thrust of anthropolitical linguistics. You are not only on the sidelines, although sometimes you are as you are gathering data, but you use that data for the benefit of the people who have helped you in your research and that you are supposedly studying for a greater good than just writing the next paper [or publication]. Although I may have invented the anthropolitical linguistics label, I am not the first person to embed the work of linguists in power, race, and class.

YCF: Can you comment on the link between your linguistic work with Spanglish and the Nuyorican poetry that represents Spanglish as poetic. How was Growing up Bilingual linked or not to the Nuyorican poets movement of the 1960's-70's?

 ACZ: [Code-switching and Spanglish] were part of my life growing up in the South Bronx, and I decided that I wanted to look at real speech in a real community. What I heard from the children of el barrio and what my tapes showed was the extraordinary linguistic diversity that they were surrounded by and participating in. So it began with that, but at the same time there were extraordinary poets around that I admired a great deal.  I probably will never forget the impact that first reading of “Puerto Rican Obituary” made on me, especially the part about going out to the cemetery, which I used to do twice a year with my mother [and we would even take sandwiches] on the subway to Queens.[i]  So [the poem] had a tremendous impact on me [with respect to] the directness of the language, but there is not much switching in that poem. [By the time I read Miguel Algarín’s collection [Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings] I had already started to do my work so [my analysis of the poetry] was more of an intellectual look at the poetry.

[The poetry] made it clear to me that the poets were in the avant-garde of adopting the name Nuyorican and the word Spanglish and performing a semantic inversion on them.  In other words, they transformed them into something that they owned and that they were proud of. [This is especially true of] Tato Laviera’s work which, I have always included in almost all of my papers and books.


YCF: How does gender come into play for these works of poetry?

ACZ: I think gender issues are central to Tato’s work, for example one of my favorite poems of all-time is his “Praying” poem. I had the very wonderful, moving experience of reading that poem from AmeRícan to Tato while he was in a coma about two weeks ago. [The poem is] about all of the women who are, “overloading the circuits” as he says, llamando a Dios con 20 mil peticiones. I love that poem so much that I read it with a great deal of emotion; especially when it gets to the part where the angels are complaining to “papá Dios” and telling him you know stop this already, tell these people that they are overloading the circuits and that we cannot handle these calls. Then papá Dios says, “BEEEEENDIIIITOO / they work so hard” but he’ll listen to every prayer if they go to sleep and “give papá Dios un brakecito” (AmeRícan, pp. 72–3). I was sitting there reading this to Tato and we (his sister Ruthie and Willy Luis) [thought that] you could almost see Tato’s smile, in coma. Incredible! Incredible!

[i] Pietri first read the poem in 1969 at a rally in support of the Young Lord’s Party in New York City.

© Yomaira C. Figueroa. Reprinted by permission in Centro Voices on 14 January 2015.