Silent Mother Tongue
"Silence, silence," says my science teacher Mrs. Barbra to the class to quell their laughter. I have just answered a simple question about the digestive system, specifically the mouth. The class bursts into laughter, rupturing the little self of esteem I had built over the couple of days I had spent in my new school in Nigeria. Uncontrollably they laughed, uncaring of the effect it had on me. At that moment, I promised myself I would never speak in class again. Then it dawned on me. Why must I punish myself by robbing myself of my language? Why must I be silent? During the next five years in the school, I learned that this case was much more than embarrassment and mockery; it was an attack against my language and identity.
Gloria Anzaldua's essay "How to Tame a Wild Tongue" conveys the pain of silence, the unpleasant feeling of being completely stripped of your tongue. This pain is prominent in a fierce question by Ray Gwyn; "Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?" (qtd. in Anzaldua 471). This question gives insight into the situation, pointing out the world's negativity toward languages. The answer is as persistent as the question; if you uproot and silence someone's tongue, the damage is equivalent to war. People nowadays forget that language tells everything as it symbolizes culture and, most importantly, identity. As Anzaldúa writes, "So if you want to hurt me, talk badly about my language.
Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself" (Anzaldua 476). This quote has a profound meaning; it's both simple and complex. Anzaldua radiates a belief that she is nothing without her language; Her language is a significant part of her life, and she cannot imagine life without her language.
I can relate to [Anzaldua’s] belief myself. I am from Nigeria, and among all the three major tribes, I originate from the smallest, Igbo. Though I cannot speak it fluently, my language strongly defines who I am. It is my heart, bones, and skin; it's my identity. Even when people try to make me feel shame about my culture by mocking my clothes, food, or my home décor, I still stand my ground. Even when the shame got to me, I still embraced my identity.
People are forced to feel shame for the most common and unexpected things like food, clothing, and even hairstyle, just because there is an expected stereotype that needs to unexpectedly be achieved unless it is classified as strange or even unusual. Anzaldua faced this stereotypical shame when she wrote," I grew up feeling ambivalent about our music. Country-western and rock-and-roll had more status. In the 50s and 60s, for the slightly educated and Agregado Chicanos, there existed a sense of shame at being caught listening to our music. Yet I couldn't stop my feet from thumping to our music, could not stop humming the words, nor hide from myself the exhilaration I felt when I heard it" (Anzaldúa 478).
I can strongly relate to Anzaldua's experience; when I was younger, a special memory I had of my mother's famous girls-night-out was rocking out with my mom and sister to a famous artist in Nigeria called 'P-square'; we would shout out with all our energy trying to speak Igbo as fluently as them. They were my favorite band, and in elementary we were told to talk about our favorite musician of all time and present it to the class.
One child named Dat went up and spoke about someone that was not common to a so-called normal American kid, and the way they responded was not so great. When it was over, my friend whispered," Thank God we're not weird like him, right, Amaka? Hey, what is your favorite singer?" And I respond at once, Katy Perry. I felt so bad for Dat but more ashamed of myself than anything else. When I got home, I changed my presentation to something more 'American,' more normal, a nasty stereotypical complex I'm starting to repulse against now. The person of today has gotten a wake-up call; my confidence in my culture is as smooth as the thumping of Anzaldua's foot as she listens to her cultural music, homing the incoming of the end of these toxic belief systems to make you feel like you don't have a right to enjoy your own identity because it's not normal.
Identity is in the soul, meaning that your current location does not describe your identity; it's more than that. Identity is one of the most critical miscalculations of life that usually goes unnoticed. Anzaldua agrees when she writes, "Deep in our hearts, we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul—not one of mind, not one of citizenship. Neither eagle nor serpent, both. And like the ocean, neither animal respects borders" (Anzaldua 478). This quote speaks of the soul. It tells us how there is no other way to distinguish your culture. Even if you were born in the heart of Mexico, it's not enough to define you. Your cultural identity is within, its soul tied.
In the same light, I was born in San Jose, but even with that, it is not enough to change or alter my cultural identity. I am soul-bound to my inherited roots deep in the eastern heartland of Nigeria. Even if I spent most of my days in California or received inherited citizenship by birth, it still doesn't decide my cultural identity as does any location.
So, overall, Anzaldua's essay yearns to teach us a brilliant lesson about the general value of language and how we should never dwindle to the toxicity of inbuilt stereotypical boundaries. We should embrace who we are with our language regardless of the negative attention that comes with it. Anzaldua sets a clear example as she writes, "humildes yet proud, quietos yet wild, Nosotros Los Mexicano-Chicanos will walk by the crumbling ashes as we go about our business. Stubborn, preserving, impenetrable as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreakable, we, the mestizas and mestizos, will remain" (Anzaldua 480). She is trying to show the strength of love she holds for her language by saying those words. She believes that even if the world fights her people, they will continue because they are as impenetrable as stone.
Your language is your identity; this feeling should be implanted in people, like a sixth sense. People should have a developed sense of pride and an understanding of their languages, which is a significant aspect of life.
About the Writer
Chiamaka Anudokem is an African-American student who originated in Nigeria. She is a first-year student at Mission College. Chiamaka Anudokem is currently studying human biology to pursue a career in nursing and plans to attend San Jose State University in the next two years to become a travel nurse.