People’s Forum on Language Theft, Language Occupation, Language Domination, Resistance & Reclamation

Friday was, sadly, the last full day of the US Social Forum.  I attended an amazing workshop put on by Poor Magazine: People’s Forum on Language Theft, Language Occupation, Language Domination, Resistance & Reclamation.  The workshop opened with a poem performed by seven women, who call themselves the welfareQUEENS.  Each shared how they have had to interact with different kinds of language privilege.  Some of the powerful statements I heard these women share were, “I am a digital resister”, “I am a Super Baby Mama”, “Zapoteco no más por pendejos”, “Hablo con fuerza y también con amor”, and “Using the master’s language means you have a place in the master’s world.“  The facilitators asked us to participate in a couple of exercises where we would share our own stories of language domination.  Several questions came up for me, such as— What does it mean to not have access to language, to not feel authentic, and feel like you won’t be able to prove your authenticity to others?  What does linguistic domination of our own stories mean?  What does it mean for how people remember us?  What does it mean for our health and chance of survival in a society that doesn’t let us tell our own stories?

The facilitators asked us to write about a time when we have encountered linguistic domination.  One woman from Russia talked about how certain books, specifically books on Gender Studies, are not being translated into Russian.  She shared how hard it was for her to apply to graduate school in the US with an English language barrier.  Another woman talked about her family attempting to protect her from discrimination by teaching her the imposed language along with the violent colonial ways.  This story made me think about how internalized oppression materializes in our lives and how pervasive it must be when we have very little opportunity to use any other set of words to communicate with each other.  I began thinking about this impacts our daily lives.  Some questions I had were: How are we supposed to feel intelligent when every time we turn around we are being told that we are not using language appropriately?  When do we get to experience the privilege of safety and not have to beg for crumbs?  Are we supposed to really never feel valued in our own experiences? Is English really a privilege?

Next, we got into groups and collectively wrote a poem to reflect some solutions we thought would help us confront this language domination.  In my group, each member shared a few words to make a poem.  My contribution was about resisting shame, the shame that comes from not feeling authentic because I grew up so far from Mexico, not just geographically, but also generationally.  I am a fifth generation Mexicana born and raised on the Southside of Chicago.  Really, it’s a miracle I can speak the language at all.  But that’s my privilege.  I have parents who are bilingual and understood how valuable it would be for my sister and me to also know both Spanish and English.  I have been speaking Spanish my whole life, but I have no family in Mexico that I can visit.  For me, it’s something I feel some in my community could potentially see as a deficit, something that pushes me further away from being part of the community.

This leaves me thinking about privilege and responsibility, in terms of media messages.  Who shapes the public image of those of us in the margins?  Who suffers the consequences of irresponsible speech?  How does dominant culture benefit from silencing us and telling their version of our stories?  What do we need to do to take back out voices?  Media Literacy Project is currently running a responsible speech campaign to examine what are the impacts community faces when the messages in media allows the dominant culture speak for everyone.  We demand healthy digital ecology for low-income, working class, and immigrant communities.  Digital ecology is defined as interactive, multi-disciplinary inquiry of life in an increasingly digitized and technologically mediated environment.  It explores how people interact with, are shaped by, and shape the mechanisms through which we produce, share, receive, archive, and access information, stories, and cultural knowledge.  Digital ecology is rooted in the belief that healthy digital ecosystem is community-based, people-centered, and supportive of political, economic, cultural, and technological justice.

With privilege comes responsibility.  With access comes responsibility.   We each have a voice and it is our duty to make it be heard, no matter how many people or systems have tried to take it away.  We are the ones who need to tell our stories; we are the only ones who can do them justice.  We have been, and continue to be, conditioned to remain passive and silent. We need to move that behavior to our past.  The negative impacts irresponsible speech has on our communities has the potential to not only erase our experiences and realities from history, but also push us further into the margins and away from the agency we have to tell our own stories.  Our future must be filled with our voices and the telling our stories—in any language we want to use.

thanks for reading,


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