“Code Switching”: Biracial Identity & Higher Education

Daphne StanfordDaphne Stanford (@TPS_on_KRBX) is a community radio deejay and writer of many things: poetry, essays, and hybrid forms.  She hosts a weekly radio show called “The Poetry Show!” on KRBX, Radio Boise.  Hiking the Boise foothills and engaging in good conversation with friends & family are some of her favorite pastimes.  In this guest post, Daphne reflects on the experience of “code switching” with her family — initially between English and Spanish and, later in life, between academic and non-academic registers.

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I was raised by a mother from Jalisco, Mexico, and a father from Alliance, Ohio. California in the eighties was plagued by naysayers of bilingual education warning of “language confusion,” so my parents, being good Reagan fans and fearing that my brother and I might get “confused” by the presence of both English and Spanish, tried to keep the conversations in the house to English. Not that they had to try very hard. My mother was all about practicing her English: she had been working on it for a while by the time I was old enough to remember, so there were not many opportunities to speak Spanish with her.

I did practice with my grandmother, who lived with us for a while. She was happy to tell me how to say things in Spanish. I remember asking, “¿Como se dice esto?” (How do you say this?), and pointing at various objects in the house. Unlike the grandmother and granddaughter in the children’s story Mango, Abuela and Me, my grandmother was never concerned with learning how to speak English. She never had to. We learned to communicate with her. I learned some vocabulary gradually and awkwardly this way, but it wasn’t until I started taking Spanish classes in high school that I learned to communicate more fluidly—with past and present tense and comprehensive sentence structure.

The only other times I employed Spanish in a home setting was when we visited my uncle’s house. His family spoke Spanish at home and English at school and work. According to my aunt, Tía Abdulia, it would have been preferable for my mother to speak Spanish, rather than English, with us at home to preserve the language. When I started taking Spanish classes I asked my mother to practice with me. But, whenever it came up, she would comment, “Why are you taking Spanish? Take French or German!”

I continued taking Spanish classes through college. There was a notable difference in my mother’s feelings about speaking to me in Spanish after I moved to Portland for school. It became a different way for us to communicate over the phone. The switching into Spanish seemed to bring more closeness and intimacy to our conversations—in terms of both tone and subject matter. While many college students take Spanish because it makes them more competitive in the job market, post-graduation, I continued because I wanted to remain connected to my mother. Although I’d felt keenly stifled by her overprotective instinct as an adolescent, going away to college brought us closer together. I suddenly wanted to learn more about my heritage and was more proud of my mixed ethnicity—perhaps because it carried more cultural capital in college. Other languages meant that I was cosmopolitan and worldly, and that I studied comparative literature!

Juan Felipe Herrera, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, brings this mode of expression to the foreground. In his poetry, he regularly switches between English and Spanish—as in the beginning of “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way”:

Let us gather in a flourishing way
with sunluz grains abriendo los cantos
que cargamos cada día
en el young pasto nuestro cuerpo
para regalar y dar feliz perlas pearls
of corn flowing árboles de vida en las cuatro esquinas
let us gather in a flourishing way
contentos llenos de fuerza to vida
giving nacimientos to fragrant ríos
dulces frescos verdes turquoise strong
carne de nuestros hijos rainbows

Herrera employs entire lines of Spanish throughout the remainder of the poem, allowing English and Spanish to meld, blend, and respond to each other. Although this mode of switching back and forth continuously might seem unnatural to many, this type of linguistic interplay was common at my uncle’s house.

My aunt, uncle, and three cousins regularly spoke Spanish amongst themselves, switching back and forth when my family visited. This was partially by necessity, as my father doesn’t speak Spanish, and my brother knew less than I did. Sometimes my aunt and uncle switched to Spanish when communicating a private directive to one of my cousins, for example, so that it was it was less on display. It was almost as if, as Richard Rodriguez notes in his memoir, Hunger of Memory, Spanish is more of a “private” language than English, for Mexican-Americans, while English becomes the “public” language—to be employed while out on the town or on display for the English-only speaking relatives.

Multiple Ways Of “Code Switching”

After my grandmother moved away, going back and forth between English and Spanish at home was no longer necessary. In fact, I also developed a new form of code switching, changing the register in which I interacted with those around me while speaking English. While at school, I regularly engaged in philosophical conversations about books that I was reading and ideas that I encountered in those books, as well as in my own life. While I was back home from school, however, I suddenly had no one with whom to discuss these ideas. I felt, as Rodriguez often did, like an outsider—someone who didn’t belong in the world of my home town anymore. While the love of family trumps topics of conversation, Chad Nilep echoes this observation of different registers as being analogous to switching between languages. These different types of switching—between registers or between languages—is again connected to the difference between public and private, formal and informal, detached and intimate.

This is similar to Gloria Anzaldúa’s discussion of her “forked tongue” in Borderlands that switches back and forth between English and Spanish in eight different registers and dialects: standard English, working class and slang English, standard Spanish, Standard Mexican Spanish, North Mexican Spanish dialect, Chicano Spanish, Tex-Mex, and Pacheco (or calo). The first time that I came across Anzaldúa’s list of dialects, I felt relieved to recognize some of the different codes that I’d employed, without even realizing it. That there is a difference between “standard English” and “working class English” was news to me. What about the difference between university-speak and home-speak?

Code switching is complicated by the distinction of academic and non-academic worlds because, in addition to different languages, there are different registers. These differing registers amount to different dialects, in a sense. Not only do they employ different language, but both types also necessitate different ways of communicating, such as via body language and reading between the lines. There are certain topics of conversation that are considered more taboo in traditional society—religion and politics being prime examples—whereas intellectual circles are drawn to the analysis of politics and religion as a matter of course. In fact, popular culture itself becomes a subject of discussion—something which is too “meta” for typical dinner conversations in the U.S.

Moving back and forth between different subcultures has made me aware of the self as performative—but also hybridized. However, there’s a sort of existential aspect to performative existence: it’s feeling as though you are watching yourself on a screen, or that you’re constantly starring in a movie about yourself in which you play different roles—depending on the setting or other characters on the screen at any given time. This element of performativity breeds a sense of self-alienation where you never know who you’re most authentic self is. However, perhaps it’s not necessary to identify with one culture over another. Maybe it’s better to adopt, like Anzaldúa, a sort of fluid and ambiguous definition of self—one that is in a constant state of creation. It seems the fate of writers to feel like outsiders, regardless.

In the end, the language that translates the best across experiences and generations is the one that seeks to understand, despite departures and differences in life choices and educational degrees. We can strive for empathy, despite choice of language or life circumstances. That openness, along with patience and generosity, allows for understanding that can bridge words.

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