The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Quiara Alegría Hudes: I owe an apology to America’s English learners, starting with my mother

About US is a forum to explore issues of race and identity in the United States. Sign up for the newsletter.

Immigrants and poets. My mom was one, I became the other. Though mass media rarely clumps those groups together I can attest to one common mischief we make: mucking up the English language for the better. We are the linguistic version of “good trouble.” If language seems like a quaint topic amid global crises, remember that the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “#MeToo” galvanized global justice movements. Recall Donald Trump’s permission to a crowd, “We are going to the Capitol,” followed by their violent attack on our seat of democracy. Our words build our world and though we all live that reality, immigrants and poets know it more than most.

As my stage plays and musicals traveled the nation these last two decades, I became hipper to this connection. Though audiences generally embraced the Spanglish flow of my scripts, it is hard to forget the guy demanding a refund at intermission because: “I don’t come to the theater to hear Spickanese.” Or the dude loud-whispering in the row behind me: “This is America, we speak English here.” A light sprinkling of Eh-panish 101 vocab unleashed real xenophobia in those theatergoers, making me retrospectively appreciate my mom’s uphill battle in the face of far worse.

Mom was born into a world of Spanish lullabies and conversations. It was Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and her first glimpse of English came when her grade school class learned the Pledge of Allegiance phonetically, dislocated from the words’ actual meaning. Hers was the Spanish of Ramito songs, Día de los Inocentes parades and old leather-bound tomes in Arecibo’s public library. Those European literary works mingled with the clear and humble Spanish of mom’s elders, while certain schoolteachers — not a ton, but a few — taught Pedro Albizu Campos’s revolutionary language of self-determination.

(Despite their U.S. citizenship, here I use “immigrant” for Puerto Ricans due to the island’s ongoing colonial status, lack of U.S. governmental representation, and distinct languages and cultures.)

I was born into English, a West Philly-North Philly regional hybrid. My West Philly English was informed by the AAVE of my neighbors and was offset by the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Amharic that my friends’ parents spoke. Complementing that, my North Philly English was steeped in Spanglish and its wildly innovative grammatical flexibility. Mine was the English of Whoopi Goldberg VHS tapes, Chuck D fighting the power, HIV prevention pamphlets and KYW Newsradio.

For me, English came easy because it came first. I fancied myself more fluent than my mother, who was not immersed in the language until moving to Philly at 11. Because of my perceived superiority, I corrected her. A lot. Pointing out mispronunciations, noting grammatical missteps. If a figure of speech or idiom had a swapped-out word, I let her know. I corrected her when I was 5 and didn’t know any better. I corrected her when I was 15 and knew.

Even in mature moments when I had the good sense not to school my elder aloud, I did so in the privacy of my mind.

And though I offered these corrections in a loving playful manner, I see now that her own daughter served as yet another reminder — even enforcer — of her outsider status.

I grew up to dedicate my life to language, crafting plays, essays and a memoir primarily in English. For nearly two decades I have written professionally in the English that mom taught me, gaining insight about what makes language melodic, thrilling, evocative and ours.

Knowing what I know, this much is clear: I owe mom an apology.

Because while I learned English, she earned English. She navigated education, childbirth and professional womanhood in a tongue she came by late. While working for state Sen. Hardy Williams, she advised him on legislation headed for Harrisburg’s capitol floor. She created a bilingual community center to get better health outcomes for Latina mothers. Mom made English her own, creatively bending her vocabulary to navigate humble and rarefied spaces. What I perceived as a limitation I retrospectively see as a superpower.

Let me put her “mistakes” in context. She’s hardly the first to innovate through error. In play after play, Shakespeare broke the English language until the OED grew by over a thousand entries. Dwindle? Unsullied? Zany? Howl? We have the Bard to thank for those. The poet E.E. Cummings said to hell with commas, periods and spelling, and his verses made me swoon as I read my 12th grade “Norton Anthology.” Lewis Carroll straight-up faked half the Jabberwocky, and that’s what makes it such a weird, cool poem. “ ‘Twas brillig, was it?” What’s brillig mean again?

Mom’s English — broken and improvised and hybridized — was a vitalizing agent to my own developing ear. I used English so easily that it grew rote and unremarkable, as automatized as a half-forgotten morning commute. Marked and sanctified by her journey, mom’s English held a richness that never took itself for granted.

Here’s an example from my teens. I was fuming after someone called mom a whore. But, laughing, she assured me they had inadvertently complimented her. I couldn’t fathom that so she broke it down: “whore,” en el barrio, is pronounced “ho.” Add an e without changing the pronunciation, and “ho” becomes “hoe.” A hoe is used to break the tired earth, to dig narrow trenches and rejuvenate the soil so that seeds may be planted. “We are not whores,” mom said, “we’re hoes! We plow the land, we plow our reality, we plant seeds of potential. I am hoeing on the potential of my community. I have been hoeing your potential since day one, hija!”

When I hear the word ho now, I am not shamed for my womanhood but reminded of my strength. That mom heard English through different ears than I allowed this delicious morsel of Spanglish feminism.

I have a wish for mom and all parents like her, born into the cadences of different mother tongues than their kids. May they continue breaking English, bestowing it new life with each breaking. Perhaps I am not alone in owing our nation’s English learners an apology. We are enriched by their wild wonderful language. If only we’d listen.

This essay is adapted from Hudes’s memoir, “My Broken Language.” She will talk about growing up between cultures and how her roots shaped her creative voice on January 20 as part of Washington Post Live’s “Race in America” series.

Clarification: This story has been updated with an explanation from the author about why she uses the term “immigrants” to refer to Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens.