Fernanda Espinosa is a current OHMA student. In this post, she discusses oral history and language justice in artist Judith Sloan's work.
Can I find justice in my tongue?
In my work as an interpreter, I have often wondered if the act of transmitting ideas into another language can in itself be a tool for change. The principle of "language justice" introduces the intentional effort to challenge the prevalent linguistic and cultural systematic hierarchies that exist in our society in order to create space and inclusion for those whose native language is not the mainstream language (in most cases English) and who are commonly left out of dialogues unless they participate through the dominant tongue.
Just spaces of diverse cultural and linguistic interactions are precisely what oral historian, educator, performer and audio artist Judith Sloan is able to achieve through her collaborative projects with immigrants from all over the world. In addition to being an educator in Queens, Sloan has received awards for her audio mixes, radio documentaries and work with various musicians integrating storytelling, acting, sampling and multiple languages into symphonic pieces, live performance with actors and musicians, and radio (see EarSay, for complete Bio).
Although the concept of language justice is generally considered to be an approach within multilingual environments - usually by making a conscious effort to provide interpretation and translation - Sloan’s work is a great example of other ways in which this principle can be realized by carving out spaces for immigrants to experience their entire selves and even celebrate their identities and struggles.
In Spanish, the translation for "miss"- as in "I miss my avocado tree;" as in "I miss my mother;" as in "I miss the smell of home"- is the term extraño. Interestingly, when textually translating the term extraño back into English the word becomes stranger. Let’s illustrate that.
I miss you = Te extraño = I stranger
Expression in English --> Contextual translation to Spanish --> Reverse textual translation
This can seem confusing to people who don’t commonly navigate between different languages and cultures. Rather, it is complicated, like the interaction of our identities are when we constantly think and witness the world around us in multiple languages. Navigating these complex borders within ourselves can feel like one part of our identity has to displace other parts in order to survive. This identity we are now having to take on in a new country is like a stranger (an alien, perhaps) who’s taken over our body for us to be able to exist in the public sphere. Think of it this way: when a person has recently migrated and has been drastically inserted into a completely different reality from what they are accustomed to, they are suddenly having to think, speak, and act in a language and culture they have not experienced before; it can be very exhausting.
During her October 8th “Oral History and Cross-Cultural Dialogues: Building Bridges with Artistic Projects” talk, Judith Sloan spoke about some of her theater workshops with new immigrant youth in Queens. In one instance during a theater class she described, all the students were distracted and tired. They had not even began to memorize their lines for their final performance. So she did something different from what was planned instead: she listened to one of her students say she was tired of having to speak in English, mentally and physically. Here is the radio piece, which is also one of the elements of her Yo Miss! performance.
One of the most original aspects of Judith’s work is her approach to oral history. In a way, it’s quite obvious. Oral history can be a powerful method to stop being strangers and begin to understand others in their own terms. She does not stop there though. She then takes that knowledge to the public sphere through collaborations via different media such as radio, theater, and print. These then become spaces of justice as part of a collective consciousness by performing them for a wide audience.
The following animation is an example of another one of these spaces, this time via YouTube, The interview is part of the beautiful Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America cross-media project. The narrator is Eugene Hütz, leader of the New York based band Gogol Bordello speaking about globalization:
Even while I write this blog post I struggle to find words strange to my tongue to express these dualities. Talvez lo debía haber escrito en mi idioma. But then, would it even be part of this conversation? Before writing anything in English I always need to have my online Spanish-English-Spanish dictionary ready. While I navigate that - now familiar - book of words I also wonder if this means I’m not “educated” or “smart” enough to participate in these dialogues. Or if in an effort to let my first “me” survive, I have unconsciously resisted my complete globalization.
If you chose the latter option, then you have begun to understand why the spaces that educators and artists like Judith Sloan have elevated are essential for our preservation, survival, and growth.