We have never been called spics by people who actually enjoy our company.
Never in high school, never in college, never at work.
White people who used the word used it with intention. Or they were trying to be cool with their Latino friends by tossing out truth: Ah, but you aren't one of those. You're the good Puerto Rican. Ah, you silly spic, we like you anyway man. And we quickly passed them the memo: We don't know what a spic is. And by the way, screw you.
We didn't hear it from other Latinos. We didn't inoculate ourselves against its weight by hollering it from our cars, or our hallways, or our windows. In our homes, our parents never used it. Because our parents were chased by it, had it bounced off their skulls, found a fist at the end of it. Because we knew better. Because we were taught better.
We don't use the word because it's a throwback with no resale value. It is bankrupt. It is wack. It's the kind of word that conjures the cops from West Side Story. We will admit to the acronym: Spanish People in Charge. Yes, we still claim John Leguizamo. But we didn't use it for identifier, salve, naming, or renaming. We didn't invent it like we invented Nuyorican, Xicano, Latino. It was invented for us, like slavery and colonialism was invented for us. And we reject it.
Thanks, but we have our own names. We have our own stories, and we have survived every attempt to make us disappear. And because we won't disappear, our kids often prefer to call themselves Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or Cuban or Mexican or Ecuadorian. Guatemalan. Honduran. Latino. Latino-Americano. Americano. American.
But not spic. Not now. Not ever.
Why do I have to remind you of this?
The end of days is not coming because Manny Xavier decided to host a series for Museo Del Barrio called "Spic Up, Speak Out." The poets who have taken part in the series over the last couple of years will not have their cool cards revoked, or cease to be good artists. But the reactions to the naming of this poetry series, coupled with the last day or two of responses to a New York Times article by David Gonzalez, has revealed a series of interesting divides, generational and otherwise, in attitudes about the word "spic" itself. And it reveals a troublesome tendency toward double standards, double talk, insensitivity, and cultural amnesia surrounding both the power of language, art, and the purposes for which we create both.
In the first of two Facebook notes in response to the Times article, a note entitled "Reflections of a Queer Spic," Manny Xavier writes the following.
However you feel about the word, "spic" is taking on great momentum. The reality is that people use it. Not just 'back in the day' but today as well.
Interesting word, "reality," que no? I'm not sure what reality Manny's talking about, but it is not mine, and it is not the reality of anyone my age.
Now, having said that, if there's a book detailing the instances of the word's usage among young people, or a scholarly study of some sort, a survey, a Quinnipiac University poll, I'd surely like to hear it. I didn't come across any in the two days or so I gave myself to write this essay. So instead, I've attempted to define reality with an admitted logical fallacy: I went and asked my homies about it. Teachers, since they interact with kids the most. People my age who grew up with the word. A few writers and bloggers. All Latino or Latina. I figure it couldn't be worse than a blanket statement about reality.
Teacher and blogger Jose Vilson was the first to respond to my query. "Not at all," he said, when I asked him if the word "spic" was in common usage with his kids. "It's mostly the n-word," he reminded me.
Alexa Muñoz, who teaches in Washington Heights, when asked if fellow Latinas had ever called her a spic growing up: "Not to my face."
Lorraine Maldonado, my former classmate who is now a registered nurse in New Jersey, answered the question this way. "Nope, only the white kids called me a spic. Little bastards."
"It was typically only ever used by ignorant people or racist folks," said Raymond Daniel Medina, a poet and musician who spent his formative years in South Carolina. "It has never seemed an acceptable or respectful term. And almost never used by anyone remotely Hispanic."
Nikki Roman, a wife and mother to two daughters, seemed to prove Mr. Xavier correct. At first. "I hear some people calling themselves spics. Same way some people call themselves or people they know a nigga." But when I told her there was a poetry show called Spic Up, and that the organizers claim the word is in vogue, she responded, "Just because everyone is doing it doesn't make it okay. How often do you hear white people calling each other cracker?"
And finally, blogger and freelance writer Monika Fabian put this fine point on it: "To me, the event name was an uninspired wordplay; and an unfortunate & unnecessary attempt at reclaiming a comatose epithet."
(It should be noted that no one in this highly unscientific sampling was older than 36 years of age. The youngest was 26. This should, hopefully, come as some comfort to the poet Julio Marzán. Some of us young bucks have some institutional memory and consciousness after all.)
People are using the word, and increasingly, says Xavier. What people? White people? Young people? Latino people? I don't use it. Do you use it? Did I miss the memo? Were we supposed to apply that name to our friends and our neighbors and to elders, and to artists? Were we supposed to say yes to naming our poetry after it? Why? To bring people to a museum? To attract a crowd? To get our names in The New York Times? To battle publicly about this? I thought we just put a Boricua on the Supreme Court. I thought we just put a Boricua WOMAN on the Supreme Court. Who parked the time machine in front of El veinte y tres? (Who understood that reference?) When did I land in Fort Apache the Bronx?
Words don't retain power simply because they have definitions and redefinitions. Words, like tools, only have power when they are used in context. I'm for letting dead words, useless words, words that work violence, stay dead.
Xavier, in the Times article, also says the following:
“Look at everything we have done and accomplished. And it is a play on the word. We are speaking out our truths and identities in very perfect English.”
Except that the show's play on words, and this unfortunate quote, plays precisely into the word's original etymology. To "spic" English improperly is to speak with a Spanish accent. And the epithet "spic," in its original context, was a word used to separate, discriminate, and commit violence against people whose English was less than perfect (at least in the UnitedStatesian paradigm). Xavier falls precisely into this faulty thinking, however unintentionally, by suggesting that only those Latinos who now speak in very perfect English have the right to speak out, and reclaim this dead epithet as their own.
"The allusion to 'perfect English' appears to be a subscription to the teleological belief that unaccented English is somehow necessary or superior or legitimizing," added Mr. Medina in an email. "There are communities of poets (and people in general) who write and perform in English and Spanish, with varying degrees of accent and dialect. Poetry, language, activism are all human tools – human traits. So long as they are understood, they are perfect to their cause."
Bottom line: It was a thoughtless word choice on the part of Mr. Xavier, and it was a thoughtless word choice by the organizers of this show. And this seeming thoughtlessness, this ex post facto explanation for the title of a public program that has been running at El Museo since 2008, is the reason why people like me have now chosen to speak out.
And so has Ray Medina. "Despite any rights to those descriptors I might claim," he writes, "I will not use them save in referential or historical context. I do not use them casually because I know what they mean, and more importantly, I know what they might mean to someone else hearing or reading them."
From Xavier's Facebook note:
"As one of my fellow Latino writers said, '...for many it’s an act of constructing an identity outside of those people who have a different relationship with the word. It’s an act of independence from others’ fears and anxieties. And, no, many of us won’t like it, but we can’t stop it. I see that event at El Museo last night as an effort to give that word context and substance, not just voice and visibility.'"
[Xavier later attributed the quote to poet Rigoberto Gonzalez.]
If we are to accept these statements at face value, then we'd have to accept several premises. Chiefly, though: a) that the show was meant to spark debate about the word "spic," and b) there actually should be further context and substance around the word itself.
Was the show's original aim a linguistic one? A reclaiming? A challenge? A quick search of El Museo's website for the November 21st event turns up a splashy flyer for the show, Xavier's picture, a list of performers, and the following statement about the show:
About this Series:
Recognizing the power and influence of the spoken word in New York City, El Museo del Barrio provides established and emerging Latino/a poets with a platform for expressions; and El Museo's audiences with some of the hottest word wizardry in town. Spic Up!/Speak Out! features an exciting line-up of urban poets who have voiced their minds in speakeasies and clubs around the city. Each evening is organized and hosted by a guest poet. After the performance, the audience is encouraged to grab the mic and speak up!
Another internet search reveals a 2008 entry from El Museo's staff blog featuring a video of Xavier and a similar promo for Spic Up's April 2008 installment:
SPIC UP! Speak out! Latino Spoken Word Open Mic
Saturday April 19, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
In celebration of National Poetry Month, Def Poetry's Emanuel Xavier curates and hosts an evening celebrating the many contributions of Latino/a spoken word artists to the poetry scene. Stepping up to the mic, together for one night: Def Poetry on Broadway's Lemon; Def Poetry's Rachel McKibbens; El David; True; and special musical guest, DGuevaras. Featured performances will be immediately followed by a Latino/a open mic hosted by Emanuel Xavier.
In neither page is there any mention of the word "spic" aside from the title. No attempt to deal with the word's history. No intellectual engagement with the community actually affected by the word. No panels. No Q&A's. No specific reckoning with the epithet, or the promise of any reckoning. The only promise made was for "the hottest word wizardry" for El Museo's audience, and "an exciting line-up of urban poets."
So how did this event morph from piping hot wizardry to an intellectual exercise in context and substance?
Here's what we do know. When poet Edwin Torres approached fellow poet Aracelis Girmay about appearing in the show, Girmay did not hesitate (despite her relatively tender age) to refuse a spot in the show, owing to the title of said show. An email exchange between the participants and organizers followed, and Torres agreed, with a degree of reluctance, to remain on board. A chapbook of work from the show's participants was distributed at the event, and it included the email exchange in question. Meanwhile, Girmay's story appeared in the Times, and Torres publicly pondered his participation in the event in a blog for the Poetry Foundation. And here we are now, resurrecting terminologies.
Curiously enough, once The New York Times picked up the story, once a poet decided she would not be involved with the show, once people began expressing their indignation at the show title, various displays of pride ensued, and various victories were claimed. El Museo Del Barrio was, according to its director, Julian Zugazagoitia, "proud and excited to act as a platform for all of these issues to be discussed." Manny Xavier proudly proclaimed on his Facebook page that he was featured on Page A15, for some controversy surrounding the show. And the crowd, as they say in showbiz, went wild. The place was packed on Saturday night. And I found myself in a hotel room in Philadelphia, answering various emails about how this show happened in the first place, and answering two friends about the utility of public debate.
Another way to say it is, those of us who were home sulking missed out on the opportunity to engage ourselves in an internal struggle about using the word spic to sell poetry.
While we're in the linguistics business here, there's another word I'd like to define. Serendipity (n.): the effect by which one accidentally stumbles upon something fortunate, especially while looking for something entirely unrelated.
That must be it. Serendipity. Adjective: Serendipitous. As in: How serendipitous for El Museo Del Barrio to simultaneously create controversy AND provide the platform to solve it. See also: Dumb luck. Irony. Related word: Complicity.
We're here to talk language. We're here to deconstruct, debate, discuss. We're poets. That's what we do. So let's do it.
In the second of two notes reacting to the Times article, entitled "A Few More Reflections of a Queer Spic," Manny Xavier says the following:
It was El Museo del Barrio which came up with the title for the event, "SPIC UP! SPEAK OUT!" I had no issues with the title as I understood the context it was being used in for a spoken word poetry series. I use the word myself within the context of my poetry as a Latino artist for the same reason it was being considered by an "institution which prides itself as being the leading voice in Latino art.
I can only suspect that Martín Espada used it for the same reason he titled one of his poems, "Beloved Spic." I can only speculate that Willie Perdomo titled one of his poems, "Nigger Rican Blues," to challenge a word often used to demean him as an individual...
Here's the complete text of Martín Espada's "Beloved Spic."
--Valley Stream, Long Island 1973
Here in the new white neighborhood,
the neighbors kept it pressed
inside dictionaries and Bibles
like a leaf, chewed it for digestion
after a heavy dinner,
laughed when it hopped
from their mouths like a secret,
whispered it as carefully as the answer
to a test question in school,
bellowed it in barrooms
when the alcohol
made them want to sing.
So I saw it
spraypainted on my locker and told no one,
found it scripted in the icing on a cake,
touched it stinging like the tooth slammed
into a faucet, so I kept my mouth closed,
pushed it away crusted on the coach's lip
with a spot of dried egg,
watched it spiral into the ear
of a disappointed girl who never sat beside me again,
heard it in my head when I punched a lamp,
mesmerized by the slash oozing
between my knuckles,
and it was beloved
until the day we staked our lawn
with a sign that read: For Sale.
What's missing from the poem is present in El Museo's marketing campaign to Latino spoken word artists. Like a missing tooth and the threat of a missing tooth, the word "spic" is absent from the text yet present in our heads. We are hit with the word in the title and forced to deal with its echo in the poem: the pronoun "it." This is not unlike how people of color deal with blunt racism and its softshoe postracial resonance. But Martín is not reclaiming the word, or using it in the title lightly. He's not selling books with it. He's not interested in using it in everyday speech. He's rejecting it out of hand. And had anyone bothered to ask Martín, he would have rejected the title Spic Up, too.
Here's an excerpt from Perdomo's "Nigger Rican Blues."
I'm a Spic!
I'm a Nigger!
Spic! Spic! No different than a Nigger!
Neglected, rejected, oppressed and disposessed
From banana boats to tenements
Street gangs to regiments
Spic! Spic! I ain't nooooo different than a Nigger.
I've quoted the end of the poem here. The piece stakes some heavy ground in the
weight and history of both the words "spic" and "nigger." But this is a statement of condition, not a reclamation; a lament or a resignation, not a celebration. Perdomo's dual-identified speaker (Black and Latino) does challenge the terminology but is not particularly glad to be to naming his condition of double oppression, nor does he implicitly accept the epithets. He is neglected, rejected, dispossessed. Does Perdomo use the word? Yes. Does he use it because he thinks it should used on a regular basis? Or to name a poetry show after it? I doubt it.
The only context these poems provide for the epithets named is righteous indignation at their continued use. The context provided for the spic epithet by the event at Museo Del Barrio is hot wizardry and urban poetry. They are not the same contexts. The Museo is a publicly funded, community founded, arts institution. The use of the epithet by the organizers of Spic Up, Speak Out should be challenged. Not just challenged. Eliminated. Would the community stand idly by if the Studio Museum of Harlem resurrected the N-word to promote the appearance of poets at their establishment, even if its use is prevalent? What if it was the Whitney Museum? Or the Metropolitan? Do we want Latino art in any way associated with a word that could be used to do violence to Latino artists, or Latinos in general?
Xavier, again quoting Gonzalez:
"'We will continue to intellectualize the use of the word. The fact of the matter is it exists and thrives outside of our conversations and email exchanges. Art is a reflection of our communities and not the other way around. May we continue to write and sing and dance, but never silence.'"
In the 1970's, the poet and translator Jack Agüeros put a vision into the world and brought it to fruition. A museum, Jack reckoned, should not be an inaccessible place to regular people, to the non-elite. El Barrio, la gente, needed a safe space for its artists and its residents to enjoy art without the permission of the establishment.
Martín Espada, a longtime friend of Jack's, describes Agüeros' tenure at the institution in his essay "Blessed Be The Truth Tellers."
From 1977 to 1986, Agüeros was Executive Director of the Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. He invigorated the institution, assembling an impressive collection of carved wooden saints from Puerto Rico, providing space to local Puerto Rican artists and writers, and organizing an annual Three Kings' Day Parade in the barrio, complete with sheep and camels. This position also ended in controversy, as Agüeros was forced out of the Museo by arts administrators at the New York State Council for the Arts and the Mayor's Office, who saw him as a political threat.
The parade exists to this day, despite the persistent threat of budget cuts.
Martín's father, the photographer Frank Espada, has spent a lifetime documenting the lives of Puerto Ricans throughout the diaspora. He spent many years in the Puerto Rican community as an organizer and a leader of the civil rights movement. He was also on El Museo's board during Agüeros' tenure. Frank's recollections are a vital part of the poet's task: to serve as memory for the citizens, culture, and institutions that they find themselves a part of. Frank might not call himself a poet, but he has accomplished the poet's job.
Of the Spic Up Event, Frank Espada had this to say:
Not being a recent resident (we left in '73, best move I've ever made), I fail to understand how this shameful event was allowed to happen.
Risking sounding like an old fart, we would have stopped it cold, by hook or crook. And Jack would have been the first over the barricades.
So, as I asked another friend, 'Where is the Puerto Rican leadership?' His answer: 'What leadership?'
Even typing this shameful epithet in the same sentences as these two towers of our community fills me with an unspeakable rage. But it must be spoken. Have we gone mad? Has El Museo, have poets and cultural workers, strayed so far from their purposes as to disregard the physical scars of the generation that put these institutions in place, in the first place? Manny Xavier tells us, "We must write for the future, not the past." No. We will write for a future where words mean things. No art, Latino-centered, or otherwise, will succeed unless it is conscious of the universal, the infinite, the best of human understanding and knowledge. The work of our elders, the cultural work and struggle accomplished in the faces of those babbling words like "spic," is the best we have to offer as human beings. This we must honor, and it is right to point out wrongs, no matter who is doing the wrong.
Art is a reflection of our communities. Yes. Absolutely. But I submit that this showboating exhibition passing for art reflects neither Latinos, nor spoken word, nor Latino poetry and literature, nor any of the communities that a poet named Jack Agüeros built El Museo to service. The title "Spic Up" was not an intellectual exercise in 2008, and it did not become one until the summer of 2009, when another poet rejected the term outright.
All Latinos, all people, regardless of ethnicity, need to be cognizant of the power of language, in a way that the organizers of this event failed to be. No public program of El Museo Del Barrio...the neighborhood's museum...should ever possess the word "spic." At the end of the day, the argument here is not about words on a flyer, or exciting the patrons of an arts organization trying to stay in touch with what it perceives as its community. And to be perfectly honest, it's not really servicing the public's need for art by Latinos that moves or inspires. This is about common human decency. The word spic is not a rallying point. It wasn't so "back in the day," and it is not so now. Where it continues to gasp for breath, let us not throw it a lifeline by rendering our elders mute and hiding behind false intellectualism, privilege, or artistic license.
Here's the mission statement for the Acentos reading series in the Bronx, which was founded in March of 2003 by Oscar Bermeo and Sam "Fish" Vargas: "The Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase is a twice-monthly reading series showcasing nationally recognized Latino/a writers alongside emerging voices in a setting that stimulates open dialogue and an increased sense of community."
The reading series has since evolved into a writers' workshop at Hostos Community College. I came on board shortly after the reading series came into existence, and I've been working with Fish, Oscar, and a host of dedicated volunteers, patrons, and Latino/a poets from around the nation ever since.
We've organized these kinds of readings before. We brought in 33 Latino and Latina poets to read before a full auditorium at Hunter College in February 2008. Our anniversary shows routinely challenged the fire codes at the various clubs we found ourselves in. We've hosted panels, read, and lectured to students and audiences alike. We are organizing a Latino poets' festival at Hostos Community College in April of 2010. Never once did we have to insult our audiences or our patrons, or risk anyone's wrath, by stapling the word "spic" to our flyers.
I'm not saying this because I need you to know we exist. The communities we need to sustain us know about us and support us. We write for them. It is in that vein that I am calling on El Museo Del Barrio to end the disgraceful practice of naming a poetry series with a hateful epithet. The museum's management and the reading's organizers do not understand why this furor is coming down on them now. They have no further excuses. The problem confronting us now is not just about a word. It is about honoring what came before us and mentoring a new generation of writers to move beyond the language of violence and into the language of creativity without permission.
I urge everyone reading this piece to do what communities do: spread the word. Demand that El Museo cease using the word "spic" in its marketing, its programming, and its attempts to reach communities of Latino writers. Write to their director. Write to their board members and corporate sponsors. Write. They must listen. And if they will not, then we will do what our forbears did: We will leap the barricades.