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Literature in exile: Keeping the Spanish language alive

Writers at the 3rd Annual Hispanic Book Festival of Virginia spoke on the importance of maintaining the Spanish language as a medium of creative expression. 

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Time and again, the question as to what language should be spoken in America is brought up, with certain people insisting on only speaking English.

But these days, the pull to remember one’s origins is too strong to ignore.

On April 13, George Mason University hosted the 3rd Annual Hispanic Book Festival of Virginia, where the dominant language was Spanish, not English. Writers who came to speak included Sofía Estévez, Ofelia Montelongo, Carlos Parada, and other authors who carry with them the literary spark that transcends any and all borders.

The writers who presented their works expressed their creativity in Spanish, although many are fully proficient in English as well. Listening to the speakers speak their written words into existence, certain sounds lingered, such as “perlas falsas,” or the Spanish-toned version of the word “Washington.”

Their stories are founded on a sense of confidence in the narratives that highlight the microcosms of everyday life, but also reveal, at times, sadness and even the occasional tear.

No matter what spectrum of the emotional life is expressed, the boundaries between speakers and audience were dissolved. These writers’ words resonated with the Spanish speakers in the audience in rather profound ways – provoking laughter in one moment, while at another moment, heartfelt applause, which indicated how deeply the poetry spoke to them. Questions were encouraged, but so were “comments.”

The organizer of the event, Hemil Garcia Linares, said that he started the annual festival at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia.

“I love literature,” he said as his explanation for beginning this festival, though his passion for books wasn’t the only reason for the effort. He considers himself an “emerging” writer, and the festival was a way for him and other “emerging writers” to have a space to read their writings.

He contrasts the situation with those writers whose works are published under big publishing houses — neither he, nor the other writers who came to speak on Saturday, have reached that level of literary success.

“They need a space – I need opportunities,” he said.

The exposure these writers receive thanks to the festival not only benefits the writers themselves, but provides something new for the audience as well. One member of the audience asked about the possibility of their works being accessible in a Maryland library, where her daughter is currently studying.

The decision to express themselves in Spanish is a tacit statement about who these authors are, what their cultural identities are, and how they think it is best to express themselves. While it is true that writers such as Martivón Galindo can easily talk about American cultural references, such as the soap opera “Dynasty,” and the late Hugh Hefner, she hasn’t forgotten her mother and her grandmother, nor does she shy away from tangos and rancheros.

One member of the audience stood out from the rest – a Sri Lankan man presented had crossed “the linguistic barrier” and spoke Spanish comfortably. His example proved that Spanish isn’t only for those who have roots in Spanish-speaking countries, but can be more mainstream than it currently is in America.

In fact, Spanish is more widely accepted in American culture than many have thought. The Library of Congress has a Hispanic Reading Room, which encourages research endeavors “related to the Caribbean, Latin America, Spain and Portugal.” It also covers the “Luso-Hispanic heritage,” regarding Latinos in the U.S., but also other people who live in other parts of the globe.

Hemil Garcia Linares, writing the “Prólogo” in the anthology “Mirando al Sur, antología desde el exilio,” explains why the preservation of the Spanish language is so important to those who emigrate from Spanish-speaking countries to the United States: The writers are inside the United States, but are also, in a sense, outside of the country. These exiled people connect with each other through writing in the Spanish language.

The use of Spanish, Hemil Garcia Linares writes, is also a form of resistance to the historical trend, where by the third generation, various languages are no longer spoken amongst the descendants of immigrants that include people from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and countless other countries.

The questions that emerge are the following: If Spanish bucks the trend in American life and is still going strong in American landscapes, what message does that send to immigrants from other countries? Can they truly pass on their languages to their American-born children?

The other lingering question is: With these emerging writers making their voices heard in an American university setting, does that mean that the American literary canon can change?

The possibility for change exists, but it doesn’t depend on one person or a small group of people. The potential for change can only occur if enough people believe in its necessity and can come to a consensus.

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