I first heard about My Broken Language, published in April of this year, while listening to NPR in the car with my dad on the way home from some jaunt or other around my native suburban Delaware. As Marty Moss-Coane’s soothing voice introduced the memoir by Pulitzer-Prize-winning, self-described “word woman” Quiara Alegría Hudes–of In the Heights fame–my interest piqued. Fresh off writing a senior thesis for Sociology on Latinx identity, I was captivated by Hudes’ story: a half-Jewish Philly Rican trying to navigate all the complexities of her intricate identities.
Experiences like Hudes’ were the reason I had settled on my chosen thesis topic in the first place. As a half-Italian Latina from the greater Philadelphia area myself (Delaware counts!), I wanted to know what makes a Latino Latino, especially for those of us who are ethnically and/or racially mixed. My Broken Language, much like my thesis, never provides a definitive answer to this question. However, Hudes’ journey of self-exploration–narrated over the course of just 313 pages–is guaranteed to deepen readers’ understanding of the interrogative and help them come to terms with the fact that, frustrating as it may be to hear, a hard-and-fast answer probably doesn’t exist.
For most of her life, Hudes flowed between what she calls her English and Spanish worlds, splitting time between her American-Jewish father and Afro-Puerto Rican mother, who separated when she was young.
Language is, as the title would suggest, the main theme of the memoir. However, the way that Hudes details its connection to belonging and personal identity is beautiful and unique. For most of her life, Hudes flowed between what she calls her English and Spanish worlds, splitting time between her American-Jewish father and Afro-Puerto Rican mother, who separated when she was young. SEPTA rides from multicultural North Philly to “monolingual, pale” Malvern, PA gave her time to not only switch languages, but also modulate her personality and mannerisms in order to ensure optimal conformity in either place. Unfortunately, doing so came at a high price: ignoring or suppressing an entire half of her cultural identity around people who should have helped her love and celebrate both sides.
Hudes describes how even before her parents’ separation, her father never learned Spanish. As a result, growing up, Spanish was a secret (and sacred) thing, spoken by Hudes and her mother only in private or when visiting her extended Puerto Rican family. This severance of English and Spanish would continue as Hudes’ father went on to marry her stepmother Sharon, a racist, though soft-spoken, mistress-turned-housewife who banned any talk of Hudes’ Perez side and who alongside Hudes’ father preached the now debunked culture of poverty theory.
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As a young girl, Hudes found it powerful and exciting to have a special language, threaded with Lukumí and Yoruba words, to use with a particular set of vibrant people. Nevertheless, she came to learn that being made to hide Spanish–and, by extension, the Afro-Puerto Rican traditions tied to its use–was reflective of a larger national attitude towards Latinos. In the 80s and 90s, integration didn’t mean fusing identities, but rather taking steps to mitigate the White American population’s discomfort with difference, even within multicultural families. As a Gen Z’er (is that where ‘99 babies fall now?), I was disappointed to find that I was still able to relate so closely to the sadness, confusion, and frustration Hudes expressed at having one half of her family and her culture looked down upon by a country that she considers to be her own.
Hudes doesn’t shy away from discussing controversial or heavy topics, probably because of the profound impact they had on her life and the lives of her loved ones. Her mother, Virginia Sanchez, was a barrio activist who co-founded the now defunct Casa Comadre, an organization dedicated to helping women in need primarily with issues of reproductive health. Sanchez schooled Hudes on Latino infant mortality rates, AIDS’ effect on Latinas, and the forced sterilization campaigns perpetrated by the U.S. government against low-income Puerto Rican women from the 1930s through the 1970s, of which Hudes’ own grandmother was a victim.
…she came to learn that being made to hide Spanish–and, by extension, the Afro-Puerto Rican traditions tied to its use–was reflective of a larger national attitude towards Latinos.
However, despite being a voice for her community, Sanchez found it difficult to talk about the three members of Hudes’ family who (likely) died of AIDS, as well as other family members and friends who lived HIV-positive. In various instances throughout the book, Hudes reflects on how such a fierce advocate for sexual health as her mother could still be affected by the AIDS stigma. With these stories of her mother’s work as well as of her own student activism in the HIV/AIDS space, Hudes thoughtfully and honestly demonstrates the dangers of silence: of a lack of language.
Another kind of language-lack that forms a hearty portion of My Broken Language is the experience of missing the vocabulary necessary to accurately express ideas and thoughts, especially regarding spirituality. With a “hippie” atheist father, a Catholic grandmother, and a santera mother, Hudes grew up with a variety of spiritual influences, but Santería was the faith that most commanded her attention. As she describes, it could sometimes be off-putting, embarrassing, or scary, but it was always mesmerizing and powerful. Hudes takes us through her journey of understanding Santería, from constantly asking her mother about its orishas and rituals as a young girl, to studying the religion from an academic standpoint as a teenager, to finally composing a magnum opus salsa musical grounded in santero practices at Yale. All of this was a journey of language as much as anything else as Hudes slowly found ways to articulate her personal religious views, and gave meaning to the words and practices she had grown up with all her life.
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Language is also important to Hudes’ memoir on a meta-level, as a narrative tool. She cleverly writes in Spanglish, incorporating Spanish words into this English narrative for an English-speaking audience without much of the usual quotes or italicization used to draw attention to foreign words. The net effect is an extra air of authenticity; far from “code-switching,” the balance between the two languages–as well as the integration of North Philly vernacular into this prose by an accomplished Yale graduate–reads as natural.
The imagery used throughout the book is likewise incredible. Every place and character is brought to life with metaphors and descriptions that for all their creativity and originality come across as understated and sincere. It’s easy to picture Hudes’ stepfather Sedo trying a cold Coke in a glass bottle for the first time in the small Puerto Rican mountain town of Barranquitas, to feel the lazy heat of a summer afternoon spent napping in the car in the Six Flags parking lot, to hear wooden spoons banging on copper pots and cousins crooning to the radio as they salsa-step around the kitchen table, filling their plates with arroz con gandules. Hudes knows just what combinations of words to use for maximum visual and emotional effect, and she shows within her story how bodies, movement, and physical touch form a language unto themselves.
“Latinidad in a nutshell: die loving,” Hudes writes candidly in reference to Bachata Rosa, the Juan Luis Guerra album she and her cousins listened to on repeat one summer until the tape melted. This is perhaps the closest Hudes gets to answering that pesky question of what makes a Latino Latino: to live and die loving, though as Hudes also shows, there’s so much more. In my opinion, My Broken Language, while a memoir, is right up there with the likes of The House on Mango Street and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents–a must-read for anyone learning to love and take pride in a piece of themselves that the world isn’t yet ready to embrace.