Defining an Identity

For the past few hundred years, languages have been rigorously standardized, and variations of languages which deviated from the established, synthetic, and standardized norms of the language were seen as wrong, bad and in need of correction. Due to this rigorous standardization, the language or dialect that a story or poem is written in is often not so much a bold statement – since it can go as unnoticed as the air that someone breathes – as it is the most convenient medium for an author to express themselves. For this reason, writers whose pieces are in multiple languages defy the expectations and assumptions of the monolingual reader, who assumes the uniformity of a piece in single language. These writers push their readers out of the air, and into the water, mixing languages and dialects, forcing the reader to learn a new way to breathe in the mixed medium. Indeed, both Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and Carmen Tafolla’s “La Malinche” use an unconventional mix of English and Spanish as a deliberate and bold maneuver to assert their power and identity as multilingual writers, often pushing the monolingual speaker into a state of discomfort.

To begin, Tafolla starts out her poem, “La Malinche” with a bold assertion of her identity: “Yo soy la Malinche.” I am the Malinche. This opening line asserts her identity in a few ways. Firstly, consider the first word: “yo”, I. This is how she sees herself, in her own identity, by means of her own words. Using the first person “yo” is a defining act, in which she is able to exercise her agency by establishing her own name. Starting the poem in the first person effectively tells the audience the unfiltered version of how she sees herself. Further, it establishes who the voice of the poem belongs to. The narrator views herself as “La Malinche,” where the article “the” establishes that “Malinche” is a not a name in the traditional sense, but a title. Defying standards, the title “la Malinche” is the way she casts herself in her own mind, and is the identity she wishes to live on.

Additionally, this opening line is in Spanish, not English. While the majority of the poem is in English, this first declarative line is in Spanish. This intentional use of a language acts in one way to unsettle the monolingual English reader, forcing them to read in a language they might not fully understand, and in another way to tell the reader what culture la Malinche sees herself belonging to. Indeed, her identity as a Spanish speaker is important enough to start the poem with Spanish words, instead of her native tongue. A very powerful opening line to a very controversial historical topic.

Tafolla then juxtaposes this strong introductory self-assertion of identity with the multitude of identities imposed on her by the various influences of her life. “My people called me Malintzín Tenepal / the Spaniards called me Doña Marina // I came to be known as Malinche/…/ they called me – chingada/… / history would call me / Chingada.” Each of these examples are what others call her.  Agency taken away, this is how she is remembered by others, by those who do not know her, or care to know her. I posit that this poem is an attempt to reclaim the identity of “la Malinche”, and to write a subaltern history, where she is able to finally have her voice heard after lifetimes of being spoken for.

Indeed, looking to the end of the poem, la Malinche effectively reclaims her agency, After finally being able to tell her story as she saw and understood it, with how her family treated her, and her feelings towards Hernán Cortés, la Malinche reclaims her identity. “But Chingada I was not./Not tricked, not screwed, not traitor/For I was not traitor to myself/I saw a dream/and I reached it/… / La raza.” Like bookends holding together important information, she finishes the poem in bold, active-voiced statements, written in the Spanish she identifies so strongly with. This ending reinforces to the reader that la Malinche shows her allegiance to the Spanish, to the language and culture that came and gave her a home, when her own people did not. This ending can even be interpreted as seeing a mix of cultures – “La raza” – as a positive asset to a world which betrayed her and took away her choice and freedoms. Mixing languages is really a power play, and in this poem, the power is in the hands of la Malinche, as she reclaims her identity. It is the job of the reader to catch up, because the writer is not slowing down.

Just like Tafolla wrote in two languages, Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” pushes the boundaries of what the monolingual English speaker would expect. The first sentence under the section “Si le preguntas a mi mama, “Qué eres?” is: “Nosotros los Chicanos straddle the borderlands.” We the Chicanos straddle the borderlands. This declarative answer establishes identity in two ways, just as Tafolla’s introductory statement in “La Malinche” did. Firstly, the mix of English and Spanish within one sentence illustrates that, just like the identities of her people ‘straddle the border’ between the United States and Mexico, Anzaldua’s most natural language choice straddles the border between English and Spanish. Secondly, opening the poem with the first person plural nosotros places Anzaldua’s identity alongside all others who identify as Chicano. This is another statement of identity, and while some may interpret that using nosotros may aim to bury Anzaldua’s identity underneath the identities of others, I believe that using this collective, broader term shows that the identity Chicano is a community, a multitude of people, and Anzaldua identifies with this group; where she finds strength their numbers.

Just as she did in the opening statement of this section, Anzaldua often looks to the people and cultures which surround her to help her find identity as a member of these groups Take, for instance, the paragraph in which she lists the possible identities various members of her family might associate with.

Si le preguntas a mi mama, “¿Qué eres?” te dirá “Soy mexicana.” My brothers and sisters say the same. I sometimes will answer “soy mexicana” and at others will say “soy Chicana” o “soy tejana.” But I identified as “Raza” before I ever identified as “Mexicana” or “Chicana.””

This paragraph itself is a bold assertion of identity. Throughout this paragraph, Anzaldua switches between English and Spanish effortlessly, further demonstrating that her identity lies in between the cultures which English and Spanish represent. She uses Spanish to talk about her mother, and to talk about the different types of groups she associates with. Yet, she uses English to reference her siblings, and to provide further explanation of the different identities she associates with herself. She is just as mixed between two cultures as this paragraph is mixed between two languages.

However, note the group she identifies with most saliently: Raza. This same word that La Malinche uses to look to a mixed future race. While the English translation is merely the word is “race,” a translation which could very easily confuse the monolingual English speaker, the Spanish word Raza carries with it an underlying meaning strongly associated with a self-ascribed identity. This word can be a way of uniting a group of people who do not fit cleanly into one “race” or another, by giving them a new title that is devoid of explicit categorization, like the words “Mexicana” or “Chicana” carry. Using this identifying word, Raza, is a way of exercising agency, of taking identification into one’s own hands, and assigning meaning to the word in a different way than was originally imposed. This is the bold way Anzaldua uses multilingualism to take back power, and assert her identity.

Additionally, this entire paragraph is a clear example of pushing the monolingual English speaker into a state of discomfort and misunderstanding. Anzaldua begins the paragraph speaking of how her mother might reply; and that entire segment regarding her mother is in Spanish. Already, the English speaker is caught off guard, and must work hard to catch up. Then, although she switches to English to speak of how her siblings might reply, the monolingual English speaker has no idea what her brother and sister would “say” the same, since they couldn’t understand how the mother responded initially. Indeed, these simple sentences have the power to push the monolingual speaker into a state of discomfort; if the English speaker doesn’t keep up and understand what Anzaldua is trying to express from the very beginning, then they are at a loss to understand the broader message she is trying to convey, even if the majority of that message is in English.

Ultimately, using multiple languages within one platform is an effective tool to establish identity, and take back power. Both Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and Carmen Tafolla’s “La Malinche” mix English and Spanish to highlight the aspects of their identities which they find most pertinent in defining themselves. The use of the multiple languages is a defiant act, resisting the standardized, unified forms of language, which a monolingual reader has come to be accustomed to expect. Perhaps this act of defiance is part of the reason books like Anzaldua’s Borderlands have been seen as rebellious, and have been banned in some schools across the United States. Yet, language is alive, and knows no boundaries, and will continue to grow, evolve, and mix within literature in years to come.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands: the New Mestiza = La Frontera, Aunt Lute Books, 2012.

Tafolla, Carmen. “La Malinche.” 1978.



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