Ethnicity Studies · Native American Studies · Writing

The Violence of Language

In the fifth chapter of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza she features, among others, this epigraph:

Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?

— Ray Gywn Smith

In light of my last post, and Zitkala-Ša’s definition of language as a convenience, Anzaldúa’s words offer quite a different perspective. Separated by nearly a century, and located in quite different contexts, the counter-perspectives make a great deal of sense. Yet, both women share similar experiences of beatings for speaking their own languages at school, and both emphasize the political power of language: Zitkala-Ša as she urges her fellow Indian Americans to learn English, and Gloria Anzaldúa as she argues for recognition of the Chicano language and refuses to cater to Anglo needs in her own writing.

Anzaldúa’s text, published first in 1987, asserts the legitimacy of Chicano languages, and, through her discussion of language, equates language with culture. Asserting the legitimacy of a language, then is equated with asserting the rights and humanity of that culture.

When Zitkala-Ša called language a convenience, it may seem to fly in the face of Anzaldúa’s powerful rhetoric. But, for me, their arguments compliment each other. Anzaldúa fiercely declares her right to her language, her right to speak English, Spanish, Chicano, TexMex, whatever she wants and whenever and wherever she wants, and to hell with the Anglo gringos and what they want, and to hell with the dominant culture that denies humanity to anyone with darker skin. Mostly, though, she wants her fellow Chicanos to quit demeaning and degrading themselves, to quit feeling as if they have no self-worth because the Anglos said so. She wants her people to feel pride, to feel worth.

Zitkala-Ša wanted the same thing. When she urged her people to speak whether they had English or not, to speak the words in their heart and not worry about their adequacy, she was basically saying “You are good enough to speak. Your language is good enough to be spoken in front of anyone.”

So, while her words were not as forceful, her message was one of empowerment. For, as she and Anzaldúa both illustrate, taking a person’s speech away is an extreme form of violence.


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