How to Tame a Wild Tongue

by Gloria Anzaldúa

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Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974

“How to Tame a Wild Tongue” begins as the author, Gloria Anzaldúa, sits in a dentist’s chair as metal is removed from her mouth. The dentist reprimands her multiple times for the erratic movements her tongue is making, for “pushing out the wads of cotton, pushing back the drills, the long thin needles.” It is from the dentist’s frustration that the titular premise arises: “How do you tame a wild tongue?”

Anzaldúa recollects a time she got in trouble for speaking Spanish at school during recess. This memory manifests others: the time she got in trouble for correcting her teacher on how to pronounce her name; the time she was required to take speech classes in order to get rid of her Mexican accent; and the time her mother expressed concern that Anzaldúa speaks English like a Mexican. Anzaldúa argues, “Attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment.”

Anzaldúa explores the judgmental idioms concerning speech and language she heard frequently as a child, such as “Flies don’t enter a closed mouth.” She comments that she has never heard these sayings spoken to men.

The narrator expresses feeling shock over hearing the word “nosotras” for the first time, a feminized version of the word “nosotros” meaning “we.” She criticizes the Spanish language for “robb[ing]” females by burying them beneath “the masculine plural.” She concludes that “Language is a male discourse.”

Apart from feeling reprimanded for speaking Spanish, Anzaldúa explains that many Spanish speakers accuse other native Spanish speakers of “speaking the oppressor’s language by speaking English.” She explores the pressures she has felt from both sides of this divide. Even further, Anzaldúa explains the criticism she comes up against when using Chicano Spanish, a “border tongue which developed naturally” that many Latinos and Latinas consider “a mutilation of Spanish.”

Chicano Spanish, Anzaldúa explains, is a language created by a people who feel they possess dual identities. These people “are not Anglo” yet live in a place where “English is the reigning tongue.” Speakers of Chicano Spanish “cannot entirely identify with standard Spanish nor standard English.” Anzaldúa concludes that she belongs to a class of people who “speak a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages.”

Anzaldúa goes on to explain the eight variations of the languages spoken by Chicanos. Each variation is motivated by geography and occupation, such as the North Mexican Spanish dialect springing from Mexican immigrants, as well as standard and working-class English springing from Anzaldúa’s experiences with “school, the media, and job situations.”

Anzaldúa expands on the final variation she names, “Pachuco,” which she describes as a “language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English.” She proceeds to introduce the reader to various words created for Pachuco, such as “ruca” for “girl or woman,” “vato” for “guy or dude,” and “chale” for “no.” Pachuco was created from both English and Spanish slang words.

Speakers of Chicano Spanish, Anzaldúa explains, pronounce certain words quite differently from Standard Spanish speakers. For example, Anzaldúa writes that Chicanos “leave out certain consonants when they appear between vowels” and “use ‘archaisms’” that were used by Spaniards from Medieval Spain. Because Chicano is so untraditional, Anzaldúa explains that many of its speakers have “internalized the belief that [they] speak poor Spanish.” Anzaldúa possesses a significant bond with her language, believing it to be part and parcel of her identity. She writes, “if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language.”

Anzaldúa describes the Chicano literature she has read and the feelings of awe and amazement each time she discovered a Chicano writer had been published. Seeing her native tongue published for the general public made her “[feel] like [Chicanos] really existed as people.” As a high school English teacher for Chicano students, Anzaldúa describes attempting to bring in Chicano texts alongside English texts—only to be reprimanded by her principal. Anzaldúa also discusses Chicano films and music that had a significant impact on her growing up.

In addition to the literature, music, and film that encompass Anzaldúa’s identity-defining language, she also names smells and food as markers of her upbringing and identity, “Homemade white cheese sizzling in a pan,” “[Her] brother Carito barbecuing fajitas in the backyard,” “[her] mother spicing the ground beef…”

Anzaldúa ends her essay with an exploration of what it means to possess a dual identity. Chicanos are very much a people of varying nationalities, languages, and homelands. Anzaldúa explains how she answers the question, “What are you?” She writes, “I sometimes will answer ‘soy mexicana’ and at others will say ‘soy Chicana’ o ‘soy tejana.’” She also explores the roots of the Chicano people who stem from Indian genes: “We are 70-80 percent Indian.” Because Chicanos are never one sole ethnicity or nationality, Anzaldúa explains that it becomes easy for “one [identity to] cancel out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.”

Despite this image of confused identity and nothingness, Anzaldúa ends her essay on a powerful image of presence and “malleability.” She writes of a book titled I Am Joaquín that was published following the union of Ceasar Chavez and Chicano farm workers, and the formation of the la Raza Unida party. Both served as powerful affirmations of the Chicano identity. Lastly, Anzaldúa pays homage to the Chicano’s Indian roots by admiring the inherently patient quality of Chicano culture: “There is the quiet of the Indian about us.” Given the multiple blows Chicano culture has received from the dominant white culture, Anzaldúa applauds Chicanos for maintaining their mother tongue. She writes, “we, the mestizas and mestizos, will remain.”

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