For me, literacy was discovered in the Windy City’s cruel, winter howl—the intertwining of English, Spanish, and Polish a language all its own. Growing up in the Chicago Polish neighborhood of Cragin, I understood literacy to be the way to keep a native language alive in a country that put English first. Storytelling was much more than entertainment—it was survival. My father emigrated from Mexico at the age of seventeen with nothing but quick feet and the responsibility of keeping his large family alive. Born in the poor town of Las Peñas, Nayarit, my father was chosen out of his eight siblings to run across the border to America—the land that promised freedom and an end to starvation. Working odd jobs and sharing a small apartment with eighteen other boys, where beds were never owned but rotated, my father worked his way from California to Illinois where he met my mother on a blind date. Being a third-generation Polish immigrant, my mother found solace in her grandmother’s old home in Cragin where everyone spoke Polish.
Unlike other homes, our furniture was labeled—English and Spanish a constant reminder of duality. While my father practiced English, my mother practiced Spanish—the air a constant refusal to only speak English. Though my father never learned Polish, he also never fully learned English. With examples of other children losing their ability to speak their parents’ native languages, my father fought against English and only spoke to me in Spanish. To me, Spanish was his language to share—the door that allowed him to open up to me about his life in Mexico. It was something that we shared that pushed the outside world a little further away. When my father and I spoke Spanish, our tongues curling to roll our r’s, his past made its way into the future. I wanted to hold onto his stories, to save them and carry them with me at the bottoms of my pockets. His stories weren’t like the stories from the children’s books I had read—they were raw and fought to be remembered without the permanency or ease of a page. The more I learned, the more language transformed to give each story a soul of its own. Speaking Spanish with my father taught me how to recognize vulnerability and the sacredness behind the trusting of stories.
Because he worked long hours as a garbage truck man, his day starting at 2 am and finishing around 7 pm, our time together consisted of singing on the front steps—sometimes Spanish folk songs about fish losing their teeth:
El pescadito del agua/ se lo llevó la corriente/ y por andar del valiente/ se lo cayeron los dientes.
Or a silly duckling:
Patito patito color de café/ si tú no me quieres yo ya sé porqué/ ya no me presumas que al cavo yo sé/ que eres un pato patito color de café/ la pata valió/ el pato también/ ya entren los juntos se vieron después.
Other times I sang along to my favorite singer, Selena Quintanilla. Music exposed the duality of words and their ability to allow people to both talk and not say anything at the same time. We could sing a song seeping with emotion but the lyrics weren’t ours to own or confess to. We often found solace behind our voices unifying and the gentle reminder of absurdity. Singing the Spanish folk songs my father learned when he was in Kindergarten comforted the both of us—they tied us together and gave us something to smile about. They reminded us that there was always more than one way to view the world. If a Selena song came on, most notably “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” I’d jump up and start dancing, my small hips moving the air around me. My dancing was reserved for Selena and Selena alone. I idolized her not only because she could also speak Spanish and English but because she transformed language to incorporate movement and expression. Her songs exuded self-confidence and allowed me to express myself without speaking. I learned that my body had a language all its own and that the way I moved it could tell stories.
The importance of speaking multiple languages was reiterated to me during my time with my babysitter. While both my parents were at work, I’d spend my days across the street with Dorota—an immigrant from Poland with the same lackluster desire as my father to learn English. My days with Dorota began with reading Disney’s Dumbo and Bambi on the couch in front of the window that looked out over the main street. As I’d listen to animals making their way in the world, I’d turn my head to look out the window and picture the gray street as a forest or circus where stories turned into adventures. As much as I’d crane my neck to see the entire street, my small legs flailing over the small book in Dorota’s hands for a better view, I never could. I imagined the stories just around the corner, close enough to breathe in on windy days. That street carried me everywhere and nowhere. It transformed itself hourly again and again. It was my blank canvas and my reminder that stories traveled.
Other days, we’d eat rosół at her small, wooden kitchen table that sat close to the stove and read Polish fairy tales where young girls were friends with magic hedgehogs and fairies. With a bowl of steaming chicken soup under both our chins, the stories felt close and comforting. The earthy smell of boiling carrots and onions mixed with parsley and dill transported us to the woods in Poland where hedgehogs and owls worked together to take back the castle for the young princess. The faint smell of herbs from Dorota’s breath softened the stories and anchored the absurd and fantastical close to home. Much like the Spanish songs I’d sing with my father, the peculiar stories seemed warm and inviting. I loved that despite being overlooked, characters found their voices. They were never silenced, no matter how small or unbelievable they were. There was power in believing in who you were and what you could do. I enjoyed every moment Dorota read to me because I loved hearing the different sounds and accents that the stories carried in Polish. Between the English, Spanish, and Polish that filtered in and out of my day, I began noticing the subtle differences that languages brought to stories. For me, literacy was much more than the common definition of communication or storytelling—it was history surviving generations and the invitation to visit old homelands.
Years later, after moving out of the inner city to the surrounding suburbs due to gang violence, my concept of literacy changed. Literacy no longer involved speaking other languages, but instead required mastering and focusing on English. Speaking Spanish outdoors too loudly could result in wayward glances so it was reserved for inside the home or car rides. For the first time, I noticed a shift in people’s behavior when different languages were being used. My friends questioned my decision to speak any language other than English which confused me. Growing up and being surrounded by different accents and languages made the town I lived in seem more personal and unique. I couldn’t understand why other children didn’t know or want to know more than one language. I got into small arguments with friends at school when they’d tell me I pronounced words wrong. Words as simple as “mango” would leave us heated for five minutes and would pause our game of hide-and-seek. We’d stand red in the face screaming the word over and over at each other trying to overpower the other person’s voice. Whoever was the loudest, was clearly correct. When my friends couldn’t think of one other person in their lives who pronounced “mango” the way that I did, both my father and I were labeled wrong. It frustrated me that my friends only wanted one way to say something. I loved the differences that accents and languages brought to conversations and couldn’t imagine a life without them since they were rooted in the people I loved. Because I didn’t want to argue and lose friends, I reserved speaking Spanish on the playground with my friend Tony, a Mexican little boy in my class. We’d take turns giggling while swearing at each other in Spanish as we’d race each other across the monkey bars or during games of tag. We relished the bad words rolling off our tongues and the ability to bring a language from home onto the playground with us.
From then on, language became selective and deliberate for me. Literacy, it seemed, was not heightened with different languages and accents, but rather one’s ability to sound like everyone else. Instead of encouraging my ability to read books in both Spanish and English during my library time at school, I was told that books in Spanish could be reserved for time at home and that I should try reading the books available in English. With both my friends and teachers praising English, I swallowed my Spanish and stopped bringing my Spanish books to school. I wanted my friends and teachers to like me. I was tired of explaining myself and didn’t want to be labeled “weird.” People seemed to only want one part of me so I complied. Fighting was exhausting and would land me with no friends. I didn’t want to be difficult, just accepted. After those experiences, Spanish and other languages lost their sheen. Spanish wasn’t special, it was different. English was what people knew, what they felt comfortable with. People wanted to feel comfortable and included without learning new words. Following what my teachers and librarians recommended for me, literacy became the ability to conquer difficult books above my age range. The more I read, the more I impressed my teachers and librarians. At one point, I read every book in the “second-grade section” and became the only second grader allowed to check out books in the “big kid section.” The constant mix of praise along with my desire to read more and more books shifted literacy to involve not only my reading ability but also the approval of others.
Because of the conditioning of mixing praise with reading as a child, I spent the rest of my formative years believing only in the type of education that was discussed by my teachers. My admiration for my teachers transformed them into not only literary sponsors but role models. Whatever my teachers advocated for, I would believe as well. As a teenager, I trusted that educating oneself could only be achieved inside a classroom of a high-ranking school. Any other mention of education, such as a community college, was out of the question. One either went to a four-year university or not at all. One was either smart or stupid. My life consisted of binaries where literacy was tied to the outward appearance of success or failure. One’s status or reputation carried a lot of weight in my eyes and detrimentally damaged my view of literacy. Because my dad was constantly working and my mother and I couldn’t speak without getting into a screaming match, I spent a large portion of my last two years of my high school education at friends’ homes where I was offered meals and time to work on homework. The more I struggled with life at home, the more literacy became freedom. If I could study hard enough, then my literacy would guarantee me an escape to college. I could leave behind the responsibility of raising my younger sister, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, cooking, and paying the bills on time. Literacy was my tool to not only continuing my education but to obtaining independence.
I applied to four-year universities four years in a row, not due to rejection but due to my mother’s view of both education and my abilities to succeed. She’d encourage me to apply to four-year universities every year but when the pile of acceptances would arrive, college was out of the question. The reason I could not attend a four-year university changed frequently—financial instability, a school’s reputation, my intelligence, or the state of the economy. With four-year universities not an option, I attended my local community college for two years and obtained my Associate of Arts degree. While I was grateful that I had the opportunity to continue my education outside of a four-year university, my perception of myself and literacy drastically changed. All of my high school education I was told that community college was for drop-outs, single moms, gangbangers, or failures. Because of those harsh opinions, I was hard on myself and the courses I enrolled in. I convinced myself that I was academically behind all of my friends who attended four-year universities, that I was in fact stupid, and that I would not amount to much. The class dynamics I was privileged to have in high school were no longer my reality. My classmates, and certain professors, were ill-prepared, unenthusiastic, and careless. I struggled to find the importance behind literacy when I had to fight so hard to continue my education.
My negative view of community college was later reinforced after I won a small college scholarship from the local pizzeria where I worked. After writing two essays and passing two interview rounds, I was deemed the winner. For a moment, I regained confidence. The self-doubt I carried around with me dissipated and I believed that despite my opinions of my school, I was worthy to continue my education. When I called back the judges a few days later to inform them I wouldn’t be attending a four-year university any longer, but community college another year, they retracted the scholarship. While they praised my efforts, they needed to promote “better” education. Immediately, the importance of literacy plummeted yet again. My education and intelligence were not enough and thus, not important. After multiple disparaging conversations with the judges, I received a phone call a week later telling me that despite my “community college education,” I had impressed the judges. Not enough to receive the scholarship I originally won but to allow future community college students the opportunity to apply for the scholarship the next year. While I did apply the following year and win again, the taste of success seemed less sweet. I was forced to prove myself twice for the same scholarship someone else only had to win once due to my educational background. After winning the scholarship the second time, literacy encompassed not only intelligence but also one’s background. I witnessed first-hand how a stereotype of education could overshadow one’s future awards and how literacy sponsors, such as the scholarship judges, could improve or hinder one’s view of education.
In the end, literacy, and my ever-changing definition of it, taught me the difficult lesson of self-sufficiency. While my ability to read and write well allowed me to figure out how to pay the bills, balance a checkbook, read a cookbook, apply for student loans, and apply for academic scholarships, it also taught me how to thrive off of my own opinion and discern the importance of others’ opinions. Typically, the term self-sufficiency is used in regards to one’s actions but my constant battles and revelations with literacy transformed the term to also include confidence. I learned I couldn’t be confident without acknowledging my fear and self-doubt. Telling myself that I was never afraid or full of doubt didn’t get me anywhere. The minute I humanized myself and applauded my differences, I was able to be proud of who I was, scars and all.
Without the trials and tribulations of my educational background, literacy would only encompass the typical notion of reading and writing well. It was my loss of confidence and the slow regaining of it over time that allowed literacy to come alive outside of texts, stories, and classrooms. After receiving my associate’s degree from my local community college and being forced to take a year off from school, I dedicated myself to furthering my education with trips to the library every week after work. As time passed, poetry became my mirror for introspection, the emotions I dismissed in the past my newfound strength. The first book of poetry I checked out was Ariel by Sylvia Plath, the flames in her poem “Lady Lazarus” unearthing a hidden resilience inside of me. Plath’s unapologetic honesty deepened the vulnerability I expressed in each of my poems. For the first time, I learned there was courage in writing of weakness and imperfection. Plath helped me push the boundaries of what I believed a woman could write about. I stopped apologizing for the way I saw the world and embraced my aphotic voice. Though most of my imagery is conventionally dark, it supplies a vulnerable look at uncomfortable subjects through a detailed lens. I magnify my emotions by shaping them into monstrous objects or creatures that identify as an “other.” By outcasting my feelings, I’m forced to study them as a separate entity and examine the power and importance behind them.
My determination to continue my higher education led me to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I received my Bachelor of Arts and learned to take myself seriously as both a writer and editor. After graduating, my supportive mentors at Madison pushed me to apply to various MFA programs where I would be able to commit more time to writing. Currently, I am a poetry student in Virginia Tech’s MFA program and proud of my unconventional academic journey. I no longer apologize for who I am or feel the need to explain myself or my background to people. I accept the times I lost parts of myself and the time it took to rebuild myself. Literacy is unrelenting determination, the sound of my father’s and Dorota’s accented voices, the gnawing doubt in the back of my mind, and the peaceful reminder of freedom.
Sonya Lara served as the Associate Fiction Editor for The Madison Review at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she received her BA in English-Creative Writing. Currently, she is the Co-Founder, Poetry Editor, and Social Media Manager for Rare Byrd Review; an Editor-at-Large for Cleaver Magazine; the Managing Editor for the minnesota review;and an MFA poetry candidate at Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Prairie Voices, Wisconsin’s Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology, Trestle Ties, and Heavy Feather Review. For more information, visit sonyalara.com.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.