This semester, I am teaching six classes, three of which happen to be composition courses. For their first essay, my students must write a literacy narrative, discussing their own experiences with reading or writing. As part of the module for this essay, I had them read Richard Rodriguez’s “Gaines and Losses.” The essay chronicles Rodriguez’s schooling and acquisiton of literacy, in this case “English” literacy. What strikes me about this essay, and what I hope my students recognize, is the tensions that Rodriguez discusses between the language he spoke at home and the one that others required him to speak in public.
The headnote for the essay states that Rodriguez argues against bilingual education in “Gaines and Losses.” Rodriguez espouses that the ability to learn English helped him succeed in America, andhis acquisition of the “public” language led him to the belief at seven years old that “[he] was an American citizen” (237). Learning English allowed Rodriguez to see him as “very far from the disadvantaged child” he had been and provided him with “the calming assurance that [he] belonged in public” (237). These sentences, and others, point to headnotes claim regarding Rodriguez’s views against bilingual education. However, I would argue that the essay provides a more nuanced discussion of language as a social tool to help people maintain power and control over others.
From the outset, Rodriguez sets up a dichotomy between Spanish and English. English becomes “public,” the language that everyone must speak in the public sphere. Spanish, then, becomes the “private” language that must be spoken at home and nowhere else. While only focusing on English helped Rodriguez succeed in school, the lack of speaking Spanish at school, and ultimately in the home, caused a separation within the family. By relegating Spanish to the private sphere, the language becomes othered, not suitable outside of the home. That mentality leads to a view that those who donot speak the “public” language are somehow less deserving of participating in the society.
To learn the “public” language, Rodriguez’s family sacrifices their own intimacy. At home, Rodriguez’s family would practice “their” English, speaking to each around the dinner table. However, the removal of Spanish, even from the “private” sphere, caused the family to pull apart. While Rodriguez and his siblings would speak English in one part of the house, their parents could be hear, in muffled voices, speaking Spanish elsewhere. As well, Rodriguez’s father becomes almost nonexistent in the “public” spehere due to his weakness in speaking English. Due to this, Rodriguez’s mother “became the public voice of the family,” creating excuses for her husband’s suppsoed “shyness” (238). Rodriguez realized, though, that his father was not shy; instead, when he spoke in Spanish, he spoke with “confidence an authority,” things English would not provide him (238).
Ultimately, Rodriguez feels an emptiness with the loss of the “private” language. Regarding the way teachers pronounced his name at school, he writes, “Rich-heard–their English voices slowly prying loose my ties to the other name, it’s three notes, Ri-car-do” (237). Rodriguez’s own idenity, in the form of his name, gets supplanted by the “public” langauge, creating a space where the past and familial ties used to reside. Likewise, at the end of the essay, he explains walking through the streets and encountering people speaking Spanish. In these instances, he reflects on the past he had to leave behind to learn the “public” language. Noticing a woman “murmuring” Spanish in the street, he says, “Her voice, like so many of the Spanish voices I’d hear in public, recalled the golden age of my youth” (239). Rodriguez conveys a tinge of nostalgia and loss here for the “private” language he had to sacrifice to excel in the “public” world.
When speaking about this text with my students, and having them think about their own essays, I could not help but recall the CCC’s “Students Right to Their Own Language” or Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” Thinking about these two pieces, I came to the realization that I, as a composition instructor, work within this “public/private” dichotomy that Rodriguez puts mentions. What is my role here? Should I limit a student’s use of dialect or language? By making students use “correct” English, how do I limit their voice and their uniqueness? What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments below.
In the video above, Rodriguez speaks about heritage and identity.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Gaines and Losses.” The Reader. Ed. James C. McDonald. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 236-239. Print.