Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lenguas



When the Spanish assaulted the New World they made use of the indios who troubled to learn the language of these strangers in a strange land and worked as their translators. The Spanish called them lenguas, "tongues," thus reducing them by synecdoche to the status of the organ which gave them value. Among them were Guacaraganix of Hispaniola, Juan de Betanzos of the Incas, Malinche in Mexico, and Pocahontas among the English up north.

They existed in a no man’s land between their original people and the invaders, their facility with tongues the thing that bound them to two worlds. But they were condemned to live in the fissure between those worlds, intimate with both, welcome in neither. Insider and outsider all at once, they were the estranged native and the naturalized stranger. They were sought out and repudiated. They were confidants, yet they were mistrusted. They drew others together, while they remained wholly other themselves. In the Dominican Republic the people still talk of a “complejo de Guacaraganix,” whereby individuals are disparaged for favoring foreign interests or foreign manners over Dominican ones.

Unlike those lenguas, I was born a citizen of an imperial power, but I forfeited that identity a long time ago. Spellbound by the music of foreign tongues and foreign manners, I slipped my moorings and wandered haphazardly in search of things that could not be found here, nor possessed when I found them elsewhere. I don’t belong where I came from, and I have lost sight of where I was heading, and now all I have is this capricious tongue to wag and tell stories. All travelers eventually exist only for the tale. Odysseus, it is said, wandered the sea in search of home, but the homecoming does not dispel or redeem the journey. The perils and marvels of that passage exercised its charms on him as well. Odysseus is forever the seafarer, the wanderer, not the husband and lord of the manor. It is fashionable today to condemn a love for the exotic, but it is not only conquistadors and Victorian explorers who are blinded by it. Were not the lenguas themselves inspired by the exotic when they first clapped eyes on the bearded Europeans? Did they not yearn for something different? From that fatal attraction was born a new mongrel race.

Pocahontas, as she is known to history, married an Englishman and settled in Middlesex, where she was apparently well treated but remained a curiosity, a freak. She died at the age of twenty-two at Gravesend, after suffering from a European disease, perhaps smallpox, pneumonia or tuberculosis, and thus having been compelled to disembark from a vessel bound for Virginia, where she would never arrive. Her life and her death were a kind of suspension between those two destinations, neither of which for her could become synonymous with destiny.

“Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” The woman from Tsenacommacah had many names. Her original name was Mataoka or Matoax, and it was kept secret for a while from the English for fear that, on learning of her true name, they would be able to do her harm. She was later called Amonute, and then Rebecca, for the mother of two nations, of Esau and Jacob. But most people then and now know her by her nickname, Pocahontas, the “little wanton,” perhaps the most apt name of all since it is used to describe those who would recklessly violate cultural boundaries and flirt with disaster. In any case, the proliferation of names is a sign of anxiety on the part of those who would name what cannot be named, know what cannot be known, control what cannot be controlled, because once Pocahontas set foot on the path that led away from her settlement, she ceased to exist.

There is only the journey, and what matters is not the destination but the road. Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más, . . . se hace el camino al andar.