Seeking a Voice, via a Bilingual M.F.A., in Writing and in Life (via NY Times)

When the discussion warms up in Andrea Cote-Botero’s graduate seminar, English and Spanish flow freely, just as they do amid the afternoon foot traffic across the nearby Ciudad Juárez border. In the country’s only bilingual M.F.A. creative writing program, at the University of Texas at El Paso, students on this day are comparing how F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gabriel García Márquez depict West Egg and Macondo, the respective settings of their classic novels.
Many of the students around the table comment in Spanish, sometimes switching languages to highlight a point for the native English speakers. Ms. Cote-Botero hangs back, periodically interjecting in either language. A student from Mexico City consults another from Las Vegas on a passage in Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby,” occasionally glancing at Google Translate on a laptop.
El Paso’s Masters of Fine Arts program, started in 2006, draws mostly local residents from both sides of the border. A dozen of the 20 students are native Spanish speakers, and all speak at least some English and Spanish. They are motivated by the desire to write and read in another tongue, and to study with professors versed in other cultures. One student, a Texan of Palestinian descent, hopes the program will help her better express herself in Arabic.
While El Paso’s program is a unique educational experience, creative writing programs across the country are developing Spanish-based curriculums — a growth reflecting the nation’s changing demographics: Spanish is the primary language of more than 40 million people in the United States, up from 32 million in 2005, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Among the emerging programs, California State University in Los Angeles will offer its own bilingual M.F.A. next year. Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., will start a Spanish-language creative writing degree in 2018, similar to one already in place at New York University. Students in the Spanish-language program and its English counterpart at the University of Iowa are now being encouraged to take each other’s classes.
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And while recovering from Hurricane Harvey this semester, the University of Houston started a Ph.D. with a Spanish-language concentration that emphasizes literary scholarship as much as writing (students must include a theoretical analysis with their creative writing dissertation).
“I see all these programs as a unit of sorts,” said Houston’s director, Cristina Rivera-Garza, “a group interested in developing the writers of the 21st century: bilingual, diverse and representative of the communities thriving in the United States.”
The Houston and Cal State programs are also developing activist efforts to support local Hispanic populations (Houston’s has grown by more than 200,000 from 2000 to 2016; Los Angeles County’s by about 600,000). Cal State’s program director, Alex Espinoza, said its students will help residents in largely Spanish-speaking East L.A. write biographical narratives that counter those “too often generalized in the media” — and by the Trump administration.
Whatever their proficiency, students must grapple with both languages, said José de Piérola, the El Paso program director. “It can be a shock to be stressed in this way, but it makes you grow.”CreditIvan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times
Indeed, these programs could be seen as something of an artistic challenge to the administration’s stance on Hispanic immigrants, represented by its plans to revoke the DACA program protecting undocumented students from deportation, the proposed Mexican border wall, and the removal this year of the White House Spanish-language website.
Collectively, the programs could play a significant role in developing young writers who publicly voice varied aspects of the Hispanic experience.
The Juárez-El Paso geography — two communities intertwined culturally and economically, separated by a parched Rio Grande barely waist deep — is a topic the students and professors have explored in their literary work. Perhaps the starkest difference between the cities is the drug-related violence on the Juárez side, which they depict with disturbing visceral images and blunt, uncensored vocabulary.
Juárez-El Paso is the largest metropolitan area on the border, with a combined population of more than two million, but the walk from downtown Juárez to downtown El Paso takes less than half an hour.
Alessandra Narváez-Varela used to walk across that border almost every day from Juárez to classes at the University of Texas, and to help out in the restaurant her family owns in El Paso. She has a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in creative writing. She spent a year in medical school, but “it didn’t feel like it was supposed to feel,” she said. Poetry did. Now 31, in El Paso’s bilingual M.F.A. program, she is writing to reconcile her dual identity and to give voice to women’s issues, especially involving female anatomy, that initially drew her to medicine. “Once you have that kind of conversation with the body you can’t let it go,” she said.
Oddly, while Ms. Narváez-Varela’s deepest roots lie in Spanish, she did not feel confident composing poetry in her native language. Her college writing had always been in English. “Maybe the Spanish speaker in me felt relegated to second-class-citizen status after adopting English as the language for my poetry,” she said.
I attended a presentation Ms. Narváez-Varela gave at a national writer’s conference in Los Angeles in which she explained how a workshop in the program had helped her find her Spanish voice.
She had written a poem in Spanish called “Ovarian Cancer,” filled with graphic imagery (she compared cancer to a bleeding fetus). Classmates had told her the beat pattern didn’t flow and criticized her use of rhyme. Ms. Narváez-Varela realized she had been unconsciously translating from English. She projected on a screen a copy of the poem, hand-edited by classmates, and an English translation, pointing out to the audience phrases she had originally conceived in English.
“Spanish, and the way it’s used to create music in poetry, differs radically in terms of syllables and rhyme,” she discovered. “It was a humbling workshop for me, but an enlightening one, too.”
Ms. Narváez-Varela went on to explore Mexican and American identities using Spanglish, the mixing of languages in the same sentences. In her poem “Real Mexican,” she describes, in raw and troubling language, a Mexican-American ex-convict so confused about his Hispanic identity he doesn’t know what name to call himself. In the opening line the character says: “Tony, Toño, Antonio, Anthony, it doesn’t matter, honey....”
“I had never before adopted a persona that explored Spanglish’s complexity and its meaning to me as a Mexican citizen naturalized in the U.S.,” Ms. Narváez-Varela said. “I realized this was a projection of my own anxieties as a Mexican-American. I had unconsciously judged others by the way they spoke Spanglish.” She said she was trying to show how the character’s use of Spanglish “is a vital manifestation of his identity as a marginalized member of both societies.”
Writing the poem helped her see the artistry of “a language as valid and beautiful as English or Spanish, as hybrid as African-American English, and therefore as deserving of a place in poetry.” Huizache, a journal of Latino literature, has just published “Real Mexican.”
Many important Hispanic fiction writers have attended traditional M.F.A. programs. I spoke with three of the masters — Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz and Esmeralda Santiago — about how they bridge two languages in their writing and about their graduate school experience. Each said that their M.F.A. programs did not recognize the Spanish-speaking side of their identities, either by assigning Latino authors or by supporting the Spanish element of their work.
Sandra Cisneros said that her thesis adviser criticized her use of language, impeding her connection to Spanish.CreditRussell Contreras/Associated Press
Ms. Cisneros, who is Mexican-American, described an interaction with her thesis adviser at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop when she began writing “The House on Mango Street.”
She had written the novella in English but inflected it with Spanish phrasings. The adviser criticized her for overusing the word “little,” unaware how frequently the suffix “ito” — for little or cute — is used in Spanish.
The incident, she said, impeded her connection to Spanish. “I didn’t realize it until after I’d left Iowa,” Ms. Cisneros said. “I was writing a letter in Spanish and I thought, this is the voice of ‘The House on Mango Street.’”
In her choice of a single word in her native language, Ms. Cisneros was able to greatly affect meaning.
When she named the young narrator of “The House on Mango Street” Esperanza, she wasn’t just giving her a pretty name. “Esperanza” can mean waiting, expectation or hope in English. In the story, the girl poetically expresses a blend of feelings about her name, saying, “In Spanish, it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color.”
“I wanted it to be a traditional name that wouldn’t translate well into U.S. culture,” Ms. Cisneros said, “as well as one that would mean wish, desire and hope.”
“Some words refuse translations,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Díaz.CreditAlejandro Garcia/European Pressphoto Agency
Mr. Díaz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American writer, attended Cornell University’s M.F.A. program and now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In graduate education, he advocates for “ties to scholars working on the intersections of languages, on Creoles, on multilingualism.”
He explained his own mental translation process this way: “If I’m writing a character who is Spanish dominant, they talk and think within me in Spanish and I translate most of it into English. Some words refuse translations — sometimes it’s the joy of the word, or the energy it pulses with in the original Spanish sentence.” For example, Mr. Diaz freely employs English expletives in his work, but sometimes opts for rough Spanish equivalents.
Ms. Santiago, author of the memoir “When I Was Puerto Rican” and an M.F.A. graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, writes entire drafts bilingually. “I write as fast as I can and don’t worry whether what appears on the page is in English or in Spanish,” she said. “Later, when I’m editing, I will translate almost all of the Spanish into English if it’s for publication in that language. English and Spanish are for me the same language.”
In the El Paso program, faculty members strive to respond effectively to students who write in English, Spanish or both. Professors try to accommodate students in individual conferences by working in their preferred language. “I’ll speak in English and they’ll speak in Spanish,” said Daniel Chacón, one of 10 faculty members. “Then I might reiterate and clarify in Spanish.”
Whatever their level of proficiency, students must grapple with both languages. “They have to make the effort to bridge the gap,” said the director, José de Piérola. “It can be a shock to be stressed in this way, but it makes you grow.”
In one of Mr. de Piérola’s workshops, a student who spoke little Spanish led a group critique of a student’s short story. The story was in English, but he could not understand the group members who spoke in Spanish, and had to turn for explanations to fully bilingual classmates.
Many of the readings are available in translation, but even the students who feel challenged reading in the second language are encouraged to wrestle with the original texts. Some rely on tools like Google Translate, despite its limitations for interpreting literary language.
“When the Spanish speakers read American poets in English and vice versa, it changes their relationship to their own tradition,” Ms. Cote-Botero said.
She described how she might teach students to experiment with their writing by contrasting English and Spanish versions of the sonnet. She explained that Shakespeare standardized the English line using a steady five-beat pattern. “It’s closest to English speech and to the heartbeat,” she said.
One widely quoted example is Shakespeare’s opening line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The Spanish form, on the other hand, is based on a 14-syllable line. When students “mix the two, interesting things appear,” she said. By remaining “inside the boundaries of your own tradition you’re more at risk for repeating yourself.”
With a bilingual approach, Mr. Chacón said, “you can play with your own language a little more. James Joyce was able to play with language because he grew up with Gaelic and paid attention to its sound.”
To expose his students to writing styles in other languages, he adds to his reading lists translations of Japanese Zen koans and the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
By encouraging students to explore different literary traditions and settings, the El Paso program is about more than just two languages.
Looking back as she approaches graduation next month (her thesis is a book of poetry about women), Ms. Narváez-Varela said that writing bilingually has pushed her beyond her comfort zone. This was a key reason she chose the program, and she hopes to carry that experience into a community college teaching position.
As a Mexican woman exploring life beyond the border, she will continue through her poems, she said, to “ask the hard questions, and expect no answers, or several, as playfully and passionately as possible.”

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