One day, as I was walking downtown on my way to my car, my dad called me. He knew I was done with teaching and called to ask me something. I don’t even remember the details of our conversation. What I do remember is the way people looked at me as I walked along speaking Spanish. Some turned their heads in my direction and frowned, others simply stared. This was not the first time something like this happened, but I am still not used to the uncomfortable glares. I tried to lower my voice to avoid them, but it was not enough and had to end the call instead. As a bilingual person, I am not ashamed to speak in those languages, but when I am in public spaces sometimes, I catch myself policing what language I use in order to draw the least attention to myself. Spanish is the second most common language in the U.S., but somehow, I still received awkward stares or comments when speaking Spanish in public spaces.
This summer as a Humanities for the Public Good intern, I had the opportunity to work with Iowa Intersections, a community-based multilingual digital storytelling initiative that seeks to collect stories from recent immigrants in their own language that celebrates the linguistic and cultural diversity of our community. I was able to facilitate five informal oral history interviews in Spanish that I will edit into short videos. The participants could talk about any topic that resonated with them. They shared stories related to traditions, generational and cultural conflicts, food, and migration stories. While transcribing and translating their stories, I reflected on the sociolinguistic aspects of language. I am especially interested in exploring questions like, how are languages perceived in our community? What does a truly accepting and diverse community look like? How do we interact in multilingual environments? As a reader, I invite you to reflect on these questions and your own relationship with language.
Iowa Intersections is a collaboration between the Center for Language and Cultural Learning (CLCL) in the Division of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Iowa and UNESCO City of Literature. That also includes graduate students. The project seeks to collect and share stories in the spoken languages in our community. Furthermore, these are more than just stories. They are digital representations of knowledge and cultural identities through language and narration. Initiatives like this one also allow us to challenge English-only discourses that render the existing languages in our community invisible. Iowa Intersections facilitates a safe space where the languages in our community can be shared, appreciated, and celebrated through storytelling.
One of the issues that I encounter as a Teaching Assistant in my language courses is finding authentic material that students can relate to and engage with. Culture is an essential part of language and in order to learn a language, one must also learn its culture. I can see myself using the videos I worked on this summer to introduce cultural and social topics to my classes. For example, to discuss the importance of language in our city or to introduce traditions like the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
I look forward to the launch of the Iowa Intersections website and especially for everyone to hear the voices of our community. Finally, I hope that everyone can reflect on their own interactions with language and multilingual environments and see the positive aspects of them. Instead of glaring at people for speaking their own language, we must appreciate everyone for the knowledge that they bring to our community.