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General News    H3'ed 2/15/21

Tomgram: Ariel Dorfman, Liberty and Justice for All?

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Over these last few years, here's a problem that's sometimes bothered me: how to translate Donald Trump whether, in his initial presidency-launching moments in 2015 when he was fulminating about those Mexican "rapists" or, in his final weeks in the Oval Office, as he tweeted furiously about that "fake election"? Sadly enough, it evidently wasn't a problem for 74 million Americans, though the number of them still speaking Trumpese seems to be dwindling.

Perhaps my problem was that I've never been good at foreign languages. I used to say that, at the height of my ability to speak French (and that was when I was young and had a French girlfriend), I could get into any conversation and out of none. In Chinese, which I also studied once in my life, I've never forgotten trying to describe something to an old Chinese man possibly almost as old as I am now! and having him sweetly and politely suggest that, next time, I might try using tones. (Since Chinese is, of course, a tonal language, he was telling me all I needed to know about my linguistic skills.)

In the years before TomDispatch, when I was a book editor, those minimalist skills of mine always left me with the deepest admiration for translators. What a talent to be able to usher someone like me into other vibrant worlds that I would never have had access to. In those years, for instance, I published the work of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano (translated from the Spanish by that wonderful old lefty Cedric Belfrage). If you don't believe just how magical that world of wonder they welcomed me into was, then check out Galeano's three volume series I published in English in those years on the history of the Americas from the first creation myth to what was then late last night: Memory of Fire: Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Centuries of the Wind.

Or for that matter check out any of the works of another author I once had translated and published, Ariel Dorfman, who has, in these years, become a TomDispatch regular and a translator par excellence of this strange world we all now live in. Today, he offers us a little lesson in language skills when it comes to the Spanish that's so much a part of our American world and yet, in Trumpese, was officially banished, along with the Muslims the president also hated with a passion. Tom

How Spanish Can Help Us Survive Viral Times
A Journey into the Heart of a Language We Need Now More Than Ever


"Una nacià n bajo Dià s, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos."

When Jennifer LÃ pez shouted out that last line of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish during Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony, like so many Spanish-speaking Latinos in the United States I felt a sense of pride, a sense of arrival. It was a joy to hear my native language given a prominent place at a moment when the need to pursue the promise of "liberty and justice for all" couldn't be more pressing.

A sense of arrival, I say, and yet Spanish arrived on these shores more than a century before English. In that language, the first Europeans explorers described what they called "el Nuevo Mundo," the New World new for them, even if not for the indigenous peoples who had inhabited those lands for millennia, only to be despoiled by the invaders from abroad. The conquistadors lost no time in claiming their territories as possessions of the Spanish crown and, simultaneously, began naming them.

Much as we may now deplore those colonial depredations, we still regularly use the words they left behind without considering their origins. Florida, which derives from flor, flower in Spanish, because Ponce de Leà n first alighted in Tampa Bay on an Easter Sunday (Pascua Florida) in 1513. And then there is Santa Fe (Holy Faith) and Los Angeles (the Angels), founded in 1610 and 1782 respectively, and so many other names that we now take for granted: Montana (from montaà as), Nevada (from nieve, or snow), Agua Dulce, El Paso, and Colorado, to name just a few. And my favorite place name of all, California, which comes from a legendary island featured in one of the books of chivalry that drove Don Quixote, the character created by Miguel de Cervantes, mad and set him on the road to seek justice for all.

It was not justice, not justicia para todos, however, that the millions who kept Spanish alive over the centuries were to encounter in the United States. On the contrary, what started here as an imperial language ended up vilified and marginalized as vast swaths of the lands inhabited by Spanish speakers came under the sway of Washington. As Greg Grandin has documented in his seminal book, The End of a Myth, the expansion of the United States, mainly into a West and a Southwest once governed by Mexico, led to unremitting discrimination and atrocities.

It was in Spanish that the victims experienced those crimes: the girls and women who were raped, the men who were lynched by vigilantes, the families that were separated, the workers who were deported, the children who were forbidden to speak their native tongue, the millions discriminated against, mocked, and despised, all suffering such abuses in Spanish, while holding onto the language tenaciously, and passing it on to new generations, constantly renewed by migrants from Latin America.

Through it all, the language evolved with the people who used it to love and remember, fight and dream. In the process, they created a rich literature and a vibrant tradition of perseverance and struggle. As a result, from that suppressed dimension of American history and resistance, Spanish is today able to offer up words that can help us survive this time of pandemic.

That's what I've discovered as I navigated the many pestilences ravaging our lives in the last year: the Spanish I've carried with me since my birth has lessons of hope and inspiration, even for my fellow citizens who are not among the 53 million who speak it.

Words of Aliento for Our Current Struggle

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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