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CENTRO JOURNAL Volume XX Number i SPRING ZOO8

"LANGUAGE IS OUR ONLY HOMELAND": AN INTERVIEW WITH LUZ MARÍA UMPIERRE CARMEN HAYDÉE RIVERA

DR. LUZ MARÍA UMPIERRE is a poet, critic, and social rights advocate whose literary works have been widely acclaimed and anthologized and whose meritorious social advocacy has been recognized by state and national officials, Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1947 and raised in a household with sixteen other members, Dr. Umpierre rose above conditions of poverty and gender discrimination through hard work and educational excellence. The unwavering support of her parents and extended family was also a key factor in the attainment of her goals, which include a master's degree and a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College in 1978. At the age of 26, she migrated to the United States and currently lives in Lewiston, Maine. Her publications to date include several poetry collections {Una puertorriqueña en Penna^ En el pat's de ¡as maravillas, ...T otras desgracias/... And Other Misfortunes, The Margarita Poems, For Christine., and Hoja Poética: Pour Toi/for Moira); critical essay collections {Ideologíay novela en Puerto Rico, Nuevas aproximaciones críticas a la literatura puertorriqueña contemporánea); and numerous

articles in prestigious journals. As an advocate for victims of discrimination and persecution Dr. Umpierre has won numerous awards, among them a US Congress Proclamation naming her Distinguished Woman of Maine in 2002 and an Order of Merit, also issued by US Congress, in 2003. During a recent visit to Puerto Rico (May, 2006), Dr. Umpierre graciously conceded to this interview at the University of Puerto Rico. In it, she shares her views on bilingualism and language valorization on the island and relates these issues to other concerns regarding language use and cultural identity. She also speaks about her ever- evolving poetry, the arduous process of publication, and her experience as a Puerto Rican woman in academia. What follows is only part of the long conversation that ensued and only captures a fragment of the life experience of this feisty, determined, honest, and self-giving intellectual whom I had the pleasure to interview.


Carmen Haydée Rivera: What would you say is your native language? What language did you speak at home? When and in what setting(s) did you !earn English? Luz María Umpierre: My native language is Spanish. We spoke Spanish at home except with my mother, to whom I would speak both in English and Spanish (she was one of the first Nuyoricans), My parents decided to give me a good education and they sent me to a mostly English-setting school, Academia del Sagrado Corazón. I do not mean to say that onJy an English education is a "good education" but that my parents understood the value of sending me to the best school they could, where my linguistic horizons would be broadened. I saw my mother wear the same dresses for years and shoes with holes so that they could pay the tuition which at that time was $25 a month plus a donation each year. My mother had grown up in New York, so she spoke English very well; she mostly spoke Spanish in the house, but to me she spoke in both languages, English education then was not what it is today in Puerto Rico. Back then the curricula were totally different between public and private schools. CHR: In what general terms were they different? LMU: In the private school I attended, all classes were taught in English except for Spanish. At the public schools it was the reverse. CHR: What language(s) have you taught in and in what setting(s)? LMU: I have taught Spanish mostly, but I have also taught classes in English Departments and Women Studies. I taught a course in English as part of the Women Studies Department at Penn State when I was a distinguished scholar in residence. At Western Kentucky, I taught several courses on Latinas in the USA and Latin American women as part of the English Department and Women Studies. I also taught independent studies on Brazilian literature in Portuguese at Western Kentucky. I can read and understand Italian and can speak and read in Erench, but I have not taught courses in these languages although as department Chair 1 have instituted courses in many languages including Japanese, Chinese, among others. CHR: Spanish and English have alternately been proclaimed official languages in Puerto Rico and currently BOTH are considered so. What is your opinion on this issue? Do you think that both languages are used equally throughout the island? LMU: Spanish is the language of the soul, and English is the language of survival. 1 can see why they are both considered official languages. I think Spanish should be the official language and English our secondary language. Throughout the island they are not used equally. In the metropolitan area I saw a lot of young people speaking English. In my own family this does not happen often. My sisters/cousins mostly speak Spanish because they are part of a different generation. My nieces and nephews teel more comfortable speaking in both languages than my generation did. CHR: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? LMU: It was about when I was thirteen years old. I was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. A neighbor, highly regarded by the family, was abusing me. I didn't want to tell my father, who had a gun in the house for his own protection, since he was a very strict person in his professional life for the government. People were constantly threatening his life. So I was afraid that if I divulged to him and my mother that I was being sexually abused and harassed that he would kill the man who did this. So at the age of thirteen I started writing all this down in a notebook which I kept. Unfortunately, my cousin Papo found the notebook, I was so upset that it had been iound that I burned it and didn't write again until I got to Bryn Mawr. I was fortunate enough to have a professor whose name is John Deredita. I was taking a class with him on Avant Garde Poets, and he told me that if I followed the model of [14]


Vanguard Poetry and tried to make any kind of rupture with it or use it for my own purposes that I could submit any papers or poems that I wrote and that he would accept them also as the requirements for the course. So from that generous offer of his is where at least fifty percent of the poems in Una puertorriqueña en Penna came from. CHR: And the publication year was 1979? LMU: Yes, 1979. It was published here in Puerto Rico. CHR: Who were the first Puerto Rican authors that inspired you and who were the first Latino/a writers that you read? In what setting or context (on your own, in academia)? LMU: At the beginning, I did my doctoral dissertation on three Puerto Rican writers: Pedro Juan Soto, Manuel Zeno Gandía, and Enrique Laguerre. Out of those three the one who really caught my eye was Soto. He was highly ignored at the time when 1 took on writing my dissertation. At first he wasn't too happy that he was going to become known through the work of a woman critic, so he gave me a hard time at the beginning but later on was very forthcoming. I did several interviews with him, one of which was published in Revista Chicano-Riquefia (today The Americas Review) and in Hispania; this gave him a broader exposure. He was a pioneer in terms of Puerto Ricans living in the US and who had written about that experience. So I admired him greatly. I also carried the only interview he gave after his son was assassinated, but unfortunately no one wanted to publish that interview with him. It was shunned everywhere I sent it to be published. LHtimately, I released the interview with him and other Spanish writers to the Newark Public Library in Newark, Newjersey, where they are held today. In terms of my writing I had a great influence from black American women writers like Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clark. I was also influenced by Adrienne Rich, and by American Indian writer Marge Piercy. At that time, I began calling myself a woman ot color. People would tell me you can pass as white, you can say you're French or Italian, you do not have to say you're Puerto Rican, and that was very insulting to me. I never denied my heritage, but, instead, I wanted to include and show the world that Ï belonged to a broader sisterhood and that was women of color. I also was influenced by Vincent Huidobro because ofthat class that I took at Bryn Mawr on Vanguard Poetry, and the Vanguard poets in general.

I never denied my heritage, but, instead, I wanted to include and show the world that I belonged to a broader sisterhood and that was women of color. The first Latino writer I read was Pedro Juan Soto. I created a course at Rutgers University on the Caribbean during my first year there when I was a professor. I wanted to teach not only the works of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans but also to include the Latino/a experience. 1 was highly criticized for this because the chair of the Department told me that those people did not produce literature. This was in 1978. So I started teaching, much to the chagrin of my Department and the country. Latino/a Literature within the Caribbean context. I taught Sandra Maria Esteves, for example, and the Nuyorican Movement, still very much alive and growing at that time in the States. I also taught other Latinas like Marjorie Agosin in other courses. I began teaching about them, but I didn't stay there.


I also began inviting people to come to Rutgers, to visit my class, and also to give poetry readings at the University. I had recently written an article about my relationship with Sandra Maria Esteves because she had been brought before to Rutgers by other male Puerto Ricans, who thought they were doing her a favor and didn't pay her for her poetry readings, So the first time I brought her in, the first thing she asked me was if she was going to get paid, and I told her I already had the check. So that day she gave a reading and spoke to my class. 1 gave her the check, and, I'll never forget this, she told me: "Can you cash the check for me because I need it to buy milk for my girls?" We became very close friends, which started off a poetical dialogue that I have kept up with her. One Puerto Rican critic says the exchange is a benchmark in Puerto Rican literature. CHR: Referring to the Maria Cristina poems? LMU: Yes, there is the response and four other poems, two written by each one of us to the other. CHR: And these poems are collected in? LMU: They appear now in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (200^) because of the fact that the editor believes that this dialogue is also a benchmark in American literature. It's amazing who we're included with — Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Ginsberg, Poe, so you can imagine the honor. CHR: Talk about your work and the process of publication. How easy or difficult was it considering the time when you first published your work in the late 1970s, up to the most recent publication that you've had? LMU: It has been very difficult because when I first wanted to publish En el pat's de las maravillas I sent it to Arte Público Press. Paradoxically enough the editor was a Latino of Puerto Rican origin whose name I shall not mention... CHR: But we all know who he is... [Here, I get a very sly smirk from Luzma.] LMU: He didn't feel that 1 wrote like a woman because my poems were not about flowers, trees, lost love, crying, or female pain. So he refused to publish my work. After that, I wrote to Norma Alarcón at the University of Indiana, and she had just thought of the idea of estabUshing the first press for Latinas in the US. She asked me if she could use my book and its publication as a guinea pig for the offshoot of the press. The press was Third Woman Press. My book was the first book published by that house. I keep saying everywhere I go that if it were not for Norma Alarcón I never would have been published. She also took on publishing Totras desgracias... which was the follow up book and my coming-out poems called The Margarita Poems, i am very grateful to Norma and always will be since she is someone who has suffered a lot of persecutions because she gave us a place for our voices to be heard when no one would. CHR: What role do you see Spanish playing in the diasporic Puerto Rican communities in the US and what effect (if any) does this have on the use of Spanish in Puerto Rico? LMU: Spanish is still loved dearly although many new generations of the diaspora do not speak it. There is a constant flow of people between Puerto Rico and the places of the diaspora as Puerto Ricans come and go ireely, and this has fostered •A change among Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, specially the young. The Spanish language has also been influenced by the usage of words in English which have been converted into Spanish. Renowned Linguist Bill Van Patten says that Puerto Rico is the one place where Spanish is in constant development and that is because of the exchange with English. He sees that as positive. CHR: Comment on the use of language in your work. Do you write the same in [16I


either Spanish or English? Do you prefer one over the other? In what language would you like your works to be read? LMU: It all depends on the audience I want the poem to reach. I may write in either Spanish or English. For example, I have a poem called "A mis alumnos," dedicated to my students and written in Spanish. Other poems dedicated to American society, in particular, to academia, like one called "Colleagues," are written in English. Recently, what I've done is that I write most of the poems in English, but I have a few lines in Spanish. I have incorporated both languages in the most recent publication Hoja PoĂŠtica: Pour toi/for Moira published here in Puerto Rico and dedicated to my foster daughter, Moira.

If your house within is speaking multiple languages, so be it. That is your house; that is your homeland. GHR: What is your opinion of SpangĂœsh and code-switching? LMU: I heard Czeslaw Milosz once say in a poetry reading that "language is our only homeland." If I follow what Mislosz says about language being our homeland, you have to find your homeland. If my language is code-switching, if it is Spanglish, that is my home. And I fmd that you can never change your home. You can never, and should never, deny the home that you came from because language is your home and that is the only thing you can always go back to. I think that Spanglish and code-switch ing are just as valuable as speaking any other language that exists. This is something IVe had to defend. There was once a conference in New Jersey at Seton Hall that joined Puerto Rican writers in the US and Puerto Rican poets who lived in Puerto Rico (whose names I will not mention). I was there with Sandra Maria Esteves, Miguel Reyes Rivera, and others defending the Spanglish code-switching side against this group of gentlemen telling us that we didn't write, that our literature was worthless because we had prostituted ourselves into writing in English or codeswitching. What these gentlemen didn't understand is that our writing in English is as valuable as their writing in Spanish in Puerto Rico or in any other language that can convey the house within. If your house within is speaking multiple languages, so be it. That is your house; that is your homeland. CHR: Does this homeland have a room in academia? LMU: I don't think so, that's why I'm not in academia! I got tired of being consistently persecuted because I wanted to teach people who nobody else wanted to teach. I wanted to give rights to the voices of the unheard, and this is not academia. Academia is about sacred cows and the most sacred cows are the professors who teach in academia. I'm not talking about Puerto Rico; I'm talking about my experience in the US. I have an opinion that some of the most racist people I've encountered in academia are people teaching in Spanish departments in colleges and universities where I have taught. So I have very little admiration for people in academia in general. I have seen Puerto Rican women denied tenure, reappointments, promotions, based on the fact that they are Puerto Rican. I have seen prominent Puerto Rican men denied positions because they are independentistas. I have seen women of color denied promotion because of the fact that they are lesbian, not because of excellence which is what should be taken into consideration. Because of prejudice there is a lot of mediocrity in academia. In order


to teach, you have to submit yourself to the rules of academia. If you have any spark of wanting to do something with your career or with your students that has not been done before or does not fit into that the accepted model, then they're going to put obstacles in your path and persecute you. So I am very happy that I am not in academia. CHR: But Luzma, for those of us who are in academia, who teach courses on Latino/a Literature and on diasporic Puerto Rican writers, is there no redemption.'' Many Latina writers are also academicians... LMU: Not all of them, but some of them are like Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros... Some but very few. For example, Julia Alvarez, who is in Middlebury, has had to compromise herself in order to be in academia.

So if my own peers, my own feminist women in Puerto Rico dare to tell me that if I continued talking openly about gay rights, about my theory of reading called homocriticism, about my being an open lesbian, that my career would self-destruct, then that is a place where I don't want tobe. CHR: In what ways? LMU: She has had to write what Americans want to hear that Dominicans are, in many ways. I can say that Julia Alvarez is someone who I helped at the beginning of her career to be known. And I love her poetry. But works like How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents are popular because she is telling the American public what they want to hear about Latinos and not precisely because of the fact that she is saying things that are important to elevate our culture above stereotypes. For example, Nicholasa Mohr, on the other hand, is someone who has not had to follow the route ofthe establishment and therefore her works are more human and less "I'm writing what you want to hear." The same thing with Sandra Esteves who's not in academia, and Miguel Reyes Rivera, who also isn't in academia. There are many who aren't and those who are, like Carlos Rodriguez and Daniel Torres, have been able to survive with their own gay voices, but I think that also has to do with the fact that they are men. Yet even they have had to endure persecutions. Carlos Rodriguez was accused of being a car thief and paraded all over the news years ago. He had to fight to prove that the system was mistaken. The fact that he was a professor did not matter; he was persecuted for being Puerto Rican. Judith Ortiz Cofer was first only offered jobs as adjunct professor or lecturer. It wasn't until Latinas started to become popular that they began to make room for her. CHR: Can you comment on the links between language use and cultural identity? How are these links further complicated as they cross and intersect with racial, class, and gender issues in PR? Is it the same in the US? LMU: This is a huge question which could take me years to answer. I can speak for myself. I make it a point to use Spanish whenever I can here in the US as a sense of pride in my culture, or at least the culture that was when I grew up there. I cannot purport to speak about the present situation of cultural identity in Puerto Rico because outside of my trips there and research I have not lived on the island


for 32 years. In the US, young African Americans speak Ebonics, shunning standard English, and there is a huge anti-immigrant wave that wants to make English the official language of the country. I remember that when I first came here to the US, I would talk to my students in Spanish when I met them outside the classroom. People would stop to tell me, "Go back to your country if you want to speak that language." I always answered "This is my country too because I did not ask you to invade my country in 1898." The US has become more bilingual, but the powers that be see that as a threat to "the mainstream white culture" (that has been disappearing) and thus they want to pass laws in favor of English only. CHR: How would you address the issue of language valorization on the island? Do generational differences in terms of language use affect this valorization? LMU: I think that as I said in the example of my own family, different generations value their language differently. The younger generations (who have the privilege of being in a metropolitan area) see English as the language of upward mobility. My generation was divided according to social class. I was fortunate to be sent to a private school. My cousins/sisters went to public school. Because my parents believed in the importance of English (specially my mother), they came out better than most people who attended public schools at that time. They also went to the better public schools out of my parents' insistence on education. All graduated from high school. In general, there was almost no or very little use of English outside tbe school for my generation. We knew which was "our language." Now I see the opposite. You walk around in the metropolitan area, and the young are speaking in English (with an accent) more frequently. But the colonization of Puerto Rico into English has never totally occurred, and the fact that 1 still speak with an accent is my best proof. CHR: Where do you see yourself five to ten years from now? LMU: I will continue to be in the US because I have a commitment to seeing my foster daughter Moira, whom I've helped mentor and raise, continue to survive. People tell me, well, you can now go retire in Puerto Rico, and I wish that I could do that, but as I said once in an interview used in a film by Ednia Nazario on Puerto Ricans in exile, I told her I would never give a poetry reading in Puerto Rico since I have never been invited to do so. I'd love to retire here in terms of culture, but at the same time my voice as a Latina is given more forums in which to change opinions in the US because if I came here and started reading some of my openly lesbian poems there would be an absolute scandal.... CHR: You really think so? LMU: Oh, my God! Once I read an article at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayag端ez Campus, in which I explained tbat some of the poems by Julia Alvarez have a lesbian streak, even though she doesn't consider herself lesbian. The room was frozen. I gave a lecture at the UPR-Cayey campus, in which 1 spoke, at an allegedly feminist conference, about being an open lesbian. A very prominent Puerto Rican woman critic from Mayag端ez told me that if I continued saying I was an open lesbian I was going to ruin my career. And I'm not talking about thirty years ago; this was about ten years ago, in the 1990s. So if my own peers, my own feminist women in Puerto Rico dare to tell me that if I continued talking openly about gay rights, about my theory of reading called homocriticism, about my being an open lesbian, that my career would self-destruct, then that is a place where I don't want to be. As I said, I will never give a poetry reading in Puerto Rico. The times I have given readings of my essays, they have always caused an uproar. CHR: Have they always been in academic settings? [19


LMU: They have. The one that was best received was one I did on the literary relationship between Sandra Maria Esteves and myself, because probably the audience could understand that these were tTvo Puerto Rican women from different countries in a sense (I grew up in Puerto Rico, she in New York), with different alleged upbringings, but, even so, we were similar in how we learned to communicate with each other. The paper was more about the communication between two women than talking about gay issues. But if 1 had dared to cross that line 1 don't know how it wouid have been received. CHR; It amazes me that this would happen within the last ten years. LMU: It did happen. Why is Luis Rafael Sรกnchez no longer at the University of Puerto Rico? Because the place that has given him the right to be all he is is in New York. UPR didn't give him the openings that he needed to continue writing his work. They shut him down and he migrated to where he could do that. Why can't Carlos Rodriguez teach at UPR? Because there's no room for an openly gay Puerto Rican in this context. Why is Daniel Torres not reaching at UPR? Because there is no room for him here even though his book may be presented here. There are some institutions that go through gay culture, but gay culture doesn't go through them. And this is what is happening here.

I would like to be remembered as a teacher because my students, even though I taught some of them over thirty years ago, still call me in times of trouble. CHR: Do you know Mayra Santos-Febres and her work? LMU: Yes, I do. I know her work and have taught her works in the US. CHR: Her writing approximates in certain thematic concerns what your writing also does. LMU: Yes, but she doesn't have the poignancy of exile mixed with all the other things that she is. Don't take this in a negative way: what I'm trying to say is that she has been fortunate in a way that she hasn't had to defend her culture inside another culture; that her fights have been very wonderfiil inside the island, but she hasn't had to fight this fight in an alien land. I cannot speak as to her own struggles in Puerto Rico because I do not know them. 1 can say for myself that I have had acts of homophobia perpetrated against me in Puerto Rico and also against others, which 1 have seen. CHR: Would you consider Maine, where you currently live, an alien land? LMU: It is the ultimate place a Puerto Rican can be, as if to say we now have a Puerto Rican in Pluto! Maine has only one million people, most of them French Canadian. They want to make me into a French Canadian since my last name is Umpierre. French Canadians in Maine don't believe in higher education. So Maine has the lowest percentage of any state sending people to colleges and universities even though they have the highest percentage of high school graduates. So I have encountered discrimination because of education and, on top ofthat, when you tell tbem that you're Puerto Rican, then you have to be a drug addict or a drug dealer or something like that. For example, I demand to be called doctor in certain places and you should see the uproar that generates because they cannot conceive tbat a Puerto [2O]


Rican can be a doctor. They're constantly questioning why I call myself a doctor, what my specialty is, etc. Since they don't believe in higher education the stigma of thinking that a minority woman can actually be educated is unbearable. I live in one of the poorest towns in the US (Lewiston). It is not nice living there, but I've always thought there is a reason for which I have been put into this place. Recently, a lesbian woman told me in town: "Lewiston is a better place because you've been here," because I don't take things lying down. When I see in the town that there needs to be fomented an atmosphere that would improve the society, I take very strong stands. For that I have been fortunate since the Governor of the state gave me a proclamation from Congress, naming me an "Outstanding Woman of Maine." CHR: What originally took you to Maine? LMU: I had a contract to work for a few years at Bates College. After that 1 decided to stay there because my foster daughter was attending a university in Massachusetts, and it was easier to travel to help her if I was in Maine than for her mother to come all the way from Rochester, New York. So that's why I decided to stay here and help her during her college years. This has also been a fortunate experience for me. CHR: How would you like to be remembered? LMU: I would like to be remembered as a teacher because my students, even though I taught some of them over thirty years ago, still call me in times of trouble. They reach out when they are in despair. They do amazing things wben they find themselves in positions of leadership to foster the things I taught them, and that is very rewarding. I have students of mine whom 1 taught at Academia María Reina in the 1970s in Puerto Rico who still send me e-mails. One time when I went to a university to give a lecture, one of my former students who was working there heard that I was going and she volunteered to pay for the reception because it was for me. These things fill me with joy to think that although so many years have passed I have helped create a whole generation of Puerto Rican professionals who are now making an important contribution to culture. Some of them are architects, writers, and university professors who have instituted Caribbean courses just like the ones I've instituted. This gives me great joy. CHR: Do you bave any other comments related to bilingualism and language contact (between Spanish and English) in Puerto Rico.' LMU: As a founder oí the bilingual education movement in the US, I believe that we all benefit from speaking another language or languages. This does not mean that you forget your own but that you amplify your mental horizons by learning the culture of others and their language.

ACKNOWLEGEMENTS

I would like to thank my colleague. Dr. Alma Simounet, in the English Department at the University of Puerto Rico, for introducing me to Dr. Luz María Umpierre and for making this interview possible.

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