Today I’d like to talk about a friend who is no longer alive. After moving to Colorado at 15, and generally hating my parents and my life because, teenager, this person made school into a place that I wanted to be. I had never really been given positive encouragement about my intellect but my Spanish teacher, Griselda, was fond of my weirdness and I soon began spending time with her after school. Together, with my new friends, including two native Spanish-speaking exchange students, we became a crew. Their influence is the singular reason I won the only first prize I’ve ever won in my entire life (in Spanish poetry; find it appended below) and probably why I became a Spanish major.
Griselda was fascinating: quirky, elegant, ecstatic, bombastic, enlightened and enlightening. The exact sort of role model that a kid like me needed, and the exact kind of human that establishments like conservative high schools in the suburbs hated. She would treat us like adults, cross lines of propriety only in the sense that she shared herself with us and that herself wasn’t perfect. She had a single name – Griselda – which she fought for and was hard-won, shedding her past by losing her parentage. She was the singular person to whom I spoke about my first tattoo. As a native Puerto Rican who struggled to educate herself, she understood the early Mexican feminist’s quote at a deeper level than even I probably ever will – Las ventajas en el entendimiento lo son en el ser [advantages in the intellect are advantages in being]. While she was chased by demons up until her death, she never refrained from pursuing her passions of bringing justice, understanding, and beauty into the world. If I have an ounce of her in me still, I am proud and grateful.
Thank you to Griselda and my friends, for teaching me how beautiful this language can sound and making me trust in my ability to perform it.
In “Rebelde”, one of Juana de Ibarbourou’s most richly constructed poems, Ibarbourou details a confrontation between herself and Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx. Surrounded by wailing souls on the boat passage to the underworld, Ibarbourou defiantly refuses to lament her fate, acting as cheerfully as a sparrow. Although Ibarbourou does not escape her fate, she wins a moral victory against the forces of death.
Caronte: yo seré un escándalo en tu barca
Mientras las otras sombras recen, giman o lloren,
Y bajo sus miradas de siniestro patriarca
Las tímidas y tristes, en bajo acento, oren,
Yo iré como una alondra cantando por el río
Y llevaré a tu barca mi perfume salvaje
E irradiaré en las ondas del arroyo sombrío
Como una azul linterna que alumbrara en el viaje.
Por más que tu no quieras, por más guiños siniestros
Que me hagan tus dos ojos, en el terror maestros,
Caronte, yo en tu barca seré como un escándalo.
Y extenuada de sombra, de valor y de frío,
Cuando quieras dejarme a la orilla del río,
Me bajarán tus brazos cual conquista de vándalo.
Charon: I’ll be a scandal in your boat.
Those other souls may pray, lament or cry
beneath your evil patriarchal eye,
while timid spirits murmur in the dark.
Not I. I’ll be the lark that flits and sings.
I’ll flaunt my savage musk, and I will beam
my bright blue lantern on the bleak black stream,
sailing above the crossing on my wings.
You may not like it; and although you glare
at me with baleful eyes, I just don’t care.
Charon, in your boat I’ll be a scandal.
Then, when I’m cold and weak and fight no more,
your arms will drop me on the other shore—
vanquished—like the captive of a Vandal.