TBT: “Straddling Like a Cubano”: The Construction of Co-citizenship, Origin Stories, and Discourses in a Bilingual, Bicultural, Biliterate Individual’s Own Words – UMass Boston, Fall 2011


In Apling 635, we’ve reviewed educational philosophy and methodological practices which refer to the learner as a participant in the process who needs reinforcement, support, and the means of self-empowerment needed to help him/her build social agency.  The definitions of mainstream vs. nonmainstream learners are generally believed to fall along strike lines of white/middle-class/English-speaking and minority/disadvantaged/non-native English-speaking, respectively.  It is interesting, then, to find a subject of study who offers a counterargument to assumptions, both conservative and progressive, sociopolitical and educational, about what the terms bilingual, bicultural and biliterate mean.  In this paper I argue that the definition of these terms rests first and foremost in the hands of the individual him/herself, and that as educators, we must disconnect ourselves from the simplistic belief that a profile is the same as a person.  While this might be unconscious and well-intentioned on our part, we have to remember to listen to stories, not experts alone, in understanding who our students are.  Inviting their social agency and self-definition to take a fundamental role in mutual understanding, a necessary step in order for educational practice to be founded upon critical pedagogy and disarming defaults and status quo, must occur if we are to embody the Freirean role of educator as learner.

Literature Review

I began this research by looking for a data source that was focused on language and literacy learning and also addressed some of the discussion about bilingualism, multiculturalism, and education we’ve been having throughout the Apling 635 course.  After finding an interview that provided a lot of interesting data, I determined that I would need a foundation upon which to base my research methodology and structure my work.  Since this project was meant to be a data analysis, I then reviewed Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of Social Linguistics and Literacies by James Paul Gee, the main text in our course, as well as three Sample Discourse Analyses, also by Gee.  I found that the general framework for discourse analysis, as suggested by Gee in Social Linguistics on page 119 in Chapter 6 was particularly helpful as a starting point for understanding what levels of discourse I should be reviewing; in addition, his Sample Discourse Analysis 1 in particular provided me with the understanding of discourse markers such as cognitive I-statements as well as an important term for this paper: origin story.

Theoretical Framework
I have several questions that address the topic of co-citizenship in bilingual/bicultural/biliterate people: How is the concept of co-citizenship constructed? How does a bicultural, biliterate Cuban-American immigrant who demonstrates cultural capital and apparent proficiency in both English and Spanish construct a cultural identity of co-citizenship?  What discourses does he invoke in this construction and how do they interrelate in the interview I’m analyzing?  What conclusions can we draw about the construction of co-citizenship, and what assumptions and defaults must we as educators leave behind when understanding individual learners with unique cultural identities?
In researching possible subjects of study, I became immediately interested in the story of Gustavo Pérez Firmat, a Cuban immigrant to the U.S. whose cultural and linguistic profile is distinct from those of the ELLs we’ve been learning about in Apling 635.  We’ve read research papers which address the difficulties non-mainstream learners have in entering and seeking to benefit from the school environment, as well as the challenges educators may have in supporting the needs of – and even attempting to understand culturally – learners from marginalized backgrounds.  Through my academic work this fall, it has become clear to me that if I’ve learned nothing else, then I must keep in mind that no educator is “finished” in training or knowledge, and no educational environment, or learner or group of learners, is a duplicate of those that preceded them.  I am justifiably hesitant to apply the same labels, teaching model, and pedagogy to all learners, and so when I realized through my data analysis that Gustavo Pérez Firmat did not share the profile of marginalized, victimized, oppressed or perhaps even non-mainstream, my interest was piqued and I dug in with both hands.  I believe that the results I have culled from this work have provided me with proof that my hesitation was right, as well as questions, surprises and new challenges as an educator.

Data and Methodology

  • My approach to analyzing the data I gathered was one that started with the recommendation by Professor Pajtek of “reading and re-reading “our material in order to find themes.  I kept my approach cautious, as this is my first undertaking of a research project of this kind, and restricted myself to using few materials in establishing a framework and methodology.  I found that Gee was a kindly uncle, so to speak, to my project; he had many insights and contributions for which I am grateful.
    In addition to the analytical tools and framework I set forth for this project, I brought to the table my knowledge of Spanish; I was a Spanish major in college and lived in Spain for over two years.  This knowledge became extremely helpful in analyzing data both Spanish and English and in discussing the linguistic and discursive relevance of the information I found.   

The data itself was taken from an interview of Gustavo Pérez Firmat, a Cuban-American who emigrated to the United States when he was 11 years old.  Pérez Firmat is a professor at Columbia University, as well as a writer and scholar who has been called “the Terminator of Cultural Certainties.” (Firmat, Gustavo Perez Firmat, 2011) Celebrated as an influential Latino in the United States and the academic community and the recipient of fellowships, awards and accolades from many quarters, his voice and identity are both representative of the power of the Latino community and yet uniquely personal in their self-construction, origins and intent.  Perez Firmat was interviewed as a part of the “2 Languages, Many Voices: Latinos in the U.S.” series on NPR (National Public Radio), which focuses on the bicultural and bilingual/inter-lingual experiences of Latinos living in the United States (see Works Cited section for link to transcription).  Included in the interview was a poem written and read aloud by Perez Firmat, which exemplifies his agility in moving between English and Spanish to create a completely new form of language which is both resonant with the voice of many bilinguals in the U.S., yet very much his own.

Data Analysis and Interpretation of Results

In analyzing the data I gathered from the NPR interview of Gustavo Pérez Firmat, I attempted to isolate several main phenomena that add depth and dimension to the listener’s perception of Pérez Firmat as a bilingual/bicultural/biliterate speaker of Spanish and English.  Through the fluidity of interrelated discourses within which he moves, operating at bi-language, metacognitive and emotional levels, we find evidence of indeterminacy (Gee, Chapters 9, 10, 11: Sample Discourse Analyses 1, 2, 3, 1999), challenges to assumptions about academic discourse from the bilingual speaker himself, and the underpinnings of the speaker’s origin story.  It is only through an embrace of this fluidity, as an ultimate undoing of definition (which is, philosophically, a form of limitation), that the listener can begin to understand who Pérez Firmat is, not solely as a profile of bilingualism, of an immigrant, of a Cuban-American, but as an individual with his own voice and story.

From the beginning of the interview, it is clear that Gustavo Pérez Firmat has a perspective on bilingualism and biculturalism that not only challenges stereotyping in the media by conservatives, but interrogates assumptions made by members of the liberal/progressive camp as well.  In response to a question about his bilingualism in Spanish and English and his academic and literary achievements, he responds with what seems like a great sense of irony: “I have a feeling that I don’t know either one fluently…I have a feeling that words fail me in both languages…I don’t’ have one true language.” (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011) This seems to complicate a basic concept that Gee puts forth: “[I]f speakers are to be able to vary their style of speaking, they must have a language that essentially gives them options between equivalent ways of saying the same thing, but that differ in terms of their associations with various socially defined groups.” (Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2008)  It is true that Pérez Firmat is able to say things, language-wise, in two different languages; however, to the surprise of the interviewer and in a way which questions Gee’s statement, Pérez Firmat appears not to feel proficient – perhaps fully literate is a better term – in either Spanish or English.  This seeming ambivalence embodies what Gee refers to as indeterminacy, an irresolution found in texts sampled from bilingual speakers in which they seek to “come to terms with, make sense of, very real paradoxes and contradictions, ones that in reality can’t be removed…” (Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2008) The distinction between his past and present realities – Cuban vs. American, perhaps lower-class vs. middle-/upper-class, speaker of Spanish (a minority/non-mainstream language in the U.S.) vs. speaker of English (the dominant language), and so on – appears delineated chronologically, geographically, and linguistically in Pérez Firmat’s life story; however, this complexity becomes much more intriguing as we review the means, the discursive strategies, he uses to tell this story.

Pérez Firmat’s indeterminacy is manifested in several ways in the interview.  He reads a poem entitled “Bilingual Blues” that the interviewer refers to as having a “sense of being betwixt and between” (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011).  I have taken lines from the poem which contain words that refer to this idea, in either English or Spanish, in boldface, in a basic analysis of what Gee calls thematic organization of the text (Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2008):

  1. 1 Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones*.
  2. 2 I have mixed feelings about everything.
  3. 3 Name your tema, I’ll hedge.
  4. 4 Name your cerca, I’ll straddle it like a Cubano.
  5. 5 I have mixed feelings about everything.
  6. 6 Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones*.
  7. 7 Vexed, hexed, complexed, hyphenated, oxygenated
  8. 8 Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones*, un puré de impurezas**

* un ajiaco de contradicciones = a soup of contradictions

** un puré de impurezas = a pureé of impurities

Pérez Firmat seems to be demonstrating in a creative and generative way the fact that being bilingual in some ways embodies a sense of contradiction, of mixture of two realities or the concept of “two souls” which he cannot, in reality, accept or completely digest (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011).  He uses words like hedge and straddle, verbs that imply indecisiveness or a lack of commitment.  This first level of analysis reveals Pérez Firmat’s construction of co-citizenship – perhaps “co-membership” is a better term – in the languages of Spanish and English through his masterful use of code switching, pun and metaphor in bi-language poetic discourse.

However, there is another level of analysis we can apply to Pérez Firmat’s text in this interview as a means of understanding how his co-citizenship is constructed: an analysis of the metacognitive tools he uses to express awareness of the very challenges he faces in the construction of this bilingual/bicultural reality, revealed through academic discursive argumentation.  Pérez Firmat expresses this metacognitive awareness through his use of cognitive I-statements (such as “I think,” “just,” “really,” etc.) like those described by Gee (Gee, Chapters 9, 10, 11: Sample Discourse Analyses 1, 2, 3, 1999).  I would suggest that these cognitive I-statements are an example of what Gee refers to in Social Linguistics as “contextualization signals by means of which speakers and writers ‘cue’ listeners and readers into what they take the context to be.” (Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2008)  A grouping of examples, listed in stanza form, is shown below in boldface:

  1. 1 Well, I have a feeling that I don’t know either one fluently.
  2. 2 I have a feeling that words fail me in both languages.
  3. 3 …the poetry and the writing grows to a certain extent – I’d say to a large extent – from the feeling that I don’t have one true language.
  4. 4 I hadn’t read this poem in many years…what occurs to me is the anger behind the pun; that I think reflects the speakers, i.e., my sort of discomfort with finding myself between languages.
  5. 5 I’m not sure it’s a true idea to have more than one soul.
  6. 6 …[T]he first thing that occurs to me is that I basically can only curse in Spanish.
  7. 7 Well, I think that’s, for me, what Spanglish represents…
  8. 8 sometimes I have the sense that I’m a different person in Spanish than I am in English…

At every turn there is a thoughtful distancing of the self from the subject at hand using these academic discursive markers; Pérez Firmat discusses his bilingualism in a way that is not surprising, considering that he is employed as a professor at an Ivy League university in New York City.  This is the second clue in understanding the ways in which Pérez Firmat constructs his co-citizenship.  Unlike a majority of bilinguals in the U.S. who were not raised in their home country learning two languages at the same time in school, Pérez Firmat was afforded the opportunity to develop critical skills and analytical abilities typical of academic discourse in both English and Spanish in his schooling in Cuba, and he demonstrates the cultural capital attributed to this academic discourse in the interview; this, in turn, allows him to move from a perspective on language which is socioculturally, professionally or economically motivated, where the learner is trying to learn a new language because it’s necessary for survival and/or improvement of quality of life, to a perspective which is analytical, distancing, and academic in nature.

Pérez Firmat, then, establishes his ability to self-critique in this text using academic discourse in English and, ironically, uses this analytical language to interrogate itself as it comes from his own mouth, at the metacognitive level.  In spite of his undeniable achievement academically, intellectually and socially (by mainstream American standards) of becoming a professor at Columbia University, Pérez Firmat refuses to accept that his manifest proficiency in either language means that he perceives himself as biliterate, which seems a great irony; this may be his means of exploring concepts like reward and status, which we in the United States use as a basis for arguing in favor of bilingual education, through an interrogation of assumptions that bilingual/bicultural speakers as people should feel pride in speaking two languages (something which should be considered a “joy,” as the interviewer suggests (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011).  Pérez Firmat seems to be reminding us that not all bilingual, bicultural learners are marginalized or oppressed by their lack of understanding, access and social agency, and not all of them perceive themselves in the two-dimensional way they are often seen from a mainstream perspective, no matter how “successful” they might be.

In order to avoid the pitfall of easy binarisms, Pérez Firmat discusses his reluctance to provide a linguistically-anchored self-definition in the interview and clarifies the fact that the view of bilingualism can be reductive, glossing over the many subdiscourses all people have in their lives, regardless of native tongue: “There are not only mother tongues.  There are also father tongues, and sister tongues, and lover tongues, and brother tongues, and son tongues.” (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011)  He talks about his relationship with different family members in his life and his language use with these people, invoking a third level of analysis, which again takes place on a thematic level, where we analyze the intimate, private, family discourses characterized by emotions and feelings (shown in boldface in the stanza below):

  1. 1 I basically can only curse in Spanish.
  2. 2 I had a difficult relationship with my dad and there may have been some cursing involved in both parts.
  3. 3 And there’s this kind of anger, this kind of effect.
  4. 4 On the other hand, I have a hard time saying I love you in Spanish.
  5. 5 When I say te quiero*, te amo*, it sounds stilted.
  6. 6 But for me, it’s very natural to say I love you.
  7. 7 Every time I talk to my son or my daughter, we end the discussion by saying I love you.

* te quiero/te amo = I love you

Based on this text, we can draw conclusions about Pérez Firmat’s primary Discourse into which he was apprenticed in the home of his father in Cuba; this relationship was contentious and conflictive, utilizing angry language and lacking terms of affection such as “te quiero” or “te amo,.” He also discusses the inter-lingual puns he uses in Spanish in his poem, “pullas,” meaning “jabs…sort of stabs of anger” (“you say ‘tomato,’ I say ‘tu madre’”) (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011).  In contrast, with his English-speaking family in the United States, his wife and children, he speaks in loving ways and uses English to do this.  It suggests the fact that he may seek to redefine fatherhood in himself by using the new linguistic code of English to show affection and love for his family in a way he did not perceive it from his own Spanish-speaking father, with whom he traded jabs and curses.

It is this reference to emotion that allows Pérez Firmat to depart from critical self-analysis in the end, leaving him, ultimately, in the driver’s seat of constructing his identity as both a co-citizen and perhaps something different and certainly elusive, perhaps even to him.  This is particularly important as we refer back to Gee’s Sample Discourse Analysis 1 and review another important concept, that of building meaning in narrative, an exercise in which “people often encode problems or concerns into their narratives and their attempts to resolve them” (Gee, Chapters 9, 10, 11: Sample Discourse Analyses 1, 2, 3, 1999).  If we review some of the text used before in establishing Pérez Firmat’s academic discourse as an indicator of part of his cultural identity and ability to apply cultural capital, we can see this final, most subconscious description of self, in which he describes feelings and reactions and, I suggest, creates for us part of his origin story, a concept introduced in Gee’s Sample Discourse Analysis.  I have put in boldface those words that indicate feelings and have underlined the important final lines of the poem in order to discuss the origin story concept:

  1. 1 Well, I have a feeling that I don’t know either one fluently.
  2. 2 I have a feeling that words fail me in both languages.
  3. 3 …the feeling that I don’t have one true language.
  4. 4 …what occurs to me is the anger behind the pun…my sort of discomfort with finding myself between languages.
  5. 5 sometimes I have the sense that I’m a different person in Spanish than I am in English…
  6. 6 I have mixed feelings about everything. (2x)
  7. 7 Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones, un puré de impurezas: A little square from Rubik’s Cuba que nadie nunca acoplará.

Pérez Firmat threads throughout the text the true root of his co-citizenship and his means of constructing it: his feelings, his emotional self, which is purely his and cannot be completely understood or perfectly analyzed.  The last line, which I translate here, says it all: “I am a soup of contradictions, a pureé of impurities: A little square from Rubik’s Cuba that no one will ever fit into place.  Cha cha cha.”  As a bilingual, bicultural, co-citizen of Cuba and the United States, Pérez Firmat could be analyzed, measured, and asked to describe himself in many contexts, and could further be depicted, using Gee’s term, as indeterminate in his self-characterization; however, I argue that his deliberate use of expressions of feeling and emotion, the most fluid elements of our conscious selves, is, in spite of his academic voice, in spite of all his explanations, where his bilingualism, biculturalism and biliteracy must be understood without contradiction.  For who can argue against someone’s feelings, someone’s personal reaction to their world, as they tell their own story?

I believe that to a large degree, this fluidity and use of emotion exemplifies Gee’s concept of origin story, in which the teller “transformed himself through his own individual efforts and through rational calculation into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘worthy’ person…[which is] typical of many male autobiographical stories in Western culture (Freccero, 1986).” (Gee, Chapters 9, 10, 11: Sample Discourse Analyses 1, 2, 3, 1999)  Pérez Firmat appears to be telling his story using the emotions from his youth and the transition from anger to self-control as an adult male; however, what is eminently intriguing in Pérez Firmat’s self-description, and particularly his poetry, is that he has not left this angry Cuban young man behind in his past.  His origin story is still being told, revitalized, and reworked in the workshop of his bi-language, bicultural, biliterate poetry, written, published and sold all across the United States and abroad.  He does not embrace the “classic values of U.S. middle-class, capitalist culture” (Gee, Chapters 9, 10, 11: Sample Discourse Analyses 1, 2, 3, 1999) like Gee’s subject Brian does, which leaves us intrigued and waiting to hear more about Pérez Firmat’s story.  Why doesn’t a bilingual, bicultural, biliterate person want to step forward and show himself to have moved out of his origins into a culturally “valid” and powerful place in his American life?  The answer is obvious.  For Pérez Firmat, the construction of co-citizenship and identity is not merely a cerebral or academic act, but rather a personal dialogue that ties in many voices in emotional, profound and fluid ways that cannot be completed analyzed, pinned down or justified by mainstream standards.  All of these voices must be heard as part of a story constantly being retold; to do otherwise would be like attempting to use a microscope to watch an opera, when all the senses, as well as a curious, open mind, are necessary to understand its full meaning.  It is Pérez Firmat’s and his alone, to state that his poem, perhaps like his life, is “both a blues and a chacha…both a lament and a celebration” (Firmat, For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’, 2011) and to understand what this really means to him.  His bilingualism, as he states, is both “blessing” and “burden,” and his origin story cannot permit any other way of seeing things.

Bilinguals/biculturals do not arrive at bilingualism as a finished process in which they step away from their home culture/language and embrace the new one in a sort of unequivocal joy; as educators, we can’t think about bilingual/bicultural people as a version of newly made American citizens, whose greatest hope was to become “American.”  Nor can we assume that these individuals can be called “victims” or depicted as suffering another form of social inequity or oppression; such assumptions can, ironically, disempower the learner and over-empower the already-powerful English-literate teacher as gatekeeper and savior.

The story of Gustavo Pérez Firmat should be instructive, especially to those of us who want to work or are already working in a bilingual education environment.  He actively constructs his co-citizenship in Spanish and English while maintaining a fluid, multidimensional self-definition which “straddle[s] like a Cubano.”  This indeterminacy potentially represents a difficulty in resolving contradiction or trying to unify disparate sides of one identity; however, in the case of Pérez Firmat, I suggest that his ultimate goal is not to find union, resolution, or answers in a traditional sense.  I think his “answers” lie in an embrace of his own fluidity and bilingual/bicultural/bilterate identity through bi-language poetic discourse, his interrogation of this identity through the application of academic discourse and cultural capital, and the telling and retelling of own origin story in an intimate, emotional, family discourse of past and present.  While this may seem like a complicated means of understanding a learner from more than one language, culture, or literacy, I believe this is an a priori first step in the development of critical pedagogy and the individualized education of literacy and language learners.  Honoring their unique stories, as complex and fluid as each may be, as theirs and theirs alone is the only way their social agency and cultural identity will have a real chance to take root and grow as a valued contribution to our multicultural society.

Works Cited

Firmat, G. P. (2011, October 17). For A Bilingual Writer, ‘No One True Language’. (R. Montagne, Interviewer) U.S.A.  Transript of interview can be found at: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/17/141368408/for-a-bilingual-writer-no-one-true-language

Firmat, G. P. (2011). Gustavo Perez Firmat. Retrieved November 15, 2011, from http://www.gustavoperezfirmat.com

Gee, J. P. (1999). Chapter 9: Sample Discourse Analysis 1; Chapter 10: Sample Discourse Analysis 2; Chapter 3: Sample Discourse Analysis 3. In J. P. Gee, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (pp. 137-181). New York, NY, U.S.A.: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2008). Social Linguistics and Literacies (3rd Edition ed.). New York, NY, U.S.A.: Routledge .


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