Book Review: Wild Tongues Can’t be Tamed: 15 Voices From the Latinx Diaspora’

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Wild Tongues Can’t be Tamed: 15 Voices From the Latinx Diaspora
Edited by Saraciea J. Fennell
Flatiron Books: 272 pages


In her trailblazing 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, renowned Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa asks: “How do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you make it lie down?” In response, Anzaldúa guides us through her struggle to perform and express her own unique Chicana identity within cultural conflict situated in the borderlands of Texas. Amidst the many opposing forces of U.S. acculturation, forced assimilation, and socially imposed notions of Mexican “authenticity,” Anzaldúa arrives at the answer to her own self-imposed question: “Wild tongues can’t be tamed. They can only be cut out.”

It is from a germinal line about silencing those who resist stereotypes and restrictions placed on identity that Black Honduran author and founder of the Bronx is Reading, Saraciea J. Fennell, builds her remarkable anthology Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora.

This collection carries the torch of Anzaldúa’s work, pushing it further to include the diverse voices of Latinx identity. Fennell’s collection zooms out from the U.S.-Mexico border to give voice to other Latino/a/xs that have also been excluded from claiming a Latinx identity due to their race, nationality, sexuality, and gender. There is a critique of whiteness, white supremacy, and U.S. nationalism throughout the text, but even more important, the authors seek to root out and expose the hierarchies in place within the Latino/a/x community. Fennell sums up the volume as “letting our truths run wild, and pushing against whatever it is you think is the ideal Latinx individual.”

Afro-Latinx identity and anti-Blackness are key themes in many of the pieces of the collection. Julian Randall’s “#Julian4SpiderMan” is one of the several standout works, with the web-slinging superhero serving as a metaphor for Randall’s struggles of being recognized as both Latinx and Black. Throughout, Randall riffs on variations of the repeated line “OK, people, let’s do this one last time. Spider-Man has always been Black” to represent the ways they have continuously had to explain their identity, their origin story, to white classmates and to other Latinos, because being both Black and Latinx seems otherworldly and unimaginable to those who have a limited view of what Latinidad looks like.

Randall finds inspiration in Miles Morales from the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, an Afro-Latino Spider-Man, whose greatest power, according to Randall, is that Miles “is always resolutely aware that he doesn’t have to prove his Latinidad to anyone” since “we never see Miles have a crisis on-screen about being Black and Latinx.” In the end, Randall takes on Miles’s superpower, taking off their mask to show the world who they are, becoming their own version of a superhero who no longer hides behind a split identity like other superheroes do.

“Cuban Imposter Syndrome” by Zakiya N. Jamal explores the complicated nature of Afro-Latinidad, sharing her experiences as a Black Cuban who, not feeling she “measured up” to being Latina due to her race, aligned herself more with the Black community. Yet, she saw the way this erased part of her identity from herself. Recalling her time at Georgetown University, Jamal relays an incident where a Latinx on-campus house, La Casita Latina, was shuttered, while the Black house remained.

Although La Casita Latina was brought back through student activism, Jamal recalls how she didn’t step up to support the Latinx student community. “I had ostracized myself from the Latinx community because I felt I wasn’t welcome in it,” she explains. “But how could I wish to be welcomed into a group that I didn’t have the courage to stand up to and support? For that reason, I will always be ashamed for doing nothing when there was so much to do.”

Jamal doesn’t absolve the Latinx community of its anti-Blackness in her journey to self-acceptance, but she does see the need for the building of an Afro-Latinx community that bridges discussions of Blackness and Latinidad, shining a light on the racism within the Latinx community that needs to be confronted, and encouraging others to accept and celebrate both their Black and Latinx identities together.

Courtesy of Flatiron Books

Mark Oshiro’s opening text “Eres Un Pocho” explores the dangers and antagonisms of trying to acculturate to the Latinx community as a queer Latino. Oshiro recounts his coming of age, being adopted by a white mother and a Japanese father, encountering other Latinx kids in school who consistently call him a pocho—a sellout, someone who doesn’t know his Latinx culture—through joining a Catholic church that seemingly welcomes him only to rebuke Oshiro because he’s gay, to experiencing police violence, but ultimately accepting his outsider status as a queer brown man, using art and writing as ways to inspire others. In a brief passage, Oshiro recounts a memory from his youth where a friend named Carlos hands him a dubbed cassette that contains music by the influential Chicano punk band Los Crudos. On that release, frontman Mart Sorrendeguy’s lyrics on “Nada Cambia” coincide with Oshiro’s journey towards challenging the myths of what it means to be Latino: 

De rodillas, siendo humildes
Esperando la invitación del regalo prometido
¿Y por esto hemos sufrido?
¿Y como aguantábamos?
Orgullosos de ser categorizado
¿Y por esto nacen los niños?
¿Y por esto mueren niños?

Nada cambia, nada cambia, nada cambia
¡Hasta que lo hagamos cambiar!

Nothing changes until we force it to change, and Oshiro, through sharing his own experiences to challenge the categorizations placed on him by others, instead finds the orgullo, the pride, in embracing, living, and writing his own story of latinidad.

Another impactful piece is Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s “Invisible.” Throughout the narrative, Contreras walks us through what she sees as the most insidious form of white supremacy: the white people that are “colorblind” and “don’t see race” and use this rhetoric to then turn themselves into victims anytime their racism is called out. Contreras notes that her white husband’s parents embodied this “worst of whiteness” where “insults are tied up in acts of kindness. Judgements are laced under cover of benevolence. No harm is ever done on purpose. There is an excuse for everything.” Her in-laws’s constant microaggressions, votes for Trump and, the final straw, gifting of a book on immigration written by a pro-eugenics author, lead Contreras to break off all communication with her husband’s parents.

As she notes, “willful ignorance is violent.” Arguing for a post-racial worldview obfuscates the racist and xenophobic nature of anti-immigration. Moreover, Contrearas shows the difficulty that her husband and his siblings have in confronting and admitting their parents are racists, not just “ignorant.” Rather, white people not calling out other white people, even close family, shields racists, perpetuating white supremacy.

Other pieces such as Naima Coster’s “The Price of Admission”, Lilliam Rivera’s “More than Nervios,” and Elizabeth Acevedo’s “A Mi Orden” unveil the ways Latinx culture and family dynamics seek to hide mental health issues and toxic family relationships under facades of the perfect family. Yet, to portray a spotless image is really Latinx families trying to hide any dysfunction as a way to gain acceptance within white U.S. culture. Admitting our families also suffer from depression, alcoholism, or that we may have kin who went to prison, makes us afraid that we will feed into and fulfill the stereotypes that Latinx people are criminal and aberrant folks. Yet, is it worth continuing the cycle of generational secrecy and trauma, just to try to impress a white society that resists accepting us, even if we are “perfect”?

Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, based on the supplied discussion questions at the end, is aimed at teenagers and young adults. But this book is mandatory reading for anyone who has been left out by the limiting and exclusionary views of what it means to be Latino/a/x. Moreover, those who police Latinidad also need to read these touching, personal narratives to see the way they have contributed to the violence against their own community.

Books like these show that you can’t tame a wild tongue, and if you cut one out, there is a chorus of more that will continue to speak out.


Featured image: author and editor Saraciea J. Fennell

Alexander Lalama is an Assistant Professor of English at Bradley University. Born and raised in the Inland Empire, California, he studied literature at Claremont Graduate University and spent several years working in Rhode Island and Massachusetts before settling in the Midwest. His interests lie in outsider subcultures such as punks, goths, metalheads, nerds, and brujo/a/xs. He can be often be found listening to punk records or reading while drinking copious amounts of coffee.

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