Lost in Translation

Rapper Ruby Ibarra reflects on her Filipino-American experience and the role of language in this spoken-word poem.


I grew up like any other Filipino-American

Immersed in frequent family gatherings with karaoke and an enormous banquet of food

With the titas and aunties that cover you with kisses, and the prize-winning question of . . .

"Do you know how to speak Tagalog?"

In which I reply with a phrase that has essentially become a verbal reflex of, "I can understand, but I can't speak it"

I can understand . . .

But I can't . . .

Speak it

A sentence that I have longed to transform into a question to my mother

Of why I was never taught of my country's native tongue

So when I try to find the words to say, I'm forced to bite my tongue

Not feeling "Filipino enough" because I know I can't communicate a language that translates over a thousand years of history

A language whose words have escaped the lips of battle-cry revolutions and propaganda movements

A language birthed from colonizations and screams of independence and political reform

And though my mouth can't say it, my mouth can taste every flavor of the lumpia, lechon, and sinigang

But the aftertaste stings bittersweet as I'm left lost in translation

I can't blame my mother because I've seen her gentle face overshadowed with a crimson shade of red masked in humiliation

"Only speak English, you're in America now" she was told

If that person only knew that the English translation of her words was, "I'm glad that we're here"

And after that, she didn't have to speak a word, because right then I could understand

In this country, citizenship is obtained through assimilation

Acceptance is the American dream

And being foreign is either illegal, dangerous, or inferior

So I was taught to master English like it was a skill for survival

And so I spoke, but I couldn't understand why

Why I could speak it, yet my teachers spoke to me so slowly like I couldn't understand

Why every word that escaped my lips had to be carefully pronounced so as to mask any ethnic identity

Why playground children followed me mocking, "Ching chong, ching chong" while their parents stood a distance

Yet it was these same parents who tried to stop me from speaking a language just because they thought I was secretly mocking them

And as I grew older, language became the barrier between me and these two cultures

Separated by a wall of enunciations, grammatical rules, and accents

A wall built by past ancestors with hands drenched in brick layers of acculturation

My mouth had become far too American to grasp the Tagalog words correctly

So aunties, now, when I say I can't speak it, maybe you will understand

But I'm not ashamed that I can understand, but I can't speak it

Because even some of the most powerful emotions and thoughts can't be expressed within the confines of frequencies and letters

Because after all, understanding, is the essence, of communication

So though I've never learned to speak it

I've always understood... WHY.

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