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Hybrid Identities; Silenced Selves

Uninhibited's picture

Hybrid Identities; Silenced Selves

            Growing up in a country that was not my own, as I tried to adopt behaviors in order to fit in socially in school and in college, I often felt as though I was abandoning traits that were essential to who I was. In her memoir, Rigoberta Menchú talks about being a Quiché woman but not representing all factors of that identity as a result of having learned Spanish. John Edgar Wideman echoed similar sentiments in saying that the higher he moved on the social ladder, the more alienated he felt from his home, family and more specifically his brother. What is the price that those from marginalized groups must pay when attempting to achieve social mobility by adapting to the dominant culture? Which aspects of their culture and identity are silenced as they choose to highlight or give voice to other versions of the self? How are these people viewed not only by the dominant culture but also by their home culture? I often fear being called a traitor by my family and I hide my accomplishments from them to avoid being seen as “the other.” In comparing the experiences of Rigoberta Mechú and John Edgar Wideman to my own, is it worth the risk to loose a part of the self in order to help our communities and ourselves?

 By taking in the dominant culture’s values, language, practices, are we forgetting our own? According to Rigoberta Menchú’s memoir, her experience as a Quiché woman in Guatemala was not only marked by the extreme poverty and oppression experienced by her people, but it was also marked by her recognition that in order to help her people achieve the level of international attention necessary to bring justice, her role would require her to learn Spanish. When Menchú’s village realized that they had to set up safety measures to protect their community and began to organize, Menchú’s role as a catechist involved traveling to different villages and areas to speak to people. She recognized that because of the language barriers between the villages, Spanish would the unifying language that she could use to communicate with other Indians (Menchú, 2009, pp. 189). However, I don’t think that Menchú simply chose to learn Spanish because she recognized the language barriers of having 22 different languages in Guatemala, instead I think that she recognized that at some point someone would have to represent her people nationally and internationally and that Spanish would best serve this purpose. In trying to turn the attention of the international community to the injustices that the Indians of Guatemala were facing as a result of an oppressive government, Menchú chose to acknowledge that she would have to adopt a different language, Spanish, to be heard. What would have happened if she had chosen not to learn Spanish as a political statement? Would she have received the same attention? I would argue that that is not the case, that the dominant culture always expects those from subordinate groups to adopt some of their culture, practices, and in Menchú’s case language. Despite having to use the language of her oppressors to be heard, Menchú achieved her goal of helping bring international attention and justice to her people, the question that presents itself now is, was it worth losing part of her identity?

            By choosing to learn Spanish to communicate with and organize the people of Guatemala and the international community to bring justice to the Indians of the country, Menchú did not lose her identity as a Quiché woman. Instead, I think that she molded herself into someone that kept the aspects of her culture that are truest and most essential to her work, and adapted the behavior and strategies of the dominant culture necessary to achieve this work. In looking at it this way, it is easy to recognize why she was seen as a representative of the Quiché people although she did not live a “traditional Quiché life.” Menchú had a Quiché heart, but also had a “ladino” voice and she used this voice to strategically obtain rights for her people. In some ways, she took the tools used to oppress her people to help them achieve justice and in doing that developed a hybrid identity. This concept of having a hybrid identity is clearly seen in Menchú’s work; however, it is complicated by John Edgar Wideman’s account of his relationship to his brother. Are we truly ourselves if we leave parts of our identities behind?

            In Brothers and Keepers John Edgar Wideman articulated the complexity of his relationship with his brother. In his eyes, with his brother being destined to spend the rest of his life in jail, and his identity as a college professor, the two were almost one, and at the same time two opposite people. Before Wideman became a college professor, however, his identity was very much that of his brother: a poor black male. Wideman poignantly articulates the difficulties he faced as he tried to strip himself of his blackness in order to become something that he wasn’t. He believed that in order to be successful, he would use his “good grades” and “good English” to find his way out of poverty and blackness (Wideman, 1984, pp. 27). Wideman very much wanted to adopt the dominant culture and even explains coming home after leaving for college as a way to measure how successful he had become. He says “If I ever doubted how good I had it away at school in that world of books, exams, pretty, rich white girls… If I ever had any hesitations or reconsiderations about the path I’d chosen, you all were back home in the ghetto to remind me of how lucky I was” (Wideman, 1984, pp. 27).  This may have been part of the reason for which he felt so alienated from his brother even before his brother’s criminal conviction, for Wideman, his brother mirrored everything he was but did not want to be. In some ways, his brother represented the parts of his identity that he desperately wanted to silence. This was validated by the fact that as Wideman attempted to adopt aspects of the dominant culture into his identity, his brother refused and in fact actively opposed it. Although we mostly hear from John Wideman about his experience with success and feelings of alienation from his family, we do not hear clearly how his brother understood this. What does it mean to tell the people that you grew up with that your culture does not serve you and in fact hinders you from achieving academic and economic success? How were their values silenced in Wideman’s search for upward mobility?

             This fear of being ill equipped to be successful in America because of feelings of inadequacy due to poorness and blackness were definitely issues that I dealt with throughout my years of schooling. Although I still maintain very strong ties to my culture and my family, I sympathize with Wideman’s belief that some aspects of his culture needed to be shed in order to achieve his goal. Like Rigoberta Menchú and Wideman, I feel a constant need to reimagine my identity as Latina immigrant in a college campus in order to feel included and valued as a member of this community. At the same time, I recognize that this refashioning does lead to a sense of a partial “loss of the self” which I’m afraid of revealing to my family and community. My fear of being too far removed from my family, language, and culture is shown by the fact that I avoid showing my family my academic success for fear that they will think that I’ve become the “other.” Although I recognize that this is not the case, and that like Menchú, I’ve become a hybrid of two cultures, I still share in Wideman’s fear that in becoming a hybrid, I am no longer who I was at first and that in reaching for inclusiveness in this community, I’ve silenced and erased an intricate part of my identity.





Menchú, Rigoberta. (2009). I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

Brooklyn: Verso.

Wideman, John Edgar. (1984). Brothers and Keepers. New York: Vintage Books 



Anne Dalke's picture


throughout this semester, you have returned again and again to the same troubling topic: that of the "two worlds" that make up your life, and so make you feel divided against yourself (among your"selves").

You first named this dynamic in your initial web event, I choose to be silent/You don't make me silent, and asked the poignant question whether we can truly be "ourselves if we leave parts of our identities behind."
That essay set forth a sharp binary between the world that "empowers you and encourages you to use your voice," in contrast to the other "one that silences you and reminds you that using this voice to disagree is rebellious."

When you returned to this topic in your second web event, Silence is Tradition,Voice is Treason, you explained that it is less being silenced by Dominican culture than the "silencing of your identity that feels overwhelming." The balance seemed to shift here: the first time 'round it was your culture @ home that silenced you; the second time you visited the topic, it was the culture college that silenced your first identity: "we know what it is like to be confined by roles and we’ve chosen to slowly break free….we will show that we can choose who we are and still remain intrinsically tied and grateful to the most important people in our journeys."

Now, re-reading your own story a third time through the lenses provided by Menchú and Wideman, you foreground yet another dimension of this dynamic: what it must feel like to be left behind (what is the untold story of Wideman's brother, for instance, who "represented the parts of his identity that he desperately wanted to silence"?): "What does it mean to tell the people that you grew up with that your culture … hinders you from achieving academic and economic success? How were their values silenced in Wideman’s search for upward mobility?" This essay takes an stronger stance than the other two in its account of a partial “loss of the self”:
"I am no longer who I was at first … in reaching for inclusiveness in this community, I’ve silenced and erased an intricate part of my identity."

And so I guess I'm wondering where you can go from here…how to think-and-feel yourself out of and beyond this binary of a true identity, lost enroute to success. Is there a way to re-imagine (and re-experience) what you are going through so that it is less a loss than an evolution, less a leaving-behind than a growth that incorporates many dimensions of who you are? We all of us shed earlier selves as we grow, as we move from the culture of home into the larger world. Is there a way to tell this story that isn't tragic, even poignant, but growth-inducing and life-enhancing? I think here of Menchú, who long ago ceased to live the life of a  traditional Quiché woman, and yet travels the world, speaking on behalf of the Quiché, describing culture she no longer participates in shaping. Or does she? Reshaping it as she represents it? She is not who she was originally, but so much more….

I think, too, of Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera (which surely you must know?); that book sees being on a border as a powerful place, one that has a larger perspective, that  can see into two cultures, from the edge of each. Also, for my eco-class, I was reading last night in a book by Ursula Heise called Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. She was exploring the idea of "imagined communities" that aren't focused on the differences within and between nations (and I would say, languages), but looking instead for countermodels of identity: hybridity, creolization, mestizaje, migration, borderlands, diaspora, nomadism, exile, deterritorialization --she sees all these  as having a disabling, and potentially empowering marginality, because they view dominant culture from the outside, are skeptical about local rootedness, and validate identities defined in relation to a multiplicity of places. In James Clifford's Routes, for example, she says migration is not about leaving one identity behind to pick up another, but rather becomes the core of cultural identity itself. Might you try on such a story on for size…and "fit"?

P.S. Don't miss Chandrea's web event, which explores a landscape similar to yours.