How societal prejudices and professional expectations create divided beings
In my previous post, I wrote about how the study of a foreign language can change you in profound ways, not the least of which are how you interact with your home culture and express yourself in your native language. Moreover, studying languages could open you up in ways previously unconsidered, thereby creating an alternate understanding of who you are and unlimited possibilities of who you could be.
This phenomenon of exploring who you really are is not limited to those who learn a second language. I’m not suggesting that we all can identify with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the Hulk, and I’m not referring to people who act like a totally different person when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, most of us have experienced what it’s like to feel like a different person in different environments. I’m now in my mid 40s, but when I visit my parents’ house, I inexplicably regress to the maturity of a 13-year-old. When I’m with my friends from college, I act bombastically, for some reason. In faculty meetings with my colleagues, I tend to be rather quiet and reserved, allowing others the opportunity to speak. When I teach my Spanish classes, I turn into an actor so that my students might have a laugh and accumulate positive associations with the subject matter. Which one is the real me? All of them? None of them? Perhaps I’m my most authentic self when I’m at home with my wife and kids, not trying to impress anybody, but even then I have to watch myself a little bit so that I don’t set a bad example for my children. And my wife and kids weren’t even around during my formative years, so there are some things about me that they might not fully appreciate. In short, I’m a walking contradiction, embodying competing characteristics at different times. It’s an ongoing process. Maybe you can relate to me.
I explored this topic in a recent Spanish Conversation class I was teaching. I created a unit in which we studied some fascinating expressions of this phenomenon, including Julia de Burgos’s poem “A Julia de Burgos,” Jorge Luis Borges’s difficult to categorize text entitled “Borges y yo,” and Frida Kahlo’s surrealistic painting known as “Las dos Fridas.” While these three examples are quite different, they all, I think, express a disconnect between authentic expression and expectations.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t intimately familiar with the poetry of Julia de Burgos prior to an AP reading from a couple of years ago, when I was assigned to read students’ responses to a question about the fascinating poem, “A Julia de Burgos.” Instead of pasting the poem in this post, I’ll just provide a link to the original text in Spanish and the English translation and embed a reading below.
In the work, she’s talking to herself as if there were a second being inside of her, calling this other version of herself “tú” (“you”), while using the subject pronoun “yo” (“I”), to refer to her authentic self or the “yo” she always wants to be. She creates a clear distinction between the two Julias. The other Julia is cold and egotistical. She’s also submissive, belonging to her husband and conforming to societal expectations. She’s controlled by not only her husband, but also a long list of people, including her priest, her parents and other relatives, and even her stylist. The trappings of high society also control her. She’s preoccupied with her physical appearance, wearing makeup and fancy clothes. The authentic, Julia, however, belongs to nobody, or to everybody, she declares. The wind styles her hair, and the sun provides her color. Thus, she rebels against gender stereotypes, while at the same time recognizing that in the past she’s allowed herself to fall victim to the prejudices of men. And this authentic voice of a strong and independent woman comes through in her poetry, where she can be brave and resilient.
Julia de Burgos (Puerto Rico, 1914-1953), to my knowledge, didn’t personally know Frida Kahlo (Mexico, 1907-1954), although they were contemporaries. It’s not hard to imagine that as genius, creative women in male-dominated professions, they probably dealt with some of the same prejudices. Kahlo’s paintings, like those of many of the great surrealist artists, are quite difficult to interpret. Dreamlike images point to subconscious motivations, but often not even the dreamer can explain his or her dreams. One of her masterpieces, “Las dos Fridas” (“The Two Fridas”), is a thought-provoking double self-portrait, in which the two Fridas have nearly identical expressions, but there are some noticeable differences between the two. I’m unaware of any detailed explanations that Kahlo may have given about the work, which leaves me to speculate about its meaning.
One obvious difference is that of the dresses. While the Frida on the left is wearing a very elegant and ornate white dress, perhaps of European origin, the Frida on the right wears a more colorful and simpler dress, more typical of Mexico. Some critics speculate that each dress represents her mixed heritage; her father was of German descent, while her mother was Mexican. The heart of each Frida is exposed. We see that the heart on the right is whole, while the one on the left is split. It’s difficult to see, but the Frida on the right is apparently holding a small portrait of what looks to be her husband, the famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, which is connected by a vein to her heart. The Frida in the white dress has cut the vein, leaving a bright red stain on her white dress. Because the painting is from 1939, the year when she and Diego divorced, we can hypothesize that Frida felt happiest and more complete when their relationship was good and, perhaps, when she felt more connected to the Mexican part of her mixed heritage. The dark clouds in the background reflect this tumultuous time in her life. One aspect that I really like about this painting is that the two Fridas are holding hands, perhaps in recognition of their interdependence and the support they provide each other. The hurting Frida, despite the calm look on her face, relies on the complete, healed Frida for support.
The final work I want to talk about is Jorge Luis Borges’s “Borges y yo,” which, as mentioned above, is a short and hard to label text. Borges (Argentina, 1899-1986) published this work in 1960 as part of a collection of short stories. Here is a link to an English translation of “Borges y yo,” and here is the original text, in Spanish. Below is an embedded recording of Borges himself reading the text in Spanish.
Listening to Borges read this text makes me smile, because I can identify a bit with what he’s expressing, but there’s also a note of melancholy in his voice. As with “A Julia de Burgos,” Borges uses the word “yo” to refer to his authentic self. Unlike Burgos’s poem, however, Borges doesn’t address his other self directly. Instead, he simply calls his alter ego “Borges.” One wonders why he uses the last name to refer to the other, who is the famous writer and professor. It could be because one’s first name is much more personal. It’s what our friends who really know us will call us. Famous people get called by their last names in the press. Students call professors by their last names. Readers call their preferred authors by their last name, too. In the text, his authentic self is quite simple. He enjoys taking slow walks through Buenos Aires noticing the architecture, drinking coffee, and reading books. The writer, on the other hand, is much more vain, even if he shares the same interests. Although the two don’t have a hostile relationship, the melancholy aspect of the work lies in that Borges is slowly taking over his “yo.” The final line, in which he says that he doesn’t know which of the two wrote the page that he’s reading, is brilliant.
While Kahlo and Burgos express certain feelings and expectations related to their gender and relationships with men, thereby creating different versions of themselves, Borges’s alter ego is caused by his profession. For me, the greatness of the three works discussed in this post is their relatability, or the extent to which they embody experiences that many of us can identify with.
In what ways can yo identify with the ideas expressed in “A Julia de Burgos,” “Las dos Fridas,” and “Borges y yo”? Tell us about it in the comments below.
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