Julián Delgado Lopera: The poetry of everyday language

Recorded atJanuary 15, 2019
Duration (min:sec)14:44
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute166.47 slow
Readability (FK)60.01 easy
SpeakerJulián Delgado Lopera

Official TED page for this talk


In a captivating, poetic ode to the beauty and strength of mixed languages, writer Julián Delgado Lopera paints a picture of immigrant and queer communities united not by their refinement of language but by the creative inventions that spring from their mouths. They invite everyone to reconsider what "proper" English sounds like – and imagine a blended future where those on the margins are able to speak freely.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:03 My passion for the poetics of everyday language began at 5 pm on Saturdays, at my abuela's dining room, at a table full of loud, unstoppable women.
200:19 My five aunts plus my mom’s five aunts, all smoking, some in their bras, some in their “rulos,” all complaining about the ineptitude of their husbands or the rising prices at the grocery store.
300:35 Some used grand gestures, pointing with their mouths.
400:40 Others made up words.
500:42 Some yelled, some cried.
600:46 They were all narrating a similar experience, but each one of them put her own twist to her story.
700:53 Each one used a different word choice, a different rhythm.
800:57 My mom complained in silence, shaking her head and sighing.
901:04 My Tía T used energized curse words, "That hijo de su madre," she would say.
1001:11 "That good-for-nothing son of a bitch."
1101:14 (Laughter)
1201:16 My great aunt shut her eyes, drank coffee and pointed at God.
1301:23 "Diosito!
1401:25 What is wrong with this man?"
1501:30 Each one putting a different tune, a different music to her story.
1601:35 As a kid, I sat among them in awe, marveled at how elastic, how expansive, how infinite language felt at the dining table, how fun.
1701:46 If my aunts didn't know a word, they would just make it up, laugh about it, and stick it to their husbands' nicknames.
1801:52 (Laughter)
1901:53 The word would then be tossed around and eventually become part of our intimate, familiar vocabulary.
2002:02 My family is originally from the coast of Colombia, which is a region known for its magnificent storytellers, its grand words, a region where made-up words are the norm, where music and rhythm are essential to speaking.
2102:15 I inherited the creative tongue from my aunts.
2202:19 In Colombia, I was a loud, energized sucker.
2302:21 I wouldn’t shut up, I made up words, too.
2402:24 But the moment I moved to the States and landed in Miami, all that energy and love for language disappeared.
2502:32 It was here that I had my first encounter with language hierarchy.
2602:38 I was 15 years old and we were reading "Romeo and Juliet" in English class.
2702:42 I begged and prayed that I wouldn't be called to read Juliet's part because it was long and I didn't know what most of the words meant.
2802:50 But of course I was called to read Juliet's part.
2902:53 My heart sank.
3002:56 When I said I didn't want to, the teacher responded I will lose participation point if I didn't.
3103:01 OK, I had to read it.
3203:05 I tried to push my tongue in impossible ways, tried to echo the sound that I have been listening around me.
3303:13 But I butchered all the words.
3403:16 Everyone around me laughed and the teacher just stood there silently.
3503:23 I remember clenching that desk, wanting to disappear, wishing to be made small, invisible.
3603:31 I went home that day and told my mom I wasn't going back to school.
3703:34 The laughter and ridicule in school created deep fear and anxiety inside me.
3803:40 I spoke differently and this clearly was wrong.
3903:44 It saddened me that I couldn’t access that part of myself that was so excited about language because my way of speaking, with an accent or inventing words or pronouncing words as I heard them, was deemed wrong.
4003:56 I said "sans giving" instead of Thanksgiving.
4104:00 I mix both languages: "I have to 'plancha' it."
4204:04 "Give me the 'trapo.'"
4304:05 "Mom wants her 'chanclas.'" "'Oye ye estas' ready?"
4404:08 (Laughter)
4504:11 I remember staying up late to practice pronouncing words so the kids at school wouldn't make fun of me.
4604:17 I hated myself for not fitting in, not realizing that there was a hierarchy much bigger than me at play here.
4704:23 I felt I was the one who was wrong.
4804:27 And it wasn't only me who was being corrected and laughed at.
4904:30 I saw teachers correct some of my peers, usually anyone who wasn't white, shaming immigrant kids for saying "quota" instead of "quarter," “la pena bota” instead of “peanut butter,” “con flae” instead of “cornflakes.”
5004:47 (Laughter)
5104:48 It seemed all of us were crossing an invisible language boundary.
5204:53 A boundary policed by the teacher and maintained by the students' laughter.
5304:58 Now let's take a step back and see what's really happening here.
5405:03 We tend to think of language, in this case English, as a closed circle, where all of us English speakers exist.
5505:09 A closed circle where correct English is elevated at the center.
5605:14 When someone says something in another language, we know it is outside of that circle.
5705:20 When someone speaks English with an accent or without proper grammar, we know it is inside the circle, but not correct, not at the center.
5805:30 So we push both the language and the people who speak it to the margins.
5905:35 We really don't consider how looking at language as a closed circle with a solid center excludes so many people, so many ways of speaking and making sense of the world.
6005:46 How this in turn creates a hierarchy of language.
6105:51 I learned about how this hierarchy isolates people the hard way, by watching the condescension of cashiers at the grocery store every time my mom wouldn't pronounce things right.
6206:01 By watching my mother shrink at every joke at her mispronunciation until she stopped trying to speak English altogether and would just sit quietly in shame.
6306:11 My mother, who back in Colombia will call the manager, the owner if needed, when her coupons wouldn't scan because “This rice is two for one, señorita, it says it right here.
6406:21 Llámame el manager.”
6506:23 (Laughter)
6606:25 I can still see her, hand on hips, negating with her head, articulating like homegirl got a degree in bargaining studies.
6706:33 (Laughter)
6806:34 My mom, the discounts queen, would not leave until she felt justice was served between coupons and rice.
6906:43 Proudly bragged to her sisters about it later over coffee.
7006:48 I walked alongside her with a warm grounding feeling.
7106:53 My mom could take anyone.
7206:57 When we moved to the States, her sense of being a valued human being deserving of respect was destroyed by ridicule and condescension.
7307:07 As I slowly became aware of this hierarchy, I realized that my mom, my sister, my friends and me, we were all close to the bottom.
7407:13 We were on the margins of this circle and therefore of society.
7507:17 We couldn't reach the center because of our ethnic and cultural background.
7607:22 We sat in shame because our way of speaking wasn't as "refined."
7707:27 I realize also that this hierarchy permeates all spaces and it's a gatekeeper when it comes to accessing resources and opportunities.
7807:35 I wasn't hired on several jobs because I couldn’t speak “correct English,” the managers letting me know, "We're just a little worried the customers won't understand you."
7907:44 My writing also hasn't been published in many places because it mixes both languages and this is seen as less than, not pure.
8007:52 My writing has been ridiculed in many academic workshops where several times white writers have made fun of my use of Spanglish out loud, rereading the text for all to hear, questioning its legitimacy as real literature.
8108:06 My abilities as a student, a worker, my value as a human being, has been questioned over and over again.
8208:15 And yet.
8308:17 There's beauty and connection in these marginal spaces.
8408:22 For people in the margins, language creates cohesion between us.
8508:26 That "different" way of speaking is a secret door only some of us have access to.
8608:31 A door to an underworld of language freedom.
8708:36 This world begins for me not in Miami, but in the former "Esta Noche" gay Latino bar here, in San Francisco.
8808:44 (Cheers and applause)
8908:49 Ten years ago, I moved to San Francisco in search of my freak tribe and found the “queenas” tucked in a dingy bar on 16th Street, ironing their wigs and filling up their bras.
9009:02 Queena -- it’s a blend between “queenand “reina,” Spanish for queen.
9109:07 Queena.
9209:08 (Laughter)
9309:10 It was at "Esta Noche" that I learned about the long history of LGBT people creating new words to reflect our own histories, our own realities.
9409:20 It was here that my passion for language bloomed again.
9509:26 The story begins with the words.
9609:29 "Fierce," "perra," "sissy marica," "come here, butch papi."
9709:36 Here, Spanglish blends with queer slang as drag queens take the center stage to the roar of the crowd.
9809:45 Here, there's unapologetic invention and creativity.
9909:50 It is not only a mix of two languages, but a constructing, a shaping of new words to reflect our own bodies, our own gender, the ways that we come together.
10010:01 Here, you don't have to be a man or a woman.
10110:04 You don't have to be gay or straight.
10210:07 Here, the categories for gender are infinite, as are the words to describe body parts, sexual orientation, feelings.
10310:17 Here, language lets her hair down, "se suelta las trenzas."
10410:24 Gloria Trevi plays in the background as the next drag queen gets introduced as a non-binary femme daddy mermaid of the revolution.
10510:33 (Laughter)
10610:35 We all snap our fingers, "Get it! Mami!"
10710:40 I stand next to someone with hot pink hair and a T-shirt that reads "Gender queer cyborg."
10810:46 (Laughter) Boys in crop tops yell, "Yes, perras."
10910:51 They sashay up and down, twirling on the dance floor.
11010:55 "Serve," someone says, “Bring it,” someone responds, “¡Esa!” we all roar.
11111:03 We wear glitter on our bodies and glitter on our language.
11211:07 We feel seen.
11311:09 Our realities take up space and therefore we experience a sense of belonging.
11411:14 We feel less alone, connected.
11511:17 We add a sense of magic and possibility to the world.
11611:21 We make it less boring and more inviting.
11711:25 Now think of the ways that you speak, the words that you use.
11811:31 Think of how you have borrowed words from your parents, your friends.
11911:35 This is how you know you belong to those circles, right?
12011:38 By echoing back that language.
12111:41 The place where you grow up shows up in your accent, how you punctuate, how you use your vowels.
12211:47 This is your very own language wardrobe.
12311:52 Each one of us has a different wardrobe depending on our background, our ethnicity, our access to education, our immigration status, the places that we come from.
12412:02 Now consider how some of the most glittery, the most creative language wardrobes are erased, stigmatized or only seen as spectacles.
12512:12 But what if, alongside the language wardrobes we see and hear every day, we also allowed for the freaky, the weird, the ones that we don't understand.
12612:24 Wouldn't our world be that much more interesting?
12712:27 Wouldn't our notion of what it means to be human expand?
12812:32 What would happen if these different ways of using language, of mixing English with other languages, of making up words, were not considered less than, but instead, manifestations of creative brilliance?
12912:45 People are, after all, inventing, creating, mixing.
13012:51 What would happen if, for instance, we didn’t see English and Spanish as mutually exclusive, as two separate languages, but as open circles touching each other?
13113:01 Imagine legislation written in Spanglish or traffic signs written in queer slang.
13213:07 "Men at Werk."
13313:09 (Laughter) Imagine textbooks where children also learn words such as “gender queer” and “queena,” where they learn how to write, “Ahí te guacho mami.”
13413:28 That playfulness will seep into our own lives, lighten our worlds.
13513:33 Maybe we would treat each other better.
13613:36 Our daily interactions will be kinder, less uncomfortable and fearful around those who speak differently.
13713:43 Less isolating and damaging for those of us on the margins.
13813:49 I want to invite us to suspend the idea of a "correct" way of speaking, a "correct" way of using language.
13913:57 And let's allow for those rhythms, those incorrect words at the margins to rise up.
14014:03 Let's listen.
14114:05 Recognize the glitter in each other's way of speaking.
14214:08 Activate that kid at the dining table who is in awe and curious about language and its world.
14314:16 That child listening to her tías drop their "Ay, my goodness," as they drop their “Ajá, baby, come pa acá.”
14414:26 Their endless possibility to bring surprise and magic through language.
14514:31 Let's dance "pegadito" with language.
14614:35 Let's tune into the ways that each one of us speaks.
14714:39 The many different ways that each one of us make sense of the world.
14814:43 Thank you.
14914:45 (Applause and cheers)