Brenda Cárdenas, and crossing the frontiers of language

Brenda Cardenas, 2001 You see Brenda Cárdenas in one of her favorite environments, a café in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. She says she can live there almost every hour of the day, day in, day out. It's a neighborhood place. Everybody comes in to talk. But this café is not like the typical chain stores that seem to inhabit every shopping mall these days. It's in the heart of the city's Mexican quarter. It's no yuppie hang out. Instead, it's a place with a much more Latin American and working class ambience, where local intellectuals gather at scattered tables, among casual local visitors just seeking a break from their daily routine. Here is where all the borders cross: news from around the 'hood mixes with news from other lands. For Cárdenas, who crosses frontiers easily, this is the sweetest cup.

Her own history is a mix of heritages. Born and raised in Milwaukee, she is perfectly at home in the American Midwest, but she settled in Chicago to get closer to her heritage. This was a life-change borne of passion for language and a gravity for a place where she and her art translate naturally into the environment. Chicago's Pilsen/Little Village area comprises one of North America's most energetic Hispanic communities in an otherwise Anglo nation. Immigrants from all over the Americas have settled here, but the keynote culture is clearly Mexican. You can read it through the mercantile signage that lines the streets throughout this near southwest side district. Cárdenas comes from a working class family and is a granddaughter of mom-and-pop shopkeepers, so this atmosphere speaks to her in family tones.

Beyond this, however, is the keen business of literature, culture, and critical study. Cárdenas comes from an interdisciplinary scholastic background. Her performances range from recitals at universities -- readings accompanied by new chamber music, for example -- to installations that have included video and audio art with her spoken word. This creative space is formal, deliberate, and often academic, descending from much critical and historical study. The Mexican Fine Arts Center is a neighborhood institution in Pilsen, where Cárdenas once worked. So there is a critical connection for Cárdenas' cultural and artistic development just around the corner from her home.

If one leaves this critical space, and crosses into pure spoken word, one will find Cárdenas quite at home again, here shifting very naturally across yet another border between the gentle and the outspoken. Folkloric traditions are an ongoing part of Mexican culture, and Cárdenas adapts them to her gentle storytelling. She rolls family legends into tales suitable for children's bedtime stories, but these can charm grown-ups, too. In a more musical and rowdy format, however, Cárdenas rocks out with the band Sonido Inkquieto. This band enjoys touring the region and gigging around Chicago. They pull no punches. It's garage band rock, loud and proud, capped with generous spoken word with Cárdenas as the front woman.

Listening to Brenda Cárdenas is, on its own, an exercise in crossing borders. She has adapted ideas from interdisciplinary arts into a philosophy for interlingual literature. It's very important to distinguish interlingual versus bilingual texts. The difference between bilingualism and interlingualism is the same as the difference between "either" and "both." Biligualism is using either of two languages in turn, but sticking to one discrete language or the other for an entire expression. Cárdenas, on the other hand, is an advocate of interlingualism, which is blending or mixing two languages in-line, within sentences, as they're used organically and naturally by people who speak both languages fluently. The American slang for this Spanish and English mix is called "Spanglish." And indeed, a lot of people in the United States speak a fluid blend of both tongues, both in Mexico and in the United States. It's a linguistic fact of life.

Sometimes when languages blend, and stay mixed in certain ways, they create whole new ways for people to express themselves. Grammars change rules. Fresh words appear that carry tell-tale signs of their parent languages. Old words pick up new meanings. Artists often want to rush into these circumstances to take advantage of the fresh creative opportunities that a still-forming language permits. However, critics and historians often resist this situation, and insist that serious literature is written in well-defined languages such as English or Spanish, but not a blend of both. So there's always a battle among the people who describe language as-is, versus the people who prescribe language as it should be, when interlingualism is in effect.

But even once such a blended language is established, it continues to carry much heritage and creativity. There is precedent for this in Europe. The Yiddish language was a blend of German, Hebrew, Slavic, and a smattering of other central European tongues. It was spoken by many Jewish immigrants who came to the USA in the 1890s through the 1910s. While it wasn't specific to any one European nation, it was once a common language among millions people from Europe in over a dozen different countries. Even today, the wit and storytelling in Yiddish is hard to beat, and its influence is still felt in American popular culture from Broadway to Hollywood.

Today, the United States may be experiencing a similar language-morphing phenomenon right at home, within the borders. The ingredients have just arrived here: a mobile society drawn from several countries; a vital culture with diverse roots connecting back to common heritages, centuries ago; and enterprising merchants, scholars, laypeople, and writers interested in communicating with each other, with the "old" country, and the greater community surrounding them. But this time the mix is between English and Spanish, and the mix is only beginning to get rolling. The delicious ironies, warm blends, and pointed contrasts of commingled languages are Brenda Cárdenas' incentive to keep crossing frontiers. Listen to her poetry, songs, and stories, and cross the frontiers of the Américas.

- KEH, April 2002

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