a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
By Maria José Correa
Does Your Accent Matter?
Four days ago I had lunch with my new friend, Arthur. There was nothing unusual about it, except for two things: the day was hotter than expected and I, a shy person, was finally socializing. We decided to sit on one of the benches outside the dining hall.
As soon as we sat down and started eating, he said, “When I meet new people, I like to play 20 questions. The name is self-explanatory. We ask each other questions about anything, literally anything.” He made such a strong emphasis on the word “anything” that it made me feel vulnerable without having even started the game. But I accepted anyway.
The game included the basic get-to-know-you questions: favorite song, hobbies, family structure, interests, and goals. After we thought there was nothing left to talk about, an awkward silence invaded our space.
He broke it abruptly by saying, “I like your voice. It’s cute.”
I stopped for a second to understand what he was trying to say.
“He probably meant to say, “I like your accent.” Although, the word like before accent would not make much sense,” I thought.
“What?” I said.
“Your voice is cute.”
More silence. This time, however, I was grateful for it. I wanted to fathom the significance of the word “voice.” I wanted to feel it for the first time.
I was so used to the word “accent” that I forgot I had a voice here, away from home. So, I thanked him again without explaining myself. I was no longer “a Colombian girl with an accent.” I was, for the very first time, “a Colombian girl with a voice.” I felt exhilarated until, as usual, I found the perfect excuse to feel uncomfortable again.
“Wait a minute. Arthur is from India. He also has an accent. That changes everything!” I thought without knowing what exactly I was trying to imply. My next thought: “Are Arthur’s words not as valuable as those coming from someone without an accent?”
I could not be more ashamed of myself. I could not believe I had such a repulsive thought. I felt disgusting, unethical. I realized I was asking him the same question I have been avoiding to ask myself: “Are my words not as valuable as those of Americans?”
I hated him. I hated myself.
Not only did he know that his words were worth listening to, he also wanted me to be aware of it. I envied how confident he was of himself and this confidence was… fascinating. It was as if he had stripped the world from its confidence and kept it all to himself.
“What a selfish person you are!” I wanted to scream at him. But, of course, I didn’t. I knew I hated him because I hated my shyness and my lack of self-confidence.
I also knew he was not faking it because my mom once said to me, “Paco, si quieres tener el control en una conversación, sólo tienes que mirar la persona a los ojos. ¿Cómo es qué se dice en inglés?”
“Eye contact,” I whispered.
My mom would have been so proud of Arthur.
The illusion of having a cute voice did not last long, though. It only took me until dinner time to hit reality again.
After getting food, I said to my friend in a playful manner: “Escúchame!” in an attempt to grab his attention. Carlo, who understands a little bit of Spanish, turned his attention to me.
“I’m glad you said it in Spanish. Otherwise, I would have had to guess what you said.” And then, he imitated my accent.
What else was there to do? I wanted to say anything to shut him up. But, again, I didn’t. My words refused to come out of my mouth. At that point, my body had become a holy place for keeping obnoxious jokes, as if they were sacred.
I do not blame him, though. Many of his jokes are unintentional. I just take everything too seriously.
“That’s it, Maria José!” I told myself, “You’re just too fuckin’ sensitive to live in this world!” As Carlo laughed at his own joke, I kept eating my oatmeal, which I did not enjoy very much. It was stickier than usual.
After that, I remained silent. My thoughts focused on the only thing I missed the most: Colombia, a place where I was not sensitive, or at least, not as much as I am here. Suddenly, words came out of my mouth.
“Just like Manny,” I was thinking aloud.
“What?” Carlo said.
I immediately felt the connection with Manny, the main character in Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, a novel I have been reading in my first year seminar at Middlebury College, “He feels proud, as if this [the restaurant] is his work, and in a way, it is, except it’s over, like him and Jacquie, lost, gone forever. Is that why he loves it so much?” That same feeling of loss flows through my body the same way my accent flows through me before I speak. The uncertainty of how “perfect” my words are going to sound feels… empowering. And the harmony of how “imperfect” they sound after I utter them feels good, frustratingly good.
I know Colombia is gone forever, but I also know that my accent became a reminder, a constant reminder, of where I am from. Unlike Manny, I lost something to love, something else, something that is, and forever will be, within myself—my accent.
“Thank you Carlo for not letting me forget my roots ,” I thought as I walked out of the dining hall.
I was sinking into this thought when I received a call from my mom. She asked me how I was doing and how much homework I had. I told her about a narrative I had to write for my first year seminar. But when I told her I was going to write about how much I love my accent, she remained silent. Although we were not talking face-to-face, I could feel her eyes weighing on me. She was waiting for me to explain myself. I said nothing.
“¿Por qué?” She finally said.
“Las palabras tienen poder,” I told her. And I was glad that she was satisfied with my answer. After I hung up, I wanted to reflect on what I said,“las palabras tienen poder.” I truly wanted my mom to understand that the more I write I love my accent, the more those words belong to me.