Hearing what’s not on the page.

This month’s blog topic on code-switching got me thinking about my current writing project(s) because, on one level, it’s all about code-switching. I don’t mean just knowing the right words to say in different situations. Code-switching is also knowing what not to say and when to not say anything at all. Code-switching is knowing that everything speaks for me: my hair, my skin, my clothes, what’s in my hand to read, my direct gaze or whether I don’t look at someone, my walk, my posture, whether my jaw is set or my smile is unguarded.

English makes me an outsider, linguistic and otherwise, in the following story (poem? Flash fiction? Scene?). It’s a beginning non-draft, still an exploration that will be in progress for a few more drafts, and will likely lead to something else entirely (an essay? A monologue?). It was inspired by this month’s blog topic, but also by Junot Diaz, Irene McKinney, Idra Novey, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Eddie Huang, Richard Blanco, public transportation, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Amherst College, the Virgin Mary… and a lot more that is not immediately obvious to me as I untangle this.

I hope being an experienced code-switcher helps me understand the writers I work with; so much of what needs to be heard is not on the pages they present to me. And I hope my experience as a writer who is always tweaking, developing, and challenging my process gives me the patience and insight needed to guide other writers on their journeys.



It’s reading The New York Times[1] in the Charity Care waiting area[2] of City Hospital.

It’s feeling old school because everyone else is updating their status or texting or talking drama or checking the 84 bus schedule on smartphones[3].

It’s when everyone else chitchats occasionally to pass the time, but no one talks to you.

It’s because your Spanish sounded too white for your brown skin[4] when you answered the lady across from you when she asked what number you’d gotten[5].

It’s understanding what everyone is saying and not saying, and why you get the side-eye each time you say something[6] and even when you say nothing[7].

It’s like breathing.

It’s what you do without thinking.

It’s knowing all the pass codes, and you know them all at once[8].

It’s wondering when your user ID and pass code don’t match.

It’s wondering if your coding is faulty and corrupted, and whether there is an internal system defect that will always deny you access.

It’s what goes through your head in the basement, but for less than a second because Papi is in a hospital bed on the sixth floor[9].

It’s waiting for Charity Care because the hospital bill will cost more than everything Papi and Mami have paid for you to get ahead and be the one to sit, alone, and wait in the basement of the public hospital.

[1] You know not to do the crossword, even though you really want to, and who’s to know that you’re reading a review of that famous Latino author known for his authentic voice, but who is not known by anyone else in the waiting area.

[2] Located at the end of a dead-end hallway in the basement level, because being sent to the bowels of a public hospital doesn’t say “care” but does scream “charity”.

[3] Because everyone sitting in the Charity Care waiting area’s got a smart phone, except you, no one’s got a license, except you, and no one’s got a car, most especially you.

[4] And when your scholarship nerd English made the security guard who’d asked you so loudly Where are you going? do a double take.

[5] The security guard at the hospital’s main desk gives everyone going to the Charity Care waiting area a laminated pass with a number—the order in which you will be called by a case worker—and “Charity Care” printed in large letters so non-English speakers who get lost en route can flash the card for directions to the basement.

[6] Which is why you don’t talk to the kids you grew up with, who hiss she thinks she’s too good for the projects each time you return home from college.

[7] Like the kid in your Writing Class who thought the anonymous piece being workshopped was yours, but it was by the guy from Japan who can’t figure out articles and subject/verb agreement.

[8] Which is why when your Sociology professor told the class you’d all have to work really hard to fall out of the middle class, you knew not to say that being middle class is what you prayed for to the Virgin Mary when you were a little girl.

[9] Worrying, like everyone else in the waiting area and their papis and mamis and tias and brothers in hospital beds upstairs, about missing work.

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1 Comment »

  • davanzoc2 says:

    Wow, Nancy. This piece is stunning in terms of content as well as form. Thanks for sharing such a vibrant piece with us and for using your awareness of your surroundings to better them.


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