Two curtains of chicken wire stood in front of a semicircle of audience members, connected by another thin wire. From an opening in one, a speaker played recorded phrases from English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English learning books while a man stood behind, half-caged, appearing to read along. The sparse layout spoke multitudes, with the harsh grates recalling not just the chicken coops of rural towns but also being “cooped up,” border fences, corralling people.
This is how the performance piece “I Am American: I Speak English,” created by Chicago artist and SAIC lecturer Josh Rios and his collaborative partner Anthony Romero, began. As it continued, the duo, each member in his own chicken wire encampment, took turns reading aloud through those small openings, holding up the stories of children in the fifties and sixties who were punished for speaking Spanish rather than English in school. Passing books of oral history between them by rolling them in a tire or simply tossing them, they read stories of children given demerits or spanked for every word they spoke in Spanish. It’s a gripping manifestation of Rios’s grappling with personal and historical relationships to language.
Rios is Mexican-American, but his parents decided not to teach him Spanish. As Rios grew up, he found that he still identified with a culture that was often frustratingly hard to connect to due to the language barrier. In turn, he used art to bridge the gap he found in his “cultural lens,” or how he views ideas through Mexican-American-influenced eyes. This is the lens he inhabits in “I Am American: I Speak English.”
Both Rios and Romero grew up in Texas, though they didn’t meet until college. Throughout their friendship, they discussed their experiences with Spanish, trying to analyze what led both of their parents not to raise them as Spanish-speaking. Both had initially felt that they were the only ones, that only their parents had made this choice.
To find material for the piece, Rios and Romero immersed themselves in their Texas history: in the fifties and sixties, Mexican-American children in public elementary schools were banned from speaking Spanish during school hours. Even students who were not yet fully fluent in English were told they could not speak Spanish. These strict school policies sometimes involved corporal punishment.
“We began to realize that one of the reasons we might not have been taught Spanish was that it was drilled into our parents’ heads that it wasn’t the language of commerce, education, politics, whatever,” said Rios. “That it would be more important for us to speak English fluently, that Spanish didn’t seem relevant.”
He and Romero are perhaps investigators above all: their extensive research was based on oral histories and found objects rather than sets of empirical data. The artists worked together to interview older generations, Rios’s parents included, and reviewed thousands of books in order to conduct the performance. The insight Romero and Rios gained from their research was quite personal: they discovered that they had been separated from their language in more ways than one. “The first shame comes from these elementary school students not being able to speak their cultural language, thus parents not passing it on,” said Rios. “Now, a generation later, I’m wondering if I’m ‘authentic’ because I can’t speak the language, but I still identify as Mexican-American. I feel like I would be in a better position now if I did learn it. Especially trying to conduct this research, it would have come in handy.”
When asked how he and Romero executed the piece, Rios thought about it for a while and then told me what they didn’t want in their performance. “One thing we don’t want to do is spoon-feed lessons didactically,” he said. “Our guests are usually artists; they’re interested in the complexity, maybe more interested in the confusion as a productive critical state to be in.” His best solution is to not worry too much about cramming information into a single piece. “We don’t treat all of this research as specialized insider info, as precious, we take it as a universal fact. We extrapolate these experiences. We show our audience our truth, rather than negotiating with them; we have them accept, then experience.”
The performance was held at the Poet’s Theater, a gallery space in Logan Square, after its leaders approached Rios and Romero to create a new project for an ambitious three-day festival. To understand his and Romero’s work, Rios tells me I must first understand Poet’s Theater—it’s not just your typical poetry reading. “It’s an actual genre,” Rios said. “It has a weird, strange performance-hybrid wackiness to it; it’s a lot of fun. It’s very interdisciplinary—lots of rich, inspiring foundations.”
Having devoted so much time, written so much work, and earmarked so many pages for “I Am American,” Rios says the Poet’s Theater performance won’t be its last iteration; he and Romero are considering putting their material into a book, and the objects will have a legacy in later projects.
“No matter what I’m doing, I always have my ears and eyes open quite a bit,” he said. This observant outlook has paid off in myriad ways. Rios once came across two vinyl records from the seventies that were English-speaking courses, a dated Rosetta Stone of sorts. Most of the fast-track English course included pragmatic phrases such as “Where can I get a job?” or “Where is the grocery store?”, intended to get a new English speaker through the day. When he scoured for American records teaching Spanish, the parallel phrases had an almost reversed content, more along the lines of “How was your vacation?”
“It was very telling for me,” he said. “I took what I found interesting in these records and books, and they seemed to form an early modernist poetry of sorts.” This was what focused “I Am American” for Rios, the discovery that sent him researching for hours and entrapped him in chicken wire during the performance. With the use of such found objects—labels, books, and oral testimonies—he produces performance and poetry, both of which remain close to home.