Public and private are antonyms, two terms that are considered opposite but are undeniably related. These two concepts often thought of to be separate, significantly impact one another as a result of societal influence. In her essay, “When I call her my Husband” Barie Jean Borich, award winning American writer, discusses the challenges of classifying her private relationship with her significant other. Similarly, Richard Rodriguez, American essayist and teacher, in his essay, “Aria”, describes how his relationships with his family members changed overtime as a result of public influence. In both works, the authors contemplate what is lost when we conform to social expectations; however, while Rodriguez speaks of loss of private language to gain public voice, Borich highlights a gap in public language that accurately represents her private reality. The authors emphasize how in society the concept of otherness, categorizing people based on difference thereby denying individuality, impacts our private lives.
In his piece, Rodriguez discusses the effects of public language on private home life. Rodriguez begins by describing his childhood, growing up as a Spanish speaking student in an English speaking school system. During this time, Rodriguez finds it difficult to balance his familiar Spanish language with the lessons he is learning at school. He recounts feeling “the clash of two worlds” (Rodriguez 275). The practice of being instructed to speak English in school and Spanish at home lead Rodriquez to believe “English was intrinsically a public language and Spanish was an intrinsically private one...” (Rodriguez 277). This statement demonstrates the conflicting worlds of public and private. Conflict Rodriguez explains, lead to a divide within the home. As Rodriguez and his siblings learned English, they began to separate from their parents. Although the children were able to assimilate successfully into the surrounding society, their private reality became distant and unfamiliar. For example, Rodriguez reflects, “At the moment they [his parents] saw me, I heard their voices change to speak English. Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me. Pushed me away”(Rodriguez 276). He remembers hearing his parents adapt to English, the language promoted by surrounding culture. However, this adaptation made him feel uncomfortable in his own home. Similarly, in school, the result of teachers emphasizing the importance of English made Rodriguez uncomfortable in the public setting. Rodriguez felt isolated leading to his decision to assimilate. Without this assimilation, Rodriguez would have struggled feeling like an outcast and as he writes, he would not have believed he was an “American citizen.” However, in avoidance of otherness, Rodriguez lost connection to his private relationships and cultural identity.
The solution to this problem, according to Rodriguez, is a necessary one. Although, it should not have to be. Rodriguez finds that to be successful as an American citizen one must fully assimilate to the surrounding society. For Rodriguez that meant learning to speak English, and leaving behind the language and characteristics of Spanish speaking culture. He discusses his struggle with this loss by stating, “After English became my primary language, I no longer knew what words to use in addressing my parents. The old Spanish words...I couldn’t use anymore...On the other hand, the words I heard neighborhood kids use to call their parents seemed equally unsatisfactory” (Rodriguez 277). A struggle with representative language surrounded Rodriguez. He was included in and excluded from both languages at the same time. Meaning, Spanish no longer felt like an option and English was not fitting either. The need to decide upon one language forced Rodriguez to change. He writes, “What I did not believe was that I could speak a single public language” (Rodriguez 274). This belief did not come out thin air. It was fostered by his environment, the society around him. His decision to change, prompted by this coerced belief, brought about loss: loss of language, loss of comfortability, and loss of family unity. As an illustration, Rodriguez states, “Once I learned public language it would never again be easy for me to hear intimate family voices” (Rodriguez 279). This statement summarizes Rodriguez’s internal struggle between the conflicting worlds of public and private. His adaptation to expectations yielded loss, but the acquisition of common language also positively impacted his life by giving him a public voice.
Borich, on the other hand, is a lesbian woman who struggled finding public language to represent her private relationship with her long time significant other, Linnea. Borich Describes her struggle with language by stating, “...in that queer way we learn to roll with a language we are at once completely apart of and completely excluded from.” Similar to Rodriguez, Borich feels both apart of and excluded from a language. For Borich, it is not an entire language but a representative one. When Borich asks Linnea “Do you think we’re married?” (Borich 2) she responds stating “I think you’re my wife” (Borich 2). Borich replies , “‘You are my wife too.’ But this is not the right word for it. I can feel the vague tensing in her [Linnea] limbs” (Borich 2). Borich struggles with the fact that there is not language that accurately describes her personal relationship. She finds that the word wife does not fit Linnea and even makes her feel uncomfortable, pushing her away. This lack of public language complicates their private relationship by forcing Borich to consider, “In all those places, public and private, I ask her ‘Are we married?’” (Borich 5). Borich feels the need to label their relationship because as a society, we have created a need for this categorization. The public world casts us into binaries based on larger concepts like race, gender, language, and sexual orientation in an attempt to understand us. We even do it to ourselves. We search for something to belong to so that we are not considered to be different. However, this process only forces us to highlight our own otherness. In Borich’s case, she finds herself attempting to conform to the terms of marriage, like husband and wife, although they do not apply. She seeks labels to describe her private relationship in terms that the public can understand.
The themes addressed in Borich’s work raise a series of questions many have yet to consider. This is exemplified in the conclusion of her testimonial when she asks her significant other if they are married, even after establishing that they are “husband and wife.” Borich leaves this powerful question unanswered forcing the reader to consider why does it matter if they are married or not? The question reflects otherness in society. If they are not married then how can we understand them or categorize them? How can they understand themselves? Furthermore, in describing her struggles conforming to the concept of marriage and the terms husband and wife Borich asks, “Can I call her husband without meaning man? Without meaning woman who wants to be a man”(Borich 2). These articulations hold significant meaning and clearly display how there is a lack of representative language. In addition, Borich also asks, “Who does the word fit?”(Borich 2). The words we use, like husband and wife, have their own connotations that have developed over time, generalizing them and making it difficult to accurately describe their intended subjects: human beings and the unique relationships we share. Labels are made important by the public world and the significance they hold enables them to impact into our personal lives.
The impact of public categorization on our private lives is inescapable. This influence has been made clear through the testimonies of Richard Rodriguez and Barrie Jean Borich who both experienced public impact on their private worlds. As a result of the fear of otherness, both authors searched for public language in an effort to conform to societal expectation. However, otherness too, is inescapable. The categorization of human beings based on difference is a common, undeniable practice. However, instead of demonizing the differences between one another, we must learn to celebrate them. We must stop in our attempts to classify each other because if we continue we minimize the power of language.
Borich, Barrie Jean. “When I Call Her My Husband.” My Lesbian Husband:
Landscapes of a Marriage, Graywolf, 2000, pp. 1-5.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Aria.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited
by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., shorter 14th ed., W.W. Norton, 2017, pp. 274-79.