Pennsylvania’s Professor of the Year, Javier Avila entered Lipkin Theater on Thursday, Oct. 27 to a filled to capacity auditorium and loud cheers.
Avila began, “For the first half of my life, I thought I was white.”
Growing up in Puerto Rico, he explained that his skin tone identified him as white on the island and that he knew no differently until he came to Pennsylvania.
That contrast between being the majority in one place and being the minority in another is one of the themes Avila touched on.
“Life has a way of presenting irony to you,” he said.
He showed a picture of his family from 1980 and contrasted it to present day.
In his immediate family, he joked, “I am the dark one in my family.”
In a time where racial tension and identity politics are higher than ever before, Avila explained that race is a construct. He agreed that we are different, but also the same.
He continued, explaining how he came to understand differences through the metaphor of bubbles he lived in that needed to burst.
Telling a story of his parents’ sleeping arraignment, he illuminated how what a child sees feels normal until knowing otherwise.
Another “bubble” that Avila experienced was language.
In Puerto Rico, speaking English gave him comments of, “What do you think you are, Gringo?” Ironically, he believed at the time that in moving to Pennsylvania, people would appreciate his ability to speak different languages.
“Of course,” he said, “Speaking Spanish in Pennsylvania could come with a bit of trouble.”
Avila then pointed out how in the United States, there is no official language, even though some may believe it is English.
The first poem read was “Denied Service,” a work about his father being denied service at a restaurant in Hazleton because he was heard speaking Spanish at the door.
Avila’s poem tells a background story, angered by the ignorance of people. He knows that they can’t possibly understand what his father went through on a day-to-day basis, after serving this country in the Korean War.
The images of the poem were intense, and the driving question was, “Should I have told the waitress…?”
Toward the end of the work, he drove home the point that his traditions, his way of life, just like everyone else’s is not a crime.
The last line of the poem hung in the air, “Should I have told the waitress anything when she called me a foreigner?”
Avila then spoke about how applying for the mortgage on his house was complicated by the fact that they followed Puerto Rican custom to keep their separate last names. This is then followed by a joke on how women will still take last names despite there being a choice, such as Cockburn.
The next piece, “Pride of ownership,” tells of Avila trimming rosebushes on his property and a neighbor, on seeing Avila, assumes he is a gardener for hire.
After the poem’s end, a knowing groan ran out through the capacity crowd as the ignorance of the neighbor is on full display.
Humor is the theme of the next section, as he quips how taking attendance in Puerto Rico takes a while due to the multiple last names. Then, about the difference between Catholics in the States and in Puerto Rico, where parents will name their kids Jesus.
The discussion turned to social media, where Avila observed, “There’s reality, and then there is social reality. Things aren’t what they seem.”
He writes his next poem, “Homage to self,” as a satirized observation on how social media distorts reality and compiles half-truths and misrepresentations together to make an incomplete picture.
It ended with a play on the old Macintosh ad, “I think, therefore iMac,” into “I tweet, I Facebook, I Instagram, therefore I am.”
The next two poems, “Album and Certainty” reflected on the passage of time.
As observed by Avila, “One thing that creeps me out about photo albums, they are inhabited by ghosts.” It is short and direct, but telling of how someday, everyone will be one of those ghosts in the photo album.
He spoke about the researching on his family three years ago, and how he found out his grandmother was being watched by the FBI, because of her ties to Puerto Rican nationalists. Avila pointed out the irony, that while this was going on, her three sons were fighting for the Americans in Korea.
The next poem was dedicated to her, a warm memory of cooking and gratitude of wealth that couldn’t be measured in monetary terms.
For the next eight minutes, Avila talked about his father and his son through two poems. One was about the passing of his father and coming to grips with why the elder Avila left, and the second was about how generations came full circle, that he was his father’s son, and by proxy, he could see traits of his father in his son.
The namesake of the talk became apparent in humorous stories of mispronunciations of his name and being corrected by people who had no authority to do so. There were reservations at a tennis club, an apparent identity crisis while ordering take out and even the publisher of his books who continued to butcher the professor’s name.
More specifically, he noticed the biggest trouble was with his first name, Javier.
People mispronounced it to the point where in one interaction, he noted, he had an ethnic crisis, as his name was pronounced per the French version of his name.
Avila showed the audience his father’s Army discharge papers. He pointed out the part where it said that no wounds were suffered by his father, but the Army didn’t include the mental, emotional-trauma inflicted upon the senior Avila.
A piece called the “Puerto Rican Military Contract,” showed the hypocrisy that allows people from the Commonwealth to fight in American wars, but are not given the ability to vote for the Commander-in-Chief.
Showing a picture of his family, he reminded the audience that 50 years ago, his interracial marriage and child would have been illegal.
He continued that his marriage would be an insult to those who want to “take America back to the good old days,” a reference to institutionalized racism.
A critique of this way of thinking, entitled, “Back in the Good Old Days,” highlighted how women couldn’t vote or become educated and how African-Americans couldn’t drink at water fountains or live in white neighborhoods. It is a reminder written by Avila that wanting to go back to the “Good Old Days,” sets society’s progress back.
He noted, “Privilege is being able to say, ‘I want my country back.’”
He revealed his teaching inspiration as his mother, who was the first to graduate from college and was also a teacher. She taught for 30 years in a tough school and drove an hour each way to do so.
The last of his poems, a tribute to his son through the prisms of his grandparents, had a moving, hopeful tone for the future.
Through satire and laughter, poetry, and potent observations, NCC’s Javier Avila gave a multifaceted look on what it means to be American and Latino and different.
His upcoming shows of “The Trouble With My Name” can be found at javieravila.net