[Daniel García Ordaz]:
Raise your hand if you call this a Coke.
Raise your hand if you call this a soda.
Who calls this "pop" or "soda pop?"
Who calls this a "soft drink?"
Whatever you call it, I reckon you can say you definitely speak American.
I'm a poet, an English teacher from the Rio Grande Valley of deep south Texas about 10 minutes from the Mexican border.
We never verbalized it, but in order to survive as the children of immigrants from Mexico,
my siblings and I had to sort of teach ourselves how to be American.
And to truly be American, society made us feel that we had to learn to speak American.
But the truth is that America has more than one voice, so learning to talk like an
American is not an easy task.
We learned English from our teachers and classmates, but mostly we learned English
from Saturday morning cartoons, from Sesame Street,
and even Eddie Murphy.
"Eh, what's up, Doc?"
"Me want cookie."
"I got some ice cream, I got some ice cream, you can afford it. Want a lick? Psych."
When I enlisted in the Navy, I reckon I discovered I had a
little bit of a Texas accent.
The Navy took me to duty stations all across the country.
In San Diego, people were "like, totally chill, dude."
When I lived in Philadelphia, I soaked up Philly like a sponge.
"Hey, how yous guys doing? Forget about it over here."
My Navy friend from Brooklyn always greeted us with his Jamaican "Hey, man! What happening, man?"
When I studied at LSU and visited New Orleans, I learned to order red beans and rice and beignets at the Cajun cafés.
My ancestry includes the blood of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain and emigrated to Mexico to avoid persecution.
So when I heard comedian Jackie Mason talking about his relatives asking him to tone down his Jewish accent in order to fit in, I totally understood that.
"Why can't you talk like this? Talk like me. Talk like a regular person."
But I realize now that we're all regular persons, speaking in American in the
way that we were brought up.
I was brought up reading the Bible in English and Spanish and listening to mariachi songs, so I guess you could say my first language is poetry.
When I write my poetry, I often make people laugh because humor has the power to heal, and laughter is contagious.
Sometimes I write as a form of social criticism, as a necessary response to prejudice attitudes to language and skin color.
But mostly my poetry is a celebration of language.
My writing is an invitation to celebrate the unique and diverse voices of
our American vernacular.
As a spoken word poet, I mimic other people's voices, not as a form of ridicule,
but as a form of empowerment.
Speaking in other people's voices allows us to empathize and understand one another.
We say to people, "If you really want to get to know me, walk a mile in my shoes."
Walk with me.
Talk with me.
Share a meal.
Share a song.
You see, breaking bread helps us break barriers, and singing together allows our souls to recognize that we are all singing one human song.
The late poet Maya Angelo reminded us in her poem "Human Family" that "we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike."
That we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
So I invite my readers to read my poetry out loud, to mimic my voice, and in so doing, to talk a mile in my shoes.
The mockingbird's scientific name is Mimus polyglottos, mimicker of many voices.
The mockingbird has over 200 songs in its repertoire.
Like the mockingbird, the United States of America has over 350 languages.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2015, 350 languages are spoken in the U.S.
And that is what makes America great.
You know what I'm saying?
The spoken word is not like a password that you type.
It's kind of well, a little more like hype.
You know what I'm saying?
It's like something that you heard walking down the street.
It's like something people say as they pass along the way.
It's like the way people talk and stuff.
Like, it's part of their walk.
It's who they are.
It's what makes them tick.
Like those people who talk with their pens as they click and click and click, and it really makes me sick.
You can't concentrate like that, and you really can't attract as many flies, not like you can with words that flow sweet like honey.
It's just a knowing as heck, like when people cut the deck too many times during a game of poker.
Can I get an amen?
I mean, what the hell is that about?
Excuse my language.
Lord, I don't mean to scream and shout.
If you really have a doubt about the dealer, kick him out.
Don't sit around and pout, making everybody wait, making everybody late.
The best part of a game of poker ain't about finding the joker, it's about finding the joke as you sit around and poke fun at each one of your friends because the conversation lends itself to laughter and to cheer.
Perhaps you'll share a beer — if you're over 21 — or a smoke.
It don't matter if your broke.
You belong, and you're able to share about the things that you care about and think.
It's a chain, and you're a link, so you have another drink, and you toast, and some men like to boast about the courage that they had when they thought that they was bad.
And they went up to a pretty girl across the room, and they made her start to swoon just with words, using some old tired line like, "What's up, baby? You're looking fine. I just thought I'd, you know, take a little time to drop a little rhyme, maybe ask you out to dine, drink a little wine. Girl, just let yourself unwind. You know, I got leather seats. I wear size thirteen cleats, and, uh, you know what they say about a guy who's got big feets."
Spoken word is about passion and silliness and truth.
It's about getting to the root of what's inside.
It's about showing all the things you hide OUT LOUD to a pretty girl across the room, to a priest, or to a crowd. It's about saying what you feel and not letting people steal your thunder.
It's about saying it first and saying it proud.
It don't matter if you blunder.
The spoken word is um, whatever.
It's psh, and uh, this internet's taking forever.
It's yo, this is a taco and burrito conversation, nachos.
[ Laughter ]
It's, dude, sweet is damn, that girl's alright, and oh, girl, that boy is tight.
It's a street jive, it's a cool vibe, it's a Saturday Night Live.
And where were you when you heard that famous spoken word in an apparent terrorist attack on our country on that day in September?
On "December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy," is another we'll remember, and "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" from an upper cut.
It's, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," to "Miss Whosy What?"
"That's one small step for man," by an astronaut.
And, "The president was killed today in Dallas — by a gun shot."
And, "I have a dream," by Martin Luther King in Alabama, or in Washington, or at
an Alabama church stop, preaching to the masses, naught for naught.
It's Moses with the stones out on that mountain top.
You see, it was the spoken word that Moses heard in the burning bush that made him push the Pharaoh and the gentry for freedom elementary, that brought the plagues that freed the slaves that wandered days through desert ways, and the good book says, well, I don't want to step on toes, and y'all know how the story goes.
And that, to me, is spoken word.
You know what I'm saying?
[ Applause ]
What my siblings and I didn't know as kids is that every time we spoke, in English, in Spanish, in Tex-Mex, we were speaking like Americans.
When our society is encouraged to mimic other people's voices, we'll be empowered with the knowledge that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
[ Music ]