By JUAN HERNANDEZ
Javier Avila will never forget the day he realized that being a minority means being questioned. He was in grad school at the time, and one of his literature professors asked him the meaning of the Spanish word jovenes in a book they were reading for class because Avila was the “token Latino.”
He told his professor that the word meant young people. Then came the question: “Are you sure?”
Avila, a native of Puerto Rico and an English professor at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, shared stories from his experiences as a minority in the United States at a virtual event hosted by Dallas College Mountain View Campus on Oct. 6 in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“When I moved to Pennsylvania, that’s when it started,” he said. “I had to explain to a lot of people who had no idea what Puerto Rico is, or what a Puerto Rican is or why I am who I am. I had to explain to them so many basic things that I realized that I had become the other and that writing about identity is necessary.”
In Puerto Rico he was considered white and privileged, but once he moved to Pennsylvania he was labelled as brown and a minority.
In “The Trouble with My Name,” Avila uses comedy as a tool to teach his audience the value of diversity. The performance is made up of anecdotes and poetry that Avila has compiled during his time in the United States.
The title of his one-man show comes from the problems he’s had with people mispronouncing his name, which he said is as common in Puerto Rico as John Smith is in the United States.
“The first 200 times that people asked me about the j sounding like an h, it was cute,” he said during his show. “But after that it was like ‘Oh my God, no one is ever going to say my name right,’ so . . . I channelled it into art.”
But even after so many times of hearing his name said incorrectly, Avila said there is still one place he can turn.
“There seems to be no cure for my multiple name pronunciation disorder, but there is a prescription that can heal it,” he said. “So every day I dial the number, the only one I’ll always know by heart, and as soon as she answers the phone, I hear my name the way it’s supposed to sound: in the voice of my mother.”
Avila has written 15 books and has won numerous literary and educational awards, including Pennsylvania Professor of the Year in 2015.
His most recent novel, “Polvo,” was published in 2019 and has to do with the challenges faced by a young man who returns from the United States to Puerto Rico to confront his past.
Avila continues to tour the country presenting his show and sharing his insights into the minority experience and social issues.
“There will be people who won’t like you,” he said. “You have to understand that who you are is good enough, and you don’t need to change for anyone. And whoever doesn’t accept you the way you are, you don’t need them in your life, . . . but the most important person who needs to accept you for who you are is you.”