Tackling prejudice through comedy and poetry: Dr. Javier Ávila

Arielle Waxman/The Muhlenberg Weekly

Last Thursday, Dr. Javier Ávila visited Muhlenberg to perform his one man show, “The Trouble with My Name,” which brought Puerto Rican culture and the struggle of Puerto Ricans who move to the continental United States to the forefront of the audience’s minds. Through his performance, Dr. Ávila used poetry and a satirical sense of humor, which kept the audience entertained, while also effectively conveying his message. The show is largely autobiographical.

Ávila is currently a professor of English at Northampton Community College. His work there earned him an award for the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year in 2015, which was sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. In 2008, the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education awarded Ávila the Outstanding Latino Cultural Arts, Literary Arts and Publication Award.

“The Trouble with My Name” begins with Ávila’s recounting of his early life, as he realized how his skin color would be perceived as different races depending on who he was with and where he was. Ávila frequently discussed the importance education had in his life throughout his performance. He explained that his father sent him to the American Military Academy because he wanted Ávila to learn English. However, Ávila explained that he was made fun of for speaking English when he attended the University of Puerto Rico. This instance was the point in which Ávila began making comparisons between Puerto Rican culture and the culture of the continental United States, and he explained how Puerto Ricans were perceived in the United States, bringing up the point, “What if you speak Spanish where you shouldn’t?” to express this difference.

Ávila addressed the conflict between Puerto Ricans and white Americans frequently, largely through personal anecdotes of his own encounters with racism and imposed stereotypes. He did an excellent job of balancing this difficult topic of race with his satirical sense of humor. Ávila explained that Puerto Ricans often “have to prove to the majority that they are not … stereotypes.”

Through his poems, such as “Denied Service and Accent,” Ávila discussed how Puerto Ricans are often perceived solely based on the stereotypes of them and other Latino people, which leads to a greater divide between the races, even when people like Ávila’s father and uncle served in the military during the wars in Korea and Vietnam just like many other Americans.

The theme of family was particularly prominent throughout Ávila’s performance, as he discussed the impact his grandmother, father and mother all had on his life through more of his anecdotes, as well as more of his poems, such as “Notes on the Death of my Father” and “Teaching Statement.” He also brought social media into the conversation, exploring the concept of reality in contrast with a “social reality.”

At the peak of his performance, Ávila recited his poem “The Trouble with My Name,” which captured the struggles of Puerto Ricans experiencing various pronunciations of their names and how they, in a sense, “become many people every day.”

In this section of the performance, Ávila also emphasized the need for hope, the importance of representation in the media and in real life and the importance of educating people.

He also discussed the concept of privilege and how “Back in the Good Old Days,” it was only good for white Americans. Through his final poem, “Bloodline,” which he dedicated to his son, Oscar, he emphasized how his son was a mix of multiple races, both white and Puerto Rican, and how his son’s generation was the future of America.

Ávila’s stories seemed to resonate with the audience, and he seemed to enlighten them on topics they may not have normally considered or have been informed about. As Celia Bowers ’21 described, many of the stories Ávila told “seemed impossible to me because I’ve never experienced those things, but for some people, this is everyday life.” Kerry Sullivan ’21 explained that Ávila’s stories helped her understand that “there were all these basic things that I feel like everyone knows, but when he brought it up, I realized there are so many people who don’t realize these things.”

Many of the anecdotes and poems Ávila provided were entertaining to his audience of community members and students, but the larger messages also had an impact on them. Bowers explained that “It was refreshing to show that anyone can fall into a belief of ‘this is what I see,’ but if they’re not exposed to other things, then they can’t imagine that it’s different anywhere else unless it is explained to them.”

When asked about his message, Sullivan explained that “I feel like what I took away … was a sense of hope for what we can do and how we need to educate people. I think it’s super important to culturally educate America and to make sure everyone can understand other people, and it’s through discussions like this that you can start to understand others and educate.”

Dr. Javier Ávila’s “The Trouble with my Name” brought many important issues surrounding race and the relation between Puerto Rico and the continental United States into conversation, thus serving as a springboard for continuing conversations that surround these issues.

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