Notations Series Review: Javier Ávila

Our Speaker’s Background

In early November, Lehigh University’s Zoellner Hall filled with students, professors, and local Bethlehem residents, all anticipating Javier Ávila’s one-man show, “The Trouble With my Name.” An English professor at Northampton Community College and recent recipient of Pennsylvania’s Professor of the Year Award in 2015, Ávila has touched the lives of many through his stories and writing, both in the classroom and at his shows. Ávila’s goal is to “shed light of the American Latino/a Experience,” and use his stories to teach and inspire others.

Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania

Ávila was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where he attended a bilingual Catholic military school as a child. He later graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in English. He moved to Pennsylvania at age 30. It was here in Pennsylvania where he first experienced what it was to be “different”; several of his works are based on the experiences he had upon moving here. He had never known what it meant to be a minority, nor what it entailed, until his move to Pennsylvania. Ávila spoke in depth about his father and uncles, all of whom served in the Korean War and faced post-traumatic effects. He read his poem, “Denied Service,” where he described the discrimination he faced for speaking Spanish at a restaurant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. In this powerful poem, he questioned how he could be seen as disrespecting his country, despite his father’s background serving in the military and an educational background that taught the importance of national pride.

Ávila’s ability to captivate an audience with his words and his humor carried energy throughout the entire show. He included several intense readings with profound messages, followed with light humor and satirical anecdotes. He kept the audience laughing, intrigued, and inspired.

The Problem with Naming

“There is a reason accents exist. It is a linguistic reality,” Ávila said. He pointed out, however, that the trouble begins when people equate your accent with your intellectual ability. Regardless of Ávila’s intelligence, education, and background, he still faced intolerance when he came to Pennsylvania. He spoke to the importance of being proud of your roots and your history rather than trying to hide it. “I believe that diversity is what makes us wonderful,” he stated. His poem about accents, about “a reminder of something all too distant,” spoke about the struggles of assimilating into American culture. People judged him by the color of his skin and the sound of his voice before they heard what he had to say. This struggle, he stated, is not infrequent for those who immigrate to the United States. He went on to read his poem, “The Trouble with my Name,” sparking laughter when mentioning all of the different ways his name gets pronounced, spelled, and modified.

A Lifelong Teacher

Ávila’s pride in his country and attachment to his roots was inspiring. His stories about his family and his homeland had many, including myself, in tears. He became a teacher because of his mother. She taught him that teaching is a lifelong job—not just one that begins in September and ends in June. His final poem was dedicated to his son, Oscar, and was about Oscar’s four great-grandparents. He spoke of the different home countries, hardships, and diligence of Oscar’s great-grandparents that came together and ultimately led to his birth.

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