4/30/2021 Kim O'Brien

Pulitzer Playwright Pieces Together ‘My Broken Language’

It wasn’t until graduate school that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes discovered her native tongue. 

It was there at Brown University that Paula Vogel, creative writing professor and herself a Pulitzer winner, gave Hudes advice that changed her life forever: “Your Spanish is broken. Write your broken Spanish.”

“That changed everything,” Hudes said. 

Hudes’ broken language was the topic of Franklin & Marshall’s April 28 Common Hour. Playwright, lyricist and essayist, Hudes penned the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights.” Her play “Water by the Spoonful” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

A gifted orator, Hudes recited passages from “My Broken Language,” her coming-of-age memoir set in a Philadelphia barrio as she reconciles her identity as the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father.

Common Hour - My Broken Language

“Each different language has a different chapter in this book,” she said.

There was the family’s move to monolingual Malvern, Pa., “an hour outside of Philly, but a whole different universe,” Hudes said.

In stark comparison to her native city, she observed “how the shopkeepers and mailmen spoke English confidently and pronounced all their vowels the same exact way.”

Returning back home, Hudes witnessed a different form of speech at vibrant family celebrations – body language. 

“How hard my cousins danced, how propulsive and insistent their hips had been as if conducted by some magnificent force,” she said. 

Hudes recounted her mother’s unique tongue – the language of the spirits.

“She is a santera [priestess of Lucumí]. She was a very gifted empath, a very gifted herbalist and shaman. And I didn't have that gift. So I really saw her language of the spirits with a lot of awe and confusion,” Hudes said. 

Eventually, she encountered a dialect that felt instinctive – music. Playing Chopin concertos on a piano salvaged from a church fire, music spoke where other languages failed her. 

“I couldn't dance along to ‘Baccata Rosa’ like my cousins could, but I could play for them and they would listen. And I even sometimes had a spiritual feeling while playing piano,” Hudes said. 

But soon, even music wasn’t enough. It was there Hudes entered her most pivotal chapter of language – writing. The decision led to an index of plays and musicals recognized around the world, giving voice to Latinx characters and audiences.

The secret to language, Hudes said, is finding magic in the ordinary.

“I do a lot of eavesdropping. I pay attention to how people speak, whether they're using verbs in this way or that way,” she said. 

“That's my favorite music. When I’m writing dialogue, if it's a screenplay, if it's a stage play, I want that dialogue to sing like music. I want each character to be like a different instrument in the orchestra.”

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