The Trouble with Javier Avila’s Name

Javier Ávila, renowned poet, novelist, and professor, welcomed Moravian College into his home by sharing his life journey and family history in his show, The Trouble with My Name, on Sept. 21 in Foy Concert Hall.

Ávila is an English professor at Northampton Community College and author of the bestselling novel Different, which was turned into the award-winning motion picture Miente. In 2015, he received the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year Award.

In his one-man show, Ávila examined issues of language, race, and social injustice. The stage was set with a dining room table, two beds, and a living room area, decorated with black and white family photos, Puerto Rico’s flag, and common household objects. Ávila captivated the audience with his humor and wit as he embraced his journey between cultures to provide a new perspective on American Latinos who struggle to dispel misconceptions about their identity.

Ávila began talking about the transition from his life in Puerto Rico to the United States. “So I lived my white life until I moved to Pennsylvania, when they let me know that I was indeed brown,” said Ávila. “I was shocked; I was like, ‘Are you sure, because I have been white for like 20 some years?’ Life had a better way of explaining to me that I was a brown person. I became the dark person in my family. And I understood that race was a fallacy, because how could I be white in one place and brown in another place and be exactly the same and be worth the same?”

Ávila explored racism in connection to his name and appearance, using family photos and personal poems. In “Denied Service,” he recalled a waitress in Hazleton, PA, calling him “foreign” as he spoke Spanish to a friend. He pondered whether to reveal his family history and the sacrifices his father and uncle made as U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War.

In his poem “Pride of Ownership,” Ávila discussed his experience planting flowers at his house when a neighbor, who, assuming he was a paid laborer, asked him to come to his house to do yard work.

Ávila also pays tribute to Facebook by discussing the denial of death in his poem, “I post therefore I am.” In the poem, he describes the mask that people put on when using social media, which he called a “world where you can build a mythology of self that is different from your reality and a world where you don’t know what appropriate or inappropriate is.”

Many of Ávila poems were dedicated to his family. The poem, “Abuela,” talks about the culture in Puerto Rico and the importance of cooking by sharing the story of his grandmother. In “Bloodline,” he traces his son’s roots through his four great-grandmothers.

Ávila later transitioned into speaking about the audience’s role in the perpetuation of racism and the importance of promoting equity over equality.

“The difference between equality and equity is this: equality is everyone is going to be treated the same. ‘You’re in a wheelchair. Well, that’s your problem.’ Equity means we have to provide that person with the means to get down here and enjoy equality. That’s what it means to have racial privilege,” said Ávila.  

In his talk, Ávila brought humor and commonality to serious issues that American Latinos face in order, to inspire change not only in the wider world, but also in the small community of the Lehigh Valley.