Javier Ávila, celebrated author, poet, and 2015 Pennsylvania Professor of the Year, performed his one-man show, “The Trouble With My Name,” for TCNJ students and faculty on Wednesday, October 16 as part of the college’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Ávila described the major changes in his life and worldview after moving from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania when he was 31-years-old. “I was called exotic so many times,” he recounted before reading a poem about all the different ways his name was mistakenly pronounced after his move.
His show, which was punctuated by poems from his book of the same name, involved humor, sadness, and the smell of Vicks Vapor Rub — which according to both him and the audience, cures everything. Throughout the show, he encouraged the students, who he referred to as jovenes, or young people, to do three things:
1. Reject Stereotypes
Ávila’s poem, “Denied Service,” details the thoughts and feelings he had when a waitress dismissively referred to him as a “foreigner” for speaking Spanish, despite the fact that his family had a long history of service in the U.S. Military.
“Someone already has a preconceived notion of me and they’re gonna hate me,” he said. “Suddenly I have to prove to others that I am not a stereotype.”
He urged the audience to look beyond the “bubbles” of race and language and to try to understand why people behave in certain ways.
2. Reject Apathy
“I like 98 percent of my job,” Ávila said, speaking on the passion he has for his career as an educator. “What I don’t like is apathy.”
He told the story of a particular student he had in the past and how her indifferent attitude towards his class got him into some trouble. After waking up in an angry mood and becoming fed up with her attitude, he likened the apathetic student to “A single drop of sweat in his Puerto Rican coffee,” after she refused to read a poem aloud in his class.
He pleaded with the audience, saying, “Don’t be the sweat, be the coffee. Be bold and rich.”
3. Fight for Equity
The overarching theme of Ávila’s show was the importance of the fight for equality and equity. “You might not live to see the finished product but that doesn’t mean you don’t work toward it,” he said.
He expressed wonder at the strides that he had already seen in his lifetime, mainly the truly “colorblind” attitude of his son. However, he noted the work that still needs to be done.
“You have to be willing to lose friends in order to make a point, make people uncomfortable to make a point,” he said. “All of us must educate others, it is our duty as citizens, it is our duty as the generations that want equity.”
At the end of the show, Ávila was met with an enthusiastic round of applause, followed by group photo and informal meet-and-greet. This event rounded out TCNJ’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and was arranged in part by the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
— Julia Meehan ’22