identities

I Know It’s Foolish But Sometimes I Feel Unnecessarily Territorial About Non-Latinos Speaking Spanish

My Spanish is not perfect. By the time I learned it I was already in my twenties and despite five semesters of college Spanish and a month in Cuernavaca I still struggle to fluently speak the tongue of my Latino heritage.

“Hay muchos Mexicanos que no pueden hablar español.”

My sister-in-law said that about me once to one of my friends. They were standing in the kitchen, and I was grabbing something in the dining room nearby.

I turned back toward the kitchen and eyed her hard to let her know that I had understood what she said.

In my early twenties, people, in shops and restaurants in the Mission district in San Francisco where I spent a lot time eating vegetarian burritos and going to thrift stores, would give me dirty looks when I wouldn’t speak Spanish. Because I’m morena with dark hair and brown eyes, they assumed I was fluent — that I was holding out on them, refusing to speak Spanish because I thought I was too good to speak Spanish with them. One woman was kind enough to feel sorry for me and my lack of Spanish. “Ay, pobrecita,” she said.

At a party in Chicago, a woman said to me, “Pero tienes una cara de nopal,” when she said something to me in Spanish that I didn’t understand.

But you have the face of cactus.

 At the time I knew enough about my culture to know this was  a metaphorical way of saying, “but you look so Mexican.”

These experiences and reactions of sadness when someone finds out that I am not entirely fluent in my family’s language, have all gotten in the way of me getting better.

These days, I speak whenever I’m expected to, so I can avoid all that, and sometimes I fool people into actually thinking I’m a decent hispanohablante when I’m not. Sometimes when people speak to me in Spanish, it’s like my brain turns off. I have trouble computing if the speaker speaks too fast, in an accent that I’m not used to, or speaks on a subject that I have no experience discussing in Spanish. It also just turns off sometimes because I find it overwhelming. All the old insecurities get inside my head and create a sort of short circuit. Sometimes when people speak Spanish around me, if they are not speaking directly to me, I don’t bother paying attention or trying to follow along. It’s just too much work.

There are a lot of Mexicans who can’t speak Spanish.

In the U.S. it’s common for Spanish speakers to translate English to Spanish for their parents, not the other way around. Still, I speak way better Spanish than my mom, a Xicana from East LA who was at Garfield High School on the day of the East L.A. high school walkouts. Like many of the students who walked out of Garfield, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, my mom had been discouraged from speaking Spanish in school, but not by her teachers, by her own parents. They were afraid that their spunky daughter, “Crazy Cheryl, as she had been nicknamed, would get in trouble with teachers, spanked even for speaking Spanish at school. This was the norm then, punishing kids for speaking their family’s language, for not being Americanized. So my grandparents stopped speaking Spanish to my mom at home even before she started Kindergarten.

As a result, when I have gone to Mexico with her I have am the one who translates the language for her so that she can understand those who are speaking Spanish around her. After I was married, my mother, a talented seamstress, made a quilt for my mother-in-law when I got married and she presented my suegra with a quilt. We were standing inside the threshold of my suegra’s house in Coquimatlán. My mother held the quilt outstretched in front of her. My suegra, reached out and touched the quilt.

“Tell her how happy I am to be here and to meet her. Tell that I made her this quilt myself.” That part was important. My mom is always very proud of her work.

“Mi mamá es muy feliz a concerla, ud. Ella la hizo este cobija con las manos propias especialmente,” I relayed. As I spoke the words I knew that I probably didn’t do my mother’s words justice. Particularly because I was also nervous.  In that moment, I could tell my mom felt bad for not speaking any Spanish, and I felt bad for not speaking it well, and we both wondered what my husband’s family would think of our pocha Spanish. Still, we were happy that we had communicated.

I had a friend who decided to learn Spanish before moving to South America.

She was a natural at languages, had majored in French in college, and she learned fast. I was two or three semesters into my college Spanish at this point, and she started to learn by listening to tapes and whatnot. While I felt that I had to always be on guard because people were always getting disappointed or surprised or annoyed that I didn’t speak Spanish with my nopal face, my friend spoke all the Spanish she could, loudly, gregariously, and with all the gusto and privilege of a white person in the world, and the more she spoke the better she got.

I sensed that she was catching up with my awkward, halting vergüenza Spanish though we hardly spoke it with each other. It seems sort of stupid now, but I secretly hated her for it. As she improved, I sought refuge in the fact that her accent was terrible and mine was not, at least I didn’t think so.

Recently, one of my closest friends started learning Spanish again after giving it up for a while, and even now, even while I am an extreme advocate for everyone knowing more than one language, I can’t help but wonder if she will learn it better than I have. Envy, I know, is not a good look. Still, my insecurity over my hold on the Spanish language rears its head in these moments when those outside of the culture are better at the language than I am. I know it’s mostly rooted in jealousy but I suppose something about it also reminds me of colonization. Though the more I think about it I wonder why I care so much about Spanish. It’s a colonizer’s language too.

Mostly, I’ve come to terms with that fact that I may never learn to speak Spanish better than I do now.

I am too busy teaching English and writing English language articles to spend the time it would take to learn the future tenses, to get better at the subjunctive, or to improve my comprehension. It has provided me a great deal of relief to learn some Spanish, to not feel totally left out of an important aspect of my culture, but it’s also a relief to not punish myself for not being completely fluent anymore.


Read: Resurfaced Clip of Sofia Vergara Being Harassed by Gordon Ramsay and Jay Leno, Still El Peor

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Mixe Author Yásnaya Aguilar Says Mexican Government Killed Off Indigenous Languages In Powerful Speech

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Mixe Author Yásnaya Aguilar Says Mexican Government Killed Off Indigenous Languages In Powerful Speech

Indigenous languages are often characterized as archaic, a connection to a past life, certainly not thriving cultures and communities that exist in a modern society. But this mentality isn’t just wrong; it’s also dangerous.

In a powerful speech delivered by Mixe author Yásnaya Aguilar to Mexico’s Congress last month, the writer explains that in the country, where indigenous languages are largely viewed as backwards, the state has killed off certain tongues.

“Our languages don’t die out, they’re killed off,” she said. “The Mexican state has erased them with its singular thinking, its [promotion of] a single culture, a single state. It was Mexico that took our Indigenous languages, [Mexico] erases and silences us. Even though the laws have changed, it continues to discriminate against us within its educational, health, and judicial systems.”

According to Aguilar, known for works like “Nosotros sin México: Naciones Indígenas y Autonomía” and “#Ayuujk: ¿Lenguas Útiles y Lenguas Inútiles,” by making Spanish, a language forced on the people of the region five centuries ago by Spain, the most important tongue of the nation, the state has created a culture where language discrimination can flourish.

“Languages are important, but their speakers are even more important,” she added. “Languages die because their speakers are subjected to discrimination and violence.”

For Aguilar, the country would thrive if it recognized the beauty and strengths, rather than challenges, that come with a multicultural society.

“Being Mexican is a legal status, it’s not a cultural status,” she added.

Watch Aguilar’s thoughtful speech in its entirety in the video above.

(h/t Remezcla)

Read: This Latina Is Saving The Indigenous Peruvian Language One Computer Game At A Time

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This Latina Is Saving The Indigenous Peruvian Language One Computer Game At A Time

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This Latina Is Saving The Indigenous Peruvian Language One Computer Game At A Time

Peru is a country rich in folklore. From Pachamama, a fertility goddess who sustains life, to Señora de Cao, a warrior queen considered the first female ruler of pre-Hispanic Peru, the South American country is teeming with tales that offer glimpses into the past as well as information and inspiration that could enrich its people’s lives today. Cecilia De La Fuente-Gorbitz doesn’t want these stories, and the cultural knowledge and pride they could induce, to get lost in time, so she started The K’uychi Project.

Launched in 2017, the project, which began as a children’s book, has turned into a multiplatform undertaking that uses technology and didactic materials to teach indigenous Peruvian culture and language.

“I wanted to research Peruvian folktales. I said to myself, ‘kids all over Peru know European folktales like Cinderella and Snow White, yet, in Peru, which has such a rich heritage of these stories, they are virtually unknown,” De La Fuente-Gorbitz, an anthropologist and artist, told FIERCE.

That’s when she started writing “K’uychi and the Awki.” The book, which she plans to self-publish in April, tells the story of K’uychi, a mythical young girl who embarks on a quest to find water after her village has been hit by a drought. On her journey, she meets friendly creatures who guide her to a mountain spirit, the Awki. The bilingual storybook will be available in print with side-by-side text in Quechua and Spanish as well as in digital form in Quechua/Spanish and Spanish/English.

De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who wrote and illustrated the book, also created an accompanying simple-objective, one screen game. Through the K’uychi Mini Game, available on Google Play, users move K’uychi from side to side to help her collect raindrops and avoid Kon, the Peruvian god of rain and wind who became vengeful after humans stopped giving him offerings, from falling on her. During the game, K’uychi says different words in Quechua, like “haylli,” or “bravo,” when she collects a raindrop, or “sonqo,” “heart,” when she gets a red heart. Soon, De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who has computer programming experience, plans on releasing a more advanced, platform game, where the player helps K’uychi complete various levels by using the right Quechua word.

Courtesy of Cecilia De La Fuente-Gorbitz

For the Peruvian-born, New York-based creative, technology, like video games, is both an interactive tool to learn and preserve culture as well as a way to challenge notions that Peruvian traditions are antiquated.

“When people go to Peru, they focus on archaeological sites: museums that show artifacts from so long ago. That’s great, but people need to understand Peruvian culture is not dead, and it doesn’t need to be buried in a museum. It can be a part of the modern world,” she said.

While English is widely considered the language of the modern world, De La Fuente-Gorbitz wants Peruvian youth, many having been taught to abandon the indigenous tongues of their parents or ancestors, to understand that these languages remain spoken throughout South America today. In fact, about 4 million people in Peru speak Quechua, one of the most dominant tongues of the highlands of South America, and about 4 to 8 million more speak the language across the Americas. For her, this is evidence that widely spoken indigenous languages are neither obsolete or outdated.

“Peruvians, even with traditional culture, are also a part of the modern world. We are alive today. People till this day communicate in Quechua, so it’s important to bridge that gap and give a way for these voices that have been isolated from the rest of the world and from people’s eyes through technology,” the 27-year-old said.

De La Fuente-Gorbitz’s primary objective for the project is to offer much-needed representation to Peruvian youth. By sharing little-known parts of their history through characters who look like them and share similar experiences, she hopes it will instill self-confidence and inspire them to fight for the preservation of their culture and language.

“We are a country that for decades, centuries, has been minimized in a way, that has looked out to Europe, or the US more recently, instead of looking at our own national identity and taking pride in it. You can see that in the movies, shows and media we watch,” she said. “And I think that affects people, especially children growing up with images that they are somehow not good enough as they are. They don’t see themselves reflected and are constantly being bombarded with an image they will never be able to attain.”

While the creative started The K’uychi Project for youth in her home country, she believes that it could also benefit children and adults of the Peruvian diaspora. While studying in the United States, De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who is currently interning at the Peruvian embassy in Washington, DC, has noticed that unlike in Latin America, where most people identify by the country they were born in, people in the US, especially Latinxs, don’t often refer to themselves as Americans. Regardless if they were born in the US and only speak English, they largely identify with the nationality of their parents or ancestors, hyphenating themselves as Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans or Colombian-Americans.

For her, this self-identity is a result of diasporic Latinos being othered in their birth country because of the color of their skin, surnames or the cultural practices of their families as well as a disconnection from both the land they know and the faraway one of their predecessors. She believes a project like the one she has created could help them feel more rooted.

“I noticed a lot of Latinos want to understand their roots. They have a real genuine interest to reconnect with the land they or their parents emigrated from, and I feel there’s not that many sources of information for them to do so. So my project could help them feel more pride in themselves, how they look and gain self-confidence, and assert that, ‘I am valuable,’” she said.

She’s already finding proof of its effectiveness. In addition to her book and game, De La Fuente-Gorbitz also has an Instagram account that she uses to teach Quechua through vibrant images that illustrate the meaning of words and share its Spanish and English translations. With terms like “Warmi” (“Woman”), “Puñuy” (“to sleep”) and “Wawa” (“baby”), she is educating followers, many of the Peruvian diaspora, on common vocabulary, numbers and verbs in Quechua. The response, she says, has been all positive, with one fan even telling her that she once felt ashamed for not knowing her ancestors’ native language and now feels like she has an outlet where she is able to relearn and return to what was lost.

De La Fuente-Gorbitz, who herself is not a native Quechua-speaker and has leaned on a friend, Helberth, for translations, says she hopes to expand The K’uychi Project and create bilingual stories, games and language lessons in the indigenous tongues of Peru’s coastal, Amazonian and Andean regions.

For her, linguistic diversity makes us as a people smarter, stronger and more united.

“The way we think, our worldview, has to do with the language we speak. We can learn so many different things and broaden our horizons just by understanding someone else’s point of view, and this wouldn’t be possible if we restrict native language use and restrict people’s identities,” she said.

“K’uychi and the Awki” will be available for purchase in Peru and online spring 2019.

Read: In New Jersey, Rosa Carhuallanqui Keeps Her Culture Alive By Teaching Children Peruvian Folkloric Dance

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