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.