I don’t speak Spanish. No hablo español. Seriously. En serio.
I guess that’s not quite true anymore. After six Spanish courses throughout high school and college, I managed to pick up something. What I mean is, I’m not bilingual—at least, not bilingual in the sense that Spanish feels as naturally to me as English.
My monolingualism is not a result of disinterest. I remember being a kid and wanting to learn Spanish, thinking how cool it would be to know it. Finally, I could connect with those other kids in my class who spoke it. They were the same ones who gave me those funny looks whenever they tried to speak to me and I couldn’t understand. Like I was missing one of my legs or I was blind or something.
In Chicano literature, you always get a character that knows Spanish but pretends he or she doesn’t in order to fit in with the white people (I’m thinking The Boy Kings of Texas and Dreaming in Cuban). These characters grew up speaking Spanish, knowing it. These characters are usually depicted as traitors and deceivers and the author will generally conclude with how beautiful of a language Spanish is and how it reminds the main character of home or whatever (The Circuit). At the time, I didn’t know how or why anyone would choose not to speak Spanish. I had trouble understanding how it could be a bad thing. I was a freshman in college and I was so jealous of bilingual people—it meant more job offers and stuff like that. I did have one friend in high school who thought I was like those characters, though. She thought I was just pretending not to know. Then I told her a little about my ancestry: fourth generation American on my mom’s side, fifth on my dad’s, and a member of my family has been part of the military for the past three generations. After I told her that, she was much friendlier to me. She understood now why I didn’t speak it. That is, she deemed my reason legitimate. Heaven forbid someone with a Spanish surname not actually know Spanish, right?
Due to a series of unusual circumstances, my formative years were spent with my grandmother, who is, what I like to call, a “natural” bilingual. She grew up speaking both English and Spanish. I asked her why she had never taught me. For a while, I thought it was so she could talk about private stuff with my great aunt without my knowledge.
Turns out, she didn’t want me to learn Spanish.
See, in Texas during the 1950s, when my grandmother and great aunt were in school, they weren’t allowed to speak Spanish. They’re both third generation Mexican American, and while their parents did know English, neither my great-grandfather nor great-grandmother was ever going to climb above their social class. Especially not in a place like Cuero, Texas in the 1930s and 1940s. You’ll notice my grandmother’s school attendance decade precedes the advent of bilingual education. So, my grandmother (and great aunt) were in a predicament. They couldn’t speak Spanish in school, but their parents refused to speak English in their home (my great-grandparents were staunchly against using the language of “los bolillos”). What’s a 1950s girl to do?
“And they would make us lay our knuckles flat on the desk–and hit us with a ruler!” my grandmother told me once, her eyes wide as if even she is surprised that such a thing was allowed to transpire. ”Can you believe it? Gee willikers!” She always asked me stuff like that. Do I believe it? I guess I have to if you’re telling me.
My great aunt has a slightly different perspective. She’s glad they didn’t allow it. How would she have gotten so good at English otherwise? That’s what she used to ask me. I’m not sure. I’m not sure how I feel about bilingual education or immersion programs or “This is America! Speak English, goddamnit!” programs. Can’t we just teach everyone two languages and be done with it?
I know that my grandma and my great aunt had a pretty awful time in school because of it and I’m pretty sure they suffered residual effects of not being able to speak their language in school. They were so traumatized that they sought to eradicate the language from whatever aspects of their lives would allow it: deliberately not teaching me Spanish counts toward that, I think.
When I was twelve, someone told me that I looked like I spoke Spanish. Feeling a misplaced sense of pride, I told my mom about this.
“What the fuck does that even mean? How do you look like you speak a language?”
My mother’s directness caught me off guard constantly as a child, but her question enlightened me and made me think about what people think about when they see someone. No one looks like they speak a language. That notion is utterly preposterous. No one would ever go up to one of my white friends and say, “You look like you speak French.” It’s racist insofar as it’s about race. I don’t think my friend was being racist—I think she was a kid trying to understand something she’d never seen before. That is, a brown person who only spoke one language.
But let’s be real here. I have black hair, dark chocolate eyes, skin like cinnamon, and I’m shorter than most of your grandmothers. If I stood in front of a Home Depot long enough, I bet someone would try and hire me to fix their roof. Okay, maybe that’s arrogant. My hands are softer than a baby’s bottom. Clearly, I’ve never done a day’s worth of labor in my life.
It’s funny, though. I’m twenty-three years old and I’ve never faced racial discrimination. I mean, I’ve never been discriminated against by a European American. I know all the racial slurs and I’ve read about those experiences in fiction and non-fiction works. There’s something that’s happened to me twice, though. I’ll share one experience.
I was waiting at a bus stop. It was early morning–or maybe late afternoon. I can’t remember if I was going home or going to school. I’m standing at the bus stop, underneath the tiny enclosure some of the stops have–you know, for rain and stuff. It’s not raining, but it must be early morning because it smells nice outside. There’s no exhaust yet, which means no cars are driving around. And a little guy walks up behind me. Okay, that’s pretentious. This guy is clearly a man, much older than me at this time (I might’ve been fifteen). His face is darker than mine, his eye a little squinty, like he’s been staring at the sun for too long. Only, the sun has just come out. He’s in a blue plaid shirt and dirty jeans and brown shoes (maybe boots). His black hair (and I know it’s black) is hidden underneath an old blue baseball cap.
He asks me, “¿Has visto el número veintidos?” [Did you see the number twenty-two?]
But, see, I’m fifteen, and I kind of understand him, but not really. I get that he’s asking me about a bus, since we’re both at a bus stop, but that’s all I understand. I thought he asked if I knew when the next bus was. So, I said, “No se.” Which means, I don’t know. Of course, that’s not what he asked me and my answer makes no sense because I’ve been standing there for fifteen minutes and I did see a bus pass. It might’ve been the twenty-two.
He looks at me like I’m an idiot and I give up.
“No hablo español,” I told him.
But then his squint gets even more severe and, well, skeptical. I’ve managed to address this man twice in Spanish, so I can’t imagine what he must be thinking of me right now. And I look like I speak Spanish, right? So why was I trying not to talk to him? Maybe he thought I was looking down on him or something. Maybe he thought, “Look at this kid in his PacSun shirt and Nike sneakers and stupid gelled hair. Look at this pochito who thinks he’s so much better than me–and look, now he’s pretending he can’t even understand me.”
I don’t think I’ll forget his expression.
He looked at me like I was a traitor. Like I had betrayed him.
Sorry. I’m sorry that I don’t speak.
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