I am Mexican American and I don’t speak Spanish.
I don’t say that with any kind of relish or superiority. I say it because it’s true. You might’ve heard about those Mexican Americans, the second generation ones who “turn their back” on their culture by letting go of the Spanish language. These may also be people who “turn up their noses” when conversing with someone who speaks Spanish.
I can’t speak for those people, the children or grandchildren of immigrants, who feel the pressure to let go of Spanish. They might even be able to speak it, but they refuse. I can speculate about internalized hatred or shame, the pressures of a mostly white society, the desire to be accepted, but that’s all I can do.
I’m not the child of an immigrant or the grandchild of one. My family has been in southeast Texas for generations, residing mostly in the Golden Crescent region, a land divided by halcyon days and hurricanes.
The weather in southeast Texas is as mixed as its residents, as its cultures, as its languages. It’s a peculiar place to grow up if you’re not white. (This might be true of other places).
No one ever talks about race. Actually, we talk about race all the time, but always behind closed doors, in whispers. To publically acknowledge that race exists is to be labeled as a racist. This is in spite of the fact that Tejanos, those strange Latino cousins no one ever sends Christmas cards to, often refer to white people as “bolillos,” which is a kind of bread. This is in spite of the fact that when Tejanos talk about “negros,” the Spanish word for black, they’d rather be saying something else.
European Americans have a strange and strained relationship with Latinos, where the former is perfectly willing to eat our breakfast tacos and drink our alcoholic beverages, but then demand that we erase part of ourselves in order to be fully part of Texas culture. Historically, dominant groups in any country have been like this: consuming (literally) parts of a culture they deem valuable and throwing away the rest.
In Texas, language is part of that erasure.
Tejanos speak a form of Spanish that, to be honest, sounds perfectly backwoods to native speakers in Mexico or Spain. Those native speakers might call it nonsense. We call it Spanglish, a system of sounds that blends and bends the rules of Spanish to include infusions of English. For example, in Spanish, the word for “truck” is “camion.” In Spanglish, it’s “troca.” In Spanish, the word for “lunch” is “almuerzo.” In Spanglish, it’s “loncha.” My grandmother once taught me that “ice cream” in Spanish was “ice cream,” but rolling the “r.” In fact, it is “helado.”
Spanish is the language of poverty in Texas. It has been this way, probably, forever. Spanish is the language of janitors, cleaning ladies, nannies, landscapers, day laborers, and all the other people white Texans wish to ignore but without whom their society would not be able to function. English, on the other hand, is the language of power. So, in order to have power, you have to use English. At one point, in the near past, Texas schools actually prohibited Spanish in classrooms, a literal attempt to ban Mexican American culture.
In southeast Texas, when Latinos can’t speak English properly, it is a source of embarrassment and ridicule, and they apologize profusely. When white people can’t say simple Spanish words like “Vasquez” or “zapato” correctly, and don’t bother to pretend they care how it’s actually pronounced, it is accepted or excused. At least, to their faces.
There is a kind of double-standard for Latinos. Because while most Latinos will excuse mispronunciations from European Americans, they find it unacceptable when other Latinos suffer from the same mispronunciations or, Heaven forbid, when other Latinos don’t actually speak Spanish at all.
I’m in that latter group. Fourth-generation American on my mom’s side, fifth generation (or maybe more) on my dad’s. If there is a process of cultural assimilation, I am my family’s end result.
I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t like tamales or menudo. I can’t handle very spicy foods. I am what some people might teasingly call a “coconut.” That is, brown on the outside and white on the inside. I am what other people might scornfully call “pocho,” which is a Spanish word for a rotten fruit. There are lots of names for people like me, who are simultaneously Mexican and American and, somehow, neither. People whose grandparents came from Ireland can call themselves American. People whose great-grandparents came from Russia can call themselves American. But I can never be just American. I’m not sure I’d want to be.
Liberal or conservative, people in the U.S. are obsessed with treating people the same, which is a noble goal. However, people often confuse this with the belief that everyone is the same, which is a lie.
My experience growing up in southeast Texas was not the same as that of my white friends. No one ever looked at my white friends with pity when they couldn’t speak Spanish. No one ever made my white friends feel guilty when they couldn’t speak Spanish. No one ever made them feel as if they were somehow incomplete.
It’s only in retrospect that I remember the minute shakes of the head, the whispers behind hands, the tsking of tongues. In retrospect, everything is illuminated.
I wish I could say that this weird sort-of pity stopped at some point, but it never really does. I still get a lot of surprised looks when I inform people I don’t speak Spanish and continue to be baffled when they ask me why. Why don’t I speak a foreign language? Of course, that’s the heart of the matter. At what point does the culture of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, become foreign? When you stop eating certain foods? When you stop speaking a language? When you stop checking off that little box on the census form?
I can’t answer that question for everyone. All I can say is that, I’ll continue to check “Hispanic or Latino” on the census, I’ll continue to put salsa on my breakfast tacos, I’ll continue to put Selena and Madonna on the same playlists, I’ll continue wishing for more Latino characters on TV and in movies, and I’ll continue using Spanish swear words.
If none of that makes me Mexican American, I’m not sure what does.
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