I hear this question a great deal - from people at work, friends. Often they are pretty ticked off about it. I don't know why they bring it up to me. Maybe its because I'm only half Mexican and people feel like I might be a bit safer to talk to about it. Like my loyalties are divided or maybe I'm just one of those approachable people in life.
So, as a public service, I'm here to do a little conversation on it. I'm inspired to do so by something I watched while I was sick.
It was a documentary my mother gave me for Christmas. She never gives me movies, she knows I'm not a big TV watcher. But she was insistent. It was about a Supreme Court case I'd never heard of. It's a pretty big case, but I'll bet most people here have never heard of it.
It's basically a case that had the same ramifications for Hispanics (a term I use here to refer to people of latin descent who are US citizens) as Brown v. the Board of Education.
You can actually watch the film on line, or just read the description here. Hernandez v. Texas was attempting to address this:
I think most people, at least I want to think most people are unaware of how rampant these signs were in Texas. They were so common that the Texas Restaurant Association had some printed as a courtesy for their members.
It wasn't about immigrants either. If you were hispanic your kid couldn't go to the white school, and you couldn't use the white bathroom in the court house.
Anyway, after watching this film I realized that many people don't know about these things because we don't talk about it. Maybe we're ashamed of it, as if we caused it. Maybe we just want to forget.
But it leads, I think, to a sort of cultural blindness. I think there is power in memory.
A year ago an essay I wrote called Mother Tongue ran in the Texas Co-op Magazine. I tried to explain why I speak Spanish on occasion.
I realize this may ruffle some feathers. But to me, the worthwhile conversations always do.
“Speak in English,” my mother tells me. I barely realize I’d slipped into Spanish with my grandmother. We’re out shopping, and my grandmother, who at 93 is fully bilingual but hard of hearing, is in need of new bifocals.
Somehow, as I was nearly shouting the information to my grandmother from the soft-spoken technician, I went from “She says they need to measure the width” to “tus ojos, por que estos son muy grande.”
My mother’s admonishment has nothing to do with speaking English because this is the U.S. and we speak English here. I’m fifth generation Texan, thanks to my Grandmother’s people. They were working the land here long before my “Anglo” grandfather had arrived on Ellis Island. My Hispanic side of the family has been fully bilingual for generations. We speak in English as a matter of courtesy to those who know only one language. It’s considered rude in our family to speak Spanish in front of people who may not understand what we’re saying.
Still, speaking Spanish feels completely different than speaking English – and I’m not even fluent in Spanish. I know border Spanish, granddaughter Spanish. It’s just enough to get by in family gatherings and excursions across the border for corn tortillas.
For me English has been the way I express everything from poetry to irony. I’d be hard pressed to tell a joke in Spanish, let alone manage a clever play on words. My mother was a stickler for correct word usage and I owe her a debt I can never repay for a great vocabulary and my ability to speak in clear, accent free English.
So why does Spanish feel like warm chocolate coating my vocal chords, sweet and smooth? Especially when my command of the language is so bad?
When I’m speaking Spanish and specific words are lost to my brain, when I can’t figure out how to say “frames” or “purple,” I am forced to toss in the English words like rocks in the flowing stream. They land with a thump in the middle of my Spanish sentence, the water of words rushing around it. If my sister (who is fluent in both languages) talks too quickly, or when I try to keep up with an announcer on Spanish language TV, I fall hopelessly behind, grasping at the few key words for purchase.
Yet with my grandmother, even my broken Spanish seems so much more loving that it slips out instinctively. Spanish is forever the language of family and it’s a bond that won’t break. In our family we call our children “mi vida” – my life. It’s much more common to say “mija” - a slurring of the words “my” and “daughter “– than “hija” –which is merely “daughter.” The diminutive is sweeter too, with the word “chiquitita” meaning little girl, but from my grandmother’s and mother’s lips an intense love forms like a wave on their tongue, and instead the word has always meant “my precious, precious, little one.” To this day if I hear this word I expect a hug at any moment.
Out of respect for the technician, I nearly shout, in English this time, to my hard of hearing grandmother. I explain how long it will take for them to make the changes she needs in her new glasses. She nods and thanks the technician for her help – in English, of course – and notes that she’ll be happy not to have the headaches the old pair was giving her.
We leave and, as I help her into the car, I slip into the embrace of Spanish again. This time there is no one to feel left out.