Last night I went salsa dancing. I met an impossibly good-looking guy from Tunisia who was a great dancer. When we started talking, I told him I was a singer and he asked about my music. I was only a little surprised to hear his dismay and disapproval that I don't write songs in Spanish. I told him, "I really only write songs in English because my native tongue is English. My dominant language is English."
"That's too bad," he chided, "You have been colonized."
"No," I tried to reassure him, "I haven't been colonized. I'm an American. I was born here. I'm actually a colonizer."
"You cannot be a colonizer with that shirt on," he gestured at my GEORGE W. YOU'RE FIRED t-shirt. I was a bit relieved to hear his disapproval dissolve into a joke, but it's a point that comes up often in my life: since I am Mexican, I should use more Spanish.
What do I say? You can argue all day long that Latinos should speak Spanish, that Latinos shouldn't abandon our culture, and that it's shameful when Latinos only know English. But you know what? Acculturation, or the uglier word assimilation, isn't always a choice. I didn't choose to be born in the United States, nor did I choose to grow up in an exclusively English-speaking suburb, attend English-speaking schools or have my parents speak only English to me my entire life. Those things just happened.
Decades before I was born, my parents ventured, as small, frightened, Spanish-speaking children, into the public schools of Texas in the 1940's. Neither of them knew a word of English. Unfortunately, Texas in the 1940's had little tolerance for what would later be called cultural diversity. No Spanish was allowed in school: not in the classroom, not on the playground, not in the bathroom, nowhere. No Spanish. What were my parents to do? It was the only language they knew. Well, inevitably the Mexican children would communicate in the only way they could and were strictly punished for it. Unfortunately, in Texas in the 1940's punishment in the public schools sometimes meant being beaten.
So my parents learned English the hard way. The joke I have heard is that one of my father's uncles, who must have gone to school in the unimaginable 1920's, had a teacher who was unable to pronouce his name, Asención, and whose name he was unable to pronounce: Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt's solution to this cultural gap was to punish Asención for not saying her name correctly, and to change his name to "Willie."
I believe these early and violent lessons in the "inferiority" and inappropriateness of Spanish never left my parents' psyches. They both became strong political organizers in the Mexican American community of the San Francisco Bay Area, and they told my sister and me countless times to be proud of our heritage. They immersed us in Mexican culture as much as they could, even though they settled our family in a white suburb of San Francisco. I grew up with the food, music, holiday celebations and some of the cultural values and traditions of my parents and ancestors. But for all their efforts to preserve the culture and pass it on to us, my parents never spoke to us in Spanish. English was the language of our home. Sometimes they argued in Spanish and sometimes they scolded us in Spanish, but all daily conversation, ALL daily conversation, with us took place in English. I think my parents were never able to shake the cultural stigma they learned to attach to Spanish in that Texas environment of the 1940's. Surrounded by intense, and often violent, racism, my parents learned to speak English and only English. As many times as they voiced the desire that my sister and I speak fluent Spanish, they were never able to help us learn it by actually using it with us.
So MY English was perfect when I began public school. My parents prepared us very well for that environment and made sure their daughters were never punished for not knowing the appropriate language. But in an ironic over-correction, they left my sister and me with very little knowledge of Spanish at all, and I had to learn it later along with all the other Anglos, in high school.
Today I have little need to speak Spanish. English is the language of my environment and I would have to make a special effort to find places where I would use Spanish. Someone could argue that I should put in the effort to find places where I can speak Spanish, that I owe it to my culture and my people, but although it might sound ugly coming from the grand-daughter of Mexican immigrants, English is the language I love best. It's the language in which I thrive, write music, express emotions, make jokes. It's my best language and even if I were forced by circumstances (or a very unlikely set of political events) to function in Spanish, English would still be the language of my heart. It's just how I was raised.
Unfortunately, I have had so many Latinos (and white people) shake their heads disapprovingly at me that I have learned a deep shame for not speaking Spanish fluently. From a very young age, I was shamed for not knowing Spanish, despite such a decision being out of my hands until I could choose to learn Spanish in school. With this shame, I developed a psychological block against being able to speak Spanish. With such pressure on me to please "my people" and fulfill their demand that I know competent Spanish, I choke each time I try to speak it. For most of my life, even though I got straight A's in all those Spanish classes, my Spanish has not been good, not because I can't conjugate or remember the vocabulary, but because each time I open my mouth, I can already hear the scolding for my poor ability. The Spanish comes out hesitantly, hobbled and usually full of mistakes.
So I thank all those Latinos (and white people) who thought they were doing their part to preserve the culture by shaming me for my lack of Spanish. Ustedes have really done me favor by giving me such a complex about the language that to this day I never claim to be able to speak it. In fact, I envy white Americans who learn Spanish and receive only congratulations for it. Their mistakes are not judged because it's so impressive that they can speak Spanish at all.
THAT'S ME, I want to say. I was a teenage white girl from the suburbs who had to learn her vocabulary and verb tenses off the page! My parents didn't give me any head start. Someone give ME credit for working hard to learn a "foreign" language and still being able to hold a conversation in it today. How many Americans, at the age of 37, can still hold a conversation in the language they took four years of in high school? Seriously, how many?
But no, I get no compliments, no credit. I'm Mexican and I "should" speak Spanish, so my Spanish gets judgment and head-shaking. And that is why, when someone asks, "Do you speak Spanish?" I answer, "Only in case of emergency."