I have now worked as a server for four and a half months. Ironically, after a lifetime of avoiding Spanish, I find myself at a job that requires more Spanish than I ever would have agreed to. The Mexican immigrant kitchen staff expects fluent Spanish from me. As I made clear in a previous blog entry ("My native language is English", June 20, 2004), I'm not fluent in Spanish, never have been and probably never will be. I speak it as well as any American who learned Spanish in high school and then felt forced to speak it, haltingly and painfully, because of extreme cultural pressure and shame (okay, maybe there aren't so many Americans like that, but we do exist).
Unfortunately most people are unable to comprehend the existence of a "full-blooded" Mexican American who doesn't speak fluent Spanish. At the restaurant it's clear that the kitchen staff thinks I understand far more than I do. They regularly give me long explanations I can't follow and no matter how many times I tell them I need them to speak slower, they just won't accommodate me. I'm sure they think I'm holding out on them. They must think I'm a fluent Spanish speaker, but too lazy or stuck up to use it.
Why is it so hard to accept the existence of someone whose nationality is blurred? Why can so few people understand that since I'm not white enough to count as white, but not Mexican enough to count as Mexican, I occupy a rather lonely middle ground where I seem doomed to disappoint everyone? All my life people have passed judgment on me when they've learned how poor my Spanish is. At least my co-workers aren't doing that. On the contrary, they're refusing to accept the reality of my limited bilingualism. It almost feels like a compliment: maybe I've been accepted as "one of them." Only I know I haven't been every time I have to stop the conversation and say, "No te entiendo. No te entiendo."
I'm not one of them and I'm not even really one of us. I'm one of me, the unicorn, the Chicana who can fake a fluent Spanish accent until the end of the first sentence. After that it's clear I'm just another American whose second language ability is hampered by her lack of a real need for it.