Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I'm a Bad Mexican, Part One

My whole life I’ve felt like a bad Mexican. My parents raised my sister and me in the white suburbs of California. I didn’t know how to speak Spanish until I took it in high school. I dressed white, spoke white, had white friends and when I started dating, I went out with white boys. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920’s and by the time I was born my immediate and most of my extended family had managed to attain the middle class. But the materials in my Chicano Studies class at U.C. Berkeley didn’t include a middle class experience and neither did the many political speeches and personal statements I’ve heard over the years. With the impression that there is no such thing as a Mexican American middle class, I felt like I didn’t count as Mexican at all. My early life was planted in the suburbs of San Francisco, and stories about my grandparents picking cotton or doing laundry for 25 cents an hour felt like they had nothing to do with me.

I received the approval of my parents’ generation for my outstanding academics, but I had their disapproval for not speaking fluent Spanish. I realize now it was unfair of them to hold me responsible for knowing a language no one had taught me, but as I grew up I accepted the blame completely. I believed I was a bad Mexican and I was ashamed.

For most of my life this shame has tongue-tied me whenever I’ve tried to speak Spanish. Of course, those occasions were rare since few people in my world even spoke Spanish. I went from a suburban college prep high school to U.C. Berkeley to Cornell University to jobs as a teacher, office worker, childcare provider, musician, etc. Never in any of those environments did I need to speak anything but English.

Let me state it again: never in my entire life did I need to know any language other than English. I worked, socialized, dated, conducted commerce and consumed entertainment completely in English, as most Americans do. Most people who took French or Spanish in high school or college can’t speak it as adults because without regular practice, foreign language skills disappear. The only reasons I managed to retain as much Spanish-speaking ability as I did, were my natural facility with language and the extreme cultural pressure I constantly felt to know Spanish.

It wasn’t until I decided to try waitressing at the age of 38 that I finally found myself in the position of needing to know Spanish, and it took me by surprise. Now it seems totally obtuse to not realize that a job in a Chicago restaurant would mean having Spanish-dominant coworkers (I prefer the terms “Spanish-dominant” and “English-dominant” because lots of Spanish speakers also speak some English and lots of English speakers also speak some Spanish. I think the “dominant” terms are more specific). But it dawned on me slowly that as a waitress who constantly interacted with Spanish-dominant cooks, I’d better pull that high school Spanish out of cerebral storage and start using it for the first time in my life.

Since then I’ve learned two invaluable things. One is that if I establish at the beginning that I’m really more American than Mexican (I’ll even say, “Soy una gringa.”) and my Spanish sucks, people will be impressed when I manage to hold my own in that language. This is HUGELY better than having people assume I can speak Spanish fluently and then being disappointed (and disapproving) when I stumble. The second thing is that I’ve retained an incredible amount of vocabulary and grammar from those classes I took about 20 years ago. I’ll start explaining that I’m going to be a bee for Halloween, with no idea how to say “bee” in Spanish, and then by the end of the sentence “abeja” just drops out of my mouth. Amazing.

I’ve also found that the Mexican immigrants I work with have none of the judgment of those second generation Mexican Americans who clucked their tongues at me when I was growing up. “You should know Spanish” is not an opinion I get from anyone who came here from Mexico and is trying to learn English as fast as possible. They accept that my bloodline and physical features are Mexican, but that my personality and language are American (I speak Spanish with a clear Anglo accent). Yet they’ve found nothing to criticize in me and for that I’m grateful. Their acceptance has helped me accept my fragmented self-image and improve it.

Thus have I finally made my peace with Spanish and to some extent my Mexican-ness. I’ve stopped expecting myself to one day finally speak the language of my grandparents flawlessly. It’s a goal I no longer feel I must achieve in order to atone for being raised middle class, sounding like a white girl and having little contact with any Hispanic community. I’m more American than Mexican and that’s all right. Enabling their families mobility in class and wealth was why my grandparents came here in the first place.

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