Tuesday, August 07, 2012

My native language is still English

I recently gave a speech in my Toastmasters club that had the same title as this post. I based it on a post I published eight years ago on this blog. I reprint the text of that June 20, 2004 post here because it's an important message (the text is slightly edited and improved). The message is: shaming someone about their language skills is a terrible way to try to preserve a culture.

Orginally posted June 20, 2004:
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, school-age, 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. 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 hit.

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 Texas of the 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 connected us to Mexican culture as much as they could, even though they settled our family in a white suburb of San Francisco. I grew up with a lot of the food, music, holiday celebations, cultural values and traditions of my parents and ancestors.

But for all my parents' efforts to preserve the culture and pass it on to us, English was the language of our home. Sometimes they argued or scolded in Spanish, but all daily conversation with me and my sister 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 prioritize 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 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. I learned it 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 granddaughter 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 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 chided 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 this internalized pressure 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 A's in those Spanish classes, my Spanish has not been good. It's 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. My Spanish comes out hesitantly, hobbled and usually full of mistakes.

So I address 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 haven't really done me favor by giving me such a complex that to this day I never claim to be able to speak the language of my parents. 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 TOO, 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 a 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 beautiful Spanish, so my halting Spanish gets judgment and head-shaking. And that is why, when someone asks, "Do you speak Spanish?" I often answer, "Only in case of emergency."


Sun Follower said...

It's as if I wrote this myself! For very similar reasns - my parents only spoke to us in English. Both were raised speaking Spanish in the home (my Dad in California/LA and my mom in New Mexico) and learned English in school the hard way. My dad also moved us tothe suburbs of LA while my cousins remained in East LA - all were bi-ligual while my sibs and I spoke only English. I asked my parents why they never spoke to us or tuaghtus Spanish -and my dad told me it was such a struggle for him in grammar school that he did not want us to go through it. I took only two years of Spanish in high school - but because of sheer family exposure I can understand much more than I speak. This piece really spoke to me. I even felt a like a partial Mexican when I was around my cousins who grew up bi-lingual.

Thanks for writng this. I've never identified with an essay more.

(by the way - I am a freind of Cathy Rivera - and even better friends with her cousins :)

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Sun Follower - Thanks for reading. I'm very glad this piece felt true for you. Only in my 40's (since originally writing this post) have I reached some peace with my "mexicanity" and my language abilities. It's now much harder to make me feel bad about how much Spanish I (don't) speak. I no longer internalize a sense of failure like I did when I wrote this in 2004.