“Proudly, I announced — to my family’s stunned silence – that a teacher had said I was losing all traces of a Spanish accent.” — Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory.
What does it mean, that I have lived in Arizona for over twenty years and I still cannot speak Spanish?
What does it mean that my mother has spoken both Spanish and English her whole life?
What does it mean, to be brown, and afraid of your mother’s language?
The American Southwest is a diverse area, spanning from the Gulf of Mexico, up to Nevada, and out to the coasts of California. Across this expanse, people of all classes and races live their lives, as is characteristic of the “melting pot” ideal of the United States. It is interesting to note, of in contrast to the Southwest, that the northern states on both the west and east coasts are often bemoaned for their lack of ethnic diversity; for their ever-present whiteness.
The American Southwest, at the very least, is big enough to be visibly colorful in its people as well as its landscape; from tropic to desert, countryside to metropolitan.
It is within this region that my mother has chosen to live out her life and raise her children. She was born in the southernmost part of Texas, Brownsville, and moved around the country for her career, and finally settled here in Phoenix, Arizona. Texas is the Lone Star State, full of pride and declaration of identity. Arizona also has a lone star in its flag, but I find that its identity is neither as self-aggrandizing or solid. Nonetheless, both are important presences in the ideal of the West.
Among the many factors that lead my mother to settle here in the West, in Phoenix specifically, was her Hispanic heritage and her desire to raise her children in a place where Hispanics were visible. In Brownsville, seeing Mexico is a walk across the border through customs. Mexican-ness is a pervasive presence in life. It follows of course, that Spanish is as pervasive as in my mother’s upbringing.
In my own upbringing, while I heard Spanish spoken in my home, I attended an elementary school that was predominantly white. My school experiences were with upper middle class white children, as were Richard Rodriguez’s. However, I came of a middle class, academic upbringing myself. Why was it then, that I was so ashamed to learn Spanish?
It is because to my peers, my white middle class peers, Spanish was a language of labor, not liberation.
It was a language of labor — no, slave labor. Outside of my home, the places I recall Spanish being used most was in exchanges with yard workers or domestic servants, or in crowded restaurant kitchens. I never mentioned the hot faced shame I felt when I only saw this family language used in labor institutions, or how that factored into how I stopped pronouncing my name in Spanish in school.
To enforce the language, seemed to me, to be to enforce a sociocultural class of inferiority. Not of actual inferiority, but also to acknowledge that my peers saw the language and culture of Spanish as inferior.
“I know a little bit of Spanish because I listen to my mother talk to the workers who do our lawn.”
This is the role of Spanish in the Phoenix I grew up in.
So, for you to ask, “Why didn’t you study Spanish,” it’s because of this. It comes with extra indignance and in the intonation which almost screams my brown skin color. It’s only natural for a brown girl to speak Spanish, isn’t it? Just like it’s natural for dishwashers and busboys to not understand your English.
Typing it again brings that familiar painful redness to my face; to my tanned face.
I have fought this shame.
I am aware that Spanish-as-inferior is a racist assumption. I have my mother and her peers of color to demonstrate on a personal level that Spanish language and Mexican culture flow far beyond wage slavery and the “illegal aliens” that Arizona politics so love to hate. I know that children who grow up knowing more than one language, just as children who learn to read music and play sports, have more active brains.
Beyond any measure of doubt, I know that knowing Spanish in the Southwest is infinitely valuable. Beyond my rationality, I have been shamed out of admitting this publicly or learning my mother’s language. I have been bombared by negative assumptions
I have fought against these assumptions by discovering the artists and writers of the Spanish speaking world. I have sought the scholars and theories of Spanish and its interactions with English and anglicized culture in the US; it is a point of view, a form of fluidity and motion to codeswitch and to be fluent in more than one world.
My mother’s language, my mother’s bilingual language though, is still not my own. This is because she grew up in Brownsville, and I didn’t, because when I see my peer group in school they are still much like the kids I went to grade school with; in this public conversation, “Mexican” is still an insult, or a cheap greasy food you eat when you’re hungover.
It is in my own personal library that Spanish is a trove of beautiful works.
It is merely in public, in the Southwest that I inhabit, that I am shamed, and Spanish is shamed, and I have to learn to speak it with an uneasy accent for I will be degraded for authenticity.
In the world my mother inhabits, there is more power in Spanish, more familiarity. She is comfortable in the language, as she is comfortable in her world.
This is why I cannot speak Spanish, after over twenty years of being a brown girl living in the Southwest.