Reflections on a Region: Class(room) and Context

 I have tried to learn Spanish. Do not let it be said that my shame has entirely stunned me. However, language learning is something that is hard to do in isolation. One of the benefits of bilingual education, while now illegal in Arizona, is that it created a social environment for students to learn language. As such, the shame of being a beginner is largely ameliorated, as everyone is learning. Outside of a classroom environment, as is true with my native tongue (English), language is largely a kind of exclusive club.

The second language that I do possess, is oddly, German. As the Spanish class was full in my high school, I ended up signed up for German. The culture of German language students, in my observation, possesses a pleasantly dark cynicism. In studying German language, one also studies German history, bringing the backdrop of political and human atrocities of WWII. References to Nazi-ism are present in the German literature we read — for example, The Train Was on Time (Der Zug war Punktlich). One learns German with a certain solemnity for knowing it is represented by that grim war, the Berlin wall, and Re-Unification.

This is Eurocentrism. European history is treated with a gravity and importance. It is relevant to the world we live in today.

Mexican culture, and in turn, Spanish, is treated with more joyous triviality. In my own high school education, I recall the students of the Spanish class talking about Mexican Halloween (Dia de los Muertos), tequila, telenovelas, and car theft. The language of Mexico is a joke, punctuated by dramatic music and a camera close up, screaming “POR QUE?” with an upside down exclamation point at one end.

This trivialization remains apparent in the mainstream culture, where this film was presumably funny because it was an American actor speaking Spanish in the style of Mexican dramas. Will Ferrell is still never funny.

Spanish in a high school classroom setting is meaningless. There was a girl who was given the pet name “Jessi-caca” by the class because it was funny. Translated, that means “Jessi-shit.” Not as funny. But since Spanish is meaningless, the obscenity is meaningless. It’s a joke of a language, a joke of a class.

It is a language only spoken by strange, serious brown creatures that do work on your yard.

How then, could I have ventured to subject myself to an environment where the language of my mother was a joke? Where the country of my ancestors is a joke as well?

College Spanish was not something I ventured into. I had already obtained a mastery of German, and was worried that the Spanish classes would be just as much of blow off classes as they were in high school. I am confident they were not, at this point, as I doubt anything can be as trivialized a class as high school Spanish. However, I am aware that some lack of serious dedication to learning exists, as second-language study is mandatory for graduation, and Spanish is the only ‘practical’ second language in Arizona– as such, I have gotten the impression that many of the people taking it still do not really want to be learning it. This is a general problem with the early menial grind of college education and ‘requirements’, though.

I tried several times to learn Spanish on my own. To those attempts I can attribute having built a rudimentary vocabulary of Spanish, that I can attempt to read simple Spanish texts and piece words together to mean something in English. However, spoken Spanish has not come to me as easily; like all languages, its power is dialogue. I lack confidence in this Read-Only Spanish I possess to actively engage in dialogue, for the most part.

There is a time and a place for me to practice my clumsy solitary student Spanish, but I have not found it in Arizona.

In Phoenix, there are very brightly painted Mexican business areas, as well as the Ranch Market that very clearly cater to the Latin@ demographic. These are places it is safe to speak Spanish, but I note, they are not classrooms.

It brings me joy to look upon places like these. These are places where people have thick eye brows and tanned skin, like mine. These look like the places I imagine my mother grew up, as she was the one to introduce me to the beautiful bright colored buildings and the cuisine of her childhood in these places.

I feel like a tourist.

One afternoon, feeling inspired by the brightly colored buildings and hoping to show a friend this other kind of world and living, I went into a building marked “Helados,” painted pink and green and yellow. Helados translates roughly to “ice cream”. They also had paletas, which are popsicles usually involving fresh fruit pieces.

“Quieres… eh,” I paused, dumb for a minute, while ordering, struggling to grasp the language right in front of me. “Quieres un paleta de Fresa, ah, y una de… Nuez?” I stammered my order out. It was promptly filled. I handed over a twenty dollar bill and received change. I was too shy to talk about money or numbers or price. I handed the strawberry popsicle to my companion, stepped back, and watched as a pack of school children walked in. My walnut flavored popsicle was melting on my tongue and numbing my lips as I watched the scene unfold before me.

A young man ordered easily, fluidly, a small chocolate cone and a strawberry popsicle, in English. I felt like a phony. A phony with a delicious popsicle, but still a phony.

These spaces are part of people’s lives. The language they use is also part of their lives, and they function in Spanish spaces speaking either English or Spanish, as is appropriate to them. I felt even more like a tourist as I walked out, beyond the painted doorway in, back to the car parked in the small lot out front. My companion and I drove home. My home is in an English speaking space, across the street from car dealerships that have big signs that say “Habla espanol!” along with “big sale!” in front of them. As though speaking Spanish is enough to make up for not knowing if the sale is in your language or not. I am becoming absurdly maudlin in this chapter, but, I imagine sale is a word that is understood enough at least in regards to cars.

Regardless, that experience emphasized that although I cannot practice beginner Spanish at school, to practice it in other people’s spaces and lives feels equally, if not more vulgar. I feel like a phony stepping into the places where people do their afternoon routine and using it as a way to highlight my lack of fluency in a language that is natural to them. I feel like a tourist in my mother’s version of the Southwest. I feel ingenuine using others lives to learn a languge that is not my own, but is appended to me by fate. 

No, the place to learn and practice Spanish is not in Arizona. I did however, find it very far from here. I will elaborate on that in the next and final chapter.

Where have you found yourself lately? 

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One thought on “Reflections on a Region: Class(room) and Context

  1. I have not taken German as a language, but one of my exes had, and it suited him. That was my heritage language, all solemn and even the myths were Serious Business. The stuff of operas. I took Spanish in high school, and Japanese as well, and found mixed reactions: Spanish was the language for jokes, for housecleaning, for gardening. Japanese was so complex and hard and oh I see you’re learning it obviously because of the world economy but it’s still weird and mysterious. It was… very odd.

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