I hate when it happens. When my mother-in-law comes over and she is in a heated discussion with my husband and I wonder if she’s talking about me. When I shop at the local Mexican market and I need two pounds of queso fresco. When I’m introduced to a sweet, elderly brown woman who doesn’t speak any English.
They automatically address me in Spanish. I mean, look at me. I am a brown and proud Latina—specifically, a Chicana. I come from a long line of Mexican-Americans from East L.A., so I embrace the Chicana title. I must speak Spanish fluently, right?
I try my best to understand what they are saying, trying to keep up with their rapid cadences, their idioms and slang—piecing together what I can readily understand and what I’ve learned in Spanish I, Spanish II and Spanish III in high school and college. But it’s so hard. It’s like my brain and my tongue just don’t want to cooperate with me. It has become my life-long handicap.
Hello, my name is Denise Silva Cortes, I’m Latina and I don’t know how to speak Spanish. I grew up in a home where my parents spoke English all the time. My mother can speak Spanish, but my father doesn’t speak it at all. Ever since I was a little girl, whenever my mother didn’t want us to know what they were talking about, she would communicate with my Nana in Spanish. As a result, Spanish became this very exclusive tongue that was always a mystery to me. I understand why it was important to my grandparents that their children speak English fluently, because they believed it was a key to success. But what they did not consider was the fact that the native tongue might get lost in translation, literally. Sometimes, to assimilate means to leave behind that which makes you special, different, unique, and is vital to the culture.
When I was in college, knee-deep into my Chicano Studies, rocking the Mexican peasant top, reading Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold like it was the gospel and carrying around my life in a tattered serape purse, I created a painting that pretty much summed up my feelings about not being able to speak Spanish. Sadly, I no longer have the image, but let me paint the picture for you. A young schoolgirl in pigtails sits on the floor, her legs criss-cross applesauce. She looks innocent enough, until you look closer to discover her eyes are downcast, and she doesn’t have a mouth. She holds a bright red tongue, which has been severed by a pair of scissors. The juxtaposition was both simple and symbolic: the mother tongue had been cut off from this young girl. She was me.
LOSING THE LANGUAGE
U.S-born Latinos losing the language over time is nothing new. According to Hispanic News‘ study, the grandchildren of immigrants are likely to speak only English. By the third generation, only 17 percent speak Spanish fluently and by the fourth generation, it drops to 5 percent. I am fourth-generation Mexican-American, so these statistics make perfect sense to me. “The United States is a language graveyard,” said Rubén G. Rumbaut, a University of California-Irvine sociology professor and co-author of the study, “Linguistic Life Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention in Southern California”. “The shift (toward English only) is rapid, and it’s essentially complete by the third generation,” he says.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Kathy Cano-Murillo’s 6th Annual Crafty Chica Cruise to Mexico. I know I had Pocha stamped on my forehead whenever my eyes searched for my completely fluent husband to translate for me. The simple things like communicating with our tour guide, trying to search for a lovely pair of sterling silver earrings in San José del Cabo, ordering shrimp tacos from a taco stand and doing something as simple as buying bolts of Mexican fabric was a challenge for this non-fluent Latina. I may have a barrier because I can’t speak the language, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of who am I or where I came from. I’m still brown and proud, and I always will be.