This is My Spanish
I have a particularly vivid memory of myself as a 4th grader. It was the mid-90s, so go ahead and picture it, and make sure there are bike shorts involved. My parents had just moved me from a “low-performing” (read: mostly Latinx) school district to a “high-performing” (read: mostly white) one. My new school was so homogenous that having a Mexican-American classmate was such a revelation to my peers, that even a güera like myself created a commotion. One day on the playground, a circle of 8- and 9-year-olds asked me to speak Spanish for them. It’s not lost on me now that I was being asked to perform someone else’s imagined version of my own identity, but then, as a kid singled out as “different”, I just wanted to survive. For reasons that I would only begin to understand later in life, I pretended like speaking Spanish was, in fact, an ability I had, and I serenaded my classmates with “La Bamba” (I was obsessed with the movie at the time) – filling in the parts I didn’t know with a sort of pseudo-Spanish that had the cadence of my dad’s (actual) Spanish, but with lies making up the syllables. But I owned that performance and those gringxs didn’t know the difference.
For years, I was ashamed of myself for lying like that. Why hadn’t I just admitted that I didn’t speak Spanish? At least, I didn’t speak Spanish in the way I knew in my marrow, even at 8-years-old, my classmates wanted to hear. This wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that it would be assumed I speak Spanish. And it wouldn’t be the last time I would have to lie or equivocate or else explain myself to family, to friends, to peers, to strangers. I don’t have a quick sound bite about my Spanish. I have years and years of scar tissue built up around a wound, passed across generations, that is constantly being reopened.
Last Wednesday, at the first set of debates for 2020 Democratic Presidential hopefuls, Spanish was unexpectedly at center stage, thanks to, in my humble, Latina opinion, its disingenuous use by Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. Setting aside anything about the content of their messages, simply the use of Spanish for O’Rourke and Booker, and for other non-Latinx folks, particularly white folks, is often viewed as advantageous, desirable, profitable. A lot of times, bi-/multi-lingualism is often valued so much in non-Latinx folks that it is considered a sign of intellect, or even worldliness. Bilingualism in Latinxs, on the other hand, is viewed as a deficit, a failure to assimilate, a sign of inferior intellect. Enter Julián Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of HUD for the Obama Administration. He is currently the only Mexican-American (the only Latinx person, period) running for President of the United States. Would the only Latinx on stage join O’Rourke and Booker and speak Spanish? How “good” is his Spanish? Would it be “better” than the Spanish of the two non-Latinxs? Does it matter if it isn’t “better”, whatever that means?
In an interview for Latino USA in early 2019, Julián was asked by host Maria Hinojosa how he responds to the people who criticize him for not speaking Spanish. He, rightfully, tells her to slow her roll; speaking Spanish isn’t “100 or 0...I speak Spanish to some extent, I'm just not completely fluent at it. And I understand it pretty well.” I can tell you that so many Latinx people would say the same thing about their Spanish. I know I do. And there’s a reason for that. Many of us share a complicated and painful history with Spanish because Spanish was literally and systematically whipped out of our families.
The use of corporal punishment became the de facto policy to deal with Spanish-speaking kids in U.S. public schools. Their crime? Speaking Spanish. It happened to my dad in his elementary school in Bisbee, Arizona. It would have happened to mi abuela if she had attended school in the U.S. after coming over from Mexico. The message from those burns imprinted itself on our parents’ DNA. Spanish became the hot stove, and our parents learned quickly that it was scalding. Is it any wonder that some families, including my own, chose, whether consciously or not, to bury their own Spanish to protect their children? Julián tells Maria:
It's very ironic that they used to tell our mothers and our grandmothers and grandfathers and fathers, “You're not good enough because you don't speak English well enough.” And then they're turning around and telling their grandsons, “You're not good enough because you don't speak Spanish well enough.” I mean that is quite an irony, and I think it's a bullshit one.
Julián didn’t use his Spanish on the debate stage until the 11th hour to proclaim his name and that he was running for President of the United States. It felt poignant and authentic where O’Rourke’s and Booker’s did not. In what is one of the most surreal moments of my life, I meet with Julián the morning after the debate. I told him that my family, too, came from Mexico. "Anytime there's news about you, I share it with my dad and then we text the Mexican and American flag emojis back and forth. It's truly meaningful to me. To us." He brought up his Spanish use in the debate, "I didn't feel the need to use Spanish until the very end, and that was to say how far we've come in this country."
I can't be for sure, but when he says 'we' here, I think he means Mexican-Americans. And I think he’s right. Because he used his Spanish on his own terms on a Presidential debate stage in front of millions of viewers. Spanish was a liability for his mom, my dad, our grandparents. And still so often, too, Latinx and non-Latinx folks alike have tried to tell Latinxs like Julián and me that whatever our Spanish is, it’s not good enough.
I’m not naïve. I know Julián’s Spanish will be chastised by many as he continues on the campaign trail. And it’ll hurt. Non-Latinx white folks like Beto O’Rourke will be praised for their command of a language that was beat out of so many Latinxs. And it’ll hurt. I will continue to tell people, in moments of insecurity, that my Spanish “isn’t very good”. I’ll know better, but I’ll say it anyway. And it’ll hurt. But there will also be moments like that morning after the debate, when two Mexican-Americans, one running for president, the other a linguist, will chat about Spanish and it won’t feel like two kids with their hands too close to the hot stove, but two chingonxs enjoying the warmth of a hot comal warming up fresh tortillas.