By: Vanessa Lopez
I vividly remember when I learned how to speak English.
I have memories of understanding what people were saying when they were speaking English as early as three years old of age, and understanding that they wouldn’t be able to comprehend my words — Spanish. My assimilation to the English language was quick, and I took off running with its adoption, and have since been involved in a messy love affair. It is because of this, even despite the huge nopal on my forehead, that people are often surprised to discover that Spanish was my first language. More likely, because now when I speak Spanish I can come out sounding like a gringa — a total “white girl.”
In my defense, I had two battles to overcome to retain the Spanish I still know and am able to speak. With the education system as it still was during my elementary years, speaking Spanish in school was discouraged. I remember early on being reprimanded in class as the English-only speakers felt we were talking about them — which, most of the time, we were.
School quickly became an English-only environment. The second obstacle that I had against me was that I was not raised in a traditional “Mexican home” where Spanish was the primary language — something that undoubtedly had helped and ensured others to keep their Spanish language. I was raised in a bi-racial home where English was our main language. My step father, my adoptive father, is American — un gringo. I was four years old when my parents married, and I was put on a fast-track course into American culture.
I struggled a lot with my identity growing up. I was unsure if I identified myself more as an American or Mexican — it is still sometimes an issue for me. I had relatives who often told me that I did not have the “right” to call myself Mexican, as I was not born in Mexico, but with the nopal en mi frente, how could I also possibly identify with what has been the traditional view of “American”? This question is made even more difficult to answer when we reside in the epicenter where these two cultures crash, creating an area of ambiguity: by the border — la frontera.
The idea that the region around the border contained its own culture along with its own version of Spanish didn’t become a solidified concept to me until I began to feel the backlash for the type of Spanish I spoke when I left our cultural bubble — this informal, hybridized version of Spanish was not considered “proper.” It was almost as if I was being rejected by both the American and Mexican cultures because the version that I exhibited as was not “right.”
As I continued my love affair with English and the written word, I couldn’t deny the fact that Spanish — my first language — was not something that could be ignored or suppressed. There are some words and expressions that cannot be translated into English. They roll off the tongue in Spanish in such an elegant way, that to turn it into English would chop it to bits and take away from its beauty. There is a musical tone and quality that exists in Spanish that is seductive without even trying.
Without realizing it, when not being conscious of having and needing to speak English, these words and expressions would come out of their own accord — they have a life of their own. It is when I am my most comfortable, when I’m not having to think about what I am saying, that I mix the two languages. More importantly, it feels right when they are mixed.
The mixture of the two languages is indicative of the mixture of my two cultures. It is inherently who I am. I am Mexican, and I am also American. I am a hybrid. It has taken me a long time to accept that this is ok. I do not have to fall under the pressure of having to choose one over the other, nor do I have to fall under the negative stigmatization that to claim both is wrong.
When I first stumbled on Gloria Anzaldúa’s book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, I felt I had found the words of a kindred spirit who knew and understood the struggle of finding your voice when you have each foot standing in two different worlds. What I had found incredible was that her book was first published in 1987, yet still holds as much relevance as it did then — maybe even more so today. This book spoke to me on such a spiritual level and brought a voice to the shame I had been feeling of not feeling like I was Mexican enough because my Spanish was “broken.” But I am not broken; I am evolved, and more importantly, I am not alone. There are more like me who exist. Anzaldúa wrote:
Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.
I wish I had read Anzaldúa’s book sooner so that I could have understood myself sooner. I wish that more of us would read this book so that they can come to the same conclusions I have: I am not wrong or uneducated because I mix two languages. I am not less Mexican because I speak English. I am not less American because I speak Spanish. I am not less. I am more. I am me.