Editor’s note: This blog is part of a series of first person essays about identity written by UTEP honors students during the spring 2013 semester.
I used to be a real Mexican. I know because I have a little black cassette tape that was made 32 years ago. It’s an artifact of another time. A time I don’t remember well. It was May 10th, 1980, Mexican Mother’s Day. My father had recorded my three siblings and me singing songs as a gift for our nanas that were back in El Centro, Calif., and Mexicali, Baja California. On the recording, I’m singing in English but with a strong Spanish accent.
My family moved to El Paso from Tijuana, Baja California, when I was 2 years old. When I arrived to the United States I didn’t speak English. I became fluent very quickly, though. In fact, I had the easiest time of all of my siblings in adapting and speaking English like a “real” American. These days it is not hard to tell that I am a “pocha,” an immigrant who has forgotten her native language, when you hear me speak Spanish.
That is, the English adoption quickly won out over my Spanish mother tongue.
The thing I love about this little black cassette is that it was a “me” I have no recollection of. In the background, you can hear my father strumming a guitar in a way that makes it clear that he is not a musician. My failed composer father even wrote a couple of songs (lyrics and melodies) for the occasion – one in English called Old El Paso, about how Mexicans belong here and are in fact real Americans. The other one in Spanish, of course. It was called Yo Tambien Soy Mexicano. Yup. That about sums it up.
My father was born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrants. They were a rural farm family from Imperial Valley, Calif., who quickly worked toward assimilating into Anglo-American culture and just as quickly lost their mastery of the Spanish language. They are pochos, too. But I wouldn’t say that to their faces because to them that is an offensive term. That fact is that their Spanish isn’t so good and they (for the most part) did not pass it onto their children. They fly American flags but never Mexican ones. My father, though, turned out a little differently. He obviously had problems letting go of his Mexican roots. My brother was named after my father, Arthur, except my brother’s name is the Latinized Arturo.
And the reason my parents moved to Tijuana was because my father wanted his children to be born in Mexico (to be real Mexicans, of course) so that’s a statement in itself. His heroes? John Wayne and Pancho Villa and Geronimo. His uniform? Cowboy boots, 501 Levis, cowboy hat, everyday. Spanish? Not so good. English? Not so good, either, and asource of endless jokes for all of us. My mother, born and raised in Mexico and the only non-citizen of the family, is the only one who is truly bilingual. I think my father is a good representative of the contradictions that come with being bicultural. No single identity suffices. And no single identity has to.
Much of my childhood was filled with mixed feelings about my bicultural self, my white skin despite being Latina, and my Anglo middle and upper-class friends from the Gifted and Talented and Humanities programs in public school. There was a lot of unrecognized, internalized shame about being Mexican in elementary school. And the fact that I could pass for Anglo didn’t help shield me from many racist comments from teachers, classmates, and strangers –sometimes subtle and sometimes not so much. It wasn’t until middle and high school that I began to value my Mexican-American identity. Slowly, I learned that I didn’t have to be ashamed of my Mexican birthright, nor go out of my way to adopt “American” or WASP culture, nor apologize for the cultural adaptation I chose to make. But it always makes me sad that I am no longer a fully fluent Spanish-speaker.
My narrative is not a new one. Withintwo generations, immigrants to this country tend to lose their native language. I stand solidly in the corner of those working to reclaim Spanish for themselves and for their children. It is certainly an uphill battle, but one well worth waging for several reasons. I don’t want my kids to feel ashamed of their ethnicity by desperately studying and mimicking white America and trading in their Mexican parts in order to be a bad copy of someone else. There is no pride in that. And there are cognitive, educational reasons to preserve Spanish. People who speak more than one language are better off in terms of job opportunities and access to many different parts of the world, as well as in cultural understanding.
My 14-year-old daughter likes to tell me the joke about what do call someone who only speaks one language?