The following essay was written for my English 404 Creative Nonfiction class and was inspired by Ocean Vuong’s “Surrendering”
I have told this story it seems a million times. A nun, my teacher in the second grade, told my parents at a parent-teacher conference that they needed to stop speaking Spanish to me or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to progress in school. “This is America, and in America, we speak English,” I remember her telling them. By the eighth grade, I could barely speak a word of Spanish. It was the America of the fifties, and the nun won. I was now an American. Well, not probably in their minds, but I was at least trying to be one of them.
And that’s too bad because then, being American was anyone other than a nice white Anglo-Saxon protestant. Even Catholics were not allowed as long as they stuck to their side of town. And no Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Negroes (term of the time), and we won’t even talk about those Chinese who should have known better, according to red-blooded Americans back then, Hell, they had their own towns.
Those red-blooded Americans thought it was okay that we could live here in the United States of America as long as we spoke English. Funny, they seemed okay with European immigrants speaking Italian, German, and even French (so continental) and Spanish as from Spain (so Castilian). The problem had something to do with those darker people speaking their language. Weird.
So there I was stuck in this twilight world of wanting to be an American and yet unable to speak Spanish, which made it difficult if not impossible to talk to many of my closest relatives, including my grandmothers, who knew next to nothing of English because it was not their native language. And my mother, in her early years, still had struggles with the language, although, with time, she became more fluent. Even with that, I wish I could have asked her and my father questions about their lives in their home countries in the language that I knew they were the most comfortable with so they could tell me stories in that language in all its beauty and specificity that just could not be captured by the English language.
I went on to be an excellent reader and speaker of English, although since I was from the Bronx, some people might debate the excellence of the speaking part. I read books and Boys Life magazine, watched American English television, learned how they spoke, and thought of myself just like them. I never once felt that I was anything but just like them, an English language-speaking American at that young age. And that’s the way it’s been all my life.
Now, I wish in frustration that I had paid more attention in Mrs. Travieso’s Spanish class, “You speak Spanish with an American accent.” I knew she meant to add, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” She didn’t have to say it; I felt it. WTF. I imagine, for a second, that if I had kept my Spanish, and been bilingual, the stories I would have read, the stories I would have heard, the added dimension of life I would have experienced. Damn.
This while thing about to be an American, you must only speak English has messed with my head over the years. Yes, I’ve tried to learn Spanish to explore this other dimension of my life, my family’s life, and their history. When I try to speak the few words that I know, I tighten up, embarrassed with my pronunciation, the accent that Ms. Travieso complained about would make people look at me and say, “¿Que eres un gringo?”
I was so committed to being an English-only speaking American that, in all honesty, there were times in my life I was ashamed when someone would try to speak Spanish to me because somehow they assumed that I spoke the language and I would have different reactions. If they were a native Spanish speaker, I would hesitantly tell them No comprende or No habla Espanol in the worst English accented Spanish that I could muster. You were right, Miss Travieso. If the person was native English speaking and I thought they were trying to make some lousy attempt at shaming me like I wasn’t American enough because they thought I didn’t speak English. I would pause, look them in the eyes and say indignantly; I speak English. I didn’t add, but I desperately wanted to say I probably speak better English than you.
I love listening to people who can seamlessly move between languages. Even better, more than two languages. There’s a skill, a rolling of the lips and tongue, the hand gestures that come with each language. Some stories are best told in their native tongue. The music of that language. The cultural history. The depth of meaning.
Something magical happens when you are awash in the symbolism and specificity of each word and how it’s pronounced. It happens in English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Arabic, hell, any of the thousands of languages that people in America, Americans all of them, speak at home, at school, in stores, on sidewalks, and in the subway. Hell, turn on your radio, television, or podcast. It’s all there, the whole world speaking to us in over seven thousand languages, and some people, okay, a lot of English-speaking Americans, get upset when they hear someone speaking another language. OMG, why is it any of your fuckin’ business?
I secretly dream that I can understand them (I’m a busybody), not so I can share their secrets but because I want to go up to them and ask them about their language, culture, history, and countries of origin. And if they were born in America, I want to know how and why they retained their parent’s native tongue because I would be jealous as hell if they told me, “Well, we just spoke our language because it is beautiful, and it is the way we share our lives.” Yeah, that should be a good enough reason for me and any other American if it was our business.