I never thought it was a big deal, that I was Mexican and couldn’t speak Spanish. I grew up in a small country town where my cousins and I were the only Mexicans in our school besides maybe one other family. It was never brought to my attention that this was a bad thing. Growing up, it was normal to hear the adults in my family speak a different language. I was raised by my grandmother who could speak Spanish, but it wasn’t something that was passed down to me. I was never spoken to in Spanish nor could I understand it. I remember when all my aunts and cousins would come over every Sunday. After Church we would come home and play outside while the adults sat at the table. You could smell the tortillas and the frijoles in the backyard as we played. My stomach would growl as the smells would hit my empty stomach as we played kickball. The adults would be drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and would talk in Spanish as they cooked. This was a tradition that was carried out throughout my youth.
You see some things didn’t have to be said in my house. We never asked what is was they were actually saying in Spanish or why they would only speak in Spanish when we were around. As a matter of fact, we didn’t even speak unless spoken to. We didn’t need our parents to tell us to play outside while they sat and told their stories. They would just give us that look that sent shockwaves through your whole body to let you know that you needed to leave the room.
One of my older cousins once said, “You know they only talk in Spanish, so they can talk about everyone.”
So, that’s what they were doing? Can you imagine hearing something like that at the age of seven? It was like hearing one of the greatest secrets of all time. They were talking about us. This was exciting and very terrifying at the same time. This only made me want to know what they were saying even more. My cousins and I would try for hours to try to break the code, but we never got far, but whoever they were talking about must have done something bad. I didn’t need to know Spanish to know that they were saying every cuss word known to man, well known to me anyways. There was a lot of “Pinche Cabrons” on that Sunday.
I would try and just picture the day that I was able to sit at the same table, like my Grandma and Great Aunts gossiping about god knows what! You have to understand: I grew up in an all-woman household. My grandma and my aunts were the strongest women that I have ever came across. They were like superheroes to me, so being able to sit on the same table was like the right of passage. They raised their children, and when their children had kids, they raised or helped raise their kids too. Now that I am older and have children of my own, I don’t know how she did all that she did for us; she made everything seem so easy.
Back then, we didn’t have famous idols to look up to, and even if we did, they could never compare to them. My aunts never even had to raise their voice; you knew when to shut up. Call it fear or call it respect, but without them, this family would crumble. I will forever admire those women. They taught me everything that I needed to know growing up in this world, or so I thought.
I started working as soon as I was old enough. I did cleaning jobs, fast food jobs, but I found that retail was my thing. I loved working with people, but mostly I found that I was really good with people. I never had any issues with people asking me if I spoke Spanish or not. That wasn’t a question that was normally asked. And even if you were asked, it’s usually a nod and then you would carry about your business, right? Well on this particular day, a nod was just not going to cut it.
Everything about my day had been pretty normal. I had taken my kids to school, and I was off to work. It was a normal busy day at work filled with customers. I noticed there was a lady in the computer department that looked like she needed help. She waved me down as I greeted her with a smile.
She quickly asked me if I spoke Spanish. “Yo hablo Espanol?”
My two years of Spanish class taught me enough to know that she was asking me if I spoke Spanish. Without hesitation I replied “no” but assured her I would grab a Spanish speaking associate that would help her with her needs, so I paged for Seth to meet me in the computer department. As we waited, I noticed she began to give me “the look.” I started to feel that shockwave coming from her direction but wouldn’t even dare look at her. I began to look out for Seth, but I could sense she wanted to say something to me, but she just stood there in silence. Seth couldn’t have gotten there any sooner. I introduced him and told her he would be able to assist her from here.
Seth was probably not what you expected and definitely not what this lady expected. He was 19 years old with red hair and freckles. He was white but spoke Spanish. She began to laugh; I didn’t quite understand. I asked her if everything was okay.
She responded “Aren’t you Mexican? What’s your last name?”
I was confused with all of her questions. I began to feel my hands become sweaty, almost like when the teacher calls your name and asks you a question and you don’t know the answer and everyone is looking at you waiting for you to say something.
Slowly, I replied, “Yes, I am Mexican ma’am” trying to sound confident, but I could hear my words lose that confidence as they escaped my throat, “but I am not allowed to tell you my last name.”
She looked at me with such disgust. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Why don’t you speak your native language? You are making your people look bad.”
I started to look around, and I could just feel everyone’s eyes on me. The more she would talk, the louder her voice was and the redder my face became.
At that point, I was embarrassed, this lady was shaming me like a mother would shame her child when they would ask for candy in a store after she told them not to ask for anything. Only this was different. I was twenty-six years old, and I had done nothing wrong. I didn’t know what to say other than “My grandmother never taught me.” It took me a moment to realize that she was speaking in perfectly good English! I usually have thick skin and don’t let things get to me, but this was different. It was like she was testing me on how Mexican I was. She had called me out, and she did it so publicly. I have never had anyone do this to me in my whole life. I had so many things going through my mind. I was angry, embarrassed and ashamed. I walked away as fast as I could. I took my break early to try and shake it all off. What did me speaking Spanish have anything to do with her? It had never been a problem for me all this time, so it shouldn’t be one now, yet I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. Her words echoed in my head over and over… for years.
I couldn’t help but start to feel anger. If it was that important, why didn’t my grandma teach me Spanish? The next day, I called my grandma and told her what happened.
I was hesitant at first, but I asked, “Grandma, why didn’t you teach any of us how to speak Spanish?”
I wasn’t prepared for her to tell me what she did. She spoke of a time when she was a little girl growing up in the 50s. She had just moved to La Salle, Colorado, when she was about twelve years old. She only spoke Spanish at the time, but she quickly learned that speaking anything other than English was unacceptable. She was not allowed to speak Spanish at school and was strongly advised to not speak Spanish in the home. She recalled some of the other kids she went to school with treating her badly, some would even call her bad names like “Spic” and “Dirty Mexican.”
She also mentioned that her parents couldn’t go to the school to complain because they only spoke Spanish. Their lack of understanding English allowed this behavior. She wouldn’t talk or play with anyone just to be safe. Over time, she stopped speaking in Spanish all together. Her mother would cry because she wouldn’t talk to her in Spanish any more. After all, it wasn’t just words, it wasn’t just a language, it was more than that. It was their love language. It was the Spanish language that taught her how to walk, to talk, to take care of herself, and most importantly, it was how they expressed their love for each other. I think it was hard for her Mother to accept why she was forced to only speak English. For her mother’s sake, she would speak Spanish only in the home and only when it felt safe, without judgement from anyone that could possibly hear her. I couldn’t even imagine what it was like to live in such a time. After she had told me her experiences, it really broke my heart. All this time I thought that she just didn’t want to teach me because it was “code” amongst the elders. In reality, it was because she learned at a very young age how people would not accept the fact that she was Mexican and spoke Spanish. I think she thought she was somehow keeping us safe by not making it any harder than it was already going to be.
I never wanted a hug from her so badly as in that moment. It made me want to be prouder if anything. My grandma had sacrificed all she knew as a means of survival. She gave up a big piece of who she was because she was told it was wrong. She was told she talked funny, she dressed funny, she smelled funny, and it was all because she was Mexican. She grew up thinking there was something wrong with her. And that was all it took. A heritage almost forgotten.
I say this to anyone who has experienced similar situations. We should never feel ashamed or even outed by our own people for not being able to speak a certain language. My language is a part of me, but if you must ask, yes, I am Mexican. My skin maybe lighter than most, but I tell you this, yes, I am Mexican. I may not be able to speak Spanish fluently, but yes, I am still Mexican. My parents were not born in Mexico, but the blood from my ancestors’ flow through my veins, yes, I am Mexican. My voice is still used to express who I am as a person, and that is something no one can take from me. It’s not a cultural thing; it’s a people thing. There is no difference between them and me. There can only be us as a whole.