What Being Chicano in America Means (When You Don’t Speak Spanish)

by learn a language journalist

Somehow, they always know.
I could be getting a haircut, asking for help at the local Mi Pueblo , or crossing the street. It doesn’t matter. Any person of Hispanic descent can recognize their brother with a mythic accuracy. What any well-meaning Hispanic then does, after this recognition, is to share The Language with their brother.
For a Nonspeaker like me, it has become a mortifying test of authenticity:
¿Que tal?”
¿Pelo corto o largo?
¿Te pagan lo suficiente?”
Like a father having to tell their child that the family goldfish is dead, I invariably respond with:
Lo siento, no hablo.
The responses I get range from slight dismay (“What? You‘ve got to learn, mijo !”) to a wide-eyed expression that roughly translates to “Ah, they got you as well, eh?”
Every racial group has its heuristic, a baseline requirement for entry into its people’s arms. For Mexicans in particular, it is the Spanish language. It doesn’t matter your income, your job, or your social standing. If you can communicate without using the language of the Statesmen, you’re in. If you can’t, you are a ghost (or, as is a common label among Asian Americans, a “Model Minority”).
When you’re Too Brown For the Whites and Too White For the Garcias, you reside in a certain racial purgatory. As far back as high school, I was called both a spic and a cracker, among other things (we were a diverse school). I was, as one boy put it, “a fake Mexican.” I look back at this insult now with some amount of gratitude, for it was at that moment that I realized how absurd the notion of race was. For him, my entire existence was null and void because of the sound of my voice. I was an imposter.
I accepted that as my identity for years. In a way, I still do. The words of those people who are confused by my existence may be kinder, but their sentiment remains the same:
“You might check that box on the census, but you are not one of us.”
I feel this echo my family life. My father’s wondrous, beautiful stories of growing up in Mexico and struggling in the U.S. are always told at our get-togethers at Christmas. His crackling use of Spanish illuminates his stories of Making It in America, and it always has my aunts and cousins in nostalgic stitches. I, a Nonspeaking Chicano, can only pick apart the words I know and attempt to suture a vague understanding. I know the story is captivating, but I cannot ask him to tell it to me in English. That would be an insult to the struggle itself, a whitewashing of his life. Yet I desperately wish to know it. Perhaps I will ask him for Father’s Day, and help to write his life story. I only hope my father can accept that his years of hardship will be written in the language of the nation who have hung and continue to hang his citizenship over his head.
When you don’t speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking family, there is an immense amount of shame that goes with it. It is m y great shame that I always needed a translator present in order for my grandmother to speak to me. The only exception to this translation was when she delivered the Rosary to me as her routine parting gift. In a way, that made it even more reverent. Up to the time of her death, I could not communicate to my grandmother without assistance. This remains the most painful knowledge I possess. It’s a knowledge that is reinforced when that Mortifying Test is administered to me in public, baring my shame and guilt.
This is a normal life for a Chicano Nonspeaker.
I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life that my identity was split in two, which in America, means “reduced to zero.” It was the moment my parents separated that created my grey identity. I’d only see my father on the weekends. My mother, who is white, would have me 6 days out of the week. As my Mexican side atrophied from lack of familiarity, so did my relationship with my father. I know now that had I been around to sponge up The Language, I would not be making up for lost time with him today.
This isn’t to say I resent my mother. A single parent of 2 boys working a Kindergarten teaching job is no small feat and could only be accomplished if she loved her sons. She was the tired protector, and I was her defender. But the animosity of her relationship with my father often put me at odds with each of them, and by extension, each culture. Our identities were shaped according to who was the “bad guy du jour .” As a result of this atrophy and resentment, we turned out Spanish-illiterate, and, in the eyes of my Mexican family, lost to America.
My father once said he had tried to teach me The Language, but that I didn’t want to learn. Part of me wants to believe that; I’d be able to attribute my vague sense of displacement to something other than fateful circumstance.
So, why haven’t I tried to learn?
To tell the truth, I have tried, but a mixture of institutional failings and personal shame remains a giant monolith to my success:

  • The Spanish taught in schools is not the language of my people. The one that replaces “esta” with simply, “ta.” The same goes for Rosetta Stone, as well as Duolingo. To speak this version of Spanish is to be an alien that tries to replicate Spanish.
  • The Mortifying Test I am given on a regular basis is not graded on a curve. There is no room for cramming. You must pass or fail.
  • Moving to Mexico, while romantic, is not a practical solution.
  • The patience of Speakers when conversing with a Nonspeaker is atom-thin. Imagine speaking to a full-grown man with the language capacity of a 6-year-old. Doesn’t sound like the most stimulating time, does it?

    These must sound like weak excuses to those who already know The Language. That is their privilege, and one that I hope they cherish. For me, I must continue to define myself as that ever-controversial phrase, Chicano. And what does Chicano mean in America when you cannot speak the language of your people?
    It means there are not many people I can relate to culturally. It means I live as an anomaly of race and ethnicity. It means I am the “other,” to almost everyone.
    Most importantly, it means I am me in all my grey glory.

This content was originally published here.

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