Feliz Moreno | Longreads | May 2019 | 24 minutes (6,008 words)
I am 26 and I haven’t been back to México to visit my dad’s extended family since I was 5 years old, and this isn’t because of financial or legal obstacles. When my youngest sister, Belén, finishes her undergraduate studies and announces that, in celebration, she wants to take a family trip to Michoacán, México, I am not enthusiastic about the idea. When plans for the trip solidify and I request time off from work, my boss asks me if I speak Spanish. “I understand more than I speak,” I tell her, as I fill out the time off request form.
I don’t remember much about the trip we made when I was 5, but I know that my language habits were already solidified at that point, that my understanding of the world had already been shaped by the hard ‘j’ consonant sound found in words like ‘juice’ and ‘jump rope.’ And it is tough for a 5-year-old to rationalize the inability to communicate with other children in a Spanish-speaking country. “Nobody here speaks English,” my 5-year-old self complained to my Dad. This, along with the fact that I got extremely sick from being exposed to México’s tap water, didn’t leave me with any desire to ever return.
The upcoming trip will be 10 days, with time split between the Jacona-Zamora region of Michoacán, where the majority of my dad’s family is based, and la Ciudad de México, México City. My two younger sisters, who took the time to study abroad in Central American countries during their undergraduate careers, are excited about the approaching trip. My dad calls me a few times in the weeks leading up to it to inform me that Michoacán has the highest murder rate in the country right now, and that we need to be vigilant and smart when we travel. I add this to the long list of anxieties I have about the trip, the primary one being my Spanish deficiency.
What is it Edward James Olmos — cast as Selena’s father — says to a young Jennifer Lopez in the 1997 film about the young singers’ life? “You speak it a little funny.” “It” being Spanish. The Quintanillas are in the car discussing the possibility of touring in México when Olmos launches into a frustrated rant.
“Being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly, Mexicans jump all over you if don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else…our family has been here for centuries, and yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. Anglo food is too bland, and yet when we go to México we get the runs. Now that to me is embarrassing… we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans — it’s exhausting!”
In the scene, the Tejano singer laughs and brushes off her father’s frustration with humor. She reassures him that she’s been singing in Spanish for ten years. But the reality Olmos’ character identifies is real, and as we sit in the airport preparing to board the plane to Guadalajara, my anxiety is palpable.
In the states, when Spanish speakers ask me if I speak the language my response varies. I will say “más o menos,” when I am feeling more practiced in my ability to communicate. “Entiendo más que yo hablo” I will say, stumbling over the words, hoping to diffuse any expectations of my responding in Spanish. “Cuando era niña, hablo más Español,” which translates (roughly) to, “When I was a little girl, I spoke more Spanish.” My mother tells me that some of my first words as a baby were “agua” and “leche,” but even so, I’ve always felt apprehensive about my Spanish.
Derek Owusu, a writer and podcaster from Tottenham, London, speaks of the cultural limitations of not speaking Twi after his mother emigrated from Ghana to the United Kingdom. In his article “Mother Tongue: The Lost Inheritance of Diaspora” he writes:
“For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve been asked…whether I can speak Twi or not, my response has always been ‘I can understand it, but I can’t speak it.’ In that moment it’s hard not to feel only half Ghanaian…”
I can relate to this sentiment. In the U.S., I have made myself relatively comfortable with the fact that people see me as an outsider among the middle-class white communities I often find myself in. The discomfort that comes with being an ethnic minority in the U.S. is familiar to me now, even if it remains traumatic. At least I have some language — cold, academic words like “microagression” and “oppression,” — in which to communicate the trauma; I have a wealth of resources I can access that validate my experience in this country. In México, being an outsider hurts more for some reason. Being called a “pocha” by the people that are supposed to be your raza hurts more, or maybe it just hurts in a different way than I am used to.