“You’re not really Mexican. You can barely speak Spanish. You’re more like a coconut, brown on the outside, white on the inside.”
You can laugh, just not too hard.
As a second generation Mexican American raised in predominantly white neighborhoods, I’ve heard it all.
Language is powerful
Strong command of a second language can open doors and bring new opportunities. Struggles with a language, especially one others feel ‘you should speak,’ can bring frustration, insecurity and feelings of ostracization. Ethnic ties can add large amounts of pressure and shame when it comes to language acquisition. And as anyone learning a new language can attest to, pressure and low levels of confidence do not equate to success.
According to the Pew Research Center, eight of ten second generation Mexican Americans say they can speak Spanish “pretty well”. The same study found that only four of ten Asian Americans say the same about their parents’ ancestral language. What of the remaining portions of the groups? Did they want to learn their parents’ mother tongue? Did they feel pressure or shame surrounding language? What the hell does “pretty well” mean?
I spoke with Vanessa, a second generation Latina language learner raised in Arizona, and asked her some of those very questions.
Vanessa says: “Well, growing up I didn’t realize speaking Spanish was something I had to do. My mother was born in Mexico but she and my dad, who was born in California, were raised in the States. We always spoke English at home. When I would hear my cousins speak Spanish so fluently at a young age it always made me a little jealous and uncomfortable. I wanted to learn but was never really motivated.”
My experiences were quite similar to Vanessa’s. Often the only boy of color in my social group, my brown complexion served as a permanent badge of other. I was included yet always apart. Constantly reminded of my otherness through ‘good-natured’ jokes and teasing from my white friends. I never spoke Spanish with friends or at school. In high school, relying on the foundation of vocabulary I learned throughout my early childhood, I took Spanish as an elective for the easy A.
I got a B.
If I heard Spanish at home, I knew I had done something wrong. Mexican mothers have a special knack for inspiring fear when saying their child’s full name with a Spanish accent. Aaron Jacob Polanco! … still gives me the chills.
Despite any serious efforts to perfect my Spanish, I was proud of my Latino heritage and yearned to connect with others that spoke the native tongue of my mother and grandparents. Yet the feeling of acceptance never came. Working in restaurants during high school, the Mexican cooks always cracked a smile as I greeted them in Spanish, “Buenos días compadres,” a hint of gringo in my accent. Once again, they lightly teased me. Who do you think came up with the name Coconut?
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My sense of identity was in constant flux. I definitely wasn’t white, my classmates made sure to remind me of that. Yet even though my family ate tamales on Christmas and my grandparents barely spoke English, I didn’t feel entirely Mexican. Language seemed to be the barrier, the Great Wall I could not seem to surmount. If asked, I would have placed myself in the group of language learners that spoke Spanish “pretty well,” but it wasn’t enough, not when perfection was expected.
It is this confused sense of identity that can lead to feelings of pressure and anxiety for many second generation language learners.
After college and midway through my career in education, I decided to move to Spain for my graduate studies. The most influential determinant in my decision to make the move? You guessed it: the chance to finally immerse myself in the Spanish language. Okay, okay. The opportunity to frolic on the sunny beaches of Barcelona and meet beautiful Catalan babes was also a factor, but I’d call it more of a periphery bonus.
A few months into my conquest of the Iberian peninsula my Spanish skills began to improve. Check out my last blog post to see how I did it. Although my language skills were improving, native speakers could still pick up on my imperfections, and as hard as I tried I couldn’t seem to shake the hint of American in my accent. Eyebrows raised as I spoke.
“Your accent is so different, I can’t seem to place it. Where are you from?”
Once again, my classmates were the worst. The Latinos in my graduate course were the first to call me out. “Listen to the gringo!” One classmate, who hailed from Puerto Rico, took to calling me “el Yankee.” Suddenly, I was the white boy in class. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony.
Well-accustomed to the racial prodding, I took their jokes in stride. However, I stopped laughing when I noticed their reluctance to converse with me in Spanish. I would join conversations in Spanish only to hear my classmates respond in English, especially the ones of Mexican descent. Perhaps they were just being nice. I was obviously much more comfortable and confident communicating in English. Hell, maybe they wanted to practice their English with a native speaker. I’ll never know their rationale, but part of me took it as a slap in the face, a glaring sign of non-acceptance. Admittedly, the notion stung, but I made the decision to press forward and continue speaking my mediocre Spanish, to be unapologetically me. And damn it felt good.
My time in Barcelona has improved my Spanish, but more importantly, it has cemented my sense of identity. I am Mexican. I am American. I am Aaron, and I love what, where and who I come from.
Vanessa feels the same way. I’ll leave you with her final response to the questions I asked regarding her journey with the Spanish language:
“I have always dealt with people that look at me strangely when I tell them I don’t speak Spanish. It hurt my Mexican pride, I felt ashamed. But now I am embracing my culture more than ever. I thank God that I have finally learned that speaking Spanish doesn’t define me, it doesn’t take away from my knowledge, my passion or my spirit. I will always try to learn and improve my Spanish, I will always be proud of who I am. My second language journey has just begun, and if it takes me 40 years to finally learn then so be it! Being ashamed will no longer be in my vocabulary.”
Right on, Vanessa.
Do you have similar experiences learning a language that others felt “you should speak?” We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!