Growing up, I developed my Spanish as a form of discipline. Spanish belonged at home, and English belonged at school. Only when my sister and I spoke did our bilingual conversation find itself walking in trepidation across the bridge we had built between us.
My mother, who emigrated from Mexico in 1965, speaks Spanish to me always, and to my children. She’s been here over five decades and her native tongue hasn’t been buried in assimilation.
I’m accustomed to thinking in the mother tongue, the language of my mother who would pound a fist over the dinner table and declare “Español!” when my sister and I were caught speaking English as girls. Speaking is altogether primal. It comes along like a necessary sweater in winter, easing the cold of error or misunderstanding or mispronunciation.
I don’t speak Spanish perfectly, this I know, however much my family (aunties and cousins living in Mexico) affirm that I speak it well, for an American. I can read it and understand it and express it colloquially. I don’t have a jarring American accent when I speak it, like those for whom Spanish is a second language, who are second or third generation American. I recognize my fluency is not excellent; however, I don’t consider Spanish a foreign language. I don’t think I ever will. Can I eloquently write it? Not so much. Expression is one thing, executing it in writing is another.
Joshua Aaron Fishman, an American linguist who specialized in the sociology of language, language planning, bilingual education, and language and ethnicity, said, “Many Americans have long believed bilingualism is ‘a good thing’ if it was acquired via travel (preferably to Paris) or via formal education (preferably at Harvard) but that it is a ‘bad thing’ if it was acquired from one’s immigrant parents or grandparents.”
In 1995, I traveled for a field study under the community studies department of UC Santa Cruz. I went to live in my mother’s place of birth, Guadalajara, during the spring term of my sophomore year. There, I stayed with my married cousin who had a home with her husband and three children. I rode the bus every day and every night, from the colonia del sur to the Colonia del Fresno where I was assigned to work for a rank-and-file organization, assisting in the production of a documentary film relating to the economic crisis in Mexico. I traveled to small agricultural towns to meet with farmers and ranchers and domestic workers. I logged in some hours at the Papirolas Festival, putting on workshops for kids to teach them about their rights as children, and I helped with craft activities for Día del Niño. It was not a foreign place to me, however gringa the nationals saw me. I became an ambassador of the English language for my colleagues. They’d ask me, How do you say, Eres mi amigo? or they’d ask me to affirm if an English phrase was pronounced correctly. Or they’d ask me if I knew any Rolling Stones songs, or if I liked Pink Floyd. In the meantime, I’d ask them where I could go to hear a piano recital, what museums were hot in town, or where I could buy churros and tacos.
When I returned to California from my field study in Mexico, my interest in Spanish intensified. I transferred to UCLA and there I declared the Latin American Studies major. When I graduated, I only had a few months until beginning the MFA at Mills College. Again, I left my home for other pursuits. I continued to listen to rock en Español, I volunteered for the Latino Film Festival in San Francisco, and I worked with immigrant youth in the Mission District. It was my way of maintaining the depth and breadth of the Spanish language and my biculturalism, the antithesis of what the academe had offered: a watered-down curriculum that glorified assimilation yet romanticized being different. San Francisco and Los Angeles were the polar cities in which I treaded, where I formed and shaped my identity, where I struggled and failed, where I changed my mind about many ideals I thought I knew well enough.
Although I studied French in high school, I cannot claim I am fluent. Although I studied Portuguese in college for several quarters, I cannot claim I am fluent. But Spanish, I can claim. When I learned Portuguese and French, I considered them foreign. Oddly, I was good at picking up Portuguese as it more closely resembled Spanish than French did, its unfamiliar words at once familiar, like gosta, mulher, noite, manhã. Because Spanish literature was my core concentration in college, I fervently familiarized myself with the Spanish influence left in meso-American history, in geography, and literature, in music, and ultimately, in me.
Even though I was comfortable in the classroom reading texts by Yañez, Márquez, Cortázar, Fuentes, Rulfo, Lispector, or Mastretta, I wasn’t well versed in nuance, context, nor prepared for the deep-dive interpretation of texts of that nature. In retrospect, I credit those exercises of picking apart a text as the training ground for my vocation in writing. Navigating all I was learning through a bilingual and bicultural sensibility and awareness was taking me to places of discovery.
In graduate school, I wrote short stories that resembled the stories I knew. I wrote characters who spoke like me, who had families like mine, who sought answers to questions that sometimes were unfounded. I fictionalized people I knew, and I embellished conflicts that beset them. In the MFA, I recall one of my professors speculating about my writing. She wondered aloud whether my writing operated under an agenda. Was it because writers with Spanish surnames were considered out of tune with the American experience as defined by whiteness, or was my writing at the time considered too urban, too rife with dialect, too other? These interpretations provoked me to examine myself and even to question my integrity as a writer.
I read and attended conferences, I submitted my stories to literary journals. My first published story was in a local state university review, which held a reading for the issue in which I was published. I attended and read my work for the first time in front of an audience. I was intimidated—and still am—by what was expected of a writer: to read in front of others, to read a passage well, and to perform it flawlessly. Then, I recalled Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer who was a notorious recluse, who wrote and published two works without an inclination for fanfare. He refused all kind of publicity and interviews. Today, I am reminded of Elena Ferrante, who writes and publishes without a face to her name, without the expectation to present herself before an adoring readership at book signings. Why can’t writers write for art’s sake? I ask myself this, but that question is best left for another time.
In the following year, I published four more stories in literary journals, all centered around the same main character as the first. I was comfortable with the short story form and about where my writing was headed. However, I put my writing on hold when I got married, started a family, and launched a new career that would bring in the income we needed to live comfortably. I taught writing in several community colleges and one university as an adjunct but realized that teaching was not in my scope of ambition, so I left it to pursue curriculum design instead. I’ve only recently returned to writing—essays mainly, and personal memoir pieces that served to shake me out of literary stagnation.
I joined Facebook and Twitter to get familiar with the nonfiction and fiction genres by way of contributing to niche groups. I read books that I never would’ve picked up years ago, just so I could study point-of-view and character development. I’ve landed publications that want to pay me for my work. I’m listening to writing podcasts and browsing the new books aisles. I subscribe to newsletters and have returned to blogging more intentionally, writing devotional posts about my faith. I do all the things that the modern 21st-century writer is expected to do, but it comes at a high cost. What I’m learning is all about meeting writers and doing writerly things instead of exercising the writing muscle itself.
Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, reveals that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways. He notes in “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” that “when your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time.” And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world. Indeed, fundamentally, bilingual writers have a position from infancy that has shaped our answers to the world we encounter in all its imbalances, informing our beliefs, values, and ideologies, our cultural and political sensibilities. As Deutscher states, “For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a ‘prison house’ that constrained our capacity to reason.”
When I was growing up, my mother worked at a factory assembling fuel injectors. She worked heavily with oil, on her feet most of the time, for over two decades. She told me stories of coworkers who she called renegados, those of Mexican origin or ancestry who were ashamed of their Mexican identities. They’re renegades, she’d say. They don’t speak Spanish because they don’t want to. They’ve been caught up in this wave of punitive assimilation. She’d shake her head. She didn’t quite understand it herself.
I knew only a handful of Mexican children growing up who did not speak a lick of Spanish, despite their parents, and it wasn’t until I asked more questions and listened more intentionally that I fully understood that some in my mother’s generation were scolded for speaking Spanish in America, for speaking English with an accent, or prejudiced against being Mexican, hence their refusal to identify as such.
My writing is a benevolent friend that allows me to code-switch between English and Spanish, between the vernacular and scholarly. I can be simple or eloquent, lush or spare. I can make mistakes and express myself without comparing my craft to others. My pen suffers my ineptitude and as I experience this process, it is as if I’m back to learning Spanish at home: not thinking about what it is and how it comes to be, just living with it and accepting it as part of everyday life, viscerally.
Writing is an attempt to bridge the gap between what I mean to express and what I cannot leave out of conversation, what I struggle to impart with ease and flexibility. The work and painstaking devotion it takes to write as a bilingual thinker and deliverer of words is scary—choosing the words requires great care. Someone once said that to speak another language is to possess two souls. Being understood then, becomes the burden of the bilingual writer, who is in a constant process of learning to identify the distance between mastering craft and giving two souls a say in the matter.
Image Credit: Flickr/Luis Romero.