The man on the other end of the phone line is telling me the classes I've called about are first-rate: native speakers in charge, no more than six students per group. I tell him that will be fine and yes, I've studied a bit of Spanish in the past. He asks for my name and I supply it, rolling the double "r" in "Barrientos" like a pro. That's when I hear the silent snag, the momentary hesitation I've come to expect at this part of the exchange. Should I go into it again? Should I explain, the way I have to half a dozen others, that I am Guatemalan by birth but pura gringa by circumstance?
This will be the sixth time I've signed up to learn the language my parents speak to each other. It will be the sixth time I've bought workbooks and notebooks and textbooks listing 501 conjugated verbs in alphabetical order, in hopes that the subjunctive tense will finally take root in my mind. In class I will sit across a table form the "native speaker," who will wonder what to make of me. "Look," I'll want to say (but never do). "Forget the dark skin. Ignore the obsidian eyes. Pretend I'm a pink-cheeked, blue-eyed blonde whose name tag says 'Shannon.'" Because that is what a person who doesn't innately know the difference between corre, corra, and corrí is supposed to look like, isn't it?
I came to the United States in 1963 at age three with my family and immediately stopped speaking Spanish. College-educated and seamlessly bilingual when they settled in west Texas, my parents (a psychology professor and an artist) wholeheartedly embraced the notion of the American melting pot. They declared that their two children would speak nothing but inglés. They'd read in English, write in English, and fit into Angelo society beautifully.
It sounds politically incorrect now. But America was not a hyphenated nation back then. People who called themselves Mexican Americans or Afro Americans were considered dangerous radicals, while law-abiding citizens were expected to drop their cultural baggage at the border and erase any lingering ethnic traits.
To be honest, for most of my childhood I liked being the brown girl who defied expectations. When i was seven, my mother returned my older brother and me to elementary school one week after the school year had already begun. We'd been on vacation in Washington, D.C., visiting the Smithsonian, the Capitol, and the home of Edgar Allan Poe. In the Volkswagen on the way home, I'd memorized "The Raven," and I would recite it with melodramatic flair to any poor soul duped into sitting through my performance. At the school's office, the registrar frowned when we arrived.
"You people. Your children are always behind, and you have the nerve to bring them in late?"
"My children," my mother answered in a clear, curt tone, "will be at the top of their classes in two weeks."
The registrar filed our cards, shaking her head.
I did not live in a neighborhood with other Latinos, and the public school I attended attracted very few. I saw the world through the clear, cruel vision of a child. To me, speaking Spanish translated into being poor. It meant waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms. It meant being left off the cheerleading squad and receiving a condescending smile from the guidance counselor when you said you planned on becoming a lawyer or a doctor. My best friends' names were Heidi and Leslie and Kim. They told me I didn't seem "Mexican" to them, and I took it as a compliment. I enjoyed looking into the faces of Latino store clerks and waitresses and, yes, even our maid and saying Yo no hablo español. It made me feel superior. It made me feel American. It made me feel white. I thought if I stayed away from Spanish, stereotypes would stay away from me.
Then came the backlash. During the two decades when I'd worked hard to isolate myself from the stereotype I'd constructed in my own head, society shifted. The nation changed its views on ethnic identity. College professors started teaching history though African American and Native American eyes. Children were told to forget about the melting pot and picture America as a multicolored quilt instead. Hyphens suddenly had muscle, and I was left wondering where I fit in.
The Spanish language was supposedly the glue that held the new Latino community together. But in my case it was what kept me apart. I felt awkward among groups whose conversations flowed in and out of Spanish and I'd have to answer in English, knowing this raised a mountain of questions. I wanted to call myself Latina, to finally take pride, but it felt like a lie. So I set out to learn the language that people assumed I already knew.
After my first set of lessons, I could function in the present tense. Hola, Paco. ¿Qué tal? ¿De qué color es tu cuaderno? El mío es azul. My vocabulary built quickly, but when I spoke, my tongue felt thick inside my mouth - and if I needed to deal with anything in the future or the past, I was sunk. I enrolled in a three-month submersion program in Mexico and emerged able to speak like a sixth-grader with a solid C average. I could read Gabriel García Márquez with a Spanish-English dictionary at my elbow, and I could follow 90 percent of the melodrama on any given telenovela. But true speakers discover my limitations the moment I stumble over a difficult construction, and that is when I get the look. The one that raises the wall between us. The one that makes me think I'll never really belong. Spanish has become a litmus test showing how far from your roots you've strayed.
My bilingual friends say I make too much of it. They tell me that my Guatemalan heritage and unmistakable Mayan features are enough to legitimize my membership in the Latin American club. After all, not all Poles speak Polish. Not all Italians speak Italian. And as this nation grows more and more Hispanic, not all Latinos will share one language. But I don't believe them.
There must be other Latinas like me. But I haven't met any. Or, I should say, I haven't met any who have fessed up. Maybe they are secretly struggling to fit in, the same way I am. Maybe they are hiring tutors and listening to tapes behind locked doors, just like me. I wish we all had the courage to come out of our hiding places and claim our rightful spot in the broad Latino spectrum. Without being called hopeless gringas. Without having to offer apologies or show remorse.
If it will help I will go first.
Aquí estoy. Spanish-challenged and pura Latina.
Tanya Barrientos, “Se Habla Espanol”1.How did Tanya Barrientos feel about Spanish as a child?How did she feel about Spanish as an adult?When she was a child she thought Spanish was for poor people, people who usually work cleaninghotel rooms or wai±ng tables. She did not care about Spanish because she wanted to feel a superior,white American. She hated to be called Mexican at the point that she felt it like an insult.When she grows up her father sends her to Mexico and there she realizes that she likes to be aMexican. The music, the architecture, the art, and everything in Mexico reveal her real interest forbeing a La±na. She wanted to be pride of being a La±na, but she felt like a lie due to that she couldnot talk Fuent Spanish. But she realizes that she should be proud of being a La±na because that isthe way to show the world how diverse can culture be. 2.Barrientos uses anecdotes (mini-stories) to illustrate some of her points. What was your reac±on to her anecdote about star±ng school one week late when she was 7? (“To be honest, for most of my childhood