My mother was so upset when I was put into bilingual kindergarten. “She SPEAKS and UNDERSTANDS both languages,” she told the school angrily. But I was stuck for the year in Ms. Garcia’s class and I felt at home hearing Spanish and English blending together around me. My hair pulled back severely into two tight moños (buns), wearing my little dress and packing a Thundercats lunchbox, I spoke English with a slight Spanish accent. “Can I have some schocolate, Mami?”
My first grade teacher couldn’t pronounce my name. I had jumped into the top English-only class. She stumbled, trying to roll her r’s and gave up. She sounded it out in “American” and with it, Americanized me. I had an “English” name and a “Spanish” name. And despite the fact that my classmates would rhyme my “American” name with diarrhea, I loved it.
“You have an accent,” a little Greek girl told me in the lunchroom. I turned bright red with embarrassment. I had seen how my mami’s accent affected her. People pretended not to understand her at the welfare office. They spoke to her slowly in English. As if she didn’t have a college education! But by the end of the fifth grade, my accent had been obliterated by elementary school.
Aliza graduates from bilingual kindergarten.
“You talk like a white girl. You think you’re better than us, white girl?” taunted Jose, the leader of the bullies that had dubbed me and my friends “Nerd Patrol” in junior high school. I blamed looking like a white girl on my pale father but it was my mother’s fault that Jose and his goons thought I sounded like one. “What did you say?” she asked when I walked in the door later that day. “I said, Mom, you won’t freaking believe what happened to me, man,” I repeated rolling my eyes. She slapped me. “I don’t want you talking like those tigeritos (hoodlums) on the street. There will be no slang in this house.” I opened my mouth to protest that I had picked it up from Bart Simpson, not those tigeritos but closed it quickly. But no one talked back to my mother.
In college, none of the Hispanic kids would play with me. All of them had bonded over a summer together in a program geared towards preparing them for college. I had tested out because of a high SAT Verbal score. “You’re half-white, right?” my cute Mexican classmate of the soft, sooty eyelashes asked me. “What?” I asked incredulously. “Well, you talk white and you never speak any Spanish.” I narrowed my eyes. Disgusted. Felt like I was back in high school being told that Dominican meant “dumb-in-a-can.” If Hispanics weren’t going to accept me for who I was then I didn’t care if I was one of them.
“You don’t have to speak Spanish to be Hispanic,” our “Hispanic Women 101” profesora (professor) told the class. Until then, I hadn’t realized there were enough Hispanic people to fill a room at my college. We read books and plays by Hispanic authors. We talked about language, race and culture. About who was Hispanic, what Hispanic was and wasn’t. And suddenly, it wasn’t those tigeritos making fun of me, those self-hating kids in high school or the trash talkers who thought anyone unable to speak ghetto Spanglish wasn’t Hispanic enough. It wasn’t their birthright.
“Los tienen en marrón?” (Do you have them in brown?) I ask the Hispanic guy at the shoe store. He responds tersely in English. I blush. Maybe he thinks I thought he didn’t speak English. I shake it off. I’ve decided to speak Spanish anywhere and everywhere I can. At the supermarket, I ask for platanos. At the post office, I yell at the clerk in rousing Spanglish. And I take the Dominican gypsy cabs all over Manhattan and the Bronx, practicing rolling my tongue over those r’s and multisyllabic words. “You’re Dominican?” they ask, turning around in their seat to get a better look at me. “Si,” I respond, asking them where they’re from, telling them where my parents are from. We chat effortlessly (“¿Um, como se dice “writer” en Español?” I ask.) during the rest of the ride.
The plight of many of my Puerto Rican friends has been losing the language. “It’s, like, my mother barely spoke Spanish, you know, how was I supposed to learn?” And then I realize I have it easy. Spanish hasn’t been entirely lost in my family. It’s the only mode of communication for speaking to my abuela (grandmother), my 95-year-old bisabuela (great grandmother) and my Tia (aunt) who called me a gringa for showing up on time for my cousin’s baby shower. “Don’t you know Dominicans never show up on time?” she whispered in flawless Spanish.
I tell my Dad I’m getting married in English because it wouldn’t be as funny in Spanish. “He’s what?” my Dad yells over the static on the connection of our international call. Dad lives in Santo Domingo but refuses to speak to me in anything but English. “I don’t care if you don’t speak Spanish. We both speak English, right?” he shrugs. “He’s white. Jewish.” There’s a pause. “Does he speak Spanish?” I tell Dad that he doesn’t but that he makes really good arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans). Laughter erupts on both sides.
But the truth is that I’m scared. “How will our kids speak Spanish?” I ask my husband on one of those days when I picture my ancestors wagging their fingers down at me from heaven because my imaginary children can’t speak to their Spanish-speaking cousins in “DR” (the Dominican Republic). “I want to learn to speak Spanish,” he says. And he means it. He signs up for classes. He muddles through the Spanish-language newspaper. He listens to Juanes and Marc Anthony. He already speaks Spanglish. But he won’t agree to watch novelas (Spanish-language soap operas) for practice. But then, he won’t watch Grey’s Anatomy either.
I’m 28 years old and I’m holding a Dr. Seuss book in Spanish and English from the library. I picked it up after I had to put down a Julia Alvarez book for the grade school set. It was too hard. I have my trusty Franklin electronic translator by my side. And a promise. That my kids will speak Spanish. That they will know and understand where they come from. That they’ll be proud of being Hispanic. Even though there mother once was not.