Latina Heritage

When she said, “You people . . .”

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The truth is that I benefit from a great amount of privilege. As a lightly tanned Latina without a Spanish accent, I admit that I’m not followed or called names for being brown. I pass for white a lot.

At least I thought I did.

Me and my first son
My son and I in the 90’s; I’m his mom, not his nanny, folks.

Before I was hired in the 1990’s at a daycare center, the room of 0- to 7-month-olds was “the crying room.” Such a room could easily become that, but I had a simple philosophy: babies cry to express a need, and they learn that love exists by having a grown-up fill that need. “If they cry, pick them up.” I had a child of my own, and this had worked well (luckily, no colic). When it came to six, seven, or eight infants, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep them all happy, but I would try my hardest.

I learned to change a diaper at light speed and prepare a bottle in seconds. With some luck, some swings, a couple of play-gyms, and the ability to hold two babies and rock a third in a bouncy chair with my foot, I pulled it off. If a few napped simultaneously, the only sound anyone heard from that room was me talking to my little charges and singing songs, or their gurgley laughs — the ones that make babies irresistible. Well, maybe it wasn’t as perfect as all that, but that was my goal every day.

One day, my manager complimented me. She’d noticed the change. The 0 to 7’s room wasn’t the crying room anymore. I waited for her to credit my bottle and nap rotation or my repertoire of nursery tunes. Instead she said, “I knew this would happen when I hired you. You people are so good with children.”

My breath stalled. I hadn’t heard “You people” directed at me before. The fact that this was a compliment gave my brain internal whiplash. My success was being attributed to my ethnicity, which was offensive, but I heard myself saying, “Thank you.”

Actress Lupe Ontiveros played a housekeeper 150 times

I’d taken a sociology course, so I knew the term benevolent stereotyping. The examples in the textbook included assumptions like, “All black folks are good athletes” and “All people of Asian descent are good students.” I’d also heard my in-laws make comments intended to be complimentary, such as, “The Hispanics have good family values.” I felt no ill intent on their part, but that little “The” belied distance, created a “them” feeling that left me queasy.

In both instances, I could have confronted the speakers, even in a friendly way. But I didn’t. The main reason was time. I was caught off-guard and couldn’t regroup fast enough to interject. My head was spinning with the oddity of being “othered.” The experience was so rare that I didn’t have a ready response, hadn’t practiced it, hadn’t expected it.

This “oddity of being othered” is itself, I realize, highly privileged. I don’t mean to compare my experiences with the daily racism that so many endure. I do mean to confess that I thought the world was fairer than it is. I thought my Latin-ness went uncommented upon because people saw past stereotypes.

In fact, I don’t know what people think when they see me. Nor do I know what they think of my other identities: female, divorced, vegetarian, meditator, parent who home-schooled, person who once put birthday candles back on the shelf because she had to wait until pay day to afford them  . . . I can think of ways I might be judged harshly in any of those lights. I can’t know how often wrong assumptions are made about me.

intersectionality diagram

I do know that people can learn tolerance, even appreciation. I myself am learning it every semester at the community college where I teach. My transgender students are patient with me when I flub a “he” or “she.” My low-income students have tutored me in how many forms, how much standing in line, how early they submit the FAFSA to receive financial aid. My students of color are generous, offering their perspectives on literature or current events to enrich class discussion. My parent-students remind me how many tumblers have to align for them to get to class (the babysitter’s car has to run!).

Through these experiences, I hope to keep growing and to keep creating safe spaces for my students to grow as well. I guess I’ve kept my new mother philosophy: Meet each other’s need for respect and compassion. And when we cry, let’s pick each other up.

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Latina Heritage

So yeah, I Oughtta be Fluent in Español

My dad speaks Spanish. My mom speaks Spanish. My second son speaks it pretty well. So what’s my problem? Why is my Spanish –let’s just say it– pathetic?

Nowadays, bilingual parents know the value of immersing kids in both languages. That wasn’t true in the 1970’s when I was born. Parents were told that using two languages confused babies and toddlers, causing significant language delays. The smart tactic of code-switching was seen as a deficit rather than a strength. (I wish I were kidding.)

More mundane, my Dad was busy learning English during my youngest years. Born as a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan, he was strict with himself as he tried to keep Spanish to a minimum in order to immerse himself in English. He watched Sesame Street, listened to co-workers, read newspapers. It worked. He passed his GED during his second year in the USA and went on to finish college and become –wait for it– an English teacher!

Mom speaks Spanish, but English is her first language. During her time in the Peace Corps, her Spanish zoomed from book-learned to fluent. Once home, though, her urgent project was to help her new husband master English.


Family photo
Parents with baby Rebecca

My parents didn’t leave Spanish totally behind. They sang love songs to each other and children’s songs to me. They spoke español as a grown-up code that would let them talk over my head, which made me listen closer. They even tried to teach me Spanish out of a book when I was nine. It was too late. Not too late to learn, but too late to absorb the language in that miraculous way that babies do. Plus, they kept speaking to me in English.

I took Spanish classes in school. My teacher heard my last name and hoped I would excel. I did my best, but I worked for those A’s. In fact, my upcoming novel includes a scene based on this experience. I took Spanish in college as well. By twenty, I reached my Spanish fluency zenith.

It dwindled from there. Though I don’t feel guilty about not knowing more español, I do wish I could read Spanish writers and converse with fellow Latinxes effortlessly. Life would be more fun. I would get my dad’s puns. My Duolingo app makes sure I’ll never forget the word for apple, but it doesn’t go far enough. I could take a class, and I’ve been invited to a bi-lingual “talking group,” but I haven’t arranged my schedule to fit those in.

The truth is that even if I learn a lot more, I won’t be fluent. My bi-lingual cousins will always speak more English than I speak Spanish. I could get better. A lot better. But I’ve decided I’m okay with my Spanish “como tourista.” Bi-linguality isn’t a test I’ve failed. It’s very cool, but it’s not going to be me unless I work harder than I want to or move to Spain.

I admire all the bi- and multi-lingual folks out there. I toast you and your awesomeness! For myself, I’m a little sad that I can’t do that thing you do. I’ll still listen to marimba music and make homemade tortillas once in while. I’ll listen to my parents sing those romantic love songs.

Even when I miss most of the lyrics, their meaning comes across just fine. Love jumps the language barrier. Like it did for my parents back in Guatemala in the 1960’s, as they fell in love in two broken tongues.

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