Latina Heritage

“A White Female” — huh?

Police lights flashed in my rearview. Hadn’t I stopped at that stop sign? Not fully. I pulled over right away. At least I wasn’t late to anything. Soon the officer spoke into his microphone, “Bravo, Alpha, Lincoln . . .” In this way he spelled my name, letter by letter, to some listener.

Then he said a sentence describing me. It seemed to flash-freeze in the air: “White female.” What? I’m not white. I answered his next questions by rote, still hearing the phrase frozen in the ether. White female.

The officer was white himself — or so I assumed. His reddish hair showed around his ears below his helmet, and his skin was definitely light. Then again, I had to ask myself — what is white? I’ve read that light-skinned Italians, Jews, and even Finns have been considered non-white at different times in our country’s history, while Mexican folks were counted as white on the 1940 census, and Cubans have often been seen as white. Probably this officer identified as “white,” but I couldn’t be sure.

Still, I was surprised that the officer didn’t notice what I call my permanent tan. Maybe he “saw white” because I was driving in an affluent area? — though I’m sure he knew that people of all colors are affluent. Or maybe, like the US government, he didn’t see Hispanic as a race, but more of a cultural designation. Maybe the form he was filling out didn’t leave room for nuances like mixed-race or bi-racial, which is what I consider myself.

I drove off with a ticket and also a question. Why had I reacted to being called white? My mom is of British descent, according to the tubes we all spit into to find out about our DNA. She’s definitely light and born in Iowa. And I am lighter than my Guatemalan dad. I love my Mom, of course, and my whole maternal family. What’s wrong with being called white, then?

At my parent’s house

The answer came quickly. Erasure. A cultural treasure gets buried if someone sees me as only white. My self-image is Latina, even if my Spanish is sketchy and I don’t see my Dad’s Guatemalan side of the family as much as my mom’s. I don’t want half of myself deleted.

And it’s not only about me. I want people to see that our world is a color-filled place, a mixed place. I want them to see that the United States is a variegated skein. I don’t want anyone to miss the beautiful complexity, nor oversimplify anyone’s identity. Naturally, we can’t have unlimited numbers of boxes on forms or this officer’s report, but we can have awareness that we’re all more than meets the eye.

People have thought I was purely Latina, too. They’ve run up to me and started speaking Spanish without thinking, especially when I was in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood or in an ethnic grocery store. No one is trying to be rude, of course. The brain makes split-second assessments about people we see. We can’t help it. But we can question our first instinct. We can hold off the generalizations.

My family tells the story of a relative who was caught up in an immigration raid. Though he later became a citizen, he wasn’t yet. But he was light-skinned, so he just stood to the side. Had he opened his mouth, the ICE officers would have heard his Spanish accent. He stayed quiet, and they passed him by.

My parents and I at Christmas 2017

So both the immigration officers and my traffic officer made a split-second guess. Wholly wrong and half wrong, respectively. It might be true that in both cases it worked to our advantage. Which is also too bad — that whiteness grants such advantages. Of course, I don’t know if the police officer treated me any better than he would have if he’d considered me a person of color. He did his job. I hope he would have done the same, regardless.

But I also didn’t correct him. I was too surprised, and then it felt like there wasn’t time. And he might not have had a box called “brown” or even Hispanic. Besides, who wants to prolong a traffic stop? But I drove off wishing I had.

Source: Parker, Kim et al. “Chapter 1: Race and Multiracial Americans in the U.S. Census,” Multi-racial in America. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/06/11/chapter-1-race-and-multiracial-americans-in-the-u-s-census/

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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