tfw: You Don’t Even Speak Your Own Language

tfw is a mini personal essay series I’m try to do on Tuesdays to recount second-person experiences of feelings and experiences we all have. Or maybe I’m the only one who has them?

You look white. No one believes you when you say you are hispanic, that you are half Puerto Rican, that most Puerto Ricans are such a mixture of different skin tones that they are mistaken for something else. “But you don’t look hispanic,” someone says. Another one adds, “You’re so lucky to be a minority but not look like it.”

Your lips purse into squiggles. Thanks? Probably no thanks but you are in polite company so you just nod. “Can you speak Spanish?” they ask. “Say something in Spanish!” You don’t say anything because you don’t speak the language. Also, the language is fairly common and not as exotic as it was in the nineties. One of them laughs when you explain you don’t speak the language. “How are you Puerto Rican but you don’t speak Spanish?” Giggles from the group. One jokes that you should have your “hispanic card” taken away.

Huh. Your experience of your own race should be removed because you can’t speak your own language? These assumptions are one of the many inside jokes of the majority. You’ve heard them before because you look white and people often forget or do not know that you are not one of them: you pass. That isn’t to say passing is good. Your ability to pass is steeped in decades of personal repression and shame, very much tied to your inability to speak the language associated with your heritage.

Remember that weird small class you and your brother and two brown girls had to attend in the first grade? The one in Kentucky. That was actually a special education class. You weren’t that kind of special though. Yes, you had a lisp and, yes, you had a single hispanic mother tending to three children while her husband is abroad with work in the military. Yes, this was in a majority white Catholic school—but that doesn’t make you mean you need special education. Your identity was confused for something that needed to be trained out of you, a mistake, something that was separate from everyone else. Why would you want to learn a language tied to establishments that force you out? Why learn a language that is a part of your identity Americans sometimes see as wrong?

You hear stories about this joked about within your family. “When you were very young, your mother would speak Spanish to you—but you never wanted to learn,” they explain. “She would speak and you would scream, ‘Speak school!’ That meant speak English, speak what you speak at school.” Racial tension and racial ruin from the outside in, apparently.

After high school and into college and every other week of your life, you wonder why you don’t speak the language. You should learn. You should find out why you didn’t learn even though you studied the language for six years in school. “Why didn’t you teach us?” you ask your mother. It’s her faulty you aren’t fluent in two languages. It’s her fault you can’t show off this hidden side to you, this parlor trick of accents and validation that—Yes.—you are hispanic. It’s her fault you didn’t want to learn because you were embarrassed and trained out of your identity.

“I didn’t have the time,” she says. The question has worn her down to that answer: she was busy. She’s been asked that for years, by friends and siblings and her kids. It’s no longer received as accusatory or with bitterness. The question and answer have been relinquished into the higher powers of fucked up people who prevented her from spreading her own culture within her own home. A flood of white wash did this, you realize, and the question is now asked as an acceptance American greed. The question is now the acknowledgement that you all had some fucked up shit go on in your life because you were an other and, because the collective could pass, you opted to get up and go with the establishment.

“Welcome to America,” echoes down the long halls. “Speak english.” Could you even say that in Spanish? “Bienvenidos as EEUU. Hablas ingles.” You think that’s right. You don’t double check that it’s correct: you want your broken Spanish to remain as a symbol of your own foul American history.

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