One of the realest things I watched recently was the part in Anjelah Johnson’s Netflix special, Not Fancy, when she’s talking about being Mexican-American but not speaking Spanish.
Johnson: Where are the Latinos who do speak Spanish?
Johnson: Congratulations! You’re better than us!
She then talks about those instances where people automatically start speaking to her in Spanish. Despite not knowing what they’re saying, she goes along because, “I’m ashamed of myself.”
Girllll, every day. Well, not every SINGLE day of my life, but as a Central California native, pretty much constantly my entire life. I like to give my mom crap for never teaching me, as she is fluent, but c’mon, she was working 40 hours a week to like, raise me properly and whatnot, while also doing stuff like make us waffles for weekday breakfasts, staying up all night to sew costumes, or do whatever we happened to need at the last minute. She had her reasons for not prioritizing teaching me a language that she herself had been made fun of for knowing back in the 60s and 70s.
Still, at family get-togethers, there was always the tía who wanted to know why I didn’t speak Spanish, who’d promise that by only speaking to me in Spanish, I was sure to learn. This was enticing, but also extremely embarrassing. I could barely say gracias for the offer without feeling like a total idiot.
There were countless instances of Nana and Mom speaking in Spanish when they didn’t want us to know some particularly good chisme. (Was this the reason why Mom didn’t teach me? I sometimes wondered.) Later, my cousins who did know Spanish got to participate in these conversations, got to know what the adults knew. The older I was, the more frustrating it became, especially when I went off to college.
It wasn’t just the language barrier, though. From a young age, lack of Spanish knowledge aside, I struggled to connect to my culture beyond the superficial. We weren’t Catholic, so there went a whole slew of coming-of-age rituals and a built-in community. We broke confetti eggs (cascarones) at Easter and had tamales at Christmas, but could I claim these things as my culture? I’m naturally tan and got even browner out in the sun playing softball, but was I really?
When we did visit the few relatives we had in Mexico, it felt more like the spring break mission trips I would later take in my (shudder) Evangelical youth group – completely foreign, someplace I had to leave my coloring books and old toys because my very distant cousins didn’t have any of their own. I was both resentful and ashamed. I hated having to use an outhouse, but as I grew older, definitely wanted to make sure I got some souvenirs from ‘town’ before we left.
My father’s side of the family was mostly light-skinned and All-American assimilated since the 60s. I once got an answer from my paternal grandmother on why she never taught her children Spanish, however: she hated the informal slang my grandfather used. If her kids were going to know it, it would be the ‘right’ way. Eventually, my aunt took community college Spanish and became fluent. My uncle, employed by my grandfather’s construction company his whole life, learned it through my grandfather and his workers, anyway. (He and my grandfather were the darker-skinned ones–I could write a lot more about how that figures in, but that’s an entry for another time.)
Fast-forward to my senior year of high school. I get in to my dream college. A white boy I’ve competed with my entire academic life tells me “you got into Brown because you’re brown.” It’s both hugely offensive and also laughable. What racism — except this remark, this is pretty new — have I experienced, at the age of 17, in my mostly-Mexican-American farm town? (Probably some, but at that point, I didn’t have words or terms for the microaggression-like everyday things I took as ‘normal’ back then.) None of my application had to do with my skin color or my last name. I literally don’t understand the language, pendejo.
Okay. Clearly I understand the important words. And yes, I get that affirmative action has nothing to do with what I put in my essay. But so begins another existential crisis: if I’m there because I’m brown…but I don’t even know how to be brown…should I even be there? Occupying space that another better Mexican-American person could have occupied? Was I allowed to use the term Chicano/a (now Chicanx), something I had just discovered existed?
I tried to go to MEChA meetings, but it was like looking in from the outside, trying to understand the adults all over again. I went with my nana to plays at Luis Valdez’ El Teatro Campesino, I read books on Mexican history and watched Spanish-language movies with subtitles. I was fascinated by Aztec mythology.
No one ever told me how to be Latinx. The first people I saw on TV who looked like me or my relatives were Maria and Luis on Sesame Street. There wasn’t a whole lot between them and America Ferrera — at least not in a positive role model-sense.
What I got in fiction was usually limited to male perspectives (though I will take the time to say that I am grateful for the writings of Central Valley native Gary Soto, whose works, along with An Island Like You by the late Puerto Rican author Judith Ortiz Cofer, were the first to show me that brown voices were a thing that did exist and mattered).
I’m still learning. I’m still struggling. But for the first time in my life, there’s so much new media out there, created by people who look like me, sound like me, feel like me, that I don’t feel alone. I feel validated. From Johnson’s Rosetta Stone struggles to the Alvarez family discussing shadeism on the most recent season of Netflix’s One Day at a Time, there’s now a world of content to help me navigate. We can still use more, but this is one small slice of why #RepresentationMatters.