Slowly, I closed my eyes. I listened. Besides the constant chattering between students and parents, two distinct melodies lingered in the air—to my right Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care,” and to my left, Javier Solis’s “Qué Bonita Es Mi Tierra.” To my right, an American pop song smoothly found its way to my foot as I tapped to the beat of the modern tune. It effortlessly captured young and reckless love in an enjoyable combination of vibrations. I visualized high school and long friendships accompanied by memories of late nights working on homework. To my left, an instrumental Mexican song painted ideas of patriotism, nature, and love in my mind as I envisioned the swaying of colorful dresses and carefully braided hair. I remembered the scent of chicken soaked in tomato sauce engulfed by fresh masa when my mother cooked tamales. Gently, I opened my eyes, and in an instant these dreamlike memories vanished in front of the emerging crowd.
While I volunteered to recruit students for extracurricular activities during my high school’s Open House, I noted the contrasting pieces of music that reminded me of my divided heritage.
By blood, I am Mexican. But by fate, I am American.
A pool of parents and students entered the cafeteria amidst a collection of stands and booths advocating for the Environmental Club, National Honor Society, Key Club, and a variety of others. I stood in front of the National Honor Society booth persuading parents about the importance of community service and leadership opportunities, yet in the process of doing so I found myself tied down by my English. Parents inquired about club events, and I stuttered in a spineless voice, “Well…um, we participate in community service events such as um…uh, tutoring other students and um…cleaning our campus and um…much more.” I stumbled upon each word while my cheeks turned a bright shade of pink. The parents kneeled down to listen to me while I strained to speak louder, but my voice only dwindled by the second. The parents simply nodded and smiled politely as they strolled to the next stand.
Yet in the middle of judging myself mercilessly, a Spanish-speaking parent stopped by the stand and asked “Hablas Español?” I quickly replied, “Sí. Parece que soy india por mis ojeras pero soy mexicana.” The parents chuckled at my joke and said that people also usually mislabeled their daughter as Middle Eastern or Asian because of her appearance, and I smiled. I thoroughly explained every component of National Honor Society to them with confidence and without faltering. I spoke in a way that I hadn’t before. My friends beside me stared at me in awe because my Spanish flowed without hesitation. I liked the feeling of communicating in a language that others did not understand but that I could interpret with ease.
Yet, I noticed the enormous transition, as did they, between my Spanish and my English. My assertiveness seemed nonexistent when I conversed in English, as if it did not belong to me, but when I articulated convincing comments in Spanish, I spoke with pride and trust in myself. I even made a joke with the parents. One of my friends later claimed that she wished that she could speak in another language so that she could exchange a few words with people from other cultures.
But I felt confounded while I searched within me for the underlying reason behind my change in character. Perhaps the reason lay in my childhood.
At the age of 4, I faced constant fear of endoscopies or colonoscopies while my doctors diagnosed me with acid reflux, asthma, and allergies to eggs and dairy in addition to poor digestion. I trembled in my bed,fearful of vomiting or coughing, and my mother soothed me with stories of ducklings asking their mother about why the moon shone so brightly. Other stories expressed heroism among bunnies or deception among snakes. My mother improvised and invented all of these stories in Spanish that transmitted moral messages. I fell asleep comforted by the rise and fall of her chest while listening to stories of faraway lands and magical beings. I learned to associate Spanish with coziness, love, and more importantly safety.
On the other hand, a particular language can be linked to ideas of peril rather than well-being. For example, when my mother asked for paperwork at a doctor’s office in her grammatically incorrect English, nurses sometimes talked to her in thundering voices, claiming not to understand a single word. In a delicate voice, my mother attempted to explain my health issues, “She do not eat eggs ni dairy” which in reality sounded like, “she dough-knot eat eggs ni dayri” meshed together. To me, every word appeared perfectly understandable since it combined a little bit of Spanish and fragments of English, but to the African American woman sitting behind the desk, well … perhaps not so much. To her, my mother’s English must have sounded foreign and perhaps even represented a lack of intelligence. Meanwhile, my mother felt lost in the translation from one country to another just like words from one language to the next. In those moments I associated English with danger and poor treatment.
Patricia K. Kuhl, professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, analyzes the speaking patterns among humans and their progress throughout different ages. She particularly explores how the speaking patterns adopted early in life last a lifetime. Her research leads her to conclude that “sensory experience with a specific language establishes auditory patterns stored in memory that are unique to that language” (Kuhl). In other words, incidents connected with a particular language affect the connotations children make with that language. Not only this, but
an implicit learning process commits the brain’s neural circuitry to the properties of native-language speech, and this … increases learning for patterns (such as words) that are compatible with the learned phonetic structure, while decreasing perception of nonnative patterns that do not match the learned scheme. (Kuhl)
Consequently, the learning of a certain language is heavily influenced by events before the start of school. The language spoken at home increases a child’s awareness of that native tongue while the child disregards the format of the nonnative language. For children with older siblings, their primary language at home becomes English because they listen to stories from siblings and converse with them more than with their parents. They create a social environment within their home, and.they begin to feel more self-assured in English than they do in Spanish because it’s the language that they relate with familiarity as well as camaraderie. They even possess a larger vocabulary in the English language because it’s the language that they practice both outside and inside the home.
The implications of these findings are that although I may have watched cartoons in English between the ages 2 and 4, my brain simply remained more cognizant of my native tongue because I learned it first through stories; my brain formed connections between sounds and words with Spanish instead of English until much later in my life. Further, I continued developing my skills in Spanish even after beginning school, so my phonetic learning and speech development in English remained inferior to that of Spanish.
In this manner, I grew to be terrified of English and unquestioning of Spanish. Whenever I addressed a teacher in English, my voice sounded dimmer than it did in Spanish. At home, when my father told me to ask my mother for a sheet of paper, instead of physically moving towards my mother and requesting the sheet of paper, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “MAAAAAAA! MI PA NECESITA UN PAPEL!” Conversely, if a teacher had ordered me to relay a similar message to a classmate at school, I would have walked to my classmate and said politely, “Mrs. Adams asked if you could please use your inside voice and get out a sheet of paper.” Depending on the context, I altered my timid comportment appropriately in public while maintaining a casual and self-confident behavior privately.
Additionally, the characteristics of each language diverged greatly, and at a young age I started noting these key disparities. In Spanish I allowed my creativity and innovation to flow in terms of diction. For instance, I deliberately created the word “pilingué” (meaning “full”). Of course, this word did not exist, but I utilized the word frequently with my parents, and my parents laughed at my foolish originality. Yet, English by comparison proved to be much more restrictive. Existing words hardly altered over time. If I said, “Dumpé” (meaning “dumpster” in my mind), my teacher immediately corrected me, “What you mean to say is ‘trash can.’” English stood tall and unyielding. The more people I met, the more I perceived pronunciation variations between African American English, American Southern English, and British English. But words remained practically intact other than the formation of conjunctions and improper grammar. I also noticed the differences in curse words. In Spanish I could think of seven different insulting words that equaled roughly one to two offensive words in English. Because English represented vulnerability and constraint of emotions or expressions, I reacted to everyday dialogue in the same way. I spoke with an equal amount of dryness in my daily interactions with others, which altogether reflected my poor attitude towards the language . In doing so, I neglected part of my identity. I lived in split worlds with no connection between the two.
However, I am living proof that a connection does exist. I’m not Indian even though many may assume so due to my color. I’m not Mexican because geographically I live elsewhere. But neither am I American because my heart longs for Mexican traditions. In truth, I am Mexican American in every sense of the word.
Last year, when I visited Guanajuato, Mexico, my parents’ hometown, I crossed dozens of cerros y valles with a creaking skeleton after a two-day car-ride, yet I stared out the window mesmerized by my beautiful nation. Dozens of businesses lined up next to the main road, and vendors crossed the streets perilously in hopes of selling their ponchos and chavo del 8 plush toys. Verduleros cautiously stacked fresh mangoes on their trucks, and motorcycles drove in between cars in a honking and bustling Mexico. In a foreigner’s eyes this Mexico, my Mexico, would represent unsafety and chaos, but that hectic environment represents the Mexican culture and the Spanish language. Contrastingly, in America I’m surrounded by safety precautions emphasizing the lives of every individual exemplified through language in stop signs and “wear a mask” posters. Yet in that moment, I noted the beauty in both chaos and order. Superficially, chaos and order continue perpetually as polar opposites, but they shape how I make sense of the world. There is splendor in both. There are no two worlds in language…only one me.