When my parents came over, I wasn’t expecting for the following to ensue: my pops and wife to be arguing over what language ought to be spoken in OUR home, and taught to Luca, OUR son, nuestro hijo. At first the visit was typical. My mamita dropping off food and the abuelos getting to know their grandson. Typical.
But my dad said something in English to his grandson, and my wife responded jokingly, “en este casa, hablamos espanol! Jaja, Luca no entiende ingles [in this house we speak Spanish! Luca doesn’t understand English]. We [my mamita and I] laughed. My dad with a smile responded, “Yina, you know when Tino was 5 or 6 years old his teacher came to us and yelled at us because he didn’t speak any English. She said, ‘Mr. Diaz do you know where your boy is heading if he doesn’t learn English? Nowhere!’ I believe she was right. It would have been confusing for him. I didn’t want him growing up with an accent. I didn’t want him being discriminated. I didn’t want people hating him because of how he sounded. She was Puerto Rican too.” Mamita adds, “Peor que sea Latina tambien” [she just had to be Latina too]—my Mom was always opposed to and never followed our English-only household policy.
Instantly, my wife and father go at it--when I say go at it, I mean the culturally relevant notion that WE as Caribbean Latinos associate the meaning of an argument, LOUD but not angry, and if angry not that Western kinda' angry. My father defends his nativist strategy for survival on behalf of his two-generations down posterity; my wife, responding with her own ESL experiences and unloading about 4 semesters worth of graduate work with English Language Learner research and study. The point that struck me in their argument, with my mamita in the corner spurring on my wife and shouting a “Si” and “Mira,” backing my wife up, was when my wife said “And look at your son, a man who looks Latino but can’t speak like one. A man who wishes more than anything to communicate with his own people, but feels like he can’t!”
It stunned me…
There was a moment of silence before they further explored the many-nuanced subject of language acquisition and identity. She was so right that it hurt. It wasn’t intentional, of course. It was more out of love than accusation; more out of experiential warning than blame. It was the love of a parent and spouse that understood the past injustice of language and racism, nativism and education, and wanted her son equipped for these same struggles, not ill-prepared.
I supported my wife on this one. I had to. It isn’t just that traditional spousal agreement that we non-verbally consent to—to back up each other’s debates. But what she said hurt because it was true. Language for me had always been an issue. I never truly felt “Latino” because I never spoke like a “Latino,” I never spoke Spanish. When I was/am given the opportunity to speak I usually freeze up. I get nervous. My words leave or I stutter, and words repeat themselves in 3 to 7 cycles. As I talk, these same words feel like weights, each pronunciation like a 45 lb. steel-plate dampening the chords of my identity.
I’m somewhat good now, pretty good. What did it take? A lot of listening and shame-filled practice. It’s all good. It had to be that way. It used to make me so angry—still does—whenever Mormon missionaries at the Spanish congregations in Church I’d attend scoff when I would respond in English to them. They said, “Haha, hermano solamente hablamos espanol aqui.” “Screw you” I used to think. Screw all of you. Whiteboys that think they know my own language better than I do—but they did, and that’s the hard part—and comfortable, sometimes in jest when they err with no critique: “Elder, esta bien” they would all say, comforting the Elder or Sister missionary that made a mistake, “aprender otro idioma es dificil.” When I make a mistake, in my own language critiqued by my own community, I am the welcomed recipient of perplexed looks and sympathetic but poetically disguised pats on the shoulder. No words.
But you have to understand the position my dad comes from. You see there’s a context to why he feels the Uncle Tom way he does. My mamita came to this country in her early 20’s. My dad came in the beginning of his high school years to Brooklyn, NY from La Ceiba, Honduras. In high school he was surrounded by young Black and Puerto Rican bodies that did not speak Spanish and that terrorized him because that was all he knew. His barrio slaughtered him. Roughed him up and created that tiny stick of terror that I now know as Dad. Homie, literally grew up in the school of Hardknocks and graduated. My mom once told me about a group of Italian dudes that chased him all the way home screaming racial slurs because they heard him talking on the phone as he walked back from work, I was at home and barely born. So I understood why he said these things, why he believed them. There was context and I can’t hide or ignore that. It’s often the reason why our people—and I use the term “OUR” loosely because I don’t believe in essentialized configurations—are wedged in colonial constructs that create a kind of lateral oppression. Get me right, I don’t agree with my dad—not at all—but I understand given his narrative, weighted around with context. We need to remember this.
In the end, my wife is right and so is my dad. It’s complicated right? How about this: My wife has a great understanding and foresight about where language and identity need to become addressed for the future, she sees a position for language and identity in social justice (in the home), and my Dad displays a context for what has occurred in the past and where we can start to deconstruct and decolonize, he represents the background of society along with its intersecting layers of oppression.
They both have much to contribute to the issue of language and identity, oppression and society. I don’t look at my dad’s experience as deficit, but as that of a young immigrant body seeking sense in a world that alienated him. As for my wife, what more can I say except that she is the voice of a future where families are no longer afraid to speak their native tongues in their own spaces and harness the sustainability of their racial and cultural legacies within their homes. Besides, she’s always right… J