When I was five, I was at tap dance practice when a woman came through the dance studio door visibly distressed. She was speaking Spanish and no one in the studio could understand her. My teacher, Dorothy, told the woman very slowly, “No Spanish” but the woman kept talking. After a few more attempts, Dorothy turned around and looked at me, “Mandy – do you speak Spanish?” I didn’t understand why she would expect me, out of the whole class, to speak Spanish although I did know a few words and so in an effort to be helpful I said the words I knew: ROJO MANANA or, in English, RED TOMORROW. Can you imagine having an emergency where you are in a non-English speaking country and you are so desperate that you enter any place of business for assistance and no one speaks your language except for a small child who cryptically says RED TOMORROW? The woman stared at me, looked at the adults in the room, and left the studio. The class went on as usual but I was still left with the question of why I was expected to know Spanish. What I didn’t know at the time is that when people know you’re Mexican-American, even half like I am, some people have expectations of the things you should know.
I was in bilingual class since kindergarten and in Spanish I learned los numeros, and los colores, and los animales, and then…algebra which was a leap of faith on the part of the bilingual education committee. But even though I was introduced to this language early and I lived in a community where Spanish was frequently spoken and written in storefront signs, I didn’t catch on because while the outside world was speaking in English, Spanish, and Spanglish the inside of my house was English only. My dad, whose first language is Spanish, grew up in a time when assimilation was expected of folks who didn’t fit into the expectations of white America. A spoken word of Spanish at school could end up with a ruler on the knuckles, a trip to the principal’s office, or being sent home. He didn’t grow up with a rock star named Richie Valenzuela but one called Ritchie Valens and heard rollicking laughter at Ricky Ricardo’s Spanish speaking comedy bit. My dad was adamant that if my sister and I wanted to learn Spanish, we would learn it on our own. Because it was a personal choice steeped in fear mongering and anxiety, I learned French instead.
And so began a long history of me running away from a language and culture because of its perceived toxicity that it could have on me. As I grew older, though, I noticed the question of if I spoke Spanish had morphed into why I didn’t speak Spanish and because I was tired of giving the assimilation history lesson and felt like I was ready to learn the language once and for all, I started taking classes. I told myself this time would be different because I wouldn’t be distracted like I was as a kid. This time would be different because I would be older and understand the reason why I was learning the language. This time would be different because I would be paying a lot of money to learn instead of it being paid for by local taxpayers. But this time was not different and I didn’t learn more than I had already known. If I walked into a Spanish-speaking community and needed to know the time or where the bathroom was, so help me God, I could get the job done. If any other situation arose, I would probably find myself listing all the colors and numbers I knew in the hopes someone would feel sorry for me and they would have to dial a gringo or pocho to see what my problem was. I didn’t share my journey with my family because they had become used to me not being able to interact with them in Spanish and all of my past efforts were met with eye rolls and ridicule. Some would call me “too white” when I tried to speak it and the last memory of my grandmother was her telling me in broken English to go watch TV because she only wanted to talk in Spanish and I wouldn’t understand her.
But just like your college roommate who was only able to speak Spanish when they were drunk in Cabo, I also found out that the brain works in mysterious ways when it comes to language retention. A few months after my last attempt at learning Spanish I was helping my Tia Francis with a garage sale at my grandmother’s house. An older woman from the neighborhood stopped by to see what we were offering and they spoke in Spanish to each other. They started out with pleasantries, the weather, and then:
“How much is this?”
“For this? Are you sure? None of this is worth five dollars.”
I listened passively and then I realized that my brain, my brain that stopped working when I needed to use Spanish verb conjugations and preterite tense, translated this haggle over a clock radio that probably didn’t work with perfection and clarity and it was the most beautiful exchange I had ever heard. And it continued:
“Well, you don’t have to buy anything.”
“I wouldn’t waste my money here.”
“Thank you for stopping by. You can leave.” The woman was about to turn around but before she did she decided to get the last word in, “You know, for someone who has lived here so long, your Spanish isn’t very good”.
I caught my breath as this casual chat had turned into a driveway telenovela. I kept neutral, busying myself by arranging a couple of dolls with crocheted dresses used to cover toilet paper and waited for my Tia to respond.
“Don’t tell me I can’t speak Spanish, you understood everything I said to you!” The old woman turned around, muttered something and left. I looked at my aunt, “Wow. She was rude.” My Tia’s eyes widened. “You understood us?!”
Soon after this divine intervention of the language gods, I went to Spain and ordered a plate of “vege-tab-les” instead of “verduras” – it was clear my ability to speak and understand Spanish would be forever fleeting. But what was also clear was that this expectation to speak the language of one’s ancestors with clarity, perfection, and brilliance wasn’t just a burden that I shouldered but one that extended to other generations and other cultures. When the shame and the guilt associated with not knowing Spanish began dissolving away, I started to think about a space for all people, from all cultures, to come together to be celebrated for their valiant attempts to learn the language of their heritage. Picture it: Set in a small hacienda, there will be a large room with a hearth where we will gather and teach each other how to say numbers, colors, and animals in the language of our grandparents. We will go on fieldtrips in the hopes of eavesdropping on contentious dialogues in the mother tongue to giddly translate the gossip where we can find it. We will rejoice over the everyday phrases we have mastered but will probably never use. It will be a place for healing. It will be a place for acceptance. It will be a place called Rojo Manana.