Growing Up Spanglish

Where is the fine line between appreciation and appropriation?

Fireworks exploded over the white sandy beach with a bang, and suddenly it was a brand new year.
Sin doce uvas*, it came just the same.

We were vacationing at Playa del Carmen, my sweetheart’s ultimate Christmas gift to us. Seven days of sun and surf and speaking Spanish! The people here are lovely, courteous, and fluently bilingual English/Spanish, but their eyes lit up with joy when I spoke our native language.
Our native language.
Even now, it seems so strange to say that, but I have never felt more Mexican-American than I have this past week. We were quickly recognized at the places we liked to frequent and all sorts of staff members would call out to us by name, ask us if we were well, ask us if we needed anything, but they would also share family pics from their phones and inside jokes about their co-workers.
There are more than a thousand employees here at Valentin Imperial. I cannot even imagine how many guests are here, especially right now during the peak tourist season.
And yet, they recognized and remembered us, treating us like family.
That is what touches my heart the most, and that is essentially what being Mexicana means to me.
I learned Spanish from my tiny abuela, who wielded a surpringly strong right with a wooden spoon whenever I or one of my cousins lapsed into English. Experience in education has drilled into my mind the importamce of the formative first five years in a child’s life, but the knowledge I learned via my academic journey cannot compare to my own life experience.
Because after age 5, I stopped speaking Spanish.
My parents had divorced when I was two, but my easy-going American dad never thought for a moment that divorce from my mother meant that I was divorced from my family. He and my abuela had a good relationship where he dropped me off sometimes for a day, sometimes a weekend, depending on where he was working. My mom’s youngest sisters still lived at home, hardly five years between us, and so I merged seamlessly into the rowdy household, banging on the always-occupied bathroom door and plucking pomegranates for the table from the bush in the backyard.
Then, we moved.
Not my abuela nor my mother.
Just us, my dad and I.
We left the Bay Area and Oakley behind for a tiny backwater town full of rednecks. It was culture shock; I had never been “brown”, I was just a kid running amok under the brilliant California sunshine.
But now everyone wanted to know what I was.
From the squint of prejudice in their eyes I learned to stay silent. It was the early 80’s, nobody was woke back then. Not even in California
Especially not where we lived.
Besides, there wasn’t even anyone to speak Spanish with. The other Mexican kids grouped together in a tight knit huddle, to which I didn’t even try to belong.
And all the milk-white unmixed Americans kept asking me how I tanned so well, looking at me like an unusual beast.
I adapted. I grew up. And, eventually, I found my passion in being a Spanish teacher.
But I still feel I live in a weird half-world between my two cultures.
I know that eating twelve grapes is a tradition to bring luck into the new year. But it’s not my tradition. I grew up eating pizza and watching horror movies and singing Auld Lang Syne terribly out of key with my friends.
Where is the fine line between appreciation and appropriation?
As a teacher, it is my job to teach students about the culture associated with various Spanish-speaking countries. Social media often explodes with acerbic opinions that you can’t learn Spanish independent of a background foundation about where the language comes from.
Because I think I’m doing just fine. I learned Spanish in my grandmother’s kitchen, decades before I learned about Frida Kahlo. I am teaching my students to appreciate the wonders of Spanish culture but I am also encouraging them to explore and find their own path. To be brave, to be confident, and to be courteous in any language.
As I get ready to board my flight home to Sacramento, I realize that my heart has found its own unique peace between my two worlds. Because it isn’t only here, in this luxurious resort full of comfort and exquisite service, that I have been welcomed when I speak Spanish. It is also on my own home block at the panaderia or the quinceañera dress shop where my daughter bought her prom dress or the random tío on the street who asked me for directions to CVS in broken English, then beamed with pride when I replied fluently in Spanish.
Because we are all family, when we make the effort to reach out and communicate with one another.
And, really, isn’t building relationships what learning a new language is all about?

*Without twelve grapes

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