For as long as I remember my mother, and myself as I got older, was given a very hard time from people in our neighborhood and some family members about my little sister, little brother, and I not being able to speak Spanish. My mother and father both grew up with the language prevalent in their households and among their peers. I learned the basics growing up, but never enough to communicate. The topic came up one evening after school. I had gone to school that morning and was ready for my first day back after break, when I was pulled out of class by a lady I had never meet before. She said she was with the ESL department and we were gonna play some games. She then proceeded to flip through a bunch of flash cards with words on them I didn’t understand. “gordo” she said, pointing to the fat man on the card. “flaco” she said, pointing to the tall,skinny man next to him. I told her that I didn’t understand anything she was saying and that I didn’t speak Spanish. “you don’t speak Spanish Mr.Yañez?’ I remember her asking me with the grossest look on her face and it made me ashamed for the first time because she made me feel as if my tongue had betrayed my face and name.
I have since felt this same sting many times as I got older, but that night I went home and asked my mom why I didn’t know the language. She told me about my grandmother trying to learn English when her and her family moved to the Central Valley. My mother learning English from TV and school and taught my grandmother after work. My mom told me how hard it was for my grandmother to learn and understand English. For my mother and Grandmother Spanish was 1st language, English a close second, and she wanted the reverse for me.
Now that I’m older, I’ve faced a lot of ridicule for “checking” the Hispanic box. I don’t look of Mexican descent, I don’t sound Mexican when I speak the language, and I’ve only been to Mexico once. I understand Spanish very well and have been called “white washed”, “white boy”, or the worst “pocho” which translates roughly to white trying to act Mexican or vice-versa.
My children will know their heritage and be proud to be Mexican-American. Regardless of what nationality their mother will be, my kids will know about the struggles of their migrant farm working great-grandmother who marched with Cesar Chavez in Selma, and their grandmother who was the first in our family to graduate college and raised 3 kids who did or are in the process of doing the same. My skin is light, but my blood is brown (figuratively), “¡ Viva La Raza!”