Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Don't Speak Spanish

But I understand enough of it.

Today at the park, there were two Mexican nannies, each with one child, and me (with Sabine). They obviously knew each other and were sitting on a nearby low wall in the shade so I sat there, too. One of them looked at me and then at Sabine, and promptly started a conversation. Here's how it went:

Woman (in Spanish): You speak Spanish?

Me: No. My mother did a little, but I don't.

Woman (looking VERY confused): Oh.

Me (feeling a need to explain): My mother is Mexican, my father is Caucasian.

Woman: And you don't speak Spanish?

Me: No

Woman (pointing to Sabine): She is beautiful. Her father is African?

Me: Yes, but he's from the Caribbean. He's West Indian.

Later, the two women had a conversation in Spanish. I understood more than I thought I would. The woman, who had been speaking with me, told the other woman that I was Mexican and that my father was "blanco" but that I didn't speak Spanish and they started laughing. Then she said that my husband was "moreno," which means dark-skinned or black.

I don't know why they were laughing and I was awkward and uneasy listening to them talk about me while sitting next to them. I think they were fascinated and amused by my "mixed up" qualities and habits, but neither of them assumed Sabine was adopted. And they offered her food and drink from their diaper bags and they basked in her abundantly affectionate gestures (she randomly hugs, kisses and holds hands with strangers), which causes most people obvious discomfort.

I asked the woman I'd been talking to if she was Mexican. She said yes and told me she was from Guanajuato. I was suddenly excited and told her that's where my grandfather was from. She perked up and asked if he was from the city or outside of it. I told her I didn't know, that he'd died and my mother, too. She deflated as quickly as she'd enlivened. We left pretty soon after that and I floated home because I felt root-less. Like my Mexican roots were buried before I took the time to really know them. And now I can't unearth them in the way that I'd like to.

When you're ethnically "all mixed up," you identify so broadly. Or at least I do. I've always felt comfortable with all things Caucasian and Mexican, for the most part. I never identified with one and not the other. But when I'm around some people who identify so definitively with one thing, they are inclined to organize or label me and don't know how.

It can be tricky to be a combination of things. I see people who are purely Mexican and purely African American or West Indian or Italian or French and there are steadfast traditions and a purity of culture and confidence and clear or singular identification that comes with that purity. And there's something so simple, so streamlined, so rich about that.

I wish I spoke Spanish and that I knew more about Guanajuato.

But I'm now extra excited about Father's Day so I can ask my dad every question I can think of about being Danish and Scottish and the adventures of my paternal grandparents.

Dreaming of Guanajuato, Mexico
Photograph by j@ni-que via flicker

Photograph via Trek Earth
Photograph via Fine Art America


Madeleine Kerr said...

Oh, my dear. I wish for you also that you had been able to know more of that family history. But so many, many people don't know their family's backstory. Your mom and grandpa grew up in such a different time. You could invest in some Rosetta Stone and carry on! I wish I spoke Spanish, too. I only understand a bit, and for a talker like me, sitting around like a mute at John's family functions feels so "un-me." I mean, what do I do if I'm not talking?" Those who do speak English do try and spark a conversation with me, but it's stilted at times. Because not only do we have language barriers, but cultural barriers. Things that are funny to me, aren't to all his family. Things I know about aren't things they know about. Like many recent immigrant families, many of his relatives who reach out to me are from small villages and their reference points and interests aren't like mine. I feel the love and the sincerity of trying, but it's so hard to make a real connection. Talking about personal things, like family helps establish that link...but I don't have a lot of family to talk about. The scenario you painted is so familiar to me in that it's SO GREAT when you find a commonality--but then if the link weakens and that common ground to fall back on isn't's harder then when you have those other commonalities to fall back on. Sigh.

atreyuamor said...

My father is Mexican and my mother is Costa Rican. Yes they both speak Spanish but it's different . They use different sayings and sometimes words that my costarican side says is considered offensive if used around my mexican side. It's very confusing sometimes. If I go to Mexico they say oh u don't sound like a Mexican if I go to costa rica they say oh you sound like a Mexican. Growing up I felt like I had to pick one and growing in the San Fernando valley with tons of mexicans wasn't easy.

Laura Mauk said...

@Madeleine ahhh it's so nice that you understand trying to make a link and that feeling when the link falls flat. so frustrating. thank you, for this most comforting comment :).

Laura Mauk said...

@atreyuamor well, it sounds like you know exactly what it's like to be two or more tings vs. just one! on one hand, who doesn't love variety? on the other, you're caught in the middle and it can be not so simple. it's nice to know i'm not alone!


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