Being A Mexican-American: Straddling The Hyphen

I stopped by my parents’ house yesterday while I was waiting for my car to be serviced.We were eating burgers when my dad suddenly said, “it’s 7 o’clock! My novela’s on!” Lately, they’ve been into Jose de Egiptoa novela based on the biblical story of Joseph.

They’ve always been into the biblical movies on the religious channels, but I didn’t know Univision had given one the telenovela treatment. (They should’ve cashed in on that earlier.) It was also surprising that my Dad would watch a novela. The last time I watched one with my mom was La Mentira in 1998, which a kid should not have been allowed to watch. As we were watching Jose, I told my dad I was practicing Spanish. He chuckled into his burger. “I didn’t know you knew any Spanish words other than salsa and queso!”

Ouch. He’s not wrong, though.

I grew up in a majority-white suburb. Growing up, I just wanted to fit in. But I’m a second-generation Mexican-American, which means you’re never American enough for the Americans, nor Mexican enough for the

Cultural immersion exercise: visiting the DMA’s Mexican art exhibit.

Mexicans. Straddling that hyphen is tough.

My parents spoke Spanish to us at home, usually short commands as parents do. I’m ashamed to admit this, but there was a point where I didn’t want my mom to speak Spanish to me anymore because it “wasn’t normal.” No one at school spoke Spanish and I wanted to fit in. I was probably five years old at the time. My mom didn’t force it on me but I wish she did, because my Spanish today is pitiful. To this day, I regret it. I know I’m Mexican-American even if I can’t speak the language, but I lost that connection to my heritage. I also feel like not knowing Spanish is a slap in the face to my parents and grandparents, who worked really hard to move up the economic ladder.

My parents both came from a border town called Del Rio. My mom will say they came from the barrio. The population is 85 percent Hispanic and just a stone’s throw from Mexico. My parents moved us to DFW when I was about 9 months old for better job opportunities. Though DFW is my home, I still love visiting Del Rio because the majority of my extended family still lives there. Yet when I’m there, its a constant reminder of what I gave up. I’m very aware that I’m not brown enough, not Latina enough. (I’m kind of pale to begin with.) I vaguely understand what my grandma is saying, but I can’t talk to her.  My cousins ask me if I understand them when they speak in Spanish. I’m embarrassed.

Owning it

It’s my fault and I’m trying to own up to it as an adult. I took years of Spanish in high school and college, but we all know how that typically works out. If you don’t use it, you lose it, and I hate my pronunciation. I’m very thankful that I married into another Latino family because there’s still a thread of connection to the culture. Again though, I’m aware of my inadequacies. My mother-in-law is more comfortable in Spanish and I’d love to get to know her more. I also want our future children to be able to communicate in Spanish.

JR’s been supportive through this. He’s considerate of my insecurities. When I ask where I fall on the scale of gringa to Latina, he tells me emphatically, “you are Latina.” He’s learned to correct my pronunciation in a way that doesn’t sound like he’s making fun of me, because I’m still very sensitive about it. At this point, my language learning consists of JR pointing at things and asking me to say the word in Spanish. In some ways, we’re like this video:

(I grew up watching Johnny Canales and I can dance, thank you very much.) 

Reclaiming it

I wish I could wrap this story up in a neat bow and tell you how I conquered my feelings of inadequacy, conquered Spanish, and somehow became a SuperLatina or something. Nope. I still feel a lot of guilt. I’m constantly battling racial imposter syndrome. I’m slowly hobbling along with my baby Spanish. No happy ending. It’s to be continued.

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