My skin is brown
just like theirs,
but now I’m unworthy of the color
’cause I don’t speak Spanish
the way I should.
– Michelle Serros
As a fourth generation Chicana, this poem has always resonated with me. When I first read these words it was as a junior at UCLA in my first ever Chican@ Studies class. A classmate and now close friend had quoted Michelle Serros in her paper. I saw the quote in her paper and later found out it was a poem. We, as later generation Chicana’s, bonded over the pain of the distance and closeness that we craved for our cultures. We talked about the looks we received from other Latin@s that didn’t understand how our Spanish was so broken.
My first memory of this was when I was in seventh grade. I had a Spanish teacher, her name was Señora Soria. She would speak to me in Spanish because she thought I was fluent. Ironically, my Chinese-Vietnamese bestie would translate and let me copy her tests. Luckily, my jr. high bestie had been privileged enough to grow up with a nanny that spoke to her in Spanish.
One day after class Sra. Soria offered me a ride home and asked me all kinds of questions in Spanish. I remember being mortified because I didn’t want her to find out I wasn’t a REAL Latina. I was trapped I had to confessed that I didn’t know Spanish.
Fast forward to college, I went through the Slater figures out he is a Chicano moment when I transferred to UCLA.
Then I learned what it meant to be fourth-generation Mexican American and why I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.
It was because my great grand parents, grandparents, and parents were born in the U.S. and the tradition of speaking Spanish stopped with my parents. After all, it was their first language but in the 1950s they were taught that it was a dirty language. My mom remembers being pulled out of class to correct her “accent”. This sort of racialized psychological and cultural violence was what forced our “proper assimilation” into the U.S. We wiped away our culture and whitened our accents and cultural language markers. No longer did we speak Spanish.
So when I first learned what a Pocha was I thought, “yep, that’s exactly what other brown people see me as”. But, once I learned that it really wasn’t my fault. I sought out to reclaim my cultura and really embrace what it meant to me to be a fourth generation Chicana – a descendent of Mexico, a mestisa, a pocha, a mujer mezclada, a woman of color, latina, and in some places a gringa (like Brazil). What it really means to be me and to not speak Spanish…
Now, that I work with a community in Boyle Heights that solely speak Spanish and is sometimes illiterate. I have been forced to once again face my identity, the assumptions made about my brown skin and my generational status. Two weeks ago, I had an awkward car ride in which thoughts about what to say, how to say it raced through my mind. I sat in my black honda civic with three monolingual Spanish speakers.
I didn’t say much and half the time I was too nervous to really know if I understood what they were saying. Mostly, I just responded with the occasional “sí” or “mande” – my go to words when I have to fake Spanish – I learned these tricks early on. Again, I was forced to confess, “Tengo vergüenza cuando hablo español porque tengo un accento de una pocha” (I am embarrassed to speak Spanish because I have the accent of a Pocha). I explained that my family has been in the states for about a century and that because of racism I don’t speak Spanish well. They understood and wanted to know more about what school I went to, what I studied and why.
When I got back to the office I breathed a sigh of relief and I felt accomplished. Being me actually worked.
This made me say, “Yo soy pocha ¿y que?”.
There is nothing I can do about the disconnect to the Spanish language that has happened as a result of the past but I CAN try my best to be patient and learn as I go. I am open and I figure if I can learn Portuguese I can learn Spanish.