Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Me: Lost and Found

Finished my essay on language. Love it.

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My mom tells me that I spoke Spanish before I spoke English, and I don’t find that very hard to believe. She was a hard working businesswoman, and no-offense to her, she wasn’t around much during the week while I was growing up, and neither was my dad; my grandmother was always there. I was fortunate to have her, Esperanza, living with me. Unfortunately, I acted as most children, and took for granted.

Esperanza never learned much English, she never really had to. She moved from Oaxaca, Mexico, to an area of California, Bell Gardens, where carnicerias and panaderias littered every block, and Spanish was the language of choice. Shortly after my mom got pregnant with me, Esperanza moved into my parent's house in Downey to help watch over me once my mom ran out her maternity leave.

While I grew up learning Spanish, I don’t recall myself ever really grasping and learning my culture. Growing up in Los Angeles, I figured everyone knew Spanish and that there wasn’t really any culture behind it besides the one I was living in. I thought that was it. However, it would end up taking me more than ten years after my grandmother’s death to fully grasp my culture, where I came from, and what it meant to be a Mexican-American woman.

In the late summer of 1997, just as I was about to turn ten, Esperanza died. Along with my grandmother’s death went my Spanish language. She was the only person with whom I practiced my native language. On our occasional trips to the swap meets in Lakewood, I would get some as well, but on a daily basis, it was just her. My mom would talk to my grandma in Spanish, but to me in English. After my grandmother’s death, my mom did realize how important keeping my language alive was. She promised me that she would speak to me only in Spanish, and I agreed to respond back in Spanish. However, that promise was never held up on either end. We both became consumed in our daily rituals, and in all fairness, my father was a red-blooded American hailing from the South, who didn’t speak Spanish at all. My mom and I would promise that Saturday would be the day, or that the following day would be the day that we would start. But those days never came. We did, however, have a city thriving with Mexican culture to turn to.

Living in Los Angeles was a way in which I could get my culture fix. On the weekends, my mom would take me downtown to Olvera Street, which was a hub for Mexican culture. Being there was like being teleported to a mercado in Oaxaca, Mexico. To celebrate Dia de los Muertos, we would go to the Museum of Latin American Culture to create papel picado’s and share my grandmother’s favorite food with other revelers to honor her, and other loved ones spirits. Best of all, I had some of my Mexican familia living in neighboring Long Beach. I remember spending at least one weekend out of the month with several of my many cousins swimming or playing the latest Nintendo game.

However, all of these cultural learnings came to a screeching halt when my family moved across the country to Georgia, just shy of my fifteenth birthday. This move, at least for the duration of high school, suppressed my linguistic and cultural growth. There were no outlets for me to engage my Spanish language, and there were certainly no museums or areas of town that I could go to learn more about my culture. Just being from California made me really different, but the fact that I was Mexican made me exotic. Compared with some of the other Mexican students, the majority of which had just immigrated to the United States, I was a gringa who pretended she was Mexican. I had no real grasp of her native language or culture, everything I knew about my Hispanic self was that of a young girl who grew up speaking Spanglish.

The move to Georgia is when I realized that this loss of language was no one’s fault but my own. I had a beautiful gift of knowing a second language, and I had just let it slip through my fingers. Attending high school in a rural Northern Georgia town, didn’t offer many opportunities to hone any foreign language skills. True, it was required of every student to take two years of a foreign language, but those two years were an absolute joke. Students were unruly and never put forth any effort, and the poor Spanish professor, Mrs. Dubai who was nearing her 70’s, had no idea how to make a bunch of unwilling high schooler’s conjugate verbs.

It wasn’t until I got out of high school and attended college, that I finally had the chance to revisit my culture. The summer before my senior year of college, I finally made the trek south to Oaxaca, Mexico to meet my grandmother’s family for the first time. Esperanza had two sisters and one half-brother, and during my trip I was able to meet each one. I also met their kids, their kids, and their kids, and none spoke any English, but of course I didn’t expect them to. My attempt at Spanish was like that of a ten-year old. My vocabulary wasn’t very sophisticated, and at most times it was choppy and incoherent. I resorted to hand signals and gesturing to communicate, and I tried my best to learn words that I had heard. Not being able to fully communicate with my grandmother’s siblings was a heart wrenching feeling. There were so many stories that I wanted to tell them about growing up with Esperanza. She made only two trips back to Oaxaca once she moved to the U.S., so I wanted to tell them how much I loved her and how much they reminded me of her. Instead, we resorted to tears of joy, silent smiles, and hand signs, all of which we fully understood. To my surprise, I found that I was able to read and write in Spanish much more easily than I could speak and understand.

By the end of my stay, I was able to have general conversations without much difficulty, and my language aside, I felt that all of the missing pieces I had about myself were found. My journey to Mexico was to completing unfinished business I had with my grandmother. I finally understood who I was and where I came from. Most importantly, I learned to never forget it.

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