Chicanos Hear Conquest's Echo in Quandaries about Language

By Martinez, Demetria | National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Chicanos Hear Conquest's Echo in Quandaries about Language


Martinez, Demetria, National Catholic Reporter


The evidence against me is everywhere: Spanish grammars, Spanish poetry with English translations -- and those damn instructional tapes I vow to listen to and never will. Like everyone else I know, I'm convinced perfect fluency could be mine, given a month in a Latin American country.

Like many Chicanos of my generation, I grew up listening to Spanish, mostly at my grandparents' homes, but not speaking it myself. Mom and Dad spoke English to us kids. They didn't plan it that way -- it just sort of happened. With its powerful institutions of television and school, the English-speaking world dosed in on us at an early age.

Still, I'm one of the lucky ones. Dad was a Marine in Okinawa during the first year of my life; my mother and I lived with her parents, both of whom spoke flawless Spanish and English. The music of both languages was in my ear as I was passed from lap to lap of relatives whose passions ranged from politics to poker.

Later, my other grandma and my other grandpa (who had been a court interpreter) often took me to their Spanish Assemblies of God church. The reaches of the brain associated with language acquisition lit up as the gifted pastor painted pictures of Jesus walking on water, healing the blind and sending the rich away empty.

My family's public life also exposed me to the magic of bilingualism.

All my life, I watched Dad, an aunt and my mother's mother work the crowds -- in the language of their choosing -- whenever they ran for office or backed someone else's candidacy. Sometimes English would be larded with Spanish words or vice versa. Who would dream that one day academics would dub this phenomenon "code-switching," and write whole dissertations about it (though I still prefer the moniker Spanglish).

Blessedly, my parents insisted I take Spanish in school. Dad had long championed the cause of multilingual; Richard Nixon appointed him to the nation's first commission on bilingual education.

I have written poetry, conducted interviews, debated politics, fallen in love and prayed to God -- all in Spanish. A few years ago, however, I had a dream: I was conversing in Spanish. But with a dictionary in my hand.

I'm simply not as fluent as I'd like to be.

Still, I try. For political and cultural reasons, to be sure -- related to working on border issues in particular and to battling linguistic imperialism in general. But there's another reason I keep Spanish novels by my bedside. And that is, to do right by the ancestors.

As my grandmothers grew very old, their use of English receded. Their souls took flight from this world on the wings of Spanish. Two years ago when my niece was born I panicked: How to pass on the linguistic legacy?

I rocked her for a long time, repeating the Lord's Prayer in Spanish. Later I would give her flashcards, books and tapes as if I could light the wick of her mind, the better to see the faces of her great-grandparents. Now a nephew has come into the world, and I'm to be the godmother. Thank God for Spanish Masses.

The irony is that were it not for those first illegal aliens who thought they'd found India, we'd be speaking any one of hundreds of indigenous languages, many wiped out in the shadow of the cross and the sword.

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