Saturday, September 05, 2015

When is enough Spanish enough?

When we were growing up in San Anto(nio) back in the 50s, our parents didn't speak Spanish around us. The common belief was you'd have a Spanish accent in your English if you learned both.

The truth about bilingualism is more complicated, depending on your environment. But that's the reason for my Spanish not being totally developed.

I do remember one Spanish lesson my mother gave me. I asked her about a word I'd heard at the playground--chingazo. She promptly gave me one across the face and ordered me to never use the word again. Which didn't answer the question but did provide information as to the word's context.

I don't "blame" my parents for bringing us up that way. To be a Mexican--as we called ourselves--to have dark complexions, to speak Spanish in those times marked you for discrimination. It was Texas in the 50s, not that racism has disappeared.

Most of us in the family did learn Spanish, some better than others. My oldest sister married a mexicano and gained fluency, for instance.

I learned Spanish on the school playground, on the Menchaca Courts playground, and from friends. It included nearly every profane word in the language. The grammar varied, with limited future tense and almost no imperatives. Add tejano slang to the mix and it's a wonder I can speak at all.

I got little practice through my teen years. I was ashamed to speak it, to admit I knew it, to learn more of it. I didn't realize the shame came from societal oppression and wasn't of my making.

When I reached high school, rather than signing up for Spanish, I chose French, joining one other Mexican in the class. We aced it for three years, alongside a girl who had a French grandmother. In my third year, the French teacher asked me to pronounce a word and then asked me to pronounce it in Spanish, which I did. When I heard both versions sound the same, I understood how my broken Spanish had helped me ace the French, not that I'm tres fluent in it. More like, just un peu?

In Denver's Chicano Movement in the early 70s, so many Chicanos around not understanding, much less speaking Spanish, surprised the chingazos out of me. The rising nationalism valued fluency and I started hablando like a tejano. That of course brought some social status. I ran with it.

In time I tended to use Spanish more, like getting promoted because I could order mexicano workers around better than lingually limited supervisors. When I operated my advertising and graphics businesses, dealing directly with Spanish speakers was a plus.

But when it involved raising my own kids, I came up with fresh version of why I shouldn't speak Spanish around them. Mine sucked grammatically, my vocabulary was meager, and I didn't want them growing up speaking hodge-podge tejano. So I created my own stupid.

Prevailing educational bilingual studies presume that a parent should always speak his primary language to his children. Since mine was English, that would've backed up my not sharing Spanish with my children. I don't agree with that anymore.

Had I spoken Spanish to them, they would've at least acquired the accent in their Spanish. They would've heard that accent, used it and could have improved on language acquisition through high school, with friends and into college. I failed them.

In fact my Spanish was sufficient to get hired as a bilingual paraprofessional assisting a bilingual teacher for four years. Which led me to finishing my bachelor's degree and getting a bilingual teacher job, despite gaps in my fluency.

For ten years I helped scores of mexicanitos and salvadoreños learn to write and read Spanish. Yes, had my fluency been more "correct" I would've helped them more. But what I had was sufficient. Until a couple of chingada principals decided I didn't fit their regulated norms.

A few years ago Revista Iguana published my Spanish fable, "El Viaje de Clarisa," about a girl ant whose struggles never end but never defeat her. Without the help of a bilingual teacher friend and the editors of Iguana, that story would not have been published.

In the last thirty years in this neighborhood called the Northside, I've deliberately made friends with Spanish speakers on my block. Today only four families remain, the other having been bought out and chingado-removed to outlying areas. The few of us left use Spanish or switch back and forth as if we were bilingual. Which I guess I am, in some pocho way.

One day I hope to write children's books in Spanish, without having to write them in English first and depend on a publisher's translator. Quién sabe? It could happen.

Currently I babysit our first grandchild who's three months old. Two times a week I get to play Abuelo for six hours. And Nieto gets to play Spanish learner. Calle 13 performs our background music. I have children's books from my teaching days to read him in Spanish. And I labor to speak only that for those hours.

Will Nieto become fluent with only 12% of his waking hours in a Spanish environment? No sé. I assume he'll develop the ear, the accent, some grammar and vocabulary. He'll need schooling, on top of whatever I can share with him.

But I'll have done what I can, what I should've done with my own kids, what I should've done for myself, what should've been done for me, all the prior years. Y ya no hay verbüenza.

Aquí vamos, yo y el Nieto.

RudyG, a.k.a. pocho chingado, ex-bilingual-teacher, part-time babysitter and student of español

If you readers have related experiences you'd like to share here, even a reprint, send them and I'll post them next week.


msedano said...

i grew up in earliest years bilingual--spanish speaking gramma me cuidaba--then school years lots of english with spanish on weekends visiting familia. took french in hs because in the 1960s the university of california excluded Spanish from foreign language credit, "nothing important was written in Spanish" it was explained to me by a Dean. But sabes que? French and Spanish have proved important in many ways. There was the pharmacy in Paris whose clerk spoke neither Spanish nor English. There was a waiter who sneered at me why was i ordering for my wife, doesn't she speak French? after all, the waiter learned English "in our schools." So i asked him something in Spanish, and he said he didn't speak Spanish. I asked him "why not? we learn Spanish in our schools." you'd think i insulted the gamin.

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Thanks for sharing a part of your linguistic journey, Rudy. Language--how we acquire it, how we use or not use it, what we do with it, how some of it gets silenced--fascinates me. I love that your mother gave you a chingazo when you asked her what chingazo meant. That's hilarious. You know "Jingle Bells"? I used to sing it as "Chingo bells, chingo bells, chingo all the bueys!" Too much to say about the braided tongue, pero enjoyed this post very much. And awesome that you are passing on your español (pocho, Tejano, Chicano) to your nieto!


And meanwhile, in Arizona, we still have "educators" who see Spanish as a bad habit they have to break students of.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful article, Ernest. I, too, have failed my children, and it is with regret that I acknowledge my meager attempt, but not sufficient enough to be fluent. I come from a Spanish-speaking home. Spanish is my first language, but even in the 70's Spanish was not acceptable in schools. I learned to keep my Spanish at home and later away from my children.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant to say apologies.

Anonymous said...

Sedano, Olga, Ernesto and Anonymous, thanks for your replies. Remember, if you have more you'd like to say on this matter, I'm open to posting it here. Even if I get confused for others. - RudyG, definitely

Beverly Bravo said...

I'm a gringa who became a Spanish-speaker and promoted bilingualism in the family setting through a bilingual play group that I organized when my son was very young.

I agree that you don't need to speak your native language to your baby. It's an uphill battle to raise a child with a second language within a dominant culture, but it's not only possible, it's preferable.