Bilingual Acrobatics

“Sixty-two, thirty-six, mom.” I repeat the grocery total slowly and use my eyes to draw attention to the glowing numbers on the cashier’s screen. My mother nods and rummages through her organized greenbacks for just a little too long. Money still feels foreign in her small hands — both because of its lack of colorful differentiation and having this money with which to buy sixty-two dollars and thirty-six cents worth of food. I uncomfortably smile at the cashier and the people waiting in line as Ama timidly hands the woman the money. There’s another weighted pause as she waits expectantly for victorious confirmation or shameful disapproval at her having handed over enough.

I am ten. I am fourteen. I am twenty-three. I am ashamed of my mother’s inability to speak English.

Today, bilingualism is revered. We put it at the top of resumes after we’ve proven to a PhD or a computerized exam that we can read, converse, and sometimes even write in the language we’ve been taught to subvert. It becomes cool and trendy to drop the occasional Spanish slang into English conversation “Pero like for what?” Or the casual flex of a classmate’s Spanish pronunciation skills when discussing a novel on the immigrant struggle. So while her camioneta was almost flawlessly clear, the author’s narrative imagery blurs with memories of my grandfather bent over acres of milpa and long drives to strawberry fields where my parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins picked the same fruit in the same unforgiving sun as the main character in the novel. You see, her casual fiction free read is my living history.

However, neither my resume nor the exams take into consideration the acrobatics my cerebral synapses have executed in order to deliver the desired vernacular for each unique bilingual interaction. That’s bilingual code-switching happening in quarter-seconds.

This often unacknowledged skill allows me to navigate different circles — but results may vary. My balancing act has been put on display with the ringmaster of my insecurities shouting for all to witness the seasonally light-skinned Mexican dazzle the crowd with her four-syllable words, knowledge of current events, and rolling Rs. See how in the same sentence she can go from pocha–a pejorative term meaning lavada or white-washed–to paisa–a conflicting term meaning countrymen sometimes (rarely) used endearingly.

Mira, mira — ‘’ they will say — “she has forgotten her roots.” “She doesn’t know the word for this or that.” Pero, I do. Just give me a second to–

“See how she pauses, see how she stumbles in her unrehearsed and unpredictable performance.” “Que lastima. Que maravilla!” Their mixed reviews swirl beneath my swaying tightrope and mingle with the remarks of surprise and concern from the other half of the audience.

“Where did you find her?” My boss’s colleague asks. “She can’t be full Mexican,” another comments. “What about her parents, are they (pause for dramatic effect) legal?” The ringmaster nods enthusiastically and puts a demure hand up to quiet the crowd, assuring them of my palatable background. I assent with a toothless, tight-lipped smile, tampering down my sharp retort like the best of sword swallowers.

“You know how fiery those Latinas are.”

Where did they find me indeed? While proving my conversation skills to the PhD behind the sleek cherry wood desk, he asks from where my Spanish hails. Nevermind that his Spanish came from years of courses and traveling through Eth-paña and mine was pieced together from both the conquerors and the lost dialects of the conquered. Nevermind that no matter how I phrase the question or draw out family trees in databases, illiteracy and poverty have stolen my ancestry and hidden it away. My DNA tests and family trees offer me a twig in what I know is a colorful, flourishing forest. Overlaid maps of pre-colonized lands inaudibly shout Tepehuàn, no, Guachichil or Otomi while my linguistics research cries out in Nahuatl — but I am unable to understand them.

So when the question of race and ethnicity appears before me, I bubble in “Latin/Hispanic” on my answer sheet because at some unmarked point in my life “Mexican” was no longer an option. The demographic data for the different people making their home in America had become too unwieldy, and so obviously, collectively merging all those who had once been conquered by the French, Spanish, Italian, Roman, or Portuguese together made the most sense. But to whom? Who got to decide that our collective ancestral suffering ironically brought on by those who spoke languages birthed from the so-called language of romance, would now serve as our identifying title — Latinx.

Meanwhile, at the time of this ushered in change, my young and still-developing brain was unprepared for the question that required me to choose a new identity. With my state-issued Number 2 pencil poised ready to act, I silently ask my standardized testing booklet to give me back the familiar option I needed. This was a test after all, and the correct answer to the question about my ethnicity was not present, so I must not know the right answer. After rereading the options over so many times that I fell behind the other students, a thin porcelain hand pointed her well-manicured red nail at “Latin.” And so I was Latin.

Year after year of standardized tests, I’d question filling in that bubble. Always secretly hoping that my having been deleted from the options had been a mistake. It would be several years before I understood or anyone explained to me that being Latin meant a whole group of people whose language developed — was forced to develop — from Latin.

This new data would eventually give way to new education models. We, the Latinos and fellow first-generation families formerly classified as English as a Second Language (ESL) kids, are the foundation of today’s coveted language immersion schools and programs. While I tucked away my rolled “R”s and double “L”s turned “Y”s until the next allotted Spanish-hour, parents today pray on bended-knee that their monolingual child or grandchild will be accepted into the local, sometimes impoverished school in the at-risk neighborhoods and learn the languages at which they once wrinkled their noses.

Then, after years of these now-bilingual children learning the language and not the cultura or the reasoning behind why there are so many words for owl in Spanish — tecolote, bùho, lechuza, mochuel — they too will add this skill to the top of their resume. And even have it praised above that of the native speaker’s skill.

Despite these conflicting and often hard-to-swallow views, I coveted a mastery of the new language even over my native tongue. Those ESL students that made it out were rewarded with more. More free-time, more field trip activities, more friends, more praise, more challenging reading material, and the entirety of our tiny two-room library open to them. Mastering the secrets of the silent “K” and being able to clap out vowel sounds were the keys to not just Secret Gardens and Chocolate Factories, but teacher praise and peer acceptance. So yes, I cut away at my native tongue to make room for “Th-” and traded “Ñ” for a plain “N” or “Y” sound. There simply wasn’t enough space for both languages to lay equal claim and — too often there were repercussions for their trying to mingle in each others’ company.

Once, forgetting the word for sharpener and asking to use the “sacapencils” meant repeating my error in front of the class and having them shout back the correct word as I smiled and nodded my agreement. Nothing eradicates undesired behavior faster than public shaming by your peers, am I right? It didn’t matter that up until age five, a few hours of cartoons and sitcoms were my only English teachers. Or that at home speaking English in front of those who did not know it was disrespectful. So while my brain sounded out words like “playground” as pl-ay-gr-o-und in Spanish to master spelling tests, my tongue read plai-grawnd and wrote the right letters in perfect cursive English to earn me gold stars and smiling faces.

I feel the cost of those smiles in a thousand different veiled and unveiled insults, probing questions, and microaggressions. I carry many of these with me on the road from one circle to the next, adding them to my precarious balancing act. Sometimes I still silently smile and nod away these increasingly normal interactions, too tired of the back-and-forth. Other times “You speak English really well too” just has a way of ushering in a delightfully confused silence.

In both of those silences, I’ve learned to watch the bystanders. I listen for the gasps of incredulity, the uncomfortable averting of eyes or shaking of the head, and even the bold retort of an ally who has found their voice and uses it to make space for mine. That’s not to say I don’t also hear the murmured assent or see the pursed-lip nod. But those uncomfortable silences give everyone involved a moment of reflection in how they respond to the leveraging of language as an inconsistent qualifier of intelligence, worthiness, and respect.

And yes, choosing to stay silent is a response.

Irma Garcia is a first-generation Mexican American and Bay Area native, working as a communications and operations manager.