Melissa Gordon, English 101
Instructor: Ellen Davis
Krupnick Award, Narrative Essay, 2010
Culture, Embraced in the Arms of Language
Is it true that one can forget a language, learn another, or never have learned their native language in the first place, and still maintain a strong sense of connection to their culture? Many would like to claim that language, though certainly linked to culture, is not necessarily needed to maintain a personal sense of culture. From my own experiences, I don't find this true at all. Language is more than often the thread that keeps the fabric of culture together, and is something that should never be denied to a person.
When I was seven years old, my mother moved back near the California Mojave Desert in order for me to become better acquainted with my family. Alongside my memories of the sweltering heat, the cheap costs of apartments, and my sweet Elementary School Teachers, one memory stays very close to my heart. I sit on a vintage yellow couch in my Great Grandmother's home. In front of me is a bowl of multi-colored peppermint candies, the kind that melt in your mouth with a texture somewhat like that of soft chalk. Beside me on a nightstand is my Great Grandmother's tiny display of Jesus on a cross adorned with little brown rocks, which my mother and I own to this day, a gift from her.
After nibbling on about my twelfth piece of candy, I look up at my mother sitting beside me as she pauses in speaking to great grandmother to tell me, "Honey, don't eat all of Great Grandma's candy," to which my Great Grandmother, who to this day knows barely any English, responds in a language that is foreign and alien to me. I stare at her momentarily as my mother casually translates, but from her tone I understand her without my mother's clarification. She is saying, "No, Meli, it's okay, have as many candies as you want!" And so I do.
I speak and love the language of English, my firstly-learned and primary language. I love the complicated words and phrases, and how eloquent a perfectly worded English sentence can sound. I was born blue-eyed, pale skinned, and blonde. Many will often ask me if I'm Russian, German, Jewish, but most assume I am purely American. Not just American, but Country-Girl-Riding-Horses-in-Texas American.
So when I tell them that pure Cuban blood runs in my veins, I'm used to seeing an uplifted eyebrow or two.
I certainly wasn't raised with the utmost latina lifestyle that a girl could have, but I still remember the small tidbits of Español in my childhood. The energetic symphony of Hispanic radio echoing through the apartment, my mother's love for Latin Pop always first in her heart; how my mother would make the lives of the store workers easier when we bought our food from the International Markets by speaking Spanish to them; how my mother, aunt, and grandmother would sometimes yell angrily at each other in that far-off language that I couldn't understand.
"Sometimes the way Cubans speak is different from the way the other Hispanic nationalities speak, and so sometimes I'm embarrassed and can't understand them. This is why I don't always speak that language," my mother would always say, and when I would ask her to teach me a bit of Spanish, she would often use this very excuse as to why she would never jump on the chance to become a teacher of Español to me. She never could have realized that her denial in letting me learn a language so close to me would also push me farther away from the familiarity of my family and my culture, something that would affect me later on in life.
Before she became a retiree in Lancaster, California, my great grandmother was a Cubana born and raised in Havana, who sailed over the Caribbean Sea barely a year before Fidel Castro began his period of influence. She came here with nothing but a jar full of money and her 4 children. One of her daughters (my grandmother) broke off to marry a Yankee boy (of course, my grandfather), and so my mother herself was raised with an odd balance of a purely American and purely Cuban lifestyle. Where there was arroz con pollo and yucca fritas sizzling off pans homemade, there was also finger-lickin' KFC fried chicken and Dodger Dogs being devoured from the stadium. Where there were regular Christmas celebrations held underneath the greenest fir tree one could find, there were also Quinceañeras held at a cousin's house celebrating her 15th birthday by roasting a whole pig in the ground.
Though I experienced very little of these things during my childhood, most of them just tiny tidbits my mother shared as fragments in her childhood stories, I barely ever noted any sense of difference until I grew older and became more aware of the culture that flocked around me in California, a relatively Hispanic state. The fact that I was incredibly different, despite my Cuban heritage, would screech frustratingly in my ear. "You are not like them. You never will be."
I was excruciatingly white, and I did not know Spanish. Therefore, society always reminded me, I was not Spanish. And although I still loved my primary language of English, I still yearned perhaps somewhat selfishly to become a part of something more.
Even other Hispanic girls who had skin similar to mine, even those who also possessed blonde hair and hazel eyes, were considered far more Spanish than I. The evidence was in the words that they spoke, how the slightest sound of a Spanish accent was apparent even when they spoke English, and how they were able to speak their native language fluently with their Hispanic friends because of the language they had practiced effortlessly at home. While they had been at home speaking to their relatives in their native tongue, I had been busy playing with my Barbies and watching Barney the Dinosaur in order to further my knowledge of English. I had no type of Spanish interaction whatsoever.
And so, as I hit my teenage years, my desire to join in with my culture grew more strong and painful. The only way I could see myself doing this was to learn the language of Spanish, which was not only the language of my closest family and my culture, but also the language of where I lived. This proof showed in my first job at a fast food joint which was thrown down in the middle of North Hollywood, one of the most Spanish-central districts in California. There the billboards are often in no other language than Spanish, and a block down the street from my job, in a centrally Spanish supermarket, people would stock up on cans of frijoles negros, as well as tamales, which were often also being sold out of the back of people's trucks in the parking lot.
And so I listened, with all my heart and soul and knowledge. I began to be able to take customer orders in fluent Español, and could hold tiny conversations with the cooks in the back, who didn't speak a word of English. I began to read more literature about the Spanish lifestyle, and could call out casual phrases in the language to my mother at home, who would always smile when I tried. I began looking up words for fun, and could even craft fairly accurate and useful sentences, such as "Mi aerodeslizador esta lleno de anguilas" ("My hovercraft is full of eels").
However, the differences I felt from those who were closer to their culture than I would still always linger. One day, while I was attempting to take a customer's order with some difficulty in Español, he referred to me as a gringa. Afterwards, I asked a co-worker what it meant, only to be met with a small laugh and an explanation of, "It means white girl." As I later learned, it also was meant to mean "foreigner; girl who speaks any other language but Spanish."
Rather than dwell on the trials that I have experienced while trying to pursue my culture, I will now re-address my point to my own personal belief and perhaps the same personal belief of many others that, as you can see, language is indeed fundamental for one's culture; that a sacrifice can sometimes be unknowingly made when one attempts to ignore half of themselves or is forced to ignore that same half by how they are raised; that culture and the beauty of language is something which should never be forgotten or withheld.
For now, my journey to learn my language and become one with my culture continues. In the end, I hope that one day I may go and sit on that little vintage yellow couch again, speak with my bisabuela in her native language, eat her multi-colored peppermint candies, and ask all the questions that my heart has ever desired to know about the mysterious life she led over 60 years ago in Havana, Cuba.