In August 2004, I took advantage of my break between work and returning to grad school by taking a trip to visit family in Mexico. It was the first time since I was 10 years old that I visited Guanajuato. I had a great time and grew closer to my father’s extended family, most of which still live in Salamanca, Guanajuato. Every day I met new relatives and reconnected with relatives I hadn’t seen in years. It was a bit overwhelming.
I found myself struggling to express myself, especially when I was hanging out with my cousins. I’d understand everything they said, but I would trip up when I tried to explain what I was going back to school for, how my family was doing or whether or not I had a boyfriend (everyone asked that question). I felt more ashamed of my pocha-ness around my peers than my elders, although nobody judged me. In fact, they complimented the skills I did have and asked if my siblings — who didn’t go on the trip with me — spoke Spanish as well as I did (they don’t).
The only time anyone judged my language skills was when I spoke in English.
While exploring the colonial city of Guanajuato, my cousin’s boyfriend, Chucho, asked me if I had a car. When I responded affirmatively, he asked what kind.
“Un Dodge Stratus,” I replied.
“¿Qué?” Chucho asked. He was lost.
“Es como un Neon, pero más grande. He visto muchos en Guanajuato.”
Chucho’s face lit up and he smiled. “¡Oooo, un Estratús!” he exclaimed as he finally figured it out. “No te entendí. ¿Cómo lo dices?”
I pronounced it again in English. Chucho got a kick out of it again and told Paola, my cousin, that my pronunciation was really weird.
Huh? But I was saying it right. I’d been struggling to find the right words to express myself since I arrived in Guanajuato. My family was patient as I tried to explain something like UPS, but they never teased me. Instead, I was teased about my pronunciation in English.
While Chucho and Paola continued laughing, I silently comforted myself. My Spanish was better than their English. Most of my cousins study English in high school and college, just like I studied Spanish. Of course, I did have the advantage of growing up in a bilingual household.
Four years later, I still struggle on annual trips to Guanajuato or when I sit down and have a conversation with my Spanish-dominant tías in East LA. When I read novels or listen to music from México and South America, I have to look up words like aturdido and acatar.
But it’s okay, I understand and am understood. That’s all that matters. I’m comfortable with my pocha-ness.