Beach Speak

¿Hablas español?

There was a time when I no longer wanted to speak Spanish. I had learned English as my second language, and I apparently wanted nothing more to do with my first language. I held my mother tongue down in an effort to keep it from reaching the rood. While my family made sure that I did not actually stop speaking Spanish, I became afraid of speaking English incorrectly. As a child, I learned that words held power, and the power they held could change who you were.

“Say beach,” kids in my grade school would say. I don’t remember their names, and I don’t remember their faces. They all become one, blending to form a giant white wave that would crash against my core. “Say beach,” I remember them saying.  Blurred faces that my mind can’t trace to an identity. “Say beach,” they’d say with a grin missing two front teeth. “Say beach,” they’d say too eager to hide their giggles. Pre-giggles.

I’d always known what they wanted. They wanted me to say the word beach. I knew why they wanted me to say it. I knew how they expected me to say it. Toothless grins and hands covered in glue waited for me to cave in.

Fine. I’d finally say, “beach”, but I would say it differently than how they said it. My voice formed what sounded like a weird accent to them. Beach became beech. It sounded like I was saying bitch, but I was saying it with a so-called funny accent. I sounded like a Mexican saying bitch but mispronouncing it. Yet, I was exactly that: a Mexican mispronouncing a word. All the toothless grins would erupt into laughter after hearing beech. I secretly practiced saying beach on my own, hoping that one day it wouldn’t sound funny to anyone anymore.

 In 1998, a cartoon series that became an enduring sensation came out: Pokémon. This TV show was all the rage, and just like most of my peers, I too was hooked on it. I didn’t expect that one episode would resonate so deeply with nine-year-old me, though. “Go West, Young Meowth” aired on October 9th in 1999. The episode focused on a Pokémon monster named Meowth and how he learned how to speak.

For anyone unfamiliar with Pokémon, let me clarify that Pokémon do not speak human, or in the instance of the dubbed series in America: they didn’t speak English. Yet, this Pokémon was attempting to learn how to talk. At that point in my life, it felt good to see this on TV. The character would practice saying tongue twisters, such as she sells seashells by the seashore. I found a lot of myself in this fictional character.

She sells seashells by the seashore.

Beach, beach, beach, beach.

She sells seashells by the seashore.

Beach, beach, beach, beach.

At some point the word beach bothered me less, and for a while I forgot that it had ever bothered me. I forgot about the toothless grins. But I do remember something new:

“You speak English really well.”

“You write in English really well.”

“Wow, it’s amazing how well you know English.”

Well-meaning adults applauded my apparent command over the English language. As a child, I liked hearing these comments. Unknown to me at the time was the assumption that someone like me wouldn’t know English well. I never stopped to think how these adults never once told the non-Latino kids the same thing about their English. The expectation for knowing English well was implied for children who looked like they belonged (i.e. white). These children didn’t need to be reminded that they knew English well. That was a reminder for those of us who looked foreign, out of place, a little more toasty than the average Sally and Joe. We, the ones with more melanin in us, were praised for our amazing English.

Beach.

Bitch.

I spoke two languages. I could understand two languages. I read in both languages, and I wrote in both languages. My mother drilled Spanish into me on the weekends, fearing I’d forget my mother tongue. Textbooks from Mexico would be splayed in front of me on the kitchen table. I knew her (Spanish) well, but I also resented her and wanted to forget her.

The mother tongue never forgets, though.

At restaurants, when my family spoke in Spanish, I’d feel paranoid. I worried about what others would think if they heard us speak Spanish. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be just like everyone else. Everyone else spoke English. Speaking English is what I perceived as normal as a child because I desperately wanted to fit in. So, I wrote. I wrote in English.

I engaged with Spanish out of necessity—out of function. To speak to my family. To translate for my mom at parent-teacher conferences, at doctor’s visits, mail that we received, and forms that needed to be filled out. My relationship with Spanish was that of two professional colleagues who only interacted with each other because they had to. We were both courteous to each other, but didn’t dare speak to each other outside of our figurative office.

We had a strictly functional relationship. Because I had fought so hard against the Spanish language, I never knew that I could also write creatively in Spanish.

But the mother tongue, never forgets.

I had resisted her in any form that was not functional that I failed at understanding that in pushing Spanish away, I was also suppressing my creativity. My bilingual artist was desperate to come out, though. I didn’t begin to write in Spanish until I was an adult. Now I see this second language, my first known language, an important part of my creative self and process.

Beach, speak! Bitch, speak!

“I just think using Spanish in this will alienate some readers.”

This became a common statement during my early writing workshop years. These comments were made by people unfamiliar with the work that many Chicano and Latino authors were already doing. What is the place of Spanish in the creative work? For me, I’ve learned to use it whenever I want. It is part of my identity as a Latinx. It is a part of my writing, and frankly there are some things that are best said in Spanish that English does not fully convey like ponte las pilas. It’s an expression.

Now, I see the beauty that certain Spanish words or sentences convey better.

I love you. It’s weighted down by every day speech, such as:

I love cheese.

And –

I love fries.

And –

I love Adam Levine.

And –

I love baseball.

And –

I love pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks.

So when you say, I love you, you, as in you, what are you really saying?

In contrast, te amo, while it translates into, I love you, it sits on its own.

I love cheese translates to me gusta cheese.

I love fries translates to me gustan fries.

I love Adam Levine translates to quiero Adam Levine.

I love baseball translates to me gusta baseball.

And –

I love pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, translates to I love pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks.

There’s like, strongly like, and then real love. See the difference? It took me a while to see it, but now I can’t ignore the complexities of both languages. This in turn makes me see the complexity in who I am. I am an intricate language, for I am a Latinx.

Speaking or knowing Spanish is not what makes everyone a Latinx. There are plenty of fellow Latinxs who do not speak the language, and that does not make them any less. My battle with Spanish happens to be an important part of my own identity as a Latinx. Language evolves. Identities evolve. My identity is ever searching to uncover its truth. Uncovering the remnants of shame and resentment toward what made me who I was is part of that process.

A poet that I greatly admire, Raquel Salas Rivera, writes in both Spanish and English. Of their translation process, Rivera writes, “translating my own poetry has been a way of healing my relationship with a bilingual self who struggled intensely to learn standardized dialects of both languages” (“A Note on Translation,” Waxwing Magazine, Issue 10). This quote resonated with me because as I began to use Spanish more creatively in my writing, I felt like I was beginning a type of healing. This is the type of healing that can only be done for myself by learning to decolonize my inner truth. By blending both languages in my work, I have finally begun to stitch both halves of me. I am learning to listen to who I am.

¿Hablas español? No, I live it.

She sells seashells by the seashore.

Beach, beach, beach, beach.

She sells seashells by the seashore.

Beach, beach, beach, beach.

The mother tongue never forgot me and has taught me that you can always teach a beach to speak.

Angelica Julia Davila is a writer, comedian and improviser. Her work has appeared in Grimoire Magazine and HEUXS Magazine. She is currently working on her PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Program for Writers.

Her website, breakingthepiggybank.com, offers financial advice to fellow financial hot messes like herself and in her free time she likes to tweet at Wendy’s a lot using her Twitter @panchopiggytron.

Featured image: Photograph by Jan Huber on Unsplash.

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