Se Habla Español
As a third-generation Mexican American raised in Texas, it’s only natural that I speak better English than I do Spanish. Try telling that to a radio audience of one million Latinos.
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I “FOUND MY VOICE,” as they say, in 2003. Actually, it was an editor who found it and published my first book, a collection of stories set along the border in South Texas, but I was the one who traveled across the country for the different promotional events, including readings and media interviews. And although the book was published in English, a few of the interviews were in Spanish, including one I did on El Cucuy de la Tarde, the highest-rated radio program in L.A.
“El Cucuy de la Tarde” translates literally to “The Bogeyman of the Afternoon.” Spanish-speaking moms everywhere are famous for telling their kids to go to sleep or el cucuy will get them. The man who assumed the moniker is a 51-year-old Honduran named Renán Almendárez Coello. El Cucuy, the radio personality, is a cross somewhere between Howard Stern and Oprah, if you can imagine a universe where such cross-fertilization would be possible. His shows are filled with crude jokes and a vast array of sound effects, most of them laugh tracks. He’s also well known for giving advice to listeners and for supporting various humanitarian causes.
I wasn’t fooling myself; I knew a few casual interviews were not the same as a nationally syndicated live radio show. My Spanish was acceptable but certainly not what you’d call polished. And if I’d learned anything speaking the language, it was that no one was more unforgiving of a slipup than another Spanish-speaking person, of which there would be an audience of one million listening to me talk about my book.
The expectation from many Latinos is that I should speak Spanish perfectly, while Anglos expect my English to be just as perfect. There’s a scene in the movie Selena where the father, played by Edward James Olmos, explains to Selena, played by Jennifer Lopez, how difficult it is to satisfy both groups and to have any freedom from these expectations because their homeland is not across an ocean but just on the other side of the Rio Grande. He goes on to tell her that they have to prove how Mexican they are to the Mexicans and how American they are to the Americans, both at the same time. In his own prophetic words, “Man, nobody knows how tough it is being a Mexican American!”
My personal history with the Spanish language started several years before I was even born. It seems my older brother showed up for his first day at St. Joseph’s School, in Brownsville, not knowing a word of English. That afternoon a pair of nuns knocked on my mother’s front door. At the time, in 1945, it wasn’t uncommon along the border for Spanish to be a child’s first language, whether he was Mexican American or Anglo. These Irish nuns weren’t so understanding, though. They were upset that my brother couldn’t understand them. Worse still, my mother was speaking perfectly fine English.
“And why, may I ask, have you not taught your child to speak English?” one of the sisters inquired.
My mother confessed that she had erred in speaking only Spanish in the house, not foreseeing that her son would need to learn English before starting school. She promised that from then on she and my father would speak more English at home. The nuns left a few minutes later, confident in their latest conversion.
By the time I came along, several years later, things had changed. Between themselves, my parents continued to speak only in Spanish, but with me they spoke mainly in English. If they said something to me in Spanish, I answered in English. I understood what they were saying, but I couldn’t answer them with more than a few words of my broken Spanish.
Later I discovered that I wasn’t alone. There were generations of us speaking what’s sometimes labeled “kitchen Spanish,” and many of us speaking even less. The reason for this is a lesson in Texas history. As far back as 1918, state laws had institutionalized a “no Spanish” rule in the educational system. Our parents and grandparents were either punished in the classroom or beaten up on the playground for speaking their “native” language. Whether coerced by legions of nuns or persuaded by the possibility of advancing their children’s futures, parents began speaking more and more English, to the exclusion of Spanish.
Of course, no one lives in Brownsville without learning some Spanish. Eventually you’re going to pull up to the drive-through at the McDonald’s and want to make sure the girl knows you don’t want onions—¡sin cebollas! Eventually you’re going to shop downtown and realize that English is, in fact, a second language. Eventually you’re going to cross the bridge to Matamoros and understand that not everyone speaks inglés, amigo. Eventually you’re going to be cut off in traffic by someone from Mexico and, in the moment, realize you’ve run out of words to properly express your feelings.
But still, would my Spanish be enough to get me through a live radio interview? The producer had scheduled me for Friday afternoon, during drive time, the most listened-to hours on the radio in L.A. El Cucuy broadcast on KSCA-FM, 101.9, out of a Glendale studio overlooking a layer of brown smog coming off Highway 134. This particular afternoon he was wearing a black rayon shirt that showed off his thick biceps along with a well-formed paunch. On his right arm he wore a black elbow pad that accessorized the rest of his black outfit. His dark hair flopped across his forehead in a way that made him seem much younger than his years.
Although my interview was scheduled for four o’clock, I had to wait an extra two hours. The show’s producer eventually brought me into the studio so I wouldn’t have to sit in the greenroom. The wait had to do with the fact that El Cucuy was interviewing Eduardo Verástegui, the Mexican telenovela star. Swarthy and with sparkling green eyes, Verástegui looked all the part of a young heartthrob. He was there to promote his first Hollywood feature, Chasing Papi. In the movie he plays a Latin lover confronted by his three girlfriends, and that’s when the fun starts.
As the interview wore on, Verástegui made it a point to tell El Cucuy how he’d learned English for his role in Chasing Papi. He seemed rather proud of this and said he was hoping this new fluency would lead to more offers from Hollywood. As they talked, I couldn’t help but notice that their Spanish was impeccable, both being native speakers. El Cucuy asked him a few more questions about the movie, then took some calls from his listeners, most of whom were swooning women hoping to ask “Papi” a question.
The wacky sound effects and the calls from giggly women did make me wonder how a more serious interview about literature would fit in. But before I could consider this for too long, El Cucuy introduced me to his audience. His producer had just handed him an index card with my name on it. If it wasn’t already obvious that he hadn’t read or even thumbed through my book, his first question confirmed it.
“Why don’t you tell us about this book you wrote. Explain it to our listeners,” he said, in his perfect Spanish.
Driving to the studio, I had envisioned his asking about my background and then some questions about writing the book, all of which I could answer with my kitchen Spanish. He might even use a few sound effects, just for good measure. What I wasn’t expecting was to deliver an extended sales pitch.
“We’re waiting. Come on. Don’t be embarrassed.”
El Cucuy assumed that I could speak freely and at length in Spanish. After all, I did have a Spanish surname. He continued to stare at me, as did Verástegui and the show’s producer. Perhaps my spiel wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d already written some of it down. Instead I was forced to think of what I would have said in English and, on the fly, translate it to Spanish. After two very torturous minutes, I finally ran out of words.
Here would’ve have been a good place to end the interview, but there was more.
“We have many bilingual listeners that listen to our show,” El Cucuy said. “Why don’t you explain it to them in English now.”
His request made no sense. If they were really bilingual, they wouldn’t need the translation. He had obviously gathered that I was struggling to explain myself. We all knew this now, so why repeat myself in English and highlight the fact that I should stick to one language, especially on the radio?
“Come on. Tell us in your language.”
Who knows what I finally said in English; I was just glad I didn’t know any other languages.
I thought El Cucuy would go to a commercial break, but instead he turned to Verástegui. “Hey, why don’t you speak in English now? Show everyone how much you learned so you could make your movie.”
Verástegui looked at El Cucuy and then glanced back at me, his green eyes not sparkling quite as much as they had been earlier. El Cucuy asked him, again, to speak English, badgering him in the same way he had done with me. Verástegui shook his head to indicate no, but of course, shaking your head on the radio is the same as winking over the phone.
The next minute or so was filled with El Cucuy’s pleading and Verástegui’s refusing to play along. El Cucuy finally had to break for a commercial just to put an end to the dead air.
Verástegui seemed to be back in good spirits as he left with his handler. I drove away in my rental and merged into the crawl-along traffic. I tried to distract myself by finding something to listen to on the radio, but my mind was still in that studio, as it would be for a long time. I had spoken my limited Spanish before a million listeners and then, only a minute later, translated my own words back in my perfect English. Then a Mexican telenovela star, who spoke beautiful Spanish, had suddenly turned mute when it came time to speak English, a language he hadn’t grown up with and was still learning.
As long as I could remember, I’d always felt self-conscious about my level of Spanish. I’ve since realized that there really is no reason I should speak the language any better than I already do. I was born into a Mexican American family. When the doctor slapped my bottom, I didn’t cry in perfect Castilian Spanish. I wasn’t born with an innate ability to speak the language of my ancestors, just as they weren’t born with the ability to speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl. In 1945 my parents decided to start speaking more English, a decision that for the most part I’ve benefited from. So my Spanish, as imperfect as it may be, is my Spanish. I can’t apologize for this, no more than I can apologize for speaking English better than, say, a pair of Irish nuns.