Carla cleared her throat and read the instructions from the textbook: “Curl your tongue against the roof of your mouth, roll it quickly in a pitter-patter motion, and breathe the word out slowly.”
It was a sunny February morning in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, and I was sitting on the patio of Campesino Coffee House with two acquaintances. We were focusing on pronunciation in this week’s informal Spanish lesson, and the word before us was avergonzada. Carla, our leader, had chosen it because we’d been struggling to roll our r’s during the previous week’s meeting. That was a common pitfall for non-native Spanish speakers, which, despite what our Latin names and physical appearances might suggest, we were.
The Spanish r sound, responsible for so much of the beauty and musicality in the language, was a nightmare for me growing up. My name was bloated with them. When I introduced myself in school, my tongue blunted the vibration from the syllables, anglicizing the strong Spanish name my parents had chosen into something nasally and flat. Tickled to hear a name from their childhood, my teachers loved to remind me that I shared an appellation with the Cuban star of I Love Lucy, though I had no idea to whom they were referring. Only now do I appreciate the humor of the situation: I looked like Ricky but sounded like Lucy.
At Carla’s instruction, we opened our mouths wide and enunciated each syllable as slowly as possible: “Ah-ver-gon-za-da.” Our group—Carla, Tomás, and myself—attracted the attention of a white couple sitting nearby, who chuckled as we repeated the word with childish hesitation. What a sight we made: three Mexicans in remedial Spanish. I ignored their laughter and repeated the word: “Ah-ver-gon-za-da.” Even in slow motion, the word felt mountainous, too big for my mouth. I looked over at Tomás, a 22-year-old engineering student at the University of Houston–Downtown, to see that he had his finger wedged against the roof of his mouth, trying to force his tongue to roll. I was doing no better. Instead of rolling the r, my tongue kept scraping against the back of my teeth, creating a dull, whistlelike sound. A little spit flew out on the table, too. Avergonzada, Spanish for “ashamed.” How fitting.
A few weeks earlier, I’d joined Carla Rivas’s class to see if I might finally conquer Spanish. I’d spent my life avoiding the language, too ashamed of my poor fluency to begin the process of learning. But Carla’s group was different. Fed up with Rosetta Stone and YouTube lessons, she’d started the sessions a few years back so people like us—Latinos who couldn’t speak Spanish—could connect with our culture. She called the meetups Cafecito Sundays. Once a week, a handful of us gathered in bakeries and on coffee-shop patios to practice phrases from an old textbook and try to whip our tongues into shape. Like me, the other members were children of assimilated families. We mumbled made-up lyrics to Como la Flor. We ordered in English at Mexican restaurants. We’d spent our lives feeling incomplete, on the margins of our Latino culture. But at Cafecito we were reclaiming a piece of our legacy. We were there to take back, even if only one syllable at a time, what had been taken from our families through centuries of cultural erasure.
Like a lot of Mexican Americans in Texas, my family spoke English at home. Though my parents were raised in Spanish-speaking households, they’d grown up in a time and place—central and southeast Texas in the fifties—in which teachers and authority figures treated our native language with hostility and scorn. At Houston’s Ben Milam Elementary, my father was placed in special education because he spoke Spanish in school. In those days, Spanish was seen as a disability, and Texas schools treated it as such. From 1918 until 1973, when the Texas Bilingual Education and Training Act was passed, Texas law banned students from speaking Spanish in public schools. Generations of Latino children were subjected to humiliation and corporal punishment if they refused to comply. Some had their mouths washed out with soap. Others were denied promotion to the next grade. When my two brothers and I came along, our parents vowed our lives would be different. They filled our home with books and music and dreamed of one day attending our college graduations.
But I rarely heard Spanish growing up. The fragments that did find their way to me felt distant and ancient. On the rare occasions when my father put on a record by Vicente Fernández or José Alfredo Jiménez, I recoiled at the songs’ intense melancholy. This was Spanish? The language seemed so joyless and morose. Children of the nineties, my brothers and I were much more concerned with the contemporary slang we heard on MTV and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To the chagrin of our parents, who loathed the cockiness of our TV heroes, we repeated their dialogue around the house. Looking back, it’s a wonder how oblivious I was: I didn’t even recognize Bart Simpson’s “¡Ay, caramba!” as Spanish.
And so I struggled through Spanish classes in school, no better able to produce a passable Spanish accent than my white classmates. To the amusement of my Latino friends, I fumbled over basic vocabulary and conjugations that many of them already seemed to know. Once, after I’d struggled through an oral presentation in fifth grade, a friend launched an insult that stuck with me for years: “Are you sure you’re not white?” he said, to erupting laughter from the rest of the room. Unsure how to respond, I laughed along. In their eyes, I’d revealed myself to be pocho (whitewashed), a disgrace to my culture. Before long, being pocho seemed to extend far beyond my lack of fluency. Soon the clothes I wore and the music I listened to were all fair game for ridicule. I coped by cracking jokes alongside the others, but the shame still stung. Eager to pull someone else into my identity crisis, I blamed my mother and father. I resented them for keeping their language from us. After all, wasn’t this their fault?
Everyone at Cafecito had a story like mine. Just as often as we studied grammar and vocabulary, we found ourselves digressing into our personal histories, dredging up painful memories. At some point, we’d all blamed our families for our troubles. Tomás, who’d spent his childhood in southern California, recalled visiting Tijuana with his family for the first time in sixth grade and being harangued by his Mexican cousins for sounding white. On the ride back across the border, he’d fought with his parents for keeping Spanish from him and turning him into a “white boy.”
Lashing out in this way had been a rite of passage for many of us. “It took years to realize that my parents weren’t the ones to blame,” Carla said one afternoon. We’d been arguing over how to use the preterite versus the imperfect tense when she’d suddenly remembered a childhood trip to the pharmacy. Carla’s grandmother, who didn’t speak English, was struggling to ask a question about her husband’s diabetes medication when a frustrated pharmacy worker yelled in their faces: “I don’t speak Mexican!” The memory was foggy, but Carla still recalled the look of desperation on her grandmother’s face as they walked out of the store. Her story made me think of my own family. When my grandparents learned that my father had been placed in special education for speaking Spanish, they committed to English once and for all. They bought a television so he could hear the language every night. They even stopped accepting visits from Spanish-speaking relatives, including my great-grandfather Celestino, my father’s caretaker and closest friend. Piece by piece, they cut Spanish from their lives, hoping my father would have a better chance of succeeding if he mastered English.
For our parents and grandparents, assimilation wasn’t so much a rejection of their culture as it was an act of survival. In those days, refusing to speak English could have life-altering consequences. If I’d gone through what they did, would I have done anything different?
Over the weeks, I invested more of myself in the language. If Spanish could be taken from someone, then it could be taken back, too. I listened to Cuatro Caminos by Café Tacuba, one of my favorite Mexican bands, with a new appreciation for their lyrics, which I had never fully noticed. I read Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets and the poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik, intoxicated by the darkness and sensuality that seemed to be missing from the English translations I’d read in college. Our group, which Carla had now taken to calling “pocho group therapy,” upped our meetings from once a week to twice, as we craved the language more. We still couldn’t roll our r’s correctly, but we’d found a new relationship with Spanish. More importantly, we’d found peers who understood what it was like to carry the shame and guilt of a lost identity.
One steamy afternoon in April, we decided to venture out into the city to put our skills to use. Our lessons had gotten a little stale, and we were hungry for a more practical application of the language. The three of us piled into Carla’s Jeep Wrangler and headed to Houston’s Northside, then strolled the crowded aisles at la pulga, a bustling open-air flea market where English is rarely heard. Together we walked the length of the market, shopping the stalls and making polite but hesitant conversation with the shopkeepers. I bought a papaya from a fruit vendor and surprised myself with my ability to ask questions about its ripeness. After a while, I separated from Carla and Tomás, curious how well I would fare without their support. Lost in a maze of secondhand tennis shoes and sport coats, I paused and listened to the voices around me: haggling shoppers, children laughing and calling out to their parents, a shopkeeper singing a sad love song from the steps of his music shop. For a moment, I allowed myself to hear all of them, their voices pulsating with a beautiful and frenetic energy, and I felt an intimacy with the language that I’d never known. Maybe I’d never be fluent, but I’d discovered a love for Spanish. For now, that was enough.
After a couple of hours, we got back into Carla’s Jeep and headed home, Selena’s Amor Prohibido entertaining us through rush-hour traffic on Interstate 45. As the bass of “El Chico del Apartamento 512” thumped the windows, Tomás shouted his disbelief that Selena had struggled with Spanish too. The language seemed to flow so effortlessly when she sang; it was hard to believe she’d been raised in an English-speaking home. The Tejana singer often fumbled when speaking Spanish in interviews, and some Mexican fans even criticized the impurity of her accent. It was a shame we knew all too well.
“Selena was a pocha like us!” Carla called from the front seat as she shifted lanes to avoid a road closure. But if Selena was raised in English and could learn to sing like that, well, maybe there was hope for all of us. “I’d like to think she would fit in with our group pretty well,” Carla said, smiling at me. As the electric piano ushered in the song’s infectious chorus, she looked back at Tomás, laughed, and turned the volume up louder.