Learning Spanish, Pt. 1

Learning Spanish has been a slow process, much slower than I expected. Given my prior familiarity with the language, I expected to be fluent within three months of my arrival in Guatemala. It’s been nearly four months and I have shown improvement. But really, I somehow thought that there would be an epiphany, an aha! moment when the floodgates of Spanish that had been harnessed in the hidden recesses of my memory since childhood, would open and words would pour through, palabras en Español. After all, I grew up hearing Spanish daily. My parents and my grandmother who lived with us, spoke to each other in Spanish. But because my parents had been punished by their teachers for speaking in Spanish, they spoke to us in English so as to protect us. So although I heard Spanish daily, I didn’t pay attention to it because it was not spoken to me directly. It was their private, adult language.

My childhood was very sheltered. I never became friends with anyone in school although I tried. I joined the Brownies and attended an overnight campout. I remember that the other girls were all friends and I felt like an outsider. I didn’t understand why but I had a clue when one of the girls asked me if I was Chinese. I told her that I was Mexican of course, but Mexican, Chinese, it was just a way of saying that I was different. As I’ve said before in another post, people here in Guatemala often ask me if I’m Asian, probably because of my Navajo heritage.


Photo: The men in my De Leon family–my grandfather (bottom left), dad (top left) and uncles.

My family moved from Kansas to San Diego, California when I was thirteen. It was the 1960s and I sailed through the cultural shift with a transistor glued to my ears, playing the Beatles, Sonny & Cher, The Supremes, Rolling Stones, James Brown and more. San Diego is located near the U.S.-Mexico Border. Because of the political consciousness of the times and our proximity to Mexico, my cultural pride heightened.

When I was 13, I became friends with a school mate, Marci. Her father was Scottish and her mother, Mexican. She was very pale with dark red hair and she was the funniest person I’d ever met. Culturally, she was pura Mexicana and she spoke fluent Spanish. We took classes together, Home Economics, Speech, Acting, and a Spanish class taught by Mr. Clancy whom we did not like.

The summer before our senior year in high school, Mara and her mom, invited me to go to Guadalajara and Mexico City. I jumped at the chance to know more about my heritage. I viewed the trip as a pilgrimage to my ancestral home.


Image: Train route image from http://mexicanrailroads.blogspot.com/2009/01/ferromex-nogales-to-mazatln.html

During the train trip, I relied completely on Marci for Spanish translation but she had little patience as a translator. Finally, one day in Guadalajara she told me that she would no longer be my translator. We were standing in a store and I wanted to ask the store clerk something. Marci simply said, “No, I won’t help you. You have to speak for yourself.” I suddenly felt very alone and scared. Without thinking it through, I used my acting skills to save myself. I told Marci that I had a brain tumor and it was terminal. For the record, I am not someone who lies. I think I just panicked and because our common ground was acting in theatre, I simply took on a character aspect to help me get through the trip.

The rest of the trip through Guadalajara and Mexico City was fun with Marci as my translator. We made new friends, listened to the popular music of a then young, Jose Jose; had limonadas in la Zona Rosa. We even ran into Mr. Clancy, our Spanish teacher from San Diego! We ran up to him and he looked at us as if we had just ruined his trip and said dryly, “Oh, hello, girls.” We stayed in the home of Marci’s godparents which was just off the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue with a beautiful statue of an angel.

Photo taken from: http://mxcity.mx/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/monuento-a-la-independencia-1969.jpgla-reformaWhen I met new people and they would ask me where I was from I would exclaim “Soy Mexicana!” The response I got was “No you aren’t! You are Americana!” I was slightly mortified to not be accepted. After all, I often felt cast as an outsider in my own country. I thought Mexico would welcome me with open arms but that was not my experience.

But oh well, I was still having a great time, that is, until one day Marci once again stopped translating for me. Her mom advised her to stop treating me like a sick person. Not only that, but I was informed that her mom and godparents had made an appointment for me to see a cancer specialist in Mexico City and they were going to speak with my parents soon. Say what?!

Cornered, I finally told her the truth. She was horrified to be duped although some part of her understood my dilemma. My nervous laughter as I spoke, didn’t help matters. Somehow we muddled through the next week of her feeling betrayed and me feeling guilty. After a month in Mexico City, Marci and her mom decided to travel further south to see friends. Marci patched up our friendship and I was invited to continue with them but I chose to return home.

After notifying my parents, Marci’s mom put me in a small hotel for the night. The next day I had to make my own way to the airport which seemed like a daunting task but I did it. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been alone overnight and it was my first time on an airplane. The next day I boarded a double decker Boeing 747 headed for home. I felt the surge of the engines and the tilt of the plane upward towards the heavens and suddenly felt cleansed of all fear. Every cell in my body tingled with exhilaration. I felt like a bird freed from its cage. I was never the same after that.


Photo: Boeing 747 lower deck taken from: http://sploid.gizmodo.com/traveling-in-a-boeing-747-in-the-1970s-was-pretty-damn-1504637666

My hope to reintegrate completely with the homeland of my ancestors had not been fulfilled completely. But some years later I would learn about the Chicano movement and in many more years, I would find my place and sense of identity while I worked at the Centro Cultural de la Raza, a visual/performing arts space in San Diego. There, I felt my true homecoming. More on that, in a post or two.

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