In 1989 I fell in love with the video camera. Through it, I could speak my voice and be empowered. With it, I explored my community and myself. One day I turned the camera on myself to better understand my difficulty with learning Spanish. Coming from a Mexican family, I figured it was either a cognitive impairment (which would explain a lot of things) or there was some internal block. I sat down for a Re-evaluation Co-Counseling (RC) session to talk about the issue in the dark coolness of the Centro Cultural de la Raza after business hours. Dan Martin filmed the session so that I could share whatever I learned with others.
During the session, the counselor listened deeply and asked me questions about my family history. I remembered my paternal grandparents with great love but I was so young that I never really knew them as people in their own right. They spoke only Spanish and I spoke only English. [Photo below: Paternal grandfather, Atenojenes De Leon]
I remember vividly how my grandfather would ask me questions in Spanish and since I didn’t understand him, I would guess a yes or a no which would cause the adults to laugh. My parents spoke Spanish every day at home but it was their private language which they did not share with the children. Having been punished for speaking Spanish in school, they chose to save us from that fate by only speaking to us in English. When you are young, you are an extension of your family. It’s only when you get a little older that you begin to forge your own identity. My identity felt broken with missing parts. But once I could cobble something together, I could eventually look at my elders with new, inquisitive eyes and ask, “And who are you?” For it wasn’t until I was an adult with children of my own and a video camera in my hand, that it occurred to me to ask about my family history. There were few answers. My mother’s father had died when she was little so she knew nothing of his family which represented our Navajo heritage. She wished that she had asked her mother and others about her maternal history, but she was always too busy raising seven children on her own after my father died. My siblings and cousins asked each other for any family information we could find. But the past seemed like one giant door that we could not open, the door to our ancestry and none of us had learned Spanish.
A lot of emotions and insights came out of the counseling session. I edited the film and titled the film, Reaching In and soon after, screened it at a women’s film conference in Tijuana, Mexico in 1990. There were about 90 Latin American women filmmakers at the conference. It was an astounding to be part of such a historic gathering. The proceedings were in Spanish so I sat with an interpreter, Miriam Soto, and a handful of other non-Spanish speakers. On one of the conference days, there was a heated discussion spurred by a film that had been screened the night before–my film! Some of the Mexican filmmakers said that Chicanas were overly melancholy, searching for their cultural roots and seeking to identify as Mexicans. “But you are not Mexican!” they told us. The Mexican filmmakers advised us to stop trying to be Mexican and instead, make films about ourselves as North Americans. Their remarks were met with pushback from Chicanas, who rejected being rejected!
Maria Novaro, a well-known, accomplished filmmaker from Mexico City, was in attendance at the film conference. Fascinated by the discussion, she went home and for a few years, continued to think about the phenomenon of identity. A few years later she came to the Centro Cultural de la Raza where I was working as a performance curator. She told me that she had thought a lot about my film and that it had inspired her to write a new screenplay with her sister, Beatriz Novaro. They had developed a character in the film, based on me–the melancholy Chicana who could not speak Spanish! The character, Elizabeth, accepts a job in a Tijuana gallery in an attempt to search for her Mexican roots. Oddly enough, that is exactly what I had done when I accepted the job at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. Maria Novaro had returned to Tijuana/San Diego to direct the film which was eventually released as, El Jardin del Eden. Elizabeth is a minor character in the film but through her, the viewer is able to see some of the remarkable border dynamics of that time. [Photo below: Mexico-U.S. border fence. Tijuana is the city.]
A friend told me that she saw a screening of the movie in Chicago and during the post discussion, someone criticized the Elizabeth character for not speaking Spanish. She said it was not realistic. I grimmace to think of how many of us Latinx have been hidden, too shamefaced to speak. I understand that Spanish is a colonized language but in fact, it is the language of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents…. More importantly it is the language that is spoken in all Latin American countries. I should know it.
When I found out that I would serve in the Peace Corps and live in Guatemala, I was overjoyed because I could finally learn Spanish. And now, after a year and a half, something finally happened–something big and wonderful. I used the Emotional Freedom Technique to process my feelings about Spanish and I experienced a profound breakthrough with speaking Spanish. I still make tons of mistakes and have to ask people to repeat what they are saying, or say it with other words, or speak more slowly. But I relaxed and stopped feeling afraid of looking stupid. That has led me to release shyness and hiding and instead, to speak up more. More frequent conversations in Spanish is the only way I will improve my Spanish.
I used to frequent Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, just outside of San Diego. I loved taking mindfulness walks led by Thich Nhat Hanh. We would walk s-l-o-w-l-y step by step up a hill, stopping every once in a while to simply stand in awareness. In mindfulness practice, you can allow for thoughts but you don’t pay attention to them. You are aware of the present moment as you breathe slowly. In Spanish it is called Conciencia Plena (full awareness). Here in Guatemala, I continue my mindfulness practice, and as I walk along mountain roads, or along the streets of my town, I am no longer searching for who I am. I am curious and joyfully interested in my heritage, but it no longer implies loss. The door opened. My ancestors speak to me and guide me. They are part of me and I am always home.
So for any Xicanx and Latinx folks who have struggled to learn Spanish, I suggest two things: study Spanish but also use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to process your feelings along the way. EFT is free to learn and use and if you contact me, I will teach you the technique, and 2) volunteer in an environment where Spanish is spoken to help you practice and serve your community at the same time. Relax and don’t wait as long as I did. Claim your heritage.
p.s. Check out the Youtube video: Pocha Concha Goes To Mexico