Sunday, April 10, 2011

What is it to be Latino and/or Chicano?

by Desiree Andersen

I still remember my first encounter with Gloria Anzaldúa's work. It felt like the first time I had ever read someone who really understood my experiences in life. More than that, Anzaldúa revealed to me that there are others out there that have similar experiences to hers and mine. Anzaldúa lives trapped in between two cultures in “How to Take a Wild Tongue” by being a borderland dweller. It is in this entrapment that I found the similarities between our experiences. To be honest, her life is much different than mine. Yet, somehow she manages to say everything I wanted to hear or to say myself. She reaffirms sentiments I had told myself before encountering her, but that others had denounced.

Growing up monolingual as a biracial person that happens to take after the Mexican side physically is not the easiest feat, nor is it easy to understand if one does not seek to. Throughout life I have been treated as a Mexican-American like any other Mexican-American. This means when I visit my family in San Antonio, Texas, for example, people speak to me in Spanish. Growing up I did not know a single sentence in Spanish, so I always had to politely ask them to repeat in English.

This came with shame, as both me and my family members denied our heritage language. When we were called upon to be Latino/a and/or Mexican linguistically, we failed to deliver. The surprised, and sometimes disgraced, looks that followed this denial spoke to what Anzaldúa claims many Latinas/os said to her, “you're speaking the oppressor's language by speaking English” (Anzaldúa 77). I had not thought of it in this way. Instead, as I grew older I began looking at the circumstances of how and why my mom, aunts and uncles were never taught their parents first language—Spanish.

My grandpa was a U.S. marine until retirement. Surrounded by the pressure to be as American as possible for such a long time must have taken a toll. Passing on Spanish to my mom's generation must have been like passing on the extra burden of proving their Americanness. Part of the dominant ideologies surrounding what it is to be American are rooted in the ability to speak English and English only. Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes calls it simply an “example of nativist positions that seek to literally and symbolically silence immigrants as well as Latinos who trace their roots to pre-1848 Mexican territories” (1). The efforts to create silence worked in the case of my family. Literally, the blank stares that happen when people speak Spanish to them/us as they/we struggle to realize they are not speaking English has silenced us repeatedly.*

Because of my Spanish inability growing up, several of my Latino peers referred to me as güera ( definitions of the masculine güero: 1. a Spanish slang term for a fair skinned or light haired person. Once again it is not derogatory but can be used that way. 2. Pronounced "where-oh", the sometimes-derogatory term is slang for a fair-skinned or fair-haired male; the Spanish equivalent of “whitey”). Though this term as it has been applied to me can be more of a reference to the fact that my father is White, it typically followed some misunderstanding related to Spanish. This begs the question, does a person have to Speak Spanish in order to be Latino? The following video is from a show titled “Cafe California” that aired on a channel that broadcasts to Central and Southern California. There are three sections on YouTube, but for the purpose of this discussion, I have only included part two, which has the bulk of the discourse that addresses the previous question.

These commentators bring up a lot of interesting perspectives. One of the men talks about the idea that while he was growing up there was no use in speaking Spanish, because his culture at home was American. For starters, this commentator asserts that Spanish is not American and instead that English is. This notion is debatable. Yet the question is still not answered. Jonathan Rosa points out an ongoing notion that “in order to be Latina/o one must simultaneously signal affiliation with the Spanish and English languages” (18). This means an affiliation with both and this may not be possible for some self-proclaimed Latinos.

The host of the show points to the fact that some Latinos feel inadequate for not being able to speak Spanish, and furthermore, that they feel unable to reach the depth of their culture. Another one of the commentators says that language is what allows you to be part of a culture. While both assertions may be true, to an extent, feeling inadequate is likely the result of external pressures to be something you are not. There is frequently a pressure to non-Spanish speakers who look to Latinos to speak Spanish, and when they can't produce the language, there is usually a negative response. This response can be as subtle body language or as soft as a joke about one's inability to speak their heritage language, but the repetition of instances like these continually reinforce the inadequate feelings.

One of the commentators says that it is an individual's fault if they did not take the time to learn Spanish in high school. The non-Spanish speaker responds to this by saying that one person cannot negate another person's Hispanic experience. First, learning Spanish at a fluent level in high school is nearly impossible and easy to lose if you don't continue practicing. Second, the non-Spanish speaker refers essentially to himself and those around him as Hispanic instead of Latino, which is what the other commentators used throughout the clip. It is as if he is further distancing himself from the standards of what it is to be Latino.

It is at this point that we turn back to Anzaldúa. Growing up my mom always made fun of the term Chicano and marked it as irrelevant to our identities, but it is in my opinion that she simply did not understand what the term signifies. It is the cross section between being Mexican and being American, neither of which Chicanos can ever fully be. It is the same for biracial and multiracial people like myself. I will never be Chicana/Mexican/Mexican-American/Latino/Hispanic enough to be any of those things nor will I ever be White enough to simply be labeled that. Instead I am stuck between two identities and two cultures.

So what is it to be Chicana/o? Does it mean out-Chicanoing one another, as Anzaldúa writes about? This seems to be the case for both Chicanos and Latinos as the men in the video argued about Latino identities. Anzaldúa writes, “We oppress each other trying to out-Chicano each other, vying to be the 'real' Chicanas, to speak like Chicanos. There is no one Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience. A monolingual Chicana whose first language is English or Spanish is just as much a Chicana as one who speaks several variants of Spanish” (80-1). This is what I would like to end on. There is no one Chicana/o experience, just as there is no one Latino experience. A lot of our experiences within various categories are negated by the ways in which others treat us. The ways in which people treat us are often initially based on our appearance. So, to look Chicano/a or Latina/o means that we are routinely having an experience within those realms. Speaking or not speaking Spanish will undoubtedly yield a different experience than a bilingual Latino, but it does not make it less of a Latino experience.

I leave you with this, “Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in” (Anzaldúa 84).

*I use the slash them/us and they/we to speak of instances that I have encountered with my family in the past. Though I am far from fluent in Spanish, I am able to understand and speak a fair amount after taking a few years in both high school and college, and after spending a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a side note, I find it difficult, but not impossible, to understand my grandmother's Spanish, which was acquired in Texas, where she was born and has spent the majority of her life.

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