Some infants get more than a first language. These lucky ones inherit first languages. I was one of these newborns. Upon bringing me home from the hospital to our home in Santa Maria, my parents set to work raising me under a bilingual roof. Words and palabras ushered me into double consciousness, acclimating me to yanqui and tapatío pronunciations of my name. Dad spoke “Myriam” estilo gabacho, so that it nearly rhymed with librarian. Mom shouted me Hispanically, turning me into the size between large and small.
Mom, a short Mexican named La Bebé, me dio Español. When caldo burned my tongue, she sang, “Sana sana colita de rana, si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.” Dad, a bearded Chicano named Bob, gave me English. When caldo burned my tongue, he said, “Go get a Band-Aid.”
Until Mom and Dad sent me to nursery school, I thought the whole world was like us. I believed everyone could engage in the verbal Double Dutch my family played. Spanish. English. English. Spanish. Español. Español. Inglés. Olé. Oil of Olay. Nunca se me ocurrió que hay mucha gente que habla un solo idioma y que esa ignorancia les da orgullo monolingüe, xenofóbico, y racista. Escuincles babosos.
My nursery school operated across the street from a cemetery stuffed with “pioneers.” Their descendants credited them with “discovering” and “settling” our community, but these stiffs didn’t rely on living ambassadors to remind us of their ongoing power. These skeletons had figured out how to make us say their names. With streets, schools, and parks christened after them, the names Cook, Miller, Fesler, Stowell, and Rice hung in the air. Monuments erected in their honor reminded us that these land-grabbers had fashioned our once-Mexican state in their Anglo-Saxon self-image.
Don Pío Pico was the last Mexican politician appointed to rule Alta California. Pico governed briefly in 1832 and again from 1845 until 1846, when the United States military invaded and began an occupation that continues to this day. Pico, an Afro-Mestizo who never learned English, understood what lay on the political, and linguistic, horizon. About the “settlers,” he wrote, “Shall these incursions go on unchecked, until we shall become strangers in our own land?”
The answer is sí, sí, y otra vez sí.
The descendants of the Anglo thieves who jacked California mangled our town’s Hispanic moniker. They barked “Santa” the way brats do throughout December. They did the other part dirty estilo West Side Story: “The most beautiful name I ever heard, Muh-ree-uh!”
Humans are capable of making many pretty sounds. “Uh” isn’t one of them. “Uh” is the sound of stupid, the onomatopoeia of ignorance.
Several weeks into attending my graveyard-adjacent nursery school, my parents noticed something weird. When I got home from school, I’d grab Mom’s or Dad’s hand and take them on a tour, introducing them to household objects. “This is the television. This is a chair. This is a sofa. This is a plate. That is a lamp. This is its switch. The lamp is now off.” My behavior mystified Dad until he realized what I was doing and burst out laughing.
“Bebé,” he called out, “Myriam’s teachers think she can’t speak English! They’ve been trying to teach her! That’s why she acts like a parrot when she comes home! She’s parroting the ‘lessons’ they’re giving her.” He chuckled as hard as he did when he watched Saturday Night Live. While I find it funny that I mimicked these lessons, I also find it a little spooky. Were the “pioneers” posthumously colonizing my vocal cords? Were their ghosts speaking English through me?
Claro que sí.
Let me take you by the hand while I point to this compendium of words. It is called an “essay.” It is also called an “ese.” We might also call esto a “language lesson,” though it’s written in neither English nor Spanish. Lo que estás leyendo es una obra de Spanglish, mi dialecto más favorito, and if you tell me your name, I promise to pronounce it correctly unless you piss me off.
Cheech Marin once crooned, “Mexican Americans don’t like to just get into gang fights. They like flowers and music and white girls named Debbie too.” Cheech sang the truth. While I enjoyed hitting people with the remote control, I also grew to enjoy poppies, the Cure, and making out with white chicks. Marin sang, “Mexican Americans love education so they go to night school and they take Spanish and get a B!”
These lyrics are also fact. As a toddler, I accompanied my grandmother to night school English classes. I stopped going with her after a nose-picking accident destroyed the classroom carpet.
I got my first taste of daytime foreign language instruction in Catholic high school. For three years, I studied French with a Belgian nun whose sole hobby seemed to be smoking unfiltered cigarettes. With the skills Sister Regine imparted, I could order a pork chop and a bottle of water in Paris—a city I’ve yet to set foot in.
Because I hadn’t yet heard Cheech’s “Mexican Americans,” I foolishly enrolled in Spanish during my senior year. I thought the class would be the easiest A of my life. Instead, I got a racist B. On vocabulary test after vocabulary test, Mrs. Braun dragged her red pen across nouns, gleefully deducting points for my “bad Spanish.”
According to her, tecolote, tlacuache, and zopilote did not mean “owl,” “opossum,” and “vulture.” According to her, they expressed nada. These Nahuatl-inspired terms used by hundreds of millions of people were nonsense words.
Mrs. Braun spoke Spanish with a German accent, so I often wondered if Nazi hunters weren’t chasing her. If a Hispanic word wasn’t printed between the ragged covers of our textbook, she claimed it didn’t exist. What a crock of caquitas. My name appeared printed on Mrs. Braun’s class roster, which meant I existed. Nonetheless, Mrs. Braun never addressed me as M-y-r-i-a-m, and when I ignored her misnomers, she shouted, “Myrtle, wake up! Myrna, listen.”
Myriam ignored her Germanic shrieks.
My classmates laughed.
Have you seen the movie Cool Hand Luke? In an iconic scene, Luke, a prisoner played by Paul Newman, sasses a warden. To discipline Luke, the warden beats him to the ground and famously drawls, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
What does it mean when we fail to communicate?
What does it mean when Mexican Americans take Spanish and pass with a B?
Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
We can loosely apply this thesis to Mrs. Braun. Because she couldn’t speak Mexican Spanish, she should’ve shut the fuck up about it.
Mexican Spanish, like all Spanishes, and all languages, is a patois, a language grafted onto a language grafted onto a language, a constantly evolving sum of migratory words, an amalgam of phonic refugees who refuse allegiance to centralized leadership. Words are faithful only to themselves, and when I think of language, I picture an eel. It’s sleek, hypnotic, and electric, but don’t even think about trying to grab it, much less tame it. It will tame you as it smirks.
Mexican Spanish is called Mexican and Spanish only in celebration of colonialism. Spain and Mexico are both settler colonial states, and the Hispanicized dialects spoken by Mexicans and Chicanx largely blend Indigenous, African, European, and Gringish vocabularies. When Mom needs to blow her nose, she tells me to fetch her “un Kleenex,” a noun coined by Wisconsin’s Cellucotton Products Company in 1924. When my uncle waves goodbye, he squeaks, “Adiós,” a salutation derived from medieval Latin. When I scream along to “La Bamba,” I’m invoking a place in the Congo, one of several regions my African ancestors were kidnapped from. When I make guacamole, I’m fixing a Nahuatl dish with a Nahuatl name that I’m going to eat all by myself.
Mexican Spanish is a dialect of Spanish, meaning that people who speak other Spanishes can still understand what the fuck I’m saying even if I’m not speaking their flavor, their dialect, of Spanish. If they can’t understand my Mexican Spanish, then they never spoke any Spanish to begin with.
Such was the case with Mrs. Braun.
Her job was to enforce colonialism.
Words were merely the vehicle.
In spite of my B, or perhaps because of it, the University of California, Berkeley, accepted me. The school requires undergraduates to satisfy an American cultures requirement, and to meet that need, I enrolled in a sociology course.
One morning, instead of delivering his usual lecture, our sociology professor had us attend a symposium concerning a national linguistic debate with local roots. Next to Berkeley sits the city of Oakland, and its school district had recently moved to legitimize Black English, its board unanimously adopting a resolution to identify African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, as an official language.
White supremacists seethed at this gesture, attacking Ebonics, a portmanteau that fuses ebony with phonics, both on the air and on the page. California’s governor at the time, Pete Wilson, announced that he would not fund Ebonics instruction. Newsweek deemed the board’s resolution “muddled.” US secretary of education Richard Riley declared that Ebonics was not a language but was instead a dialect, thus rendering its speakers ineligible for bilingual education funding.
The day of the symposium, my classmates and I assembled in a small lecture hall. The presenters sat by the blackboard, sharing a linen-draped table topped with bottles of water. I ignored the prominent linguists clearing their throats as they prepared to speak. June Jordan was the only panelist I cared about, and I stared at the Black feminist poet and scholar in awe. I was a closeted Chicana queer, and I longed to chirp, June! Soy marimacha! I’m a jota too!
Instead, I silently waited for her to speak.
I don’t remember what the other panelists presented that day. What they had to say was boring and irrelevant and they behaved smugly. Only Jordan shared worthwhile insights, and I listened, rapt, as she read aloud from her essay “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan.” Jordan explained that in the United States, English is a white-controlled tool, and she argued that Black English functions according to its own logic, and that just because a listener might not grasp this logic doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. She covered some rules of Black English, including the elimination of the verb to be whenever possible, using double or triple negatives for dramatic emphasis, and a call to inventiveness, urging speakers to coin special Black English forms of the past tense.
Jordan validated many of the hunches I’d felt about language. When she explained that if something is wrong in standard English, it’s probably right in Black English, so much tension left my body. I’d always known I was right when I was wrong.
I grew up to be the anti–Mrs. Braun.
I teach in Long Beach, California, at a “minority majority” public high school where Black and Brown students outnumber white kids. On a typical day, passersby can hear a din coming from my classroom. I like it that way. A quiet classroom is a suspicious classroom, and my students and I yell in whatever languages and dialects are necessary to get our points across. We treasure clarity, not whiteness, and while it can be a struggle to hear at times, this challenge is a part of the learning process. According to Angela Davis, knowledge is built through struggle.
This isn’t to say that my classroom, and the languages we speak, observes no rules. If we are speaking a language, we are abiding by rules, and sometimes a rule must be broken. Sometimes that’s the only way to follow it.
In a moment of frustration, a student once told me, “You a chismosa bitch,” and while it momentarily stung to be called a bitch, my student was undeniably following the rules. She abided by the guidelines of Black English and Spanglish simultaneously, having eliminated the verb to be while placing a Spanish modifier in front of an English noun. She was speaking Black Spanglish while nodding at a linguistic consensus we’d reached as a class: that bitch, when used with enough regularity, functions not unlike a pronoun.
I know there are teachers who would’ve punished my student’s speech, but I did not. Why would I? She spoke concisely and poetically. She checked me, which students ought to be able to do to their teachers, in a language that we both love and understand.