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Escaping the Monolingual Cage of America

According to the above photo, I’d been out drinking the night before.

I don’t know what my first Spanish word was, but I do recall an image, ever so slight, of me on the toilet, yelling, “Mamá, I just finished caca-ing!” My mother has assured me that I could say much more than caca, that I was coming along, a bilingual infant living in a house of Salvadorans (both family and renters), with my father the only gringo in the house. I heard both languages, with many of the Salvadoran relatives speaking English with Dad—though Spanish was the dominant one. We were in San Francisco, the Mission District, the diaspora for people from several Latin American countries. I walked, or crawled, and pooped, in my mother’s native tongue.

We moved to Tennessee when I was four. The McPeeks were deep mountain folk, coal miners and sharecroppers. They were the part of white America that white America loves to denigrate—the backwoods, shoeless, incestuous, moonshining crackers.

Another world. That’s one hell of an understatement. No Spanish. The English was familiar, my father’s accent, and it had its own spark and wink when the family told stories that sprouted into tall tales. I liked that. But usually it was a near-silent culture, one of few words, long, porch sits, where everyone stared out at the world and said very little about it.

All my life, until two months ago, I narrated my childhood simply: We lived in San Francisco, I spoke and understood Spanish. We moved to Tennessee, I “lost” the language. Then, last November, Mamá and I were drinking coffee and talking about the move to Tennessee. She had planned to raise me bilingual. Dad had refused.

Not only refused: he put his foot down. There was no goddamn way his kid was going to walk around Rogersville, Tennessee, talking like her. And that ended it, right there. We were in Dad’s world, a world that did not put up with such strange things as a bilingual child.

Mamá knew the power that comes with having two languages in your head, the ability to think more widely, more deeply, to be able to maneuver in the world with a broader understanding of it. Dad said no. He had his entire culture behind him, backing him up.

Maybe he didn’t want his kid sticking out like a sore thumb, knowing we already stuck out. He was white. Mamá was dark brown. My skin was muddled and my hair black as a raven. I was, in the local vernacular, a mongrel. Perhaps Dad understood the racism endemic to his culture, to white culture in general. Maybe he didn’t want me to suffer. He might have felt the collective white gaze that judged him for the sin of miscegenation.

Or, maybe he was pissed at having to hear that other goddamn language in San Francisco all the time. He was a white man of his time, after all.

Though forbidden to teach me Spanish, Mamá kept the Salvadoran chispa alive in me. When I started to study my Salvadoran roots, I ran to Central America. I was young, hungry, and pissed. I had a lot of catching up to do.


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