The Rules of Racism: You Can Only Speak One Language (and it damn well better be English)

In class, I teach how creative writing can rouse memory, strong emotions, sharp images, and that, if a student keeps writing, she will surprise herself with her words. Something will come out that she hadn’t planned, an insight, the true emotion over whatever it was she wrote down. She might cry. She might bang the desk with her fist. She might laugh her ass off. Something has happened through the writing. She has changed.

I just recently learned that my father had forbidden Mamá to teach me Spanish as a child, to raise me bilingual. She didn’t say it out of spite or anger. She loved my father, deeply. I saw in her eyes how she was trying to see his point of view. Dad, she figured, didn’t want me to stick out in an Appalachian world that didn’t take kindly to racial anomalies. But suddenly she recognized that really, she was making up excuses for him. Her eyes turned a little hollow. She had been forbidden to give her son her culture. Strip one language out, let the other dominate. It hurt her to say it. She didn’t need to write it down to see how wrong his demand had been.

Then she turned to me, smiled, and said how wonderful it was, that I had chosen at a young age to resurrect my Spanish and stitch it back into my bones. Mamá and I have spoken many, many more years in Spanish than we ever had in English.

Dad had his reasons to keep me monolingual and all of them were unjust, because they were all based in U.S. racist thinking. The call for an official English-only nation rises out of the political din every few years, wrapped in a warped patriotism that sees a multilingual society as a threat. It’s not patriotic. It’s racism, pure and simple, filled with hate and fear of The Other. Dad married brown, but he didn’t—couldn’t—stop thinking white.

So now, I ask myself, What was it like for a white man from Appalachia to have a son who was, by local definition, a mongrel? Which meant, bottom line, that I was not white, no matter how light my skin. And here’s where a writer has to get a little dirty; because that’s what happens when you dig into the dirt.

I began this essay with the idea to write more about my relationship with Spanish. And I will. But I am like my students: I started with one notion, one theme, and ended up writing about another. Resurrecting my Spanish is a love story, filled with moments of glory and insecurity, raw passion, loss and way too many embarrassing, comic moments. I’ve been married to the language for as long as I’ve been married to Michelle. I had to fight for it, had to overcome obstacles both inside and out. Now, I realize, deeply, that one of those obstacles was my other blood, the one that defaults to hate and fear so quickly, automatically, whenever it feels threatened. That pisses me off. Which means I’m on the right track.

The Writing Bull Podcast begins next Monday, February 12. 

Leave a Reply