"What the United States does best is to understand itself. What it does worst is understand others."--Carlos Fuentes
've said many times that my first language was more or less Spanish. It's true, but it's not true, too. Mine was Spanish the way potlucks are meals, which is an apt comparison, I think. My language, finally, consisted of whatever words would get me dinner. In that sense, my first language was the same as everybody's. And in this moment, pointing at my mouth was as strong as anything I could say, as strong as "dame comida" or "give me food."
It was a child's existence, and children find their way. Pointing and winking and laughing are part of the vocabulary mix. Then first grade happens. First grade is a name for that time when adults start to tell children how to find their way, rather than simply letting them, and there's confusion. First grade is often quite abruptly another kind of meeting place, another kind of food and language.
My friends also spoke Spanish, and some English and some pointing and some Yaqui and some border and some Papago. We spoke it--this it we had created--easily and all the time, framing ourselves in this carnival language made of linguistic high-wire acts and rhetorical elephants, fluent tigers and eloquent cannonballs. We were all bukis getting around on our patamobiles, always asking for chicle to chew and Fanta to drink. Our parents drove around in troques, or caught el bus. We spoke this language easily until we got into the first grade classroom, where on the very first day our teacher said "You can't speak Spanish in here." Whatever I was speaking, whatever we were all speaking, it must have had enough Spanish in it to make it Spanish altogether, at least in the school's sensibility.
You can't speak Spanish in here. We all looked around at each other, raising our hands politely. We tried to tell the teacher that we could, of course we could. We could speak Spanish anytime, and other things too. Couldn't she hear? This was good, we thought, because it was something we could do, something we could show her. We all laughed.
But no, she said, she meant that we were not to speak Spanish, that if we did she was going to swat us.
And that was bad. Not only that, but anyone who did speak it and couldn't speak any English at all would have to go to "1-C." That was the name of the grade for kids who couldn't manage in all English, and 1-C didn't count for a grade because if you went there you still had to come to first grade the next year. First grade again. It was like failing. It's like whatever you did in there didn't count. Even as first graders we understood that much, even if we couldn't articulate it. 1-C was like flunking before you even began.
And it was Spanish you spoke in there. The message about Spanish was clear, and if the threat of 1-C weren't enough, we were told we would be swatted if we spoke Spanish even on the playground, just like for saying a "dirty" word. I don't know if 1-C was something that happened across the country in the 1950s or if it was just the Southwest, but it was an effective tactic. We knew that anybody who went there never caught up. And, just like never catching up in any of the playground games, we knew that meant something.