I grew up in a small farming community located about 30 minutes from the city where I went to school. The town was all white and Mormon with the exception of us. In this small town my family was the only non-white, non-English speaking and Catholic family.
Mornings at my monolingual home were chaotic. Music has always been a dynamic part of my culture. My mom would put on her Spanish cassettes very early in the mornings, before we were even out of bed I could already hear her singing in the kitchen while making breakfast and preparing lunches. Then one by one she would call my sisters and I to have our hair brushed and braided. We would wash up after breakfast and I clearly remember my mom would make the sign of the cross and bless us individually as we ran out the door. My dad would then turn off the Spanish news and drive us to the bus stop before leaving for work. All the while no English was spoken. Not until I murmured the “Pledge of Allegiance to the flag...” at school every morning did I attempt to speak English.
My first grade class was made up of mainly Navajo, Hopi, and white students. There was one black student and I was the only Mexican. My teacher was also white and we had an aide come in once a week who was Spanish, but I didn’t understand her Spanish very well. Like Gloria Anzaldúa mentions, the Spanish language has many variations.
I was in the first grade the first time that I was tested for the ESL program at my local elementary school. I, along with a group of Native American students were pulled out of our regular classroom to participate in a series of tests. When we arrived into the testing room located in the library, the group was split up. Since I was the only Mexican kid in the group I was essentially isolated because I didn’t speak Navajo or very good English. I sat alone. Eventually they called my name. The instructor conducting the tests, also Native American, began to speak to me in Navajo. I was puzzled. She soon realized that I had no clue what she was saying. She looked at her notes, and then in very slow English proceeded to give me instructions about the test. I was to listen to the Spanish cassette tape and then explain it to her in English. The story was about a ship and the people on it. I understood it, though I could not explain it. The instructor quietly wrote in her notebook. Next came the pictures, I was to name the pictures and shapes and colors that followed. I knew them, I knew them all, only I couldn’t say their names in English. Again, the instructor wrote some more. I felt embarrassed because I understood what they were testing. I felt dumb and I felt lost.
After the tests were completed, I was sent back to my classroom. As I walked in, all the students as expected turned to see who had walked in. I saw all of their faces looking straight at me and realized that we were not the same. All because I spoke, thought, felt, and prayed in Spanish. That night I went home and questioned my dad about “us.” I told him how I felt out of place at school. I wasn’t Native American, White, or Black, I was Mexican. I didn’t know anyone else (besides my sisters) who spoke Spanish and I felt sad. He told me that we were Mexican-Indians and that this land was once Mexico. He went on to tell me about our history that had been told to him by his parents and grandparents. Yet, I knew that this history would probably cause rejection, so I remained the “Spanish girl” who spoke “Mexican.”
I can only imagine how a Navajo child might have explained the same day.... I remember the Mexican girl sitting next to me. I didn’t talk to her because she didn’t speak Navajo. She didn’t look like me either. She looked almost scared and unwilling to befriend me. I saw her quietly get up and isolate herself from the group. I figured she didn’t like us and so none of us approached her. I recall how quiet she was during the class and she was very shy, something that I could relate to. I, too felt embarrassed to speak my broken English in front of everyone.
I can’t remember how many times that year we were pulled out of our regular classroom to take these tests. During these ESL tests, I felt confident because the instructor was native and there wasn't a language issue. All of us conversed in Navajo and I felt at ease. I actually enjoyed this time, because I would giggle and laugh and naturally talk in my native language without feeling bad about it. However, now that I think about it, I wonder if our giggling made that Mexican girl feel like we were talking about her, amongst ourselves. The months that followed we spoke several times usually about events at our school, nothing personal. I knew nothing about her family and culture and I imagine that she knew nothing about mine.
My “incident” occurred many times throughout the first few years of my educational process. Consequently, it became less and less significant and more ordinary as time passed. I was becoming more acceptant of this cultural domination through language. The learning of this new language helped create a “comfort zone” for both teachers and students who either had to or wanted to speak to me. I don’t consider this incident a rite of passage per se, but rather a “border” that I had to cross in order to become an insider versus an outsider. As my language improved and I crossed the language barrier my “incident” diminished in bearing shame or insecurity and grew in importance as far as my identity is concerned.
As my language improved I began to make friends regardless of race as well as to learn more about others’ cultures. I find it interesting how I was not conditioned by my parents to differentiate between races as the author, Thandeka mentions in the stories of four and five year olds remembering their parents’ discrimination in Learning to be White, I was aware only of cultural differences but not racial ones.
Now that I think about this incident I realize how much in common I have with Native Americans and I find some regrets in lost friendships. I didn’t understand our common social positions in reference to dominant culture, such as our struggle for the preservation of a culture which includes language and religion and the ties that our ancestors have to the Southwest. I would really like to know how a Navajo child interpreted this same incident in his or her life.
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