No Quiero Taco Bell

Tonight was a personal victory for me as I ordered dinner at a local Mexican grill named Tacos Del Ganadero. The food is excellent, the prices are fair, but my only issue: they mostly speak Spanish....

...and I don't.

I remember when I wanted to be the "Great Brown Hope" for the local diocese. With only one other Hispanic priest in a city where 20% of the population is Latino, I thought I could bring my culture as well as my calling to the diocese and help at a local parish. I only had to learn Spanish so I could fulfill that role.

Unfortunately, I never learned Spanish as a child. Mom grew up in a city where other languages were frowned upon or made fun of during school. Rather than put us through the same "torture," none of my generation was taught Spanish in the household.

"Mexican Americans, go to school to take Spanish, and get a B." -Cheech Marin

When I'm put in a position where I have to speak Spanish, I do it softly and meekly. I feel embarrassed that I don't know it like I should. Perhaps that's the thing that gets me: people assume I should speak Spanish because of my color. What if I spoke Gaelic? or Bosnian? Or maybe I spoke some dialect of Swahili?

Regardless, people of all races, including mine, would still ask: "How come you don't speak Spanish? It would be a benefit if you can speak two languages." So I do my best to learn and not feel so sheepish when I use it.

I stopped into my favorite Taco Shop (I actually got a burrito) determined not to speak any English. I walked up to the counter ordered "un burrito de asada. Con todo, por favor." The girl taking the orders thought nothing of the order, however I felt confident about my understanding of the language. She asked me a question, and I didn't understand what she said. I caught one word: bebidas.

I stood there for a quick second, then responded: Oh, quiero una horchata tambien.

"Para aqui or llevar?" she asked. I know the answer to this one!

"Para llevar," I said, pointing towards the door. She smiled and handed the order to the cook. I was home free!

Granted, I simply got food. It's not like I translated a large text into Spanish. But little victories like those make me feel good about speaking another language. There is no doubt: if I follow any kind of priestly vocation, I will have to learn Spanish. Until I sit in a classroom again, I'll do my best to learn in the real world.

As I walked out of the Taco Shop, another Mexican held the door for me. I thanked him, in Spanish, still feeling pretty good about myself. I think the guy saw the smile on my face, and said something funny to me, but because I couldn't understand, I have no clue what he said.

The best I could do was smile a little wider and let out a chuckle.

So much more to learn. =)

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2 Response to No Quiero Taco Bell

August 30, 2007 at 1:00 PM

Great story, Vito. Me gusta mucha leerlo. I also have that kind of "Pocho" background (though I'm Puerto Rican)-- my great-grandparents first came to New York, then my grandparents relocated to Arizona where my parents and me and my siblings grew up.

Back in the days of my parents and grandparents, they were chastised and humiliated at school if they spoke espanol. So my grandparents and especially my parents looked down on us using it, and refused to pass on Spanish to us.

That's changed radically today. In California in particular, and Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, it's now the opposite-- you can't *get* a good job without having decent Spanish knowledge, even the Anglos are realizing that. I fortunately had an aunt who taught us some Spanish by the oral tradition, along with some classes so that now, me and all my hermanos y hermanas can speak and write it decently.

All my nieces and nephews are enrolled in the side-by-side immersion schools (where they teach using both Spanish and English), which is great, cuz you learn technical and high-level professional Spanish in writing and not just spoken colloquial version.

A lot of this is just historical background-- I mean, in any state in the SW and of course in Florida, Spanish has never been a foreign language, instead Spanish has been one of the main founding languages of all these states, it even preceded English by many centuries!

There was the Mexican-American War and all the rancor that came with it, but the gist is that there were all kinds of agreements and compromises to allow the Latino and Anglo populations to get along, one of the most important that espanol is equal to English in the public realm-- as a language of books and other media, as a medium of teaching in schools, for office applications, ballots, libraries and museums.

So legally speaking, out in this region, we really all *do* have to know it. Maybe this used to get ignored, but since demographically, Latinos are becoming the majority in Arizona and California, this is just helping to enforce what all the prior agreements after the Mexican-American War and Florida declared to be the case.

It's all fair, I guess-- I mean, truth is, Latinos were forced into the USA. White Anglos fought three wars against us, the Mexican-American War, the Florida conflict, the Spanish-American War (which is what brought Puerto Rico in). The people who get called "illegals" or "undocumented" these days, I mean those folks were constantly moving along the "border" 200 years ago. So espanol predates English in these regions, it's a founding language and it's nice to see it getting formally recognized.

Y que tenga mucha suerte en sus estudios de espanol, muchas veces no esta facil para aprender, para Ud. va a aprenderlo rapidamente con solo un poquito de persistencia.

September 1, 2007 at 11:43 PM

Tu espanol es muy bien. Yo estudie' espanol 6 anos, fui a Mexico un semestre...y no pude entender nada.

Si, una dias mas...fue mejor, pero es dificil entender y aprender cuado no se habla todo el tiempo. \

I don't know if this will make you feel better or not:

My high school Spanish teacher was a terrorist; seriously. But his methods got massive results so thank God for him.

One of his favorite stories, though, was about a "C" student who really struggled in class to learn the tenses and pass the tests. He despaired of her and so did everyone else. But when the class took a trip to Spain, the best students in class faltared, focusing on grammar and all the details he taught them so militantly. The C student took charge; everything suddently clicked for her. She got them out of binds, she ordered food, she spoke better than any of the other students...because she'd studied so hard, all it took was to be thrown into the situation to give her context. She was not an academic; she was a realist.

Maybe you're more like that when it comes to Spanish.

I found that, although I did well in class, the immersion in Mexico (Puebla) was almost too much at first. I didn't understand hardly a thing my host Mom said, I could barely order a Coke, and it's because I intellectualized everything so much. Everything that was spoken to me went through an internal translator. Everything I said, I had to translate first. Over time, the translations became more rapid, I began to associate certain words and phrases instantaneously...and suddenly, when a friend called, I couldn't speak ENGLISH to him!

Unfortunately, that "friend" was my boyfriend, he didn't find my cognitive dissonance funny although everyone else would have, and that's also the moment that I realized he was the biggest ass on the planet and the only reason I wanted to talk to him was because he spoke my native language, and I liked Spanish better.

That's a different story, though.

(Sorry, I'm chatty tonight. Hope you're entertained.)

So, anyway, keep at it my friend. If you'll be patient with my Spanish, I'll be patient with yours. I'm not Latina, but we're all in this together, right?