When I was a child, Aunt Gloria came to visit my abuela in Oklahoma. I was standing in the kitchen, the one with the framed postcard of The Last Supper sitting on the table and the pink plastic tub for mulch, eggshells and pepper seeds and chopped ends of root vegetables.
Gloria, who was old and regarded the world through a perpetual squint as if to say, “I see what you’re up to,” cast her withering gaze on me. She smiled like I was the luckiest thing.
“Panzón,” she said, matter-of-factly, and not so much to me as to the room, to the world, to herself.
Years went by. 9/11 happened. It was followed by Shock and Awe, which we watched on fuzzy TVs perched on the ceiling corners of our classrooms. I graduated middle school. The iPhone was invented and we put the internet in our pockets. I got a girlfriend, fell in love, broke up, had sex in that order, and got a job at a tortilla factory where, one day, one of my coworkers happened to call the other “panzón.”
“¿Qué significa?” I asked, and he responded by puffing out his gut and jiggling it with his hands.
“Oh my God,” I said aloud as Gloria’s diss traveled through space and time, through cultural touchstones and personal revelations and the ups and downs of living. “She was being mean?”
Javier was my good friend, was in a gang called Vatos Locos, and thought it would be hilarious to ask his friends to kill me. “Yo, check this out,” he told me one day in chemistry class. He raised his finger up to heaven, then brought it down like a reckoning on his phone’s “send” button. “I just killed you, ese! Shit’s crazy.”
“You what?” I asked.
I’d met Javier in this classroom. He wore a long white tee, a silver chain around his neck, had tattoos on his hands and his black hair lacquered back like a windswept helmet. We were paired together for a lab project where we were to mix two elements in vials to get a different element.
“They put the Mexicans together,” he said, to which I responded, “What if we do everything right in the lab but it still turns into rice and beans?”
He slapped me on the back. “You funny!” he said, and then we were friends. We’d text each other sometimes, mostly about anime, but sometimes about life. He told me to start texting him in Spanish, because he said it was a “pinche eshame” that I couldn’t speak it.
“They’re gonna kill you, bro!” he said that day. “Check this out, I said, ‘You know that JP dude? He’s been dissing the set. Take care of him today.’”
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“Oh, I dunno,” he said earnestly. “Yo, you can practice your Spanish!” He slid his phone over to me, where he was in conversation with a man named Bubbles.
“Hola,” I wrote to Bubbles, trying desperately to remember the Spanish word for “joke” but coming up empty. “Jajaja. No soy serioso. JP es mi amigo. Jaja. No hace nada, ok?”
“Jaja,” the reply said. “Ok.”
Our Spanish teacher, Señora O’Reilly, kept her ex-husband’s last name, wore a different wig to school every week, and let us enter our own grades into the computer.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care about our education, more that she was a distractible person who never let her job interfere with her mission of leading an interesting life, a life she liked to clue us into by taking calls during class.
Over the phone, she’d fight with her mother to the point of tears, tell off unfaithful men, using her long acrylic nails to punctuate her vehemence, and then fight with her mother some more. “I’m sorry,” she’d tell us after hanging up. “You don’t know what she’s like.”
One time, her mother showed up to our classroom and it was like a celebrity had decided to make an appearance. She was roughly half Señora O’Reilly’s height, a rail thin Dominican woman with her hair in a severe pixie cut, wearing sunglasses and a black sequined shirt. She sat in a student’s desk, hands together as if in prayer, and stared at her daughter through her shades. She never said a word.
Most days, Señora O’Reilly would wheel in a TV and we’d watch things like An Inconvenient Truth in English without subtitles. “I just think this is important,” she said. “This is a real thing that’s happening and no one seems to care.” Her reasons for showing us Antz in English were a little less clear.
Señora O’Reilly taught us approximately one prompt in Spanish, and it went thus: “Estamos en Puerto Rico. Somos turistas. Queremos visitar El Moro. ¿Pero dónde está El Moro? ¡Vamos a preguntar el policía! Señor Policía, ¿dónde está el famoso Moro de San Juan?” To which the policía responded: “No muy lejos, señorita. A la vuelta de la esquina.”
We had a lot of fun with this. One student, an artist, drew one of the ants from Antz approaching an ant police officer and asking him, “¿Dónde está el famoso Moro de San Juan?” When we saw each other in the hallways, we’d ask each other where the Moro was. “A la vuelta de la esquina.” Around the corner.
But then, a threat to our placid life of watching TV and entering our own grades presented itself: the principal had gotten wind of Señora O’Reilly’s teaching style and was planning to visit each and every one of her classes for an evaluation, a plan that Señora O’Reilly herself had been warned of just in the knick of time.
“Clase,” she addressed us as a desperate general might in the eleventh hour of a siege. “We have some work to do.”
Within the next 48 hours we were to learn a new prompt as well as a song: el burro sabe más que tú, which featured the Spanish vowel sounds. The song was accompanied by a dance, a little jig with handclaps. With our easy A’s on the line, we drilled the prompt into our heads and practiced the song and dance during lunch hours.
The day came. Our principal, a woman named Jerry who was possibly the most exhausted person alive, was seated at the desk. Señora O’Reilly was wearing one of her more professional wigs, a severe bob she called “La Jefa.” She was standing in the center of the room. “¡Buenos días, clase!” She said. “¿Estamos listos?”
In that moment I swear we were fluent. “Con permiso,” I said, tapping my classmate, a football player named William, on the shoulder. “Creo que olvidaste tu bolsa.”
“¡Sí, esa es mi bolsa!” he said. “Mil gracias. ¿Puedo ofrecerte una recompensa?” Jerry nodded as if to say, “eh, not bad.” And then came our big performance. We pushed the desks out of the way and formed a circle in the middle of the room with Señora O’Reilly at the center. “Ah,” she began, stepping one foot out, and then, “eh,” and she clapped her hands. “Eee,” she pulled her foot back, “oh,” she clapped her hands behind her back. “Ooh.” We repeated these movements. “I said!” And we picked up the pace.
We performed with the discipline of an army. “Ah, eh, ee, oh, ooh, ah, eh, ee, oh, ooh! I said!” Señora O’Reilly pointed at us, and we repeated. “El burro!” She said. “El burro! We called back, “¡Sabe más que tú!” We got carried away, even, with some students adding snaps and the stanky leg. Jerry clapped along lazily from her desk.
We all got A’s that year.
I never thought to ask my mom directly why we didn’t speak Spanish.
It was too obvious a thing: we spoke English, had always spoken English, and we understood each other just fine. I didn’t question any of the other basic facts of my life, like why we lived in a house or why I went to school.
Being Mexican, whatever that meant, was something that had dawned on me slowly. I had never thought, for example, to partition my family into “brown” and “white,” never thought of my abuelos as “Mexican,” or myself as “anything.”
But at some point in adolescence one at last comes up for air from the waters of daily existence, and the unexamined features of everyday life become observable phenomena: religion, culture, economic status.
It is from here, above the water, that we at last see our own reflection on the rippling surface. We might ask, “Who am I?”
This is what I did, and I had no answers. It seemed to me that the facts of myself were all in disarray. I lived out in the middle of nowhere. I had no neighbors. I had no “community.” I had no one to compare myself to.
The most prominent memories, the only ones that hinted at a cohesive identity, were that of my abuelos: pan dulce, struggle, Spanglish. It was for that reason and that reason alone that I decided to start the project of building myself there, on what seemed to be the only hill.
I took a job at a tortilla factory where my coworkers took it upon themselves to teach their “paisano” the language. It was an angry time. Every day, I was frustrated by my lack: of traditions, of authenticity, of anything that could say to me, “Here you are, and this is you.”
It was at that time that I decided to at last ask my mom why we hadn’t been raised with Spanish when my abuelos, her parents, spoke it. Life could have been so much richer for me if I’d simply been taught it at an early age. That connection, I thought, would have made the idea of me so much clearer.
She was washing dishes in the sink. I was on my way to work, wearing my uniform, keys in hand. “How come we don’t speak Spanish?” I asked, as if asking about the weather or groceries or any mundane thing.
“Who would I talk to?” she replied. It wasn’t really a question.