From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

From Tug-of-War to Dance

The customs and values that form the tapestry of our Hispanic roots should not get lost. It is our obligation to continue embroidering our heritage and to create a masterpiece.

Arelis Rocío Hernández

My life has gone from a tug-of-war to a dance.

And it’s all been one big accident.

I didn’t ask to be born Chicano or Latino or Hispano or any other Spanish-sounding word that ends in “o” that some census guy invented as a stamp to hammer on my head. I didn’t draw up any plan that would have me speak Spanish first, English second, and then venture out into a world where I learned the “wrong” language first.

I am an American of Mexican descent, born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Tug. Tug.

Safe within the protective walls of my family, I was never aware of any tugging. We flowed from Spanish to English and back again, unaware of which was which. If we meant something in Spanish, we spoke Spanish. If we meant something in English, we spoke English. Reality depended on what we meant or felt, and language was just a means.

But when I began my Americanization in the public-school system, I rammed headfirst into all kinds of separation from my home life. At first, I knew no conflict as I spoke English as well as I spoke Spanish.

Until my father brought me a gift.

Tug. Tug.

He brought me a purple T-shirt that had a muscle-bound guy emblazoned across the front, wearing a white tank top and a blue bandana over his head. The vato had his fist raised to the sky and behind him were two crisscrossed flags: one, American, the other, Mexican. Underneath the tough-looking guy and the two flags were the words “Chicano Power.”

I remember one kid, who I thought was my friend, really enjoyed that shirt. He mocked me and laughed every single time he thought about it. I was embarrassed to wear it. I wondered why he would laugh so hard at something that meant so much to me. At home, my dad told me that we were “Chicanos.” I thought everybody would think I was cool because of my T-shirt. Instead, that kid gathered what seemed like a mob to laugh and tease me because of my shirt. He would say, “Hey, Chicano Power!” with his voice sounding like Cheech’s in Up in Smoke. To hear kids teasing me about my Chicano Power T-shirt only made me want to rip it apart. That kid called me “Chicano Power” all the way through elementary school.

Of course, I eventually grew out of my T-shirt, but I don’t think I really ever got over all the teasing and taunting. At home, we were Chicano. I loved it. And I hated it. I wanted to shed my brown skin and be like everybody else.

What was even worse was that I was the only kid in the bilingual education class who could actually speak Spanish. In those days, bilingual education meant that kids would learn how to speak Spanish at school because, for whatever reason, they didn’t learn to speak it at home. The ability to speak Spanish made me different. It was almost like I was a foreigner, someone from another planet. I wanted to forget that I had ever learned to speak Spanish.

I was losing my tug-of-war to Americanization and the English-speaking side of who I was.

Yet, my father loved for me to speak Spanish. No matter who was around or what was going on, he would implore me, “Háblame en mexicano.” I always thought that it was a performance kind of thing where my dad would use me to show off and brag about how smart I was that I could speak Spanish. I never did it willingly. I felt like a monkey dancing around for a quarter, and my costume was a purple T-shirt. I was a dancing monkey every time my father pleaded with me, “Háblame en mexicano.”

Only, I wasn’t a dancing monkey. I was more like an umbilical cord. I was never performing; I was always reminding. I just didn’t know it then.

One day, many years removed from those days of mexicano, my father and I were fishing at a pond. The weather turned bad. Rain hammered us, and wind knocked us around. We jumped into my truck to wait it out. Once in the cab, he asked me if I’d written anything lately.

“Yup,” I said. “I’m always writing.”

He didn’t respond right away. Instead, he turned away from me and looked out his window. His eyes followed the raindrops as they fell. I wondered what he was thinking. I always thought that he didn’t think much of me as a writer, like it wasn’t something for him to be proud of. What added credence to my thinking was that while we were running to the truck, before he asked me about my writing, we were laughing and enjoying ourselves. But after he heard my response, he turned as dark as the clouds.

“The only thing I ever wrote . . .” he said, with his voice sullen and his head still turned to the window. His words barely rolled off his tongue. It seemed to hurt him to remember. He continued, slow and almost angry, “. . . was a letter to your grandmother when I was on the USS Enterprise heading to Vietnam. I wrote the whole thing in Spanish. I never wrote anything after that.”

His head sunk.

No sooner had his words hit me than I knew that his mood wasn’t about my writing. It was about his letter. To him, every time I spoke “en mexicano,” he heard himself writing that letter home. For me to speak Spanish was an umbilical cord that connected him to his own private Eden. I wasn’t performing for him. I was reminding him of who he was before the marines and Vietnam took his innocence.

The day and sky cleared up. As suddenly as the lightning crashes into the ground, I no longer felt any tugs.

Quieres pescar más?” I asked him. It had been years since I’d spoken to him in Spanish.

He must have noticed because he raised his head and looked at me with red eyes swimming in little pools of tears. It was like we had gone home. “Sí, vamos.”

I don’t remember catching any fish that day, but I did remember who I was before I became ashamed of my Chicano heritage.

And I learned how lucky I was to possess the tongue of my family’s history and my father’s heart.

Juan Blea

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