"But you’re basically white, right?": I'm Latina and I don't speak Spanish

I can barely speak a word of my grandparents’ tongue, but that doesn't mean I don't know where I come from

Published June 16, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-94517953/stock-photo-portrait-of-young-woman-covering-her-mouth-with-hand-looking-shocked.html?src=gnwSVj2wFXKodkMYV8jikA-1-43'>  baki </a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
( baki via Shutterstock)

I’m in the midst of texting my friend to let her know I’m waiting for her at the 24th and Mission BART stop when the panhandler approaches me. He greets me with a friendly, “Hola, chica. ¿Cómo estás?”

I’ve just moved to California, and it’s my first time in San Francisco since I was a child. I’m already a little disoriented by the unfamiliar streets, and while I understand what the words mean, I’m also unprepared to conjure up the few Spanish phrases I know to form a response. “I’m sorry,” is all I can say. “I don’t speak Spanish.”

This happens, sometimes. Only when I’m alone, or with my father, or my siblings with deep tans and dark hair. Cashiers in Latin markets and servers in Mexican restaurants greet me en Español. Employers assume I’m bilingual and ask me to work with Spanish-speaking customers. I get robocalls, junk mail and sometimes even bills in Spanish, without anyone bothering to ask me what my primary language is. People on the street greet me with “¡Hola!” and a familiar smile -- and, if the interaction is likely to last longer than about 15 seconds, I’m forced to out myself: I’m part of the 53 percent of third-generation Latino Americans who can barely speak a word of my grandparents’ tongue.

Those interactions are awkward, but I don’t mind. It’s an embarrassing fact of life, not an impassable barrier to communication. It’s the other situations that upset me -- the times when I’m surrounded by Anglo friends, family or co-workers, and they forget that there’s a Latina in the room at all. When a truck-driving regular at the store where I’m working gripes that “those Hispanics” are stealing all the jobs, and my co-workers agree with him. When my husband’s very white grandparents crack racist jokes about crossing the border over Thanksgiving brunch. When members of the white side of my family dismiss my last name as if it’s a vestigial appendage, weak, useless and forgettable: “But you’re basically white, right?”

*  *  *

Growing up in Utah, things were easy -- if perpetually confusing. We truly were raised not to see race, especially our own. My father and his family were olive-skinned and dark-haired, but we were all Mormon. We were in this mad sprint for eternal salvation together.

My parents never explained why my skin grew a rich caramel in the sun and why my mother’s did not. Why everyone in our neighborhood confused our family with the Gonzaleses who lived a few blocks down the street. Why we would receive junk mail and phone calls in a language none of us spoke. And no one explained why I always felt like an outsider, held at arm’s length by the youth groups full of the blond-haired, blue-eyed descendants of Mormon pioneers.

It began with my grandparents, who thought that they were doing us a favor: sparing us the pain that they had experienced as immigrants to the U.S. No one ever suspected that my mother’s mother was an undocumented immigrant. When Utah became a state in 1896, my family was unwilling to give up the practice of polygamy, and fled to a Mormon colony in Mexico -- where keeping sister wives was still illegal, but quietly tolerated.

Raised in Mexico until the age of 13, my grandmother's parents slipped back across the border hoping that their light skin, their faith and their American ancestry would get them across. After the exchange of a not insignificant number of pesos, the border guards assured them that their historical presence in Utah territory guaranteed them U.S. citizenship. It didn’t. My grandmother spent her entire life in a murky legal limbo, never a citizen, but her right to be in the country unquestioned by those who met her. Maybe that’s why she never spoke of her time in Mexico, and never spoke her fluent Spanish in front of her children or grandchildren. Or maybe she simply realized that no one would really understand what she’d been through, so she let the subject slide into obscurity.

My grandfather on my father’s side experienced a different kind of trauma crossing the border. A legal Guatemalan immigrant, he taught Spanish to college students just across the bay from where I now live -- but he rarely used any words but English ones around his own children. He passed away when I was just an infant, but from what I’ve pieced together from my parents’ stories, he was deeply troubled by the discrimination he faced in the U.S. In trying to raise his children to be completely assimilated into white Mormon culture, he never intended to harm my father, my aunts and uncles. He was trying to help his children and grandchildren achieve a better life. And maybe he did. The side effect of his efforts, however, was more than one generation of confused Hispanic children cut completely away from half our heritage and our traditions.

I truly believe that my grandparents never meant to cause us pain. Never meant to raise children and grandchildren isolated from history, devoid of any context that could explain why the white world surrounding us treated us in different and subtle ways. I believe it was a deeply misguided choice to raise us to believe we were exactly like the light-skinned Mormon children filling our neighborhoods, but it was a choice characteristic of the optimism and idealism that defines so much of Mormon life. The choices my grandparents made came from a place of compassion, love and perhaps a little fear.

*  *  *

I didn’t know that I was different for many years. Or maybe I did know, but my inability as a child to relate to most of my peers felt like a personal failing, rather than any kind of subtle discrimination. I never realized that people saw me as the “other” until we left the Mormon church when I was a young teen, and moved to a suburban Colorado neighborhood filled with immigrant families and ESL kids. It took a long time for things to click into place, but the first hint I had came when I transferred to my new middle school.

Though I’d been in gifted classes throughout my childhood, the administration took one look at the name on my transcript and put me in the lowest-level classes available. I realized immediately that something was wrong, when my math teacher started covering subject matter I’d learned at least two years earlier. I quietly voiced my concerns, telling my teacher at the end of the lesson, “I think I’m in the wrong math class.”

My parents were furious, but at first it was easy to write off as a fluke. Surely, mixups with transfer students happened all the time. But when my younger sister graduated from elementary school and was “accidentally” put in the wrong classes two years in a row, I realized that a Spanish last name meant much more than I’d been raised to believe. That no matter what I did with my life, some people would see “Rodriguez” written on the page and assume I was undocumented, uneducated, unable to speak English, or any number of unflattering stereotypes, without bothering to get to know me or even speak to me.

I hated my name throughout my teenage years. When I grew up to become a writer, I told myself, I would use a pen name. Something that sounded white. That way, no one would judge me by my name before they even had a chance to read the words on the page. Maybe people would read my words and take them seriously if they didn’t know my real name. I told myself that when I married, I would take my spouse’s name. I wanted nothing more than to forget that I had ever been born a Rodriguez.

It didn’t help that there were practically no other Latino students in my classes. That all the famous historical figures we learned about were white, with English, German or French names -- never Spanish. I loved nothing more than the written word, but the only classics I knew were by dead, white men, mostly British. Spanish class was the domain of bored white kids who largely regarded it as a waste of time. What was there for me to learn? What was there for me to celebrate?

When I started the International Baccalaureate program in high school, Latino students were a decided minority. My classes were dominated by white kids from the town’s gifted school. By the time I graduated, I could count our numbers on one hand. Yet it was in these classes that I learned I had roots in the world. Every IB school has to choose two world regions to focus on; I chose the U.S. and Latin America.

In my history classes, I learned what it meant to be Latino, the only ethnicity where you must come to grips with the blood of both the oppressed and the oppressor pumping through your veins. I learned the names of Latino poets and heroes, and Spanish conquistadors, too. I read award-winning authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, and learned that there were people who looked like me who were respected in their fields despite their “funny” names. I learned about the shockwaves of the Cold War, about the bloody coups the U.S. sponsored in so many Latin American countries in the name of fighting communism.

But I still didn’t learn Spanish. I took Russian. When was I going to have the chance to take a Russian class again? It might not have been a particularly practical choice, but I was only 14, and it sounded exciting. I don’t regret it for a minute.

*  *  *

I learned to love my name after that. Once I could see my place in history, I could envision a future for myself. I’ve chosen not to use a pen name on my writing, and it never crossed my mind to change my name when I married the very white grandchild of Scandinavian immigrants two years ago. Tradition be damned -- my family’s history deserved to be preserved and recognized. So much of it had been taken from me against my will, before I was even born. I couldn’t let what I had left slip away.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in Spanish courses, both at the local community college and on CD at home. I hate to admit it, but for someone who makes my living putting words on the page, I’m actually terrible at languages. If I couldn’t carry on basic conversations in an office full of Russians after four years of intense study, how am I ever supposed to pick up more than a smattering of basic Spanglish?

I may never speak the language my grandmother spoke, so many years ago, quietly and privately. But I can make a mean guacamole, whip up amazing refried beans, and pound out salsa that’s to die for. I couldn’t say much about my grandparents’ childhood, what it was like growing up in Mexico and Guatemala, and the isolation they must have felt when they came to the U.S. They both passed away long before I ever had the chance to ask. But I can talk for hours about magical realism, Mesoamerican history and immigration reform. I don’t know much about my family’s personal history, but I know about the world that I came from and how it’s formed the world I live in now.

For me, that’s more than enough.

By Julie M. Rodriguez

Julie M. Rodriguez is a freelance writer and editor of the creative writing website The Renegade Word (www.renegadeword.com). She lives in San Mateo, California, with her husband and neurotic cat. Follow her on Twitter @julierwrites.

MORE FROM Julie M. Rodriguez