Language is central to this essay. Language has the power to name, or not name, either of which can have consequences for the object. To be without a name is to be invisible to society, but to be named negatively can cause society to perceive you as a threat or to scorn you for bearing such a name.
Language also provides a sign post to the Other. “In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. The attacks continue throughout our lives” (361). The Spanish language of Chicanos is called a bastardized version of Spanish. Their English is accented. They are not safe no matter what comes out when they open their mouths.
I have wished that my dad taught my Spanish when I was young. Spanish is a part of my heritage, the language that my father grew up speaking and the language that he still speaks, not only with his family, but as a part of his business. My mother learned Spanish in college, and, at one time, spoke it well enough, or so I’m told. But they wanted my brother and I to speak English well, without being teased for having accents or being unable to find the correct words. So I learned Spanish in smatterings at school and have only a rudimentary grasp of the language.
I am Hispanic. I call myself in that way. There are times when I feel different, especially here in Idaho, when it is not uncommon for me to be in a meeting and look around to see only faces with blue eyes looking back. Even in my relatively un-diverse grade school, brown eyes outnumbered blue.
And yet, I am not Hispanic enough. I can “pass” for white. I can be mistake for Italian, as one of my high school teachers did for over a year and a half. But then there are times when I’m reminded that I don’t always pass. I was working at the front desk of a hotel in Santa Fe, NM one morning when we were short on maid staff. Usually one of the maids cleaned up the breakfast area, but on this particular day, I did. A man walked in while I was wiping down tables. I quickly moved behind the desk and was about to greet him when he said, in an overly slow way, as if I might not understand if he spoke quickly. “Oh-la.”
Was he trying to be polite, addressing the Hispanic girl in her native tongue, showing off how he could speak even to one such as he perceived me to be? He seemed embarrassed when I greeted him in my faintly Chicago accented English, but not for very long. Although he made one judgment of me based on my appearance, my language made him change that judgment. He was expecting a wild tongue, but I tamed mine long ago.