MEXICANS (A CASE STUDY)
This shit all got started because of two gallons of milk.
I was standing in the dairy section of the Alpha Beta in Santa Paula, California. This was before Alpha Beta got run out of town and they decided to put the Mexican supermarket there. This was 1975 and I was uncertain about milk and her close friend chocolate milk. I was torn and distracted when he first approached me.
The thing is that even though I was only 17 years old I already had the ulcer of the serious drinker. Milk, my favorite friend from my childhood was fast turning into my enemy. Every time I drank it, something went sideways in my stomach. I was standing there that day pondering the difference in regular milk and chocolate milk and the damage each would do after I drank it. I was occupied when he spoke.
“Perdon nino, puedes a decir mi que es la differencia con estos dos leches?” (Excuse me son, can you please tell me what the difference is between these two milk’s?)
His voice was so quiet it nearly made me jump. When I finally focused on him I began to worry. It was not because he was Mexican or because he was scary, it was because he was speaking Spanish and I was basically a pretender at speaking the language of my father.
“Hola senor. La differencia? Si es………what could I tell this guy? That I was born in Ventura, California, in the county hospital, where all my brothers and sisters were born? That my parents were both born in California.
That my primary and only language at that time was English and that everything that I did, spoke, wore, ate and thought at that time was influenced by the white commercial culture that was all around me-Is that what I could tell him?
Should I tell him that I like Springsteen as much as I did corridos or that old Mexican music my mother would hum while she was making tortillas on the kitchen table? Would he understand that a hamburger was as good as a burrito or that Mary and Maria were the same as far as I was concerned? What could I tell him?
Shit, my Spanish was so bad at that time I could not even figure out how to tell him the difference between the two milks which was his original question. If he had spoken English I would have been able to tell him that the one with the red top is whole milk and the one with the purple top was 2% or low fat or whatever you call that crap water that’s slightly colored white. The problem is that I did not know how to begin to explain this subtle difference. I sounded like a Mexican tourettes victim.
“La differencia es, I began. The difference is that this red stuff is whole milk. Leche en toto, Wait a minute is toto a Spanish word? La otra leche is without fat. Wait, I went from English to Spanish in that sentence. La leche es sin acete. No wait acete is oil from the car like motor oil. That’s not right. La leche no es gordo. No wait gordo isn’t right either gordo is for people. Fat people. Que es la differencia” I half said to myself.
During this time the man who asked me for this information just stared at me with his eyes wide open. I could tell he was getting worried. All he wanted to do was get the milk and get out of there. He had finished his day and was heading home. The pickers bag over his shoulder let me know he had come straight from the fields and did not want to be running this errand for his wife but here he stood.
I know he was regretting asking me but I could understand why he asked. I certainly looked the part even if I was dressed in clothing that was distinctly American. I am an Indian brown from the fields I had never worked in, except for one day one summer at my Aunt Mary’s.
I look Mexican from the get-go. Black hair, skin the color of nuts no matter the time of year, some latent Mayan or Aztec features with a little Native American thrown in for confusion, it all added up to Mexican.
Years later when I was in the US Army and stationed in Germany I traveled on leave to Switzerland to visit the Alps and got into a conversation with some woman who wanted to know what the weather was like on the French Rivera. “It must be well,” she said as she smiled through her faintly French accented English.
I told her I didn’t have the slightest idea of what the weather in the French Rivera was and I wondered why she asked me. “You have the most wonderful tan and wonderful accent”, she said as she drifted away to some chateau to wonder about the weather in the South of France.
And there you go. That is part of the problem. Everyone wants you to be them, to reflect them, and to have something in common with them. It was this same search for commonality that allowed me to drink blood red tea with Turkish salt miners in a German train station at 3 A.M.
One of them thought I was a friend of his brother who lived next door to him. When they found out I was American and Mexican the cups came out and we laughed until the sun came up. Unfortunately, language and the need to actually exchange information gets in the way of these sorts of scenes.
My problem was this; I have always thought in English not Spanish. When someone says something to me in Spanish the process goes something like this:
What did they just say? How do you say it in English? What’s the answer in English? How do you say that it in Spanish? When you have so many steps to get through for even one sentence it makes even simple dialog difficult.
And when you have been raised on Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, cartoons and the Beatles and everything else that electric box in the corner is sending, your Spanish speaking skills are lacking.
Mine were anyway.
So I am trying, really trying to get this all into something he could understand when the question came. It was a question I had gotten all my life. I knew when it was coming and I probably deserved being asked it, but it still never sat very well with me. He was steeling up his courage and then he said it.
“Tu eres Mexicano que no?” he asked. You are Mexican, aren’t you? He asked. I have been asked that question before but now as I was starting to get a little older it stuck in my craw a little more. He stared at me with that look that someone gets when they realize they may have an advantage over someone else.
What he did not know was that I had been given my voice by my father many years before and that this gave me an advantage even if my stranger friend did not see it that way.
What I had received from my father was an edict: No speaking Spanish in the house!! That was it. We spoke English everyday and sometimes got slapped or punished for speaking our mother tongue.
My father had come up in a time when he spoke only Spanish and he realized it had hindered his ability for upward movement in the society. This is why he insisted on all of his children speaking English even though he preferred Spanish in his day-to-day life.
This ability to speak and read English from an early age confused and confounded many people I encountered. My kindergarten teacher was astounded that I could read Dick and Jane from cover to cover on the first day of school.
She asked who had taught me to read and seemed doubly shocked when I told her my father and mother. She could just not believe it, just the way the guy in front of me could not believe that I was Mexican.
I have tired of giving the same old explanations to people regarding these subjects and so I decided to write them down so that maybe I could understand them better and so could others.
I also was tired of the man in front of me questioning my background and everything I hold close because I did not fit some idea he had in his head of what I should be.
Our encounter ended when I told him that it was true that the language of my father was not my primary language and that I did not really know how to speak it very well at all. I
did let him know that I did know the difference between the two different kinds of milk. He was still wondering what the difference was when I left him standing by the cottage cheese on that hot summer day 40 years ago.