A young Mexican American learns to appreciate the way he speaks English. Besides, he writes, what makes you think you don’t talk funny?
By Angel Luna, Pacific News Service
SAN JOSE, Calif. – October 12, 2004 – I was 2 years old when I left East San Jose to live in Oaxaca, Mexico. I returned to the United States when I was 15, and was ready to leave my Mexican life behind and start my American one fresh. But today, I want to keep my accent.
Now, to hear me, imagine your favorite rapper, except with a Mexican accent. The letter “g” gives me some trouble. I will try to say “what up, gangsta?” and it sounds like “what up, ansta?” I pronounce “v” like “b,” which becomes an issue because I’m a “bideo-maker.” Having Wienerschnitzel as your favorite restaurant doesn’t help.
People still understand me, and I use a lot of body language, too. Sometimes it even helps, like this one time I called a girl “chubby” but she thought I said “shorty” and was pleased with the complement.
When I left Mexico, it was the hardest day in my life. I left my home, my friends and all the things that I knew. Even at the border I got hit with a reality check. At the checkpoint, immigration officers told me they wanted to question me. I showed them my papers (all legal, by the way), but then they asked me a question in English. At that time I knew no English. I was pulled into a detention center and was interrogated for hours. It felt like I stepped into hell — I saw old ladies getting hit and heard officers cursing like crazy. I didn’t know what “beaner” and “wetback” meant at the time, but by the way that they were yelling it, I knew it wasn’t good. It was the start of a feeling that the America I left years ago didn’t want me anymore.
Once I settled back in San Jose, I tried to learn English as fast as I could. I didn’t want anyone to have an excuse to discriminate against me or look at me funny. I was a sophomore in Overfelt High School in east side San Jose for my first day of American school. I had to do a test to see what class I would be placed in. I scored 100 percent in the Spanish part and 10 percent in the English part. The teacher was impressed, so she gave me the choice to go to a higher language arts class or stay in the beginners one. I took the higher class, because I had a hunger for learning English.
My ESL class was full of “paisas” (somebody from your same nationality), and I got updated on the class by a classmate. I asked him how long he had been in the States and he said six years. I was shocked — six years in this kind of a class and it sounded like he knew just enough English to get a meal at Mickey D’s. My goal was to be out of those classes in less than a year and become a “regular person.” During that year I did hella good at school and soon almost all my classes were in English. All my folks at school and at home were telling me how surprised they were of how fast I was integrating into America.
One of my cousins told me, “Damn, man, in few years you ain’t gonna even have an accent anymore, you gonna sound American.” The comment made me proud to some extent, but underneath I was starting to be ashamed of myself. A little later, I even made a comment about the speed of my transformation. I told a friend that in about a year I wouldn’t even have an accent. She told me, “You’re tripping, having an accent is part of you!”
I was stunned by her response. She was right. Trying to be American also meant my slow cultural self-destruction, and my accent was the last piece standing. I didn’t realize how ashamed I had become of my roots. I had lived so many days trying to not to be myself, running away from names like “beaner” and “wetback” that I now felt protective of my accent. Having an accent is a beautiful thing, it’s what makes me unique and announces what culture I am from.
Now, I proudly keep my accent. But even though the way I sound is cool with me — plus, girls thinks it’s sexy — it’s not all gravy. It is very hard to explain to employers that having an accent does not mean you are an idiot. The good thing is, since I want to work in technology in Silicon Valley, a lot of my potential employers may have accents themselves. The truth is, everybody has some sort of an accent, though not all of us know it.
PNS contributor Angel Luna, 20, writes for www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a PNS project.