Original article published at Los Angeles Times on July 1, 2021
I’m probably one of the nerdiest people you’ll meet. I used to read the dictionary in grade school, and now I keep an updated list of my favorite words in English on my phone. Sitting alone with my thoughts during the pandemic helped me discover why I’m such a word hoarder.
I’m a 20-year-old Mexican American woman born in Miami and raised in San Antonio — two places with massive Spanish-speaking populations. Yet, my familiarity with the language extends to greetings and cuss words. When my grandparents attended Texas schools during the 1950s, they were ridiculed and punished for speaking the language they learned at home. In some cases, students across the state participated in symbolic funerals, where teachers instructed them to bury their language and whipped them with paddles when they hesitated. Because of these traumatic experiences, many Spanish-speaking people refused to pass on the language to their children — hoping they would navigate the world more safely and freely. They just wanted us to fit in.
Obsessing over English is my way of taking control of the language I was left with, and mourning the one stolen from my family. My non-Spanish tongue shows the successful assimilation into U.S. society my grandparents prayed for. It may have worked. My mom was our family’s first college graduate. She became an educator who teaches English to young students. Meanwhile, I became a top high school graduate and now attend a top university studying words for a living. I may not be the best with the Spanish language, but I assume power over the English language and use it as a tool to change the world as a writer and communicator.
Not understanding a language so deeply rooted in my Mexican culture still hurts. This pain marks the road my family and I are forced to travel in reclaiming our language. But, a language will never define me. If you need to hear from me, listen to my heart. After all, our hearts beat the same pattern despite the sound of our tongues. And as a proud Latina, my words will remain loud.