Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Americans, So Far From Bilingual – So Close to Mexico: Meditations on Spanish & English in the USA

These are [draft] thoughts–any and all comments are warmly welcome! 

When the stewardess regretted on the intercom that she only had customs forms in Spanish and that those who preferred English would have to wait until landing in PuertoVallarta, I, nonplussed in my aisle seat, extended an arm for the Spanish form.  Linea de vuelto: Delta. ¿Cúanto tiempo es el viaje? Two weeks. ¿Razón por el viaje?  I checked “pleasure” in Spanish because my two children, father, and stepmother were with me and we were headed to a timeshare resort [¿Destino principal en México?]outside the city. But I might have also checked business or trabajo, work.  After all, my goals while in Mexico were multifold.  I’d brought with me the textbook I newly adopted in my course on bilingual education, The Bilingual Edge and I planned on practicing some of the book’s advice about how, why, and when U.S. parents should help their children to become bilingual. There were several examples in the book that related the bilingual edge to travel and time spent abroad in non-English speaking contexts.  Time spent in Spain and Mexico were certainly pivotal to my own Spanish fluency as a college student twenty years ago.  I hoped two weeks in Mexico would ignite my own English dominant children’s Spanish abilities as well as new ideas for the bilingual courses and workshops I teach.


When the stroller stalled like a belligerent donkey on the cobblestone streets of Puerta Vallarta and I had to carry my two year old daughter 10 blocks to get to the stationary store to buy a string full of colorful papel picado, plastic flags to decorate my classroom, was this work or pleasure?  It was work to carry a newly purchased, sturdy mesh market bag with these flags, foam puzzles of the United States of Mexico, and play Mexican currency in one arm and my daughter in the other in the heat of midafternoon past dinosaur delivery trucks turning narrow street corners, belching their black exhaust in our faces.  But this is the kind of work I welcome.  If it weren’t for my self imposed mission to bring back authentic materials to use with my students, I wouldn’t have passed the small juice stand where two men stood squeezing liquid from fresh oranges and carrots into beautiful tall clear glasses.  If I didn’t speak Spanish or if I hadn’t spent many years travelling and living in Mexico, I might have been too fearful to drink from the sweet fresh nectar or to have been delighted when he placed the large machete in Liya’s small hand to help her chop a fresh coconut for its sweet milk and tender white meat.    


“You did what?” My stepmother asked, wrinkling her nose. “You could get sick drinking juice from the street.  You don’t know what’s in it!”

“It’s orange juice.  From oranges.”

“But the oranges are different here and you don’t know how they washed them.  Did you see their cows? They’re different too and the meat tastes different.  I never eat meat here.  Only fish and chicken.  Did you eat any breakfast?”

I needed more diapers and had taken the kids on a bus from the hotel to Walmart and then into town. 

“We had some eggs at a restaurant near the Walmart.”  I didn’t mention the bus or the machete.

“Why didn’t you eat at the hotel? You’re going to get sick! Look out for Montezuma’s revenge—good thing you bought more diapers!” 


A few hours later when I felt I had a cactus stuck in my gut, I didn’t dare say anything to my stepmother and I was relieved the kids were just fine.  Maybe it was the water and instant coffee I’d had but they did not.  Maybe a child’s stomache, like his tongue, could more easily become bilingual (and bi-gastronomical). When my first child, Oren, was born in 2007 I explored my childcare options and optimistically hired a Spanish speaking nanny, Rina.  She had just arrived from her home country, Chile, with her ten year old, accompanying her second husband pursuing graduate work in Math education at my university. Trained as a teacher in her home country, an exceptional nurturer, and fluent in the language of my desire–I felt so lucky to find her.  Despite my so-called fluency in Spanish, I suddenly became a learner again—burp, nipple, rash, breastpump, baby food—there were so many words and meanings I had never learned before in Spanish literature and linguistics courses or during travel as a young, single woman. As a new mother I now had the intense motivation to acquire every noun, every verb that would help us communicate about how Oren had experienced each hour of his day away from me.


At six months old Oren wailed inconsollably when I learned the word for teething in Spanish (dentición—so close to the Spanish word for teeth, dientes!).  Rina bemoaned the inability to access cochayuyo, seaweed they sell in Chile that soothes a baby’s sore gums (las encías).  How many remedies for sleepless nights, fever, rash, gas, etc. were there worldwide in languages and cultures I couldn’t access that could expand and improve my tentative grasp on new motherhood? Pharmacy, grocery, Walmart, Target—I bought teething tablets to melt on his burning gums, tiny pink q-tip like sticks that once snapped in half, poured a soothing pain relief gel; plastic rings filled with saline that I froze along with wet washcloths and frozen bagels for him to suck on and numb the pain. Knowing there was a remedy in Chile that I couldn’t access made me feel irresponsible, guilty—surely the seaweed would have done the trick.


When enough of Oren’s first teeth had finally arrived, I returned from work to see that Rina had given him a whole apple that he was greedily sucking from a peeled side.  To see him toddle around the kitchen, his small hands holding a giant apple to a face not much bigger, was like watching a miniature, whimsical clown.  It wasn’t long before manzana was one of his first words and an easy treat to pack with us on park playdates.  But my American “mother friends” gave me grief for giving such a snack to a toddler:


“The baby books say you need to purée the apple until age 1.”

“I’d only give an apple to my little one if it were cut into tiny pieces to prevent choking!”

“He’s so cute! But do you think that’s such a good idea?”

“What is he saying? Banana?”


Oren’s first word, “ma-za-ah,” sounded like banana to most ears but Rina and I knew what my son desired.  His first words were a mixture of Spanish and English—zapatos, agua, leche—the things he needed most (putting on shoes, drinking water and milk) he learned to say in whichever language would accomplish the end goal. Unlike many of the myths people around me had about bilingualism—that it would result in delayed or truncated language abilities—Oren had an impressively large and bilingual vocabulary of over 100 words by the time he was twelve months old.


As we were about to land in Mexico for our first time together, I began forecasting our trip, preparing four year old Oren and two year old Liya for the “kids club” they would attend at the resort the next morning and the Spanish activities they would do there.


“I don’t want to speak Spanish!” Oren said, as he has said so often, since he began associating the Spanish language with daycare and separation. 

Liya, my younger daughter chimed in with “No Spanish!” mimicking her brother. 

“But Skippy John Jones speaks Spanish and you do too!” I said, pointing to the masked Siamese cat stuffed animal at his side.

“We need to speak Spanish to los Chimichangos!” 


Skippy is a character from a widely acclaimed children’s book series by Judy Schachner about a Siamese cat who thinks he’s a Chihuahua and speaks an Americanized form of comic “Spanglish” that includes some actual Spanish words (¡Ay caramba! gracias, loco, fiesta, siesta, frijoles) and several nonsense words such as “Bumblebeeto” for bumble bee (actually abeja) and bandito and Yes indeed-o as rhymes—reinforcing that an American character may pretend to speak Spanish but really doesn’t, just as a Siamese cat may pretend he’s a Chihuahua dog—but he’s really not. Linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill has scrutinized what she called “mock Spanish” as a form of linguistic appropriation, elevating the mock Spanish user while denigrating and stereotyping Spanish and Spanish speakers. Adding the “o” suffixation as in “indeed-o” is one of the many uses of mock Spanish in the text that Hill argues “constitute(s) a form of symbolic violence” as they implicitly associate Spanish as a language that is nonserious, disorderly, undemocratic, and un-American. “Indeed-o,” her argument draws my attention to an unjust disparity between perceptions of a non-Hispanic’s use of mangled Spanish as humorous and/or cosmopolitan and widespread perceptions of Hispanic code-switching or Chicano English/Spanish as vulgar, discreditable, and/or untrustworthy. 


At the same time, comic figures such as Skippy Jon Jones, are unique moments in children’s literature, showcasing a bumbling American “Siamese” Cat-youth attempting to use Spanish and adopt a pseudo-Mexican identity in service to the multicultural imagination.  I theory-switch between Hill’s cultural critique and Chicana feminist writer, Gloria Anzaldúa’s theorizing of nepantla, a permanent in-between space where one dwells in collision—between languages, nation-states, sexual orientations, genders, cultural assumptions.  I suspect humor is one way in which U.S. Americans, unaccustomed to identity struggles, make sense of becoming swept up in an increasingly intercultural and bilingual world.  Is it possible that nepantla has an open door policy and might replace mockery with humility and understanding?


Schachner gives us many moments of comic relief when this wanna-be Chihuahua cat, travels to “outerspice” by pouring red chile powder over his bedding and sneezing his way intergalactically to be with his true Chihuahua friends, “los Chimichangos”.  There are times when I read the Skippy books where a Spanish tag word appears when I will do on-the-spot translation to complete the entire surrounding phrase in Spanish.


“Stop that!” Oren will say.  “Just read it!”


He means “read it in English.” Oren knows Skippy doesn’t really speak Spanish.  After all, Skippy’s mother-cat explains repeatedly to her son, “what it means to be a cat, not a bird… not a mouse or a grouse…not a moose or a goose..not a rat or bat…You need to think about just what it means to be a Siamese cat.”  The book’s message coincides with so many messages we receive in the United States that conflate what you speak with who you are, ascribing a static monolingual identity as symbolic of a kind of national identity and loyalty as a United States citizen. It’s safe to speak Spanish like a Gringo but once you start trying to actually speak “real Spanish” you then become the object of derision.  I recall watching the Saturday night live skit where comedian Mike Meyers and his fellow “news correspondents” and “executives” grossly exaggerated their Spanish vowel and consonant sounds for Latin American place names during the broadcast (e.g. neeek-ah-rah-gwaa for Nicaragua) and continued this exaggerated (mis)pronunciation when ordering lunch  (e.g. “gway-vos” for the Spanish for eggs, huevos) and exaggerating any word with Spanish origin (e.g. Las-Hang-o-lees for Los Angeles and De Brawn-cose for the Broncos).  The sketch is funny because it breaks with unmarked patterns of linguistic assimilation where the sounds of most Spanish loanwords have been absorbed into English much the way the melting pot theory throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was supposed to seamlessly absorb whole peoples and cultures into an all American stew.  The comedians exaggerate gestures to acknowledge foreign sounds and words as politically (in)correct buffoonery. I remember laughing along about those Americans, the ones that don’t really know Spanish and, in trying to demonstrate expertise, showcase their ignorance.  But might my own Spanish use be perceived this way—a wanna be? An imitator?  Like a savvy businessman, English absorbs other languages’ ideas and talents, invisibly growing the U.S. monolingual corporation with silent, bilingual partners.


When I lived in Mexico City in my early twenties I aspired not only to sound like a native speaker but to act like one too. I believed that if I imitated the market women holding bags in the crook of their elbow, pursing lips as they reviewed avocados and oranges with disdain, then I would be better able to get an authentic, native-like price.  If I walked Mexico city streets with my eyes cast downward, steady in the same knee length skirts and square heeled shoes, that I would repel another version of the man that had jumped out of his car in a raincoat and flashed his nudity when I walked home alone from the University. If my American girlfriend had spoken more Spanish and carried herself differently when entering the metro, a group of teenagers might not have slashed her hand with a knife and stolen her bag. I approximated the Spanish language and Mexican ways of my peers when fencing in a Mexico University gym, travelling to see the solar eclipse in the mountains, attending a protest rally against the Iran-Contra war as Mexican demonstration leaders burned effigies of American soldiers. “Real Spanish” had real consequences for elevating my sense of safety as a very tall guera or white woman (a term men used to catcall me daily) living and studying alone, abroad.  But speaking and acting as “native-like” as possible, illuminated different world views on war, friendship, health, and love.  A wanna-be is an accusation of wanting to be someone one’s not; what do we call someone who wants to be something more than what one is?


As a teacher educator I am amazed that we make it acceptable, even funny, for an American K-5 teacher to deny Spanish ability (e.g. “I don’t speak annnyyyy Spanish”) or “Solo hablo un poco español-o” yet we expect their expertise in a vast range of other domains such as science, math, social studies, and “language arts.”  Learning about languages other than English, however, is denied, disdained, and/or deferred to the too few of us who have become “experts.”  French Theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1991) would call the social pressures against acquiring Spanish as the “unification of the linguistic market.”  Under this system, mocking “real Spanish” and elevating “mock Spanish” are cultural practices that reinforce English monolingualism as our official national identity, despite the many deviations.  Despite living in the mainland United States where 34.5 million people speak Spanish, twenty-one states (as of 2007) have laws declaring English an official language (Potowski & Carreira, 2010). Note the satire in this common language joke:


What do you call someone who speaks two languages: bilingual

What do you call someone who speaks three languages: trilingual

What do you call someone who speaks one language: American!


Since Oren and Liya lucked into spots in the “best” pre-school daycare in our town, we haven’t seen much of Rina and when we do, her English has gotten so strong that she hardly communicates in Spanish with my children. There has been no need and no desire—on a tight, working parent’s schedule it seems quicker to answer Liya’s request for milk or Oren’s request for an apple in English then frustrate communication by using another tongue . The field of pragmatics refers to this as speaker and listener “economy”–as humans in interaction we want the most amount of communication with the least amount of work. Spanish means more work for all of us.  Trabajo, work. But perhaps the pressures are just as much about economy as they are about social forces, a kind of national peer pressure (bullying at times) to keep to the English monolingual status quo.  English is our hip fashion and the world market all wants a part of it—Learn English now! Reduce your accent in 12 days! TESOL programs world wide amass a fortune based on global yearning for English proficiency. 


Yet when I think of the popularity of cartoon figures like Dora the Explorer (la Exploradora), her cousin Diego, and non-Hispanic counterparts like Skippy, I can’t help but optimistically wonder if our nation is also in the midst of a very slow continental drift toward bilingualism? As my children receive birthday cards with “¡Feliz Cumpleaños!” written above cartoon Latino characters, receive flyers announcing Spanish classes through the public park and school systems, and crave the ever more accessible Spanish treat, churros con chocolate, are these signs of the Spanish-English bilingualism and biculturalism to come? Or are they mere gestures, capitulations that absorb a few token elements into our English system but still leave the Spanish—a global—language languishing on its own between U.S. borders. 


“Oye!” I say and hold my hand to my head just as my Yiddish speaking Grandmother has so often done to bemoan a situation. 


“Oye, your brother is going to another scrabble tournament.”

“Oye, your sister hasn’t come by to see me in weeks.”

“Oye, shena putim, did my little Oren get hurt?”


But she doesn’t say, “Oye, you and your mother never learned to speak Yiddish and now the language of my upbringing will die in our family and so many others!”  As an accomplished daughter of immigrants, a certified middle school social studies teacher, I don’t know if my grandmother feels any regret for having passed standard American English onto her offspring.  She did what everyone told her she and her immigrant family and friends were supposed to do.  She thinks my interest in Yiddish as cute; she shares a few phrases and cartoon vocabulary books.  She loves her language—hers, not mine. 


I think that acquiring Spanish, the language of my generation’s immigrant community, is in some senses, a personal journey of linguistic recovery.  I remember sitting in the audience for a “Conversation between Sandra Cisneros and John Phillip Santos” at the American Writing Programs conference in D.C. when Santos defined “Latinidad” as “an opportunity for all Americans to identify with social and linguistic exile.”  Yes! That’s it! That’s the invitation I felt when I first read Cisnero’s Woman Hollering Creek, House on Mango Street, and My Wicked, Wicked Ways when it didn’t matter that the characters were Latina and not Jewish because they were fully human.  Cisernos’ characters (including herself) explored feelings of isolation, fear, dignity, and love grounded in the context of displacement.  These books helped to make the familiar strange and served as companions throughout my Spanish language journey.  Describing “Latinidad” in this way gave me hope that maybe someday Spanish could legitimately and lovingly also be called “mine.” 




The Mexican stewardess came by and my daughter demanded “more pretzels!” and two shiny blue celophane bags dropped onto her plastic tray.  “Díle grácias” I commanded, beginning to shift into Spanish through known politeness conventions.  Liya dutifully repeated as she has already learned to do in English, “¡Grácias!”


“What a cute accent!” the stewardess observed.


My children speak Spanish like Americans!  All those years of care with Rina, I thought at the very least my children would shape the Spanish syllables like a Chilean, not an American.  But what, exactly, is wrong with speaking Spanish like an American?  After all these many years of being the exception to the American rule, I want to help change the image of my country and the images my U.S. compañer@s (Linguistic invention in Nepantla Spanish offers a gender neutral noun for compañeros, “companions”) have of learning Spanish. “Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States” the former Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz is noted for saying as a commentary on the power the US had manifested over Mexico.  I would like to think we’ve come a long way as nations since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that we have a long way to go until power is more in balance and that power requires us to ask which learners acquire whose language for what purpose, and to what end?  We are so accustomed to the world learning to communicate with us in English, but the opportunities abound for us to learn so much more about the world and about ourselves through the study of the language that is not only “next door,” but readily available in most—if not all—major and minor cities and towns across the country.  “Americans, so far from bilingual, so close to Mexico,” I thought to myself as our plane touched down a mere 4.5 hour direct flight from Atlanta, across the continent to the West coast of Mexico.


 Shall I go on……”translingual memoir” in progress.

2 responses to “Americans, So Far From Bilingual – So Close to Mexico: Meditations on Spanish & English in the USA

  1. Pingback: An Introduction to Blurred Genre in Ethnography « Teachers Act Up!

  2. Melanie Hennings February 12, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Wow…this really speaks to me, to my experience (insert Costa Rica for Mexico), to my intent to raise bilingual children, to my struggle as a foreign language teacher to motivate and inspire new language learners…thank you for giving me names to similar feelings that I share with my own “adopted” languages…I, too, one day wonder if they can be “mine.”


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