Image of a young Mexican American girl, the same girl as a woman, and her mother.

MOVED: On Speaking Spanish

by and | December 8, 2022

A conversation between Maria Bustillos and Myriam Gurba

Myriam Gurba: What made you want to discuss this subject?

Maria Bustillos: Well, my mom died … It’s going to be two years ago. And I used to speak Spanish with her every day, or pretty much every day. And now I don’t speak Spanish, like at all; I mean (a) I’m in Scotland right now, and (b) I’m estranged from most of my family, because they’re mostly Republicans, and the ones who aren’t Republicans don’t speak Spanish. 

I was the first one of my family born in this country, and I had a rebellious attitude about participating in Latin American culture until I became an adult. I was taught to “assimilate,” and found my whole soul in English, as a teenager. But I still always spoke Spanish. I took that for granted. And I really miss it now; there’s a dimension of my psyche that has just sort of evaporated. I’ve come to realize that there’s so much more to all of this than politics, or “ESL” or immigration, or assimilation.   

So tell me what your relationship is with Spanish.

So, Spanish has been a part of me … It was a part of me before I was born, you know? Because my mother was born and raised in Mexico, speaking Spanish. When I was born, my mom was still in the process of learning English. And she’s told me that she didn’t work, I think, for maybe the first year of my life. And my mother is an extreme extrovert. She has no introversion—everything’s externalized, do you know what I mean? The woman lives inside-out. She needed somebody to talk to, and so I became her audience. 

She’s said that she’d just speak to me all day long, and I’d just sort of nod along. And then I quickly became really hyperverbal, I think because I was around the world’s, or at least California’s, most prolific chatterbox. And so it just rubbed off on me. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. I mean your English is so stupendous, I love your English. But you spoke Spanish first?

Yeah. Like in the house specifically, with my mother, and then my parents made a decision to raise all of their children bilingually. They decided that our father would speak to us in English, and our mother would speak to us in Spanish. They really, really, really abided by that agreement. I’m 45, and my dad still talks to me in English, and my mom in Spanish. The only time that I hear my mother speaking English is with people who are unable to speak Spanish. Or on an extremely rare occasion, she’ll speak English when she’s angry.

And so I get scared when I hear her speak English, because I’m like, “Somebody’s in trouble, and I don’t know if it’s me.” So that’s like my alarm, that’s my warning system; is the woman speaking English? If she’s speaking English, there’s trouble. So …

How’s her English?

Her English is great. She has an accent that is very noticeable, and she’s not at all interested in losing it. And so when she speaks, it’s clear to everybody who has heard Mexican speakers of English where she’s from, but she really owns it. She taught elementary school for 20 years. 

My favorite mistakes that my mother makes in English happen when she confuses proverbs, or aphorisms or adages. And I think that she often improves them. Once she was looking at my friend and me and with a totally serious face, she goes, “It’s the law of the cookie and the way the jungle crumbles.” And it was beautiful.

Poetry.

I was like, “This is better.”

My mom used to explain that a meddling person was “getting into my case.” So lovely.

So, you’re very close with your mom.

Yeah. I love my mom a lot.

Do you guys speak every day?

We talk usually a couple times a week. But we don’t talk daily.

When I was younger especially, we used to talk daily, my mom and I. 

We all used to love her accent, too, but I would tease her about it a lot. Like I’d ask her, okay: Repeat after me. “Sure, I’ll share a chair.” And she’d go, “Chuuuuure,” and then just like stop cold, and we’d all die laughing.

Would she come back with a Spanish tonguetwister?

I don’t even know any Spanish tonguetwisters. Tell me one.

Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre carril. Rápido corren los carros …

Oh my god, rápido corren los carros. Something blah blah en el ferrocarril.

Most monolingual English speakers can’t roll their R’s.

Yeah, they can’t. My daughter speaks perfect French and she can’t do it. It’s so weird.

I read somewhere, but I’m a little dubious of this claim, that it’s a genetically inherited technique, to be able to do that with one’s tongue.

I believe it, because it’s like … It’s really random. Like I know people who just have absolutely no knowledge of Spanish who can do it, and people who grew up around Spanish and can’t.

When I taught psychology and we did our language unit, that was one of the pieces of trivia that I shared with the students. And then we would practice, and then we would learn who couldn’t roll their R and then they would be collectively shamed.

Well… I grew up in Long Beach, in the ’70s and ’80s, and it was not a cool thing to be a Spanish speaker. Or rather, not uncool, so much as like, not relevant, because the teachers were so eager, they had these gifted programs where they’d like winnow you out—

I think they still have it.

Do they still have it?

Yeah.

So this is no new observation, obviously, but they basically put you in a pen with all the rich white kids and in my year, there were only two of us. There was me and this guy named Eddie … I mean it’s clearly a thing that you’re supposed to be grateful for, to be put in the pen—not least because it’s really nice in there—with the best teachers and books and field trips, you’re “going places.” 

My first husband, whom I met in high school, his dad was an eminent lawyer. We were teenagers! I learned how to do that life, how to ski and what cocktail to order and all that. And I thought, OK, this is good. Right? It means success. “My parents are immigrants and now we’re assimilating and this is what we’re supposed to do.” What you’re supposed to want to do.

So that speaking Spanish became a thing … Nothing that I was ever ashamed of, but something completely extraneous to what I considered, and everybody around me considered, to be a preparation for adult life. When I think of how I could have been prepared! When I should have been reading Borges then, not when I was thirty!

How’s your writing, and do you read Spanish?

I can read Spanish, but I need a lot of help writing it. I don’t have any formal education in Spanish composition. So I can read it competently and often do, but I struggle to write.

Same.

And I cannot accent it for the life of me. My mother has tried to teach me several times and I just sort of … I just treat the accents like pepper, wherever it falls, it falls.

[Both laughing helplessly]

Go for it. That looks good! Oh man.

I read a good story about these renegade young Japanese teenage girls… you know, they’ve got all those different ways of counting, like the numbers, the words for long slender things like chopsticks are different from the numbers for round things. 

So these girls got really fed up with the like, six kinds of numbers and they do that same thing as you with accents, they’re just like fuck it, whatever number, they just say round chopsticks, fuck you, I’m not doing it.

Oh I like stories of language rebellion.

Yeah I love them. People ask me, do you speak Spanish fluently? And my stock reply is like, yeah, but like a really foul-mouthed eight-year-old.

That’s what public fluency is, there are I think infinite ways to be fluent in a language and I think people who can understand everything but struggle to speak are fluent, but they experience extreme anxiety prior to speaking, and I think that anxiety is like… it’s socioculturally produced.

Agreed. There’s a psychological moment to participating as a speaker in any culture. I know a lot of people, native speakers in various languages, who cannot have a conversation without gigantic anxiety because they’re being called on to produce language, and it’s frightening to them. 

It’s really terrifying for certain groups of people. I noticed that, when I was teaching high school, that basic—what we might call small talk, it seemed very challenging for about half of my students, and it wasn’t necessarily because these students spoke one language at home and another at school. They were unaccustomed to verbally socializing with one another, and they were really unaccustomed to low-stakes socializing verbally, low-stakes chatting. So I did a couple of lessons on small talk, because I was a social studies teacher—I taught civics and economics and history, but I would have, sometimes, these life skills components that I would weave into class. 

I explained how small talk is useful, I gave them examples of it and then I would have them practice with one another, and then I would also invite them to practice with me if they wanted to.

Maybe the concept of triviality is native to people like us who are just naturally blabby, but there’s a certain kind of personality that considers speech significant and important, formal, it’s a commemoration of their lives at that moment, so they’re unable to unite that with triviality. People like us just look at that and think, what’s your problem? This all bullshit, none of it matters. 

My male students were especially challenged, because boys are not culturally or socially encouraged to engage in low-stakes chatter and so I really encouraged them. I had put down a list of common small talk subjects and encouraged them to practice with one another, because that way they wouldn’t have the added anxiety of talking to a girl. 

I remember one time this student came up behind me, and he tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and I was like, “Yes José, what can I help you with?” And he’s like, “I’m here for some small talk.”

[Both howling]

Oh my God, that’s priceless.

One of those golden teaching moments.

It explains why there’s sports, because otherwise they would be lost.

Exactly. They need human contact, but they create these limits around how they can socialize, and they’re just such artificial silly limitations and barriers that are so easily removed, because they’re just really absurd fictions.

You know so much more about this than I do, I apologize for my ignorance. But the awareness of systemic racism for me came slow as molasses, because I grew up with all these people who loved to visit Spain or Mexico for a holiday, and thought it was exotic. But at the same time, in southern California in the areas where middle-class, “civilized” people live, parents of the kids I grew up with had this sort of bizarre disconnect, an inability to relate at all to the people who were cleaning their houses or cutting the grass, and also wanting to go to Mexico City and be all into Frida Kahlo and how divine, you know, tapas. I still don’t understand any of that, I really don’t.

I witnessed it and I was in some ways subjected to it as a teacher. Because I worked with those kids, and I did not meet their expectation of what a rigorous teacher should look like, and I didn’t meet their parents’ expectation. So I was scrutinized a lot, and I would hear comments that were uttered in my presence that were racist, or at times there was racist commentary aimed very directly at me, and often the person making the statement was utterly, or at least behaved as if they were utterly, clueless about my anger. 

I’ll give you an example of what I mean, the type of incidents that I experienced as a teacher. So the year before my last year in the classroom, a fellow teacher had invited me to come eat lunch with him and some other faculty in his room; he was a department head. All the other faculty that were going to be there were men, and so I was a little apprehensive about it.

But one day he gave me his usual invitation and I thought, OK—I usually make my classroom available to kids at lunch, but maybe it’ll be good for me to go spend some time with some fellow teachers and we can talk about our adult lives and the profession. So I went to his classroom and like I said, he was there with the other department head, both white men; there were two other white men present and then there was a Latino dude. 

The department head who had invited me started to tell this story about his father, and the difficulty that he was having finding housekeeping staff to care for his father. He said that his father was in a wheelchair, and that his father would sexually harass women verbally. He would say disgusting, sexually explicit things to the housekeepers who would come into the home, and he would follow them, he’d get very close to them, and they would quit in disgust and fear.

This is a dementia thing, or something?

No, his dad was just an asshole

[Gasps.]

Yeah! His dad is a sexual-assault perpetrator.

And then he goes, “But I found a solution, you guys!”—and he said it as if he were setting up like, a joke, like he was going to give a punchline. He goes I found a solution, and so the other department head goes, “What did you do?” 

“I hire housekeepers that don’t speak English.” 

I looked at him like, wow, so you hire immigrant women and you put them in there with your dad—

In a situation of abuse?

I was livid when he said this, because it betrayed what he thinks of immigrant women and it betrayed what he thinks of Latinas. This man worked with Latinas, there were a lot of Mexican American girls in his classroom, and he thinks of us as people who it’s OK to put in a house with an aggressor. 

So I looked at him in disgust, and then I looked at the other Mexican dude who was having lunch with us; he wouldn’t look up from his sandwich, he just stared down at his sandwich the whole time. And then I looked at the other department head, like, “What are you going to say?” He goes, “Myriam, what’s the big deal? It’s not like he’s raping them.” 

I got up and I left and I never ate lunch with those guys again.

I am so sorry.

Yeah, and that’s a normal story. That’s what would happen.

No, dude. I know.

And then, the teachers would be like, “Why are you so mad? It’s not like somebody died.” You’re talking about my family this way.

Yeah. But it’s another human being, it’s talking about another human being… Do you really think that because she doesn’t understand the words, she doesn’t understand what’s being said? Is that what you actually think?

That’s one of the things that I talked about with a friend right after it had happened. How when I was in high school, there were these white cheerleaders who I remember seeing get really pissed because a truck filled with gardeners had driven by, and the gardeners on the truck were Latinos and they had street-harassed these girls in Spanish. I knew what the gardeners had said. The girls didn’t know specifically what the gardeners had said, but they had a fucking idea.

Of course they knew. You don’t need to know the exact words.

You don’t need to know the language to know that you’re being sexually harassed by an asshole.

Being leered at is the same in every language.

Exactly. 

This is another thing that I wanted to talk about with you, because I remember very clearly when I was a kid myself, and you have to defend yourself against unwelcome remarks. And depending on what situation you’re in, when you have two languages, there’s a lot more in that toolbox. I was thinking of that book Racecraft that I really love by the Fields sisters.

I’ve read it.

It’s so good. It was very enlightening to me. I reviewed it for the LA Review of Books

But anyway, I just remember thinking, okay, Racecraft was the first thing that made sense to me about my own lived experience, because it’s like… everybody is involved in this insanity. Everyone. The blame had finally been apportioned correctly.

Because everything that I had heard and read about racism and othering was like, well, there’s this bad thing that happens far away, over there, and sometimes it comes toward people… No, it’s everyone. Everyone’s creating this atmosphere.

And so I remember when I was a kid, and like most any young woman, facing a certain amount of street harassment. I mean, it’s not pleasant. But in my generation it was so pervasive and so extreme, we all taught each other to laugh at it, laugh at off, or whatever. But it actually really kind of took a lot out of you, every day.

Oh my, God. If an intense incident of street harassment happens, you’re deflated for the rest of the day.

I remember really well, I would pretend not to be able to speak English. Or, I would pretend not to be able to speak Spanish. I’d come over all NPR correspondent and go, “I beg your pardon.” And I’d know perfectly well what gross thing was being said to me. It’s like there’s a certain weaponry to it, of just being able to defend yourself in some language, or pretend to ignorance. 

I’m still learning how this reveals or conceals so much about us. How language changes your personality, gives you tools for being

At some point for a project I read 2666 in Spanish. That was really challenging. I had the English one next to it when I got to the hard parts, which was constantly. It’s not just like two selves reading two books, it’s like two mirrors facing one another, like a whole mise en abyme of selves, reading and responding to one another..

I do that, too. I’ll have the texts side by side, and I begin with Spanish and then as needed, I go back; the more archaic the text, the more I need the English.

It’s such a rewarding practice. Anyway, where I was going with this was, we have this very limited notion of what having a bilingual background can do for us. Or for me, at least, it was very compartmentalized. In California, I think maybe for a lot of people, it was like your Spanish world and life was in one place, and then your Anglophone one was in a separate place. It was very sort of bifurcated—maybe that’s less so now. But when I was growing up it was like, your friends weren’t going to learn how to speak Spanish. 

How was that for you? Was everybody really mixed in?

My family wasn’t as bifurcated, as far as home life being of one culture, and public life, so to speak, being of another culture. And that was largely because of my father’s professional life. 

I was born in Santa Maria. My father had a Polish-American father and a Mexican mother. They had met in Mexico. My grandfather went there toward the tail end of the Depression and he met her, and then they lived in Mexico at the beginning of their marriage. They had a brief stint in Florida, and then returned to Mexico, and then finally they went to Los Angeles and settled in East L.A.

So they raised my dad in East L.A, and then his family moved to Norwalk. Then in his twenties, my father went and lived in Mexico.

What took him there?

He was working as a music and English teacher in Mexico, and there he met my mother. Similar to the way that his father met his mother, he’s this American who goes to Mexico, meets a Mexican woman. They married there. My mother was a chemist. Several years into their marriage, they came to the United States so that my dad could complete his master’s degree. And then he applied for elementary school teacher jobs. The district that first gave him a job offer was the Santa Maria school district, so my parents settled there, and that’s why I was born there.

My dad was a bilingual school teacher. Outside of the house, he also spoke English and Spanish. And Spanish was critical to his professional life. He taught fifth grade for several years, and a lot of his students were the children of Mexican strawberry sharecroppers.

He left the classroom and entered administration. He became the coordinator of the Migrant Education Program, where his job was to ensure that teachers and other administrators were following federal guidelines to ensure that migrant school kids who were predominantly of Mexican descent weren’t being discriminated against in the classroom.

And then he also, for a while, was involved in the development of teaching materials for the bilingual program. And he often did organizing work. So he would hold workshops and invite parents to participate, and he would host the workshops in Spanish, covering subjects such as: What are your rights as a parent, that you might not know? I’m going to teach you these rights in Spanish, so that you can fight.

They ranged from workshops of that nature, to things like: What is the American enrollment and admissions process like for college and university? Let’s understand what it’s going to take to get your child there, if that’s what you want for your children. 

My parents would not leave my siblings and me with babysitters. We went to those meetings. And that’s I think why I developed an interest in organizing, because I saw my dad doing that sort of work. It just seemed like a natural part of life, that this is what people do. They hold meetings to help uplift one another. And those meetings were always in Spanish.

So to me, there wasn’t a boundary between the two. If there was, it was highly permeable, between public and private hispanophone life.

Yeah, wow. It’s so different. To me, it was like Spanish was for gossip and parties and dancing. 

But I do also think of Spanish as a more intimate language, because it’s the language that I used and continue to use with my mother, and it’s also the only language in which I was able to relate at all and have any sort of relationship with my grandparents. I never met my Polish grandfather. He died before I was born. 

He died of a heart attack when my dad was around 21, so he’s a person who I describe as someone I’ve only known as a ghost. He has this ghostly presence in my life because I know stories, I’ve seen photos, I know his biography, but I never laid eyes on him. I’ve been to his grave, but I never related to him. 

My mother’s parents never learned English, although my mother’s mother, my Abuelita Arceliana, when she would come visit us in the United States, on occasion she would enroll in classes. And I remember she enrolled in English classes at night school.

The English classes were held at the public high school, and I remember for some reason going with her to one of these English classes, and everybody in the room was a viejita, just like my grandmother. And none of them were committed to learning English. I think it was more like a social event. It was something to get out of the house and meet other women. And they all had on dresses and aprons.

I was bored, because I knew all the words that they were being presented with. I was looking for something to do, because I was a restless child. So I started picking my nose, like really vigorously, and I was sitting under the desk at my grandmother’s feet. And suddenly, I felt something go wrong. I think I had picked a little too hard, and I stood up and the women started screaming because there was blood everywhere.

That was the last time I was taken to English class with my grandmother, because I was so bored that I picked my nose too hard.

[General hilarity.]

Te quiero grabar hablando español, porque quiero saber como te sientes diferente hablando en español. Para mi es que tengo otro caracter, bien diferente.

Bueno… cuando hablo español, siento que estoy con familia. Y a veces también me da pena. Como que me da vergüenza, porque siento que, este… voy a hacer un error y me van a juzgar. Entonces quando yo hablo español me da más pena, y soy mas tímida cuando hablo en español que cuando hablo en inglés.

Cuando voy a Mexico duro como dos semanas media tímida, y luego empiezo a sentirme más cómoda.

Me pasa lo mismo, pero yo estoy bien acostumbrada a la gente burlándose de mi.

[Laughing]

Empiezo desde el principio, les digo okay… me defiendo! Pero no muy bien.. voy a tener cantidad de preguntas, para que me ayuden.

Claro, quando tu estas hablando con tu mamá, entonces no hay razón porque sentirse tímida, y por eso lo siento tanto. Lo que mas me duele es que para mi, español es un idioma para chistes, y para disfrutar.

Sí!

Y es algo que se me desapareció, quando se me fue mi mamá.

[In English] Oooohhhhhhh!

Bueno! Algún día volveré a hablar español. Mientras tanto, es una tristeza.

Tu papá vive?

O no, murió hace 28 anos. Mi papá parecia de los riñónes, y murió bien joven. Y ella nunca se volvió a casar. Pero ella tuvo una vida muy bonita, muchas amistades, muchos nietos, mucho carino y felicidad, en su vida… pero sola, y lo extrañaba mucho.

Muy chistoza? 

Si bromista, como ella sola. Ella fue bailarina, nació en Cuba en 1930. Profesional desde los 13 or 14 años, y se casó  por la primera vez a los 15 años. Una vida muy differente. Pero ella fue una persona… muy alegre, para fiestas y para disfrutar, comiquisima, difícil tambien pero bien cómica, y toda la vida le encantaba bailar. 

Era una bailarina fuera de este mundo. Cuando es tu mamá… uno no se da cuenta pero ahora si.

Sí y que no podiste apreciar de joven.

Yeah. O… algo se puede apreciar, quizás, pero uno no se da cuenta que es algo tan especial, y tan raro, tener a alguien en tu vida que puede bailar asi. Llege hasta viejita hasta que me di cuenta que yo nunca he visto alguien bailar como mi mamá. Nunca. 

Llege a los cuarentipico de años hasta que alfin dije: Hm! De verdad que si baila muy bien, esta mujer.

Pero viviendo en el sur de California, hay quandidad de gente hablando español. Entonces, todos los dias algo, no? En una tienda, o…

Si, por ejemplo, en la casa donde estamos viviendo, viene el jardinero, y a veces hablo con ellos. Me dio risa el otro día porque, este… uno tocó a la puerta y me preguntó algo en inglés, y luego yo le contesté en español, y me dice el señor, “Ay, yo no supe que hablabas español, y aqui me estabas torturando!”

[Laughing.]

Si, en California siempre pregunto: yo no hablo muy bien, pero si prefieres podemos hablar en español, y la gente siempre dice “ay, por favor! qué alivio!”

Yo no me puedo imaginar lo difícil que debe ser, llegar a ser adulto y comenzar a aprender el inglés. Debe ser imposible, tantas reglas, complicaciones… dificilísimo.

Mi mamá de dijo que cuando ella llego a los estados unidos, y empezó a aprender inglés, estaba tomando clases con otras mujeres. Y habeces ella llamaba a la escuela de mi papá, para hablar con el. Un día llegó mi mamá a la escuela y habló con la secretaria. Y la secretaria se sorprendió. Y le dijo a mi papá, bueno Sr. Gurba, yo pensé que estabas casado con una china. Porque mi mamá estaba practicando con chinas! Y tenía un acento Chino!

[Howling laughing.]

Oh my god, that’s amazing.

Isn’t that funny?! “I thought you were married to a Chinese woman!”

I love it so much.


Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesThe New YorkerHarper’s, and The Guardian.

Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.