Growing up, I had always been proud of my Mexican heritage. I spoke Spanish at home, and I based many of my school projects on Mexican history and folklore.
That all changed in fourth grade… when we studied the Mexican-American war. I proudly exclaimed that I was Mexican, and Brian Wedemeyer and the rest of the boys in my class began to tease me. In the 1980s, Leesburg, Virginia did not boast a lot of diversity, and in that moment, I realized I was different. And, to fourth grade little me, different was bad.
I stopped speaking Spanish at home and started answering my Mother in English, downplaying my heritage to my peers. As the years wore on, speaking to my Grandparents, who I was very close to, became a huge challenge. I started feeling embarrassed when I stumbled on words or made grammatical mistakes. I was starting to withdraw…
And then my parents had a brilliant idea – as I look back, it was a bilingual/bicultural intervention:
My parents decided to send me back to Guadalajara to study ninth grade, or tercero de secundaria.
I would live with my beloved Abuelitos and attend the same Catholic all-girls school my Mother did as a child, and where her sister taught history and social studies.
The school system was different than in the States – we were on a trimester system where, in the case of math, you studied algebra for the first trimester, geometry for the second and trigonometry for the third. It was the same with science – a rotation of biology, chemistry and physics. These were subjects I was not very familiar with in English, let alone Spanish. Another novelty was the monthly report cards with 10 corresponding to an A and 5 meaning you had failed the course.
My classmates didn’t know what to make of me. I had an American-sounding name and they were fully expecting a blonde, blue-eyed gringa, yet there I was, dark-haired with brown eyes speaking Spanish with the strangest of accents. As an awkward 13 year-old, I was the youngest of my class, which put me at a disadvantage as most of them were turning 15 and planning their quinceañeras.
I struggled… both academically and socially.
While my classmates had their English class, I was being tutored in Spanish literature and grammar. Most teachers dictated notes during their class, and during my first few months, I wrote everything down as I heard it phonetically, especially if there were words I didn’t recognize. I was thrilled to discover that, despite these challenges, my Mother had taught me to read and write in Spanish very well – my Spanish teacher, Señorita Esperanza, even remarked to the class, “¡Hasta la gringa tiene mejor ortografía que ustedes!” which caused me pride mixed with embarrassment.
As the months went by, el acentito no one could place disappeared. I eventually took notes correctly, and one month even managed to make La Escolta, which is the student color guard that carries the Mexican flag during the pledge of allegiance – an honor reserved for the top academic students. During Semana Santa, my school led a trip to the rainforests of Tabasco to help teach indigenous underprivileged children to read – it was an experience that truly humbled me and has stayed with me all these years. And my Abuelitos were so proud!
I lost my Mom’s sister, my Tía Rossana, the year after I came home from my year abroad. My Abuelito followed eight years later, and my Abuelita recently passed in 2008. For me, getting to know them on a deeper level was a blessing… How lucky was I to have lived with them…
The Spanish I have today is the gift from my year in Guadalajara, although maybe el acentito has returned. And thanks to the friendships made and the tight family bond that was forged, perhaps my children will get to have the same opportunity – and get to know their extended family and culture in a deep and meaningful way.