Back talk for the new Latino immigrant

By Dolores de Cabeza
Published on LatinoLA: June 3, 2005


?Sononmanbich? is inextricably tied to nearly every one of my childhood memories. Oh, how my father had cherished the insult. It had been his one defense in tight spots. Every time he felt he?d gotten the short end of the proverbial stick, I was sure to hear ?sononmanbich?.

Parking ticket. Sononmanbich. Guy cuts him off in traffic. Sononmanbich. Morning tiff with our english-speaking neighbors. Sononmanbich.

I would cringe in horror and shame every time I heard him say it. Not because I knew he was insulting someone, but because he butchered the pronunciation with such an obvious Spanish accent. After all, what was the point of insulting someone if you were going to come across as language-challenged?

Growing up as a first generation Latino in America is an interesting experience. You are constantly straddling two cultures - the old and the new. It?s a difficult process to explain. Suffice it to say that you are challenged daily with the difficult decisions that come with wanting and being expected to function in mainstream America while not abandoning the old world values from nuestra tierra.

As I discovered a way to meld these two worlds, my parents remained in the old - and not by choice. While they struggled with their English, I began to lose my Spanish. And the gulf of miscommunication between us widened.

Social settings were difficult and awkward. If we went to the movies, I could never quite explain why what this character said was so funny. Either they didn?t understand the joke or they simply found that American humor wasn?t humorous. And with my faltering Spanish I found it increasingly difficult to convey the meaning of these social occurrences in a way they could relate to culturally.

I often wished for a way to extract my knowledge of the English language and general American culture and then somehow implant it into their brains. I considered many possibilities: if I connected one end of my dad?s jumper cables to my head and other end to his and then stuck a fork into an electrical socket, could I achieve the desired transference?

Oh that I could impart upon them the subtle differences between a ?ho? and a ?skeezer.?To eradicate ?sononmanbich? and replace it with ?son of a bitch?. Oh such a thing would have been grand indeed.

How could I help them fully commune with America in the way that only a true native could do? To fully command all the nuances of the English language.

So this year, for my Dad?s birthday, I decided to forego the usual ?underwear & socks? gift in favor of a more interesting alternative. I walked into a small Spanish bookstore in HP and chanced a visit to a place I never thought I?d find myself in - the ESL books section.
Right there on the second shelf was something I?d never seen before. A bright red cover with cartoonish yellow lettering that read: Ingles callejero*. Street english, huh? I figured, what the hell, right?

I bought a copy and gave it to my dad - hoping it would somehow help.

A few days later, my brother and I were arguing over something he?d done. Suddenly my dad turns to him and says ?Estop biching.? Without losing a beat, my mother chimes in: ?Jew fawkd ap. Fawkd ap?... As?es, ?no?...Fawked ap??

We were floored. I haven?t seen my brother that shocked since I made him watch The Crying Game. I couldn?t believe that my adorable immigrant parents had just told him off - in ENGLISH!

Suddenly everything changed. It was as if our private, bilinguals-only secret society had been infiltrated. I suddenly felt exposed. English discussions at the dinner table would no longer serve as private sibling bitching sessions. Our secret language had been decoded, laid bare to our parents for their use and misuse.

I began to wonder if I had created a monster, or opened a Pandora?s Box.

Yet, as I planned my attack to seize and destroy the book which I regarded as an immediate threat to my generational security. I couldn?t help but notice that my father rarely let it out of his sight. It was then that I understood. For all his bravado, he had been isolated from American culture, unable to take such simple pleasures in even watching the evening news without wondering what the hell they were saying.

It was then that I did something I?d never done before. I put myself in my father?s place.

What if I moved to France tomorrow? I don?t speak a lick of French.

So, how would I find work?

Shop for food?

Ask for directions?

Answer the phone?

Watch TV?

Read a book!?

Yet, that?s what his life has been like for as long as I can remember. At that moment, my respect for my father grew that much more. He had managed to keep his sanity amidst that kind of madness. The least I could do was let him keep the damned book.

The reign of sononmanbich may not be at an end just yet, but for the first time in my life, I can say that it?s getting there.

*So check it out. I know the book is available online at Amazon.

About Dolores de Cabeza:
Dolores lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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