Like A Deer Caught In Headlights

Speaking Spanish is not this pocho's forte

By Al Carlos Hernandez
Published on LatinoLA: January 27, 2003

Like A Deer Caught In Headlights

Have you ever made the mistake of saying a few phrases in Spanish, only to have the other person speak for the next 45 minutes in the mother tongue, while you have little clue as to what they are saying and/or how to stop them?

Yeah, right. Like I?m the only one.

I am of an urban generation that was not taught Spanish as a first language because our parents believed that the only way to get ahead in this society is to be fluent and literate in English. And they were right. That?s not to say the plan worked as well as planned. We spent the majority of our schoolyard days speaking a Cholo form of Spanglish Ebonics.

Just because one is not fluent in the Spanish language does not deminish one's stature as a Latino; it just seems to somehow sanitize and anesthetize the ethnic experience. One can be bicultural without being bilingual. The two aren?t mutually exclusive dialectics.

My wife and her family are bilingual and I have learned a great deal of familial conversational Spanish from them, enough to enjoy some Univision and execute the challenged ability to order most of the food I want at favorite restaurants. I am, however, growing weary of the process. Mostly every time I attempt to speak to the server, they invariably look at my wife in confirmation of my order, fearing that I might have ordered some monkey knuckle soup.

As a part of my college major I was forced to take several years of University-level Spanish, but I have yet to have anyone ask me "?donde esta la biblioteca?" Spanish, like all other college courses, are somehow designed to be deleted from memory the minute you pass the class.

I have experienced a perverse type of prejudice, which I have learned to enjoy when approached by Spanish-speaking sales representatives who are hired to prey on the economically na?ve monolingual Spanish. Now that Latinos are the largest minority group, they will bring the carpetbaggers in by the bus loads.

Once we were at a department store and the sales representative in his Sunday-go-to-meeting suit was sent out to talk to us because we were visually Latino. He asked my wife in Spanish which country was she from. She smiled and politely answered Nicaragua.

He turned his 'novela' glare to me and asked me the same question in broken English. I answered him with a ghetto timbre in my voice: "Oakland!!" then tossed up the big O sign with my fingers and banged it against my chest.

Needless to say, we had to step out of the store and ?talk.? I am not to do that again because that makes me a 'sin verguenza,' which is a person without shame and/or a local politician.

I have mastered a technique that has proven useful when I find myself in the position of listening to a person who is talking to me in Spanish. The rules are simple: First of all they want to talk and really don?t care of what you have to say because as a Pocho, you are somehow genetically inferior. So, all you have to do is smile at the appropriate times, and shake your head in dismay during the "ay, yi, yi?s?"

A well timed ?Orale? after a happy phrase, or a strategic ?Hijole? after a distressing paragraph can go a long way and may win you a free beverage. When you need to end a conversation, a ?Bueno, pues?, in concert with some "I have to go to the ba?o" body language can usually extricate you from a one-way conversation. Be careful: If you overstate your case they may go the bathroom with you.

I really wish I could converse in Spanish but there is too much pressure. If you take an adult class as a Latino they will expect straight A?s and think that you are there to pick up women. You can?t practice on native speakers because they will clown you and player hate you because you drive a German luxury car.

Recently, I?ve realized that I have reached a point in my social career where I can understand about 70% of what someone is saying to me in the mother tongue if I can watch their lips. Since many Latinos have big lips, this has made my job easier. I have been able to lay out several sentences together and have received in-kind reciprocal response.

Gente now just think I am shy.

About Al Carlos Hernandez:
Al Carlos is a national columnist.

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