Mother Tongue | Cristina Marie Mendoza
My father drives from Des Moines to Chicago amidst a pandemic. It’s been roughly five months since I last saw him and, to be honest, I’ve been terrible at keeping in touch. He arrives on a Friday and if there’s anything you should know about the paternal side of my family it is this: they are terrible at making plans. On more than one occasion my father has woken me up on a Saturday morning to tell me that he got into town late last night and is standing in front of my tiny city apartment. This time I find my father just down the block sitting outside of his childhood home with my grandfather as if it were the most natural thing in the world. We catch up about work, about the new normal, whatever that means. And then he turns to me and asks “¿Como esta el barrio?” checking in on his former home and a community hit hard by the virus.
It’s a seemingly simple gesture, one that any Mexican-American kid would be used to. But in the way he says it, it’s clear that he’s looking for a response. Not in English. But in Spanish. I think for a minute then speak at a slow pace and with broken words, but they’re the right words and he smiles. Though I’m thirty-one, this is the first time my father has spoken to me like this—with the expectation that I know our mother tongue.
I was born and raised in a small suburban town called Urbandale, Iowa. We loved football and good ol’ Midwestern values. But most of all we loved America. My parents had been sold the American dream—a white picket suburban utopia that, they were told, would be the cure to generational trauma and struggle. At the time, depictions of home on TV did not include Selena playing loudly on Saturday morning radio or flipping tortillas with your bare hands. And so, picking up where their parents left off, they learned to assimilate and began to live in the inbetween. Here, in this small Iowa suburb, assimilation was the key to success. Here, Spanish was reserved for inside the home. Until it wasn’t.
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher paid my mother a call. “She’s having trouble speaking up in class,” my teacher urged. She did not ask my mother whether I was a shy kid, equally quiet in class as I was at home. Nor did she consider that I was naturally soft spoken. Instead, “Children simply aren’t meant to speak two languages this young,” she lectured. My parents took that “guidance” to heart and began to filter our mother tongue from our everyday conversation, silencing it until fits of rage, scoldings, and things not meant for a child’s ears were uttered. That one phone call led to decades of suppressed language. All these years later and I’m still angry that something as sacred as language was stolen from me.
Sometime when I was in elementary school, my dad began sending me to Chicago to spend summers with his side of the family. Off I went, year after year, running through alleyways and licking the sticky remnants of strawberry paletas from my fingertips on 90-degree days. My cousins and I stayed at my grandmother’s house in Pilsen where she made caldo de pollo even though it was blistering outside.
By the fifth summer, I knew the one-mile radius around my grandparent’s three-flat like the palm of my hand. My favorite thing to do was flex what little Spanish skills I had by ordering mangos con sal y limón from our treasured neighborhood street vendor. But the words still felt foreign and heavy in my mouth. On one particularly hot summer night, my grandmother kept correcting me as I tried to talk to her. Stopping me often to tell me that a word ends in a and not o, and shaking her head as she stood over the stove when I took too long to respond to something. She was the only one in my family to have pushed so hard and, at the time, I just couldn’t understand why it mattered so much. My 12-year-old brain was frustrated and confused as I sat at the kitchen table and felt tears build up in my eyes. Turning away from the stove she noticed the emotion written all over my face and walked towards me, patted me on the head and said, “No es tu culpa, lo siento.” I didn’t have the words but I wanted to say, “I’ll practice. I promise.”
When the summer came to a close and my father brought me back to our small suburban life, I spent the next several years fighting off our language and the place that had become my second home. I was a teenager with enough angst to fill a Hot Topic, and desperate to fit in with my white classmates. I began to feel embarrassed when my family offered my friends menudo instead of meatloaf, annoyed when they called me mija in public. The comfort I once had in my identity and in our language dissipated. Not once did I explain to my hometown friends that there’s a city just five hours away that looks like home and feels like home and sounds like home, but neither here nor there seem to accept me.
To be Chicana is to live in the borderlands.
On my first day of high school, I walked down the hallway to Spanish class, dreading it because it was the only class wherein I didn’t have a single friend. The teacher greeted students at the door, shaking their hands and asking them their names before crossing them off the class roster. When I landed before her, I said my name and smiled politely. She gave me a puzzled look in return.
“Mendoza?” she said, brows furrowed as she stared at her clipboard. There was a hesitation in her voice that, at fourteen, I didn’t know the meaning of.
“Yes, Cristina Mendoza. That’s me.” I smiled again, beginning to wonder if I read my schedule wrong.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be in Spanish I, my dear.” She looked up from her clipboard and smiled. “Can you go to the guidance counselor and have them move you to the correct Spanish class?”
“I don’t understand—” I began, my face flushed. A boy I had class with in middle school impatiently huffed behind me as I pulled papers out from my backpack searching for my schedule. “I’m pretty sure this is where I’m supposed to be.”
“Cristina Mendoza, right?” She said my name with an emphasized accent. An accent I didn’t have. “I think you should be in the Spanish for Hispanics class, dear.”
“Spanish for Hispanics?” I was confused. That class was for the small number of recent immigrants at our school. Years later, I’d reflect on the name of this class alone and cringe. “Couldn’t I just get bumped up to Spanish II if this is too easy?”
She laughed and shook her head. A tiny rage began to bud inside of me. “But then you would be with the sophomores and we can’t have you in there with them. Head on to the guidance counselor. They’ll be able to move you to the right class.”
A small line formed behind me and I heard my classmate snort before saying, “Mendoza forgot she’s Mexican again.”
“I don’t speak Spanish,” my voice grew louder than I intended as I pleaded with her. “I don’t know Spanish. If I go into that other class, I’ll fail.” My voice cracked a little. I looked at the crumpled schedule in my hands.
She sighed and I continued, “We only speak Spanglish at home. I can count, and tell you some colors, but I don’t know directions or how to do much else besides order at restaurants.” She finally stepped aside, motioning for me to enter the classroom. I walked towards the seat furthest from the door, refusing to make eye contact with my classmates. Her voice followed me, “This will be too easy for you. We’ll need to remove you if it is.”
She was right. The class was too easy for me. And yet I barely passed.
In 2015, I found a tiny, imperfectly perfect Pilsen apartment that felt made just for me—a renovated corner store that my cousins and I frequented in our youth, my new living room was formerly the beverage aisle, just a few houses down from my grandmother’s home. Once I was all moved in, I spent more time with her than I ever did before, and my Spanish began to flourish. She corrected me whenever I used “el” instead of “la” and told me when I improperly conjugated a verb. I always improperly conjugate verbs. The lessons I once found stern and forceful as a child now seemed tender and loving, like she was trying to pass on a secret that only our family can know.
And then, one day after praising how good my Spanish had gotten, she said, “I bet you can’t figure this one out,” and began speaking in Purépecha—her mother tongue. My head spun thinking about how there’s a whole other language that some of my ancestors spoke. Then my heart broke because I didn’t think I had another thirty years in me to learn this one too. I stopped trying to learn, and just listened.
The last time I heard her speak Purépecha, my cousin and I were in my grandfather’s red pickup truck driving through the mountains of Michoacán. She told us about where she grew up, as well as how important it was that we kept coming back to our motherland and learning our language. We took it to heart, just as we’ve taken everything she’s ever told us to heart. When she passed away in 2019, I felt like my language went with her.
Dad often comments on how my generation is making a return to the culture. In reality I think many of us are getting older and realizing that the old way of doing things no longer suits us. That the assimilation pushed on our people doesn’t need to be our idea of the American dream. Each year we begin to see more and more Latinxs pushing against the grain, joining the millions of voices asking to have a real seat at the table in a land supposedly built on opportunity and freedom. For some this means decolonizing our thinking and appreciating the medios our grandmothers taught us. For others this means finally learning that menudo recipe or buying your first tub of manteca to make tortillas.
We’re a people bred between and within two cultures while being asked to conform to what white dominant culture has deemed American. But we have an opportunity to push back now. Thirty-two million voices with the opportunity to demand change. Thirty-two million voices with the opportunity to tell the world that we no longer belong neither here nor there. That this is our home, with all of its contradictions and obstacles, and we should be able to love ourselves, our cultura, our language here.
My father is getting ready to head back to Des Moines and, before he leaves, stops by my apartment. “I’m proud of you, mija.” he says while hugging me. These simple words contain multitudes. Not once does he tell me exactly why he’s proud of me or what it is I’ve done to evoke his pride, but it’s something I never heard until I reached my late twenties. Why ruin a good thing?
I hug him back. I want to say, “I know you and Mom did your best. I’m sorry I don’t call home as often as I should to practice Spanish with you. I know you would love that. I’m sorry I skipped my high school Spanish classes so often. Maybe if I went more I would know how to properly conjugate agradecer, instead of waving my hands in the air and saying ‘¿como se dice yo estoy… thankful?’ But these are words, are they not? My broken Spanish. My Spanglish. Todos son palabras, ¿no? Although I want to be that perfect Mexican daughter with her perfect vocabulary, I know that will never be me, and you’ve accepted that. Thank you, apa, for accepting that. Te amo mucho.” But instead I say, “Thanks Dad, I’ll talk to you soon.”
Cristina Marie Mendoza (she/her) is a chicana in Chicago. She minored in creative nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago and is currently enrolled in Story Studio’s Essay Collection in a Year program where she is writing a collection of essays focused on Latinx identity, generational wisdom, and family histories. You can find her on social media @xtonson.
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