LOS ANGELES — In the deepest reaches of my brain, there is a boy who speaks Spanish.
He calls his mother and father “Mamá” and “Papá.” One of his favorite expressions is “qué lindo” (how nice, or how sweet). He’s proud of the Mexican slang he’s learned: for instance, “no hay pedo,” which means “no problem,” though its literal translation is “there is no fart.”
California nearly killed that boy.
My parents arrived in Los Angeles as immigrants from Guatemala. We had a shelf of books in Spanish in our Los Angeles home, including “El Señor Presidente” by the Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, but growing up I could not read them.
Like millions of Latino kids educated in California public schools, I never took a class in Spanish grammar or Spanish literature, nor was I ever asked to write a single word with an accent or a squiggly tilde over it. In the ’70s, Spanish was the language of poverty and backwardness in the eyes of some school administrators, and many others.
Supposedly, we got smarter by forgetting Spanish. By the time I was a teenager, I spoke the language at the level of a second grader. My English was perfect, but in Spanish I was a nincompoop.
I knew I had lost something priceless to me. A lot of Latino kids who grow up without Spanish feel this. And last week, even as the Latino-immigrant basher Donald J. Trump was elected president, many engaged in a successful collective act of cultural resistance by joining other Californian voters who overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to expand bilingual education in public schools.
Proposition 58 overhauls another ballot initiative that was approved by the voters in 1998. That measure was born in the early years of the anti-immigrant movement, before it spread from California across the United States.
Back then, Spanish had become the de facto second language of California. Latino immigrant children were filling the underfunded public schools and not doing very well, while chattering away to one another and to their teachers in Spanish in their overcrowded classrooms. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who helped lead the anti-bilingual education movement, argued that educating immigrant kids exclusively in English would improve our test scores.
No one disputes that every child in this country should learn English. But the no-Spanish dictate amounted to a form of cultural erasure. It was a cruel, shortsighted act, born of ignorance and intolerance.
Being literate in the language of your immigrant ancestors (whether that language is Spanish, Korean, Mandarin or Armenian) makes you wiser and more powerful. I know this from experience.
It took me two years of college study and a year enrolled abroad at Mexico’s national university to reboot and upgrade my bilingual brain. Shakespeare and Cervantes now live in my frontal lobe. Seinfeld and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, too. Bob Dylan and the Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra. I have sought to master the Anglo-Saxon language spoken by Lincoln and Whitman, and also the Latinate language of Pablo Neruda and of the Angeleno street vendors.
With Spanish’s endearments and ample use of the subjunctive tense and the diminutive, I have learned that to know a language is to enter into another way of being.
My father, for example, is a charming man in English, a language he has spoken fluently for a half-century. In Spanish, however, his full talents as a sardonic raconteur are on display; he’s even prone to the occasional philosophical soliloquy. My mother is a fluent English speaker, but in Spanish she’s a storyteller with a deeply romantic bent and a flair for the ironic.
Today, I write books in English, but the roots of my career as a writer lie in Spanish literacy and Spanish fluency.
Most of my extended family lives in Guatemala and speaks no English. When I returned to that country as a fluent Spanish speaker, I had my first grown-up conversations with my grandparents, uncles and cousins. I learned of village dramas and quiet acts of resistance against Guatemala’s dictatorship, including my grandfather’s adventures as a bricklayer and die-hard union man.
It was only as a fluent Spanish speaker that I finally I came to know my true self. Who I was and where I came from.
Soon enough, I also came to know a Los Angeles I would not have known otherwise: a city with its own brand of Spanish, a city shaped by the ceaseless improvisations, reinventions and ambitions of its Spanish speakers. They became the subjects of my novels.
For Latino immigrant children, Spanish is the key that unlocks the untranslatable wisdom of their elders, and that reveals the subtle truths in their family histories. It’s a source of self-knowledge, a form of cultural capital. They are smarter, in fact, for each bit of Spanish they keep alive in their bilingual brains. And they are more likely to see the absurdity in the rants of xenophobes and racists.
In Europe, most people speak more than one language. Some speak three or four or more. Multilingualism is a sign of intellectual achievement and sophistication.
A fourth grader from Guadalajara, Mexico, learning English for the first time in a Los Angeles classroom needs to know that what she already possesses is valuable. Teach her English, yes, but also the rules of Spanish spelling — and give her some Juan Rulfo to read when she gets older.
She’ll most likely see some of herself in the stories of that Mexican genius. And it might soon dawn on her that she’s a genius, too.Continue reading the main story