Monday, August 2, 2021

Column: How I lost my Mexican accent without realizing it

March 24, 2021
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

I'm not really sure if when I talk you can hear anything different about me. 

That said, every now and then I have a slip-up and you can hear my accent.

I was born in Detroit and have lived in Michigan my whole life, so I think I sound like I'm from here. 

Everyone picks up on how other people talk, so you develop their dialects or start using their slang. That’s how all accents are developed and carried on.

The difference with me is the fact that I picked up my accents and my words from people that weren't my parents. 

My parents both speak Spanish, so I grew up bilingual, with only Spanish being spoken at home, and everywhere else feeling like a different world.

It was my first language, and I learned English in preschool. Since I've been a chatterbox my whole life, it didn't take me very long to pick up English. I was probably frustrated that I couldn’t talk to the other kids in my class and figured out English within a month or two so I could give my two cents. 

In grade school, I had a Mexican-Spanish accent, which is almost unnoticeable if you talk to me now.

For my whole life I remember wanting to consume the culture that I was around. I would think, “I'm a kid and I live in America. So, I'm going to do that.”

I don't really want to repress where I'm from, but I think it's our natural instinct as people to want to fit in.

I was an only child for almost seven years and spent most of my time growing up with my Spanish-speaking mother. I had time to get pretty good at my language, and over my years in my church choir, my reading and writing got pretty good as well.

I have a 13-year-old sister, and her Spanish is OK, without much of a sense of grammar. I also have a 10-year-old brother, whose Spanish is very broken and mostly talks in English.

Given that being bilingual is definitely the coolest thing about me, why would I ever want to repress it?

Growing up with English as a second language (ESL) meant I was taken out of my class once or twice a week for special speech and language classes, that I, as a top student in my class, didn’t really need, and instead it made me feel excluded. I took these classes until my freshman year of high school.

Growing up ESL meant having to swallow my social anxiety for years and ask for help at the store every time my mom couldn’t find what she was looking for.

Growing up ESL meant my mom calling me while I was away at college so I could order her a pizza because my little sister was too shy and my brother was too little.

Growing up ESL meant I had to fill out every single official government documentation that came in the mail starting at the age of 10 because my dad was scared to mess them up.

I transferred to a predominantly white school district for high school and by that point, I think I also devolved interests of my own. I identified a lot with pop culture in America and Britain. I was so obsessed with it because it was what I didn’t know. I picked up things here and there growing up, and I only recently realized I subconsciously faked a different accent for the entirety of my teens. 

I sound like this because I made myself sound like this.

But I didn’t do it to part with my culture and the people I grew up with. I’m called whitewashed and unproud by my own people while I was just trying to find myself in a country my family knew close to nothing about.

A friend of mine once told me I sound like a regular Midwestern girl, but I just happen to also speak Spanish. 

It's my own fault people don’t know more about this part of me. I don't talk about my other world, but I want people to know that I’m not proud of omitting that part of my identity.

I didn't realize that while I was trying to fit in somewhere I physically was, I was losing a part of me that was emotionally somewhere else.

When you're not accepted from one side of your life you seek to be accepted by the other.

Maybe faking my accent didn’t work. I ended up tugging on both sides instead.

There are some kids whose parents, for almost the same reason that I started to repress my other language and accent, know Spanish but didn’t teach it to their kids to help them fit in and make life “simple” growing up in America. To those people, I understand your frustrations, and I’m so sorry you feel robbed of the opportunity to fully feel a part of your culture.

My roommate told me that it makes her sad knowing she can't have a conversation with my mom. I don't think there's anybody that has ever told me that before. I don't even know why the thought failed to cross my mind. 

My mom is funny, expressive and blunt. I get some of my best traits from her, and some of my closest friends are never going to be able to actually witness it. It’s really sad to think about, but I also have to be thankful that I am able to communicate with her. 

I have the opportunity to be able to communicate with two different worlds without having to think twice. The switch in my brain flips on its own and a million windows open up.

Sometimes I forget how to say a word in Spanish or I don't know what an English word my friend uses means because I never heard it before. Sometimes I even have to look up phrases on Urban Dictionary before saying them so I don't sound like an idiot during conversations.

I label myself as a bilingual journalist on my resume. 

I think it's funny because my friends told me that it would make me more appealing to employers — which is true — but it’s an awesome skill to have, and I have it almost completely out of luck.

But it really is something we need to talk about more.

Language is one of the most important and interesting things about humans, and I only know two. 

Being bilingual made me feel so much like an outsider that I didn't realize I was forcing myself to fit in. I'm learning to love and embrace it.

To everyone else that is multilingual, I think it’s OK to come to terms with the fact that it’s not always easy, but it’s also a great privilege to have that will always put us a step ahead and that's what we have to remember.

This column is part of our Stop Asian Hate print issue. Read the full issue here.

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