The other night, as I was leaving my dad’s house, he noticed the cookies I had in the backseat of my car that were for an upcoming movie night among my friends. My dad pointed them out, jokingly saying he wanted some.
“What are those treats? I want some! ¡Mochate!” Understanding what he meant, I laughed and responded in English, saying he couldn’t have any.
In just one word, one moment, I felt the comforting, yet still unfamiliar connection I always feel when understanding a language other than English. Years ago, my dad taught me a Spanish slang word for share; mochate. I stored the word among my limited Spanish vocabulary but never used it or heard it again until the other night.
When my dad used the word again, and I realized that I remembered what it meant, I had a rush of emotion filled with pride and secrecy and connection. It felt as if we had a secret code and only we had the key to decode it. Since I am not fluent in Spanish, it is rare that I can communicate with my dad or distant relatives in their first language. I struggle with the spoken language and become bashful when I attempt to speak it. I feel uncomfortable using the correct accent, afraid that I will mess up and embarrass myself. It was always unfamiliar to me, even though it flows through my veins and I have passed years of Spanish classes with flying colors. There was something about Spanish that always seemed just out of reach to me. Yet in this brief moment, I was able to revel in the fact that I could understand my father in two languages at once, even if it was a single word. I felt connected to him as well as to a language that always seemed to escape me. I was aware of the growing bond to an unknown culture.
My father did not teach me Spanish growing up. He wanted me to know English solely so he didn’t speak Spanish to me in our household. Because of this, I always sensed a disconnect from my father, his family, and my mestizo heritage. I yearned to know this mystical language so I could be dubbed as a “true” Mexican. I believed that to communicate in Spanish was to be a real Mexican and my lack of the language proved a denial to my own heritage. I envied my cousins for rattling off in a blur of trilled r’s to our grandmother. I always wondered what my childhood friend was yelling at her sister when they got in an argument. I was embarrassed and self-conscious whenever an elder addressed me in Spanish, assuming I knew it, and I would have to stutter shyly and look to my dad to explain that I couldn’t understand. All I had in my Spanish vocabulary was a short range of courtesies and numbers.
Since then, I have taken many years of Spanish in high school and college and have learned enough of the language to read, write, and, with much difficulty, speak it. I was never fluent but for once I felt accomplished and proud for learning a communication used for generations on my father’s side. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could be considered “Mexican enough” in the eyes of the people around me. Yet despite my new found cultural pride, I have since learned that this grading of “Mexicanness” is in itself poisonous to self cultural identity. There is no marker to determine one’s validity to their own heritage.
Gloria Anzaldua writes in her book Borderlands that Spanish is multi-faceted with numerous versions and dialects. Gloria also believes that just like the language, the Chicana identity is ever-changing.
“There is no Chicano language just as there is no one Chicano experience. A monolingual Chicana whose first language is English or Spanish is just as much a Chicana as one who speaks several variants of Spanish.”
I have felt alone for much of culture identity journey. I have always had a disconnect from my heritage but did not know how to seek help in order to bridge it. I was unsure who to turn to, worried that my asking for help would be yet another marker that I would never be truly Mexican and I would be denied access to a colorful heritage.
It was only when I began taking Chicano studies course at UCR that I found peace within myself and my cultures. Along with Gloria’s Borderlands, I was assigned multiple forms of media that all confirmed what I was missing in the first place; I had a right to my heritage and I am not alone. I discovered a history of not only Mestizaje but of the subculture of Chicanisma. Being a Chicana is not a checklist of traits that one must fulfill to identify as being such. Being a Chicana means having pride in oneself and one’s heritage and possessing the drive to strengthen the connection to lost cultures and histories. Not knowing my father’s tongue, having light skin, and being raised in America are facets that do not exclude me from creating a bond to my Chicanisma. My motivation in chasing my paternal history and pride in who I am are what make me a Chicana.