The Only Spanish I Know

July 13, 2011

This is one of my earliest memories.

I woke up in a completely different place. Everything was different from home, and I was scared. The color of the light was different, the dust in the air, the sick dehydrated feeling, the confusion, the sounds in the street so close. My hair was still blonde, so I must have been 5 or 6 years old.

I woke up in Mexico.

My neighbors had taken me with them to visit their grandmother I think, and I must have fallen asleep, and they left me with her while they stepped out. The poor woman, trying to console a panicked little white girl! It must have been OK, because I remember feeling better and having something cold to drink, and that is all I remember.

My hometown, Imperial Beach, California, “The Most Southwesterly City In the Continental United States,” is where the one-season John From Cincinnati was taped. It is also roughly four miles from the border with Mexico. I spent the entirety of my first eighteen years living in a Border culture. The Border, “La Frontera,” was a physical object. I saw the actual fence separating Mexico from the United States so many times it became normal. I have seen clusters of hopeful emigrants climbing that fence, and I also saw them running down the beach because skinheads were throwing rocks at them. I have heard them outside my bedroom window desperately avoiding the Border Patrol helicopter’s searchlight beneath my neighbor’s pomegranate and quince trees. I have been best buddies with kids whose dads worked for the Border Patrol.

The land that runs west of the Border Crossing in San Ysidro is some of the strangest land I have seen. On the United States side, there used to be open space and farmland. There is still a great big estuary, where the Tijuana River empties marshily into the Pacific Ocean. The farmland has been disappearing for years, and now in parts the same middle-class subdivisions you can see in Anywhere, U.S.A. are within spitting distance of the Fence.

On the other, Mexican, side of The Fence is a road. This is the road that leads to Playas de Tijuana from Tijuana. Tijuana is a massive city. Playas is the beach town. There is a bullring right on the border in Playas, on a cliff overlooking the ocean. I saw the bullring, away, in the distance, every single day of my childhood, but I have never been there.

But I have been on the road. On one of the best nights of my life I was a passenger in a car on that road as my dear friend Tanya drove us home from the danceclubs we frequented to sleep at her parents’ house so we wouldn’t have to cross the border back to the U.S.A. That can be a real drag at 3 in the morning. I was very, very 18 years old, and I was very, very drunk, and it felt like we were in Berlin or somewhere exciting, speeding through the night.

As one drives west to the ocean from Tijuana proper, one can see The Fence to the right, and shambles upon shambles of slums and falling-down buildings all to the left.

That was La Frontera.

Despite living so close to Mexico and being surrounded by Spanish speakers, the amount of Spanish that I know today is absurdly limited. The only Spanish I know can be grouped as follows:

1. Food Spanish. I can order Mexican food in Spanish. If I have to. I think it very likely that I ate Mexican food at least once a day as a child. Nevertheless, it took me YEARS to figure out what “aguacate” meant.

2. Schoolyard Spanish. These are the words that I say under my breath to other drivers when they cut me off or run red lights. They are variations on “chinga tu madre” and “pinche cabron.” I do not know how to spell these words, I am only guessing. I don’t even know what they mean, but I think they are all variations on “asshole” and “fuck yr mother.” Another phrase I heard a lot as a youth but don’t myself say sounds like “Ai, weigh” but it is always said with such a particular cadence that makes me think about standing in line inside my high school cafeteria with my free lunch card, watching the dudes in front of me jostling each other and being stupid teenaged boys. Sometimes even now, here in North Carolina, I see grown men jostling each other and saying that. Does it mean something like, “Hey, fag?”

3. Little Baby Spanish. These are my favorite words. First is “chonclas” (I think it’s spelled) which means flip-flops or sandals. And then “chones” which means underwear. I think. And then there are the words that are most dear to me, the little terms of endearment. I remember being given “uno besito” (a little kiss) and then another one! as a little girl before bed, and being tickled, maybe by my Aunt Lucy or Aunt Teresa, who were not really my aunts but should have been. A few of my closest friends still call me “mija” on occasion even though we are all grown and some of us are married or have children or jobs, and when they call me that my heart leaps.

4. The Spanish Words Men Use To Talk About Women. These are not my favorite words. I learned them defensively.

I should know more Spanish.

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