Yo No Sé Que Hablar — I Don’t Know What To Say

The man sitting behind me at the restaurant last month was speaking Spanish.

So was the park worker the other day, which was a surprise.

There was the couple wearing “Great Aloha Run” shirts, asking each other about rain, parece que va a llover. Their accents were wonderfully soft, elongated, melodic and tripping. Dominican, I think, like my friend Carolina’s.

When I lived in LA, hearing Spanish was a given. It was everywhere– on buses, at the bank, on signs and on my radio in the car. Even though I lacked fluency when I moved there, it was omnipresent.

Now, living in a state with under 10% of a Latino population (a huge increase from before), hearing Spanish is a rare treat, something that immediately makes my ears perk up. I remember each time like a small gem, holding it close as a reminder of home.

I love living in Hawai‘i– I really do. People see me and know I’m part Filipina, which almost never happened before. It’s an exciting rush– “yes! You see this part of me! You get me!”

Like I’m sure lots of mixed kids deal with, though, I always have a hard time trying to navigate both cultures. I love living here and being seen as Filipina, but now I miss part of my Latina culture. I miss speaking Spanish with people. I miss hearing mariachi on the radio when I would scroll through channels. I spent all of McFarland U.S.A crying. Not just crying, really, but sobbing. From the quince scene on, I was a mess. The hand-painted signs selling aguas de fruta and the casual mix of Spanglish made my heart ache for something that I still don’t know how to fill.

Spanish is not my first language, and I would barely qualify it as my second. Like many kids, I didn’t learn until I was in school. Both my parents speak Spanish, often with each other, but rarely en casa. It’s not the language they shared when they fell in love. Spanish was relegated to familiar sounds heard amongst family members or on my mom’s telenovelas, a comforting melody of syllables I didn’t fully comprehend.

Two stoles, two cultures, one family.

Two stoles representing two cultures and one family.

It wasn’t until college, when I was constantly scolded for being sin lengua, that I learned to speak with any fluency. I was shamed into it, but in the positive way that Latin cultures do so well– guilt is a part of a beautiful emotional tapestry that is not mean, but reminds us of obligations to our ancestry that we can’t forget.

At some point, when I didn’t expect it, Los Angeles’s Latino culture became part of my understanding of “home.” CASA0101, a primarily Latino theatre, was the only one to employ me, and surrounded me with beautiful Latino voices and stories I wasn’t sure I deserved. Who was I, with my inability to trill my r’s and lack of cultural knowledge? Where did this interloper fit?

Still, whenever I was able to speak enough Spanish to share that my abuela es de D.F. (sí, “una chilanga,” si no piensas esta palabra es mal) y mi abuelo es de Guanajuato y Zacatecas pero mi familia es de Pico Rivera, I was met with nothing but warmth, people willing to help me rediscover my roots.

So, I spent a few summers heading down the road to Boyle Heights, grabbing a burrito at Al & Beas (con papas, claro), and learning how to be part of something without being looked at as “outsider.” There is a unique experience entering a barrio each time. Despite my lack of roots there, the switch from being “one of them” to “one like me” was a heady, life-altering thing that caused me to question my own identity as an American.

The connection grew. I started teaching and Spanish became my lifeboat. My students were gracious enough to become cultural teachers to someone who admitted needing help. They taught me about quinces (and invited me to theirs, into their houses and their families yelling “profesora!” as they brought me a plate of food) and brought me mariscos. 

I became accustomed to tacos al pastor, horchata, and the string of pupuserías in my neighborhood.  I took it for granted that I could find tamales sold on the corner every morning, and be awakened by a woman on my street selling them at dawn. Every Saturday, she was there, yelling with a sense of tired, joyful urgency, singing for our breakfast and her supper, “Tamales, tamales! Tamales de POL-lo, tamales de QUE-so, tamales tamales!”

My housemates hated her (and I wasn’t always a fan), but now I miss her voice. I miss her singing, her call, and her food that makes us special. I miss the small, daily reminders I am not just American. That America is a place I can feel lucky to call home, but that there is another language, culture, and history waiting there for me whenever I want.

In moving to Hawai‘i, I now walk a weird line of outsider-but-not. Passes-for-local. My dark skin and mixed roots make it easy for people to assume I’m from here. It took a three-thousand mile trek, but I found a place where I can walk nearly anywhere and feel like, at least at a glance, I can belong.

Now, though, I am a minority again. There is half of my culture that is completely visible here, but another entire half that feels lost. I search for her, that half. I dig deep, seeing her curly hair, the rhythms she finds by instinct, the poetic words she knows, the palate of memories for her mami’s mole and abuelita’s fideo. I know she is in there, forever entwined with an Asian culture that is just as beloved, just as precious. I worry that, being here, the blossoming of one is threatening to overtake the weaker roots of the other. I worry that, the longer I am away from these consistent reminders of one culture, it will eventually slip away into silence.

Is there a place where both those cultures live, thrive? Is there ever a stable, fertile ground to place both feet firmly and grow roots, instead of the balancing act my body lives in each day? Truly, I wonder: is there ever a way, a place where I get to be whole?

Yo no sé que hablar. No tengo respuestas. I don’t know if anyone does.

3 thoughts on “Yo No Sé Que Hablar — I Don’t Know What To Say

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