When I was young, I was called a Pocha, and through the years, occasionally, I’ve felt the sting of that reproach at times. Pocha Is a derogatory name used by “real” Mexicans who speak “good Mexican Spanish” when they refer to Mexican-Americans, that would include me, who either do not speak Spanish at all or speak it “bad” and topped with an accent.
Pocho, is just a Spanish (Spain) word that refers to fruit gone bad or discolored fruit. If you will allow me to be dramatica. So the tree (Mexican parents) sprouted fruit in the United States and that fruit (the children) was compromised. Hijole, it faded into American culture and it is now Pocho/a. Native Mexicans will hear a Spanish word spoken by Mexican Americans and know that we are “del otro lado”. The other side being the U.S. Y pues, it happened to me again, I was found out!
Just the other day, I got a surprise notification from my dear friend Raquel. She was coming with her family to Tijuana Mexico; aka TJ. It was a tedious business trip but she was hoping to plug in family and friend time while she was so close. In haste we scrambled, changing work schedules to make the time for our short reunion. We were off to Mexico! My husband has his google maps Siri set to an English accent, entonces, trying to understand her as she pronounced the Spanish street names was confusing, pero, thank goodness that while I listened with a critical ear, he was following the map. Between the English accented Spanish names and my “watch out Ben” he managed to avoid the aggressive lunch traffic drivers and arrive at the meeting place on time, without a scratch or dent. Our heart rate settled pretty quickly, especially since it was a short drive. We met in a nice quiet restaurant in Zona Rio; River Zone, located in the modern business district of Tijuana Mexico.
Yo si hablo español, the Mexican American “off brand” spanish. Usually, I don’t pay attention to the way I speak it, except when native Mexicans notice it. De repente, I was stumbling and apologizing for my spanish.
There we all were, Ben and I, with the Munoz and extended family. I was giddy with the prospect of a good visit, catching up and just enjoying the time. I showered her with my Spanglish, she responded in perfect Spanish, it is always very harmonious. When our husbands are with us, we throw in enough English to keep Ben in the loop of the conversation. That afternoon I did have to translate since Raquel’s mom was with us, she doesn’t speak English. No problem, it’s what I’ve done for 34 years. Vez, Ben no habla español. The waitress brought the menus and all was well until I didn’t understand one of the words she used! In my defense, she was wearing a mask. Masks muffle the voice, pero I definitely understood her “eye language” and mannerisms. Imediatamente, she was cold. She was impatient with me, choosing instead not to speak to me! Like I was too silly to understand. Por supuesto, that the self defense mechanism shot up when I’m in “defense” mode I think and speak English. In this case it made it worse. Hay si! Que sangrona verdad? Maybe I seemed like a rude,stuck up, “I think I’m better than you” Pocha in her eyes? Pero I kept this drama to myself, I didn’t want to make a scene by confronting it. That strong latina woman in me rises up 😬 But in reality what I felt was, “Back up! Why do you judge me because of my broken Spanish? I’m doing my best!” Could it have been that she didn’t understand me? 😲 In any case, it got rude on both sides, it was all in Spanish and eye language which I thought only I was sensing.
Lea, Raquel’s sister, felt the tension and recognized that common “Pocha judgment” and stepped in to save the day. She strategically commented on the “not so good service” which did catch the waitress’s ear. Then, she gently explained what I already knew. Lea said “Rosy, es que. tu español, pues…” she said that my Spanish is ok but noticeably accented. She said that with an apologetic tone. It had uncovered that I come from the other side. But, I wasn’t trying to cover anything up? She explained that there is a mindset that Mexicans have about Mexican Americans. Some Mexicans assume that when Mexican Americans choose not to speak Spanish, they are Pochos, with a pompous attitude that says “I’m Americana.” Some Mexicans will sarcastically say “Con el nopal en la frente” “with a cactus on their forehead” The cactus is a prominent Mexican symbol. El dicho implies that while Mexican Americans drop their Mexican roots, they can’t drop their ethnic look, dark skin and indian features. It’s what I knew already, it’s a wrong assumption, but it’s what I’d felt before. What do you say to that? I was just glad that neither Raquel nor Lea had ever rolled their eyes at my broken Spanish with the gringo accent.
Thankfully, that whole incident ended well, The waitress heard the complaint and was nice again and I chose not to be offended. I ordered my meal using my Spanglish, feeling very Mexican, and we all enjoyed a great time.
That Pocha experience was another reminder to me that I needed to affirm other Mexican Americans, or multiracial people, like my own kids, who attempt to use their Spanish or Spanglish. I needed to stop chuckling when their attempts sounded “off” and instead help them and fan their desire to practice Spanish speaking. After all, it’s a beautiful language!
My ama tried plenty of times to learn English and she struggled, to the point of tears at times. Learning a second language is not easy, even when the need and desire is there. Y, mi esposo, that cold blooded Englishman, hasn’t been too motivated to learn Spanish as a second language. A common denominator for both has been the easy access to translators, why learn, just have your translator interpret it all for you.
Learning a language when you are chiquita makes a huge difference. When I was little I spoke only Spanish, immersed in it, it was my amas rule, something I can truly appreciate now. Then when I was five, in kindergarten, I learned to speak English very quickly. When my kids came along, I wanted them to learn Spanish, but it was hard to speak Spanish to them consistently. Ben only spoke English, I thought in English, besides, by then it was my first language. I found the help I needed when they turned five years old. My great resource was the Spanish Immersion school I sent them to. Entonces, hispanic moms, some unsolicited advice is, try to teach them while they’re chiquitos.
Having both languages is a great asset, but if you don’t have both, it’s ok. If you speak a second language mas o menos, good for you! échale ganas!