I’ve been thinking about what it means to speak English in this country. What it means for people to DEMAND you speak English, what it means to be profiled as a non-english speaker and the lack of human respect racists assume you deserve because of it.
More specifically, I’ve been thinking about our responsibility as a community to talk about instances like this and to actually DO something.
Let me tell you a story:
One day, my mother and I were heading in to a bank. Bank of America to be exact and inside, I darkly laugh a little at the name now.
It was a pretty day, we had just had sandwiches, we were drinking water and laughing. We were talking about something funny that had happened at her school during break between ESL classes and typing class. We were speaking in Spanish as we always do.
Directly in front of us on this very narrow sidewalk, there was a very elderly woman walking toward our direction. She was being helped by someone that I soon found out was her son. He was very tall, in his late 50’s or 60’s and they were both white.
I moved to the left side of the side walk to give them room and my mother had already moved to the side of a small shrubbery.
“SOME people have no FUCKING respect! Can’t move when you see someone can you?!”
He said that in an angry and condescending voice to my mother whose face immediately turned red in shock.
“What can’t speak English you stupid bitch?!”
It took me a minute to comprehend what was happening but the almost palpable hate was very hard to even process.
I turned around immediately as he walked by with his mom who seemed to not really process what was happening, sort of singing a little song to herself and smiling at the floor.
“YES, we do speak English you racist piece of shit! You should be ashamed of yourself! Did your mother teach you to speak that way?”
I couldn’t hold in the rage and at the moment I had looked around to assess the situation and there were a lot of people present in front of that bank. Almost all were staring but doing not a single thing.
A few white folks looked ashamed and some were blushing with gaping faces and shaking heads.
“She is my mother! And if she was all right in her head I’m sure she’d tell you fucking wetbacks to go back to Mexico! Dumb broad!”
“Wow, FUCK YOU! What a big man you are to be yelling at two women half your size! REAL FUCKING PROUD American! Racist shit!”
With those exchanges, my blood was boiling. My mom was shaking and breathing hard.
In that moment, I didn’t think hard about what other people think, if the cops would be called, I just thought about my mother.
My mother who spends hours with her head bent over English grammar books, who makes hundreds of flash cards that get used so much that the edges become soft like cloth; the woman who is studying hard to pass the citizenship test in English all at the same time.
I thought about how painful it is for her to have someone make fun of her accent, to mock her choppy grammar, to hurl misogynist, racist insults all wrapped up in the belief that she is not worthy of this country because she doesn’t speak English how she should.
At this moment I think about how my Mother made the extremely (at the time) stigmatized decision that her kids would be allowed to speak Spanish REGARDLESS of the educational system wanting them to be English speakers only first and foremost. She strongly believed they could hold on to their native language and learn a new one; that it wasn’t Un-American, that they were intelligent, that they deserved to have that right.
I think about how this morning right after breakfast she sat at the computer for two hours straight doing grammar exercises and writing down the questions she got wrong on a piece of paper to study later.
How I sat there with her going through the paper and patiently speaking them outloud with her while she laughed awkwardly when she chopped up the pronounciation of a word; still feeling ashamed when I asked her if she’s been practicing having English conversations outside of the house.
When I watch my mother take a deep breath and nervously have a conversation with my little brothers friends’ mom or scream an obscenity back at a racist; I see it as a positive step. I know her voice is just as important as those who don’t struggle with the language and it literally being out there matters.
Regardless, of the place people’s opinions and demands that you be a true American by speaking perfect English came from, in the end it is never a good place.
I refuse to stand silent when someone attempts to demean a person, mock their grammar, pronounciation or anything of the sort because in doing so you are giving them more power.
Some days, when racist things take place and my insides just feel out of sorts I can’t help but think, where are the allies?
Where are you community? And why are we so afraid to stand next to each other and say, hell no!