Speaking the Heritage

A professor tries to explore the complexities of speaking Spanish in the Southwest -- and runs into unexpected roadblocks.


October 31, 2005

Up front: I am a Hispanic woman. I speak Spanish. And English. And other languages. I am a professor in a university in the Southwest of the United States, near what some of my ethnic group have called la frontera. My specialty has to do with all the languages I speak, and their literatures, and some of the national and regional cultures in places where these languages are spoken. More than this, I cannot reveal, lest my position at my institution be put in jeopardy; I have no tenure, but a houseful of young children who absolutely depend on my salary to live. Recent events in my university have taught me a few things about being a Hispanic woman, and on how, even nowadays, when much has been said about the power of las mujeres, when the chips are down, a woman's head is the first to roll, especially if she challenges conventional wisdom. I don’t want mine to roll more than it has already rolled.

But let’s go back to where it all began: the classroom. When I first arrived at this university, about five years ago, nothing delighted me more than to see the different forms of Spanish many of my students used. They are very inventive with the syntax, the grammar, and their vocabulary contains words that can be traced to Nahuatl and other indigenous languages. As a person with interests in sociolinguistics, my first semesters here made me feel like a child in a toy store. My students felt my interest, and would come to my office to tell me words that they used in their homes, and many started telling me stories about their families.

What I learned -- and realized I should have known all along -- is that the families of the great majority of my Hispanic students did not come to the United States; rather, the United States came to them. They have been here long before this region ceased to be part of Mexico. In their homes, alongside their abuelitos (grandparents), they have the constant presence of Spanish. With their abuelitos, they learn the taste of the tamales de Navidad, as well the stories of how they were punished for speaking Spanish when they were school children. Theirs are stories of pain, of courage, and of endurance.

For my students who are what has been called Heritage speakers of Spanish -- those whose home language is Spanish, and speak it with varying degrees of proficiency -- their relationship with the language is quite different from the one the non-Heritage speakers and the native speakers have. In these years I have worked close to la frontera, I have come to understand that, for many of the heritage speakers, Spanish is much more than just a language: it is a source of pain, no matter how well or how poorly they speak it. Some have come to tell me how they were ridiculed in elementary school for now knowing how to speak "proper" English. Others told me of other times when the newcomers from Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries make fun of their Spanish and tell them that they do not speak any Spanish, even in the university!

This situation occurs also with the staff in the institution, many of whom practice a delightful linguistic ballet of code-switching, and whose language is extremely inventive and colorful. When I speak to them in Spanish, they tend to become very reverent, and apologize profoundly for not speaking "proper" Spanish, even though I always tell them that they speak a quite proper Spanish, and it does not matter whether they conjugate their verbs slightly different from the way I do. If they and I had the time, I would like to sit with them over coffee every day, so that I can learn their language, and share mine with them.

But it is not to be: they are busy, and I am busy. We meet in the corridors, or when I have to discuss bureaucratic matters, something we do exclusively in English. Even though I have started a Spanish-speaking group that gets together for lunch twice a month, only two staff persons have been able to join the group on a regular basis. All the others are faculty, and most of them come from Spanish-speaking countries, so my desire to continue my dialogue and apprenticeship with the Heritage speakers has not progressed much.

That is not to say that I have not had the opportunity to witness the shock from the two sides of the divide. A particularly illuminating case happened in an upper division course, when, during a discussion of a text, a group of Mexican students tried to humiliate the Mexican Americans every time they committed a "mistake." I had to intervene and spend a whole class period going over the different kinds of Spanish there are, and trying to alert my young Spanish speakers to the history of colonialism that has made Spanish such a vexed linguistic and cultural phenomenon. This case, even though extreme, serves to illustrate the level of challenges, as well as pedagogical opportunities, of working with Spanish in the Southwest.

Last year, after a particularly drenching conversation with a brilliant Mexican American student who revealed to me the immense psychological difficulties he has had trying to be accepted both in the Spanish-speaking and the English-speaking societies, I decided to start a more careful study of the subject. If I am to be in the position to offer more than my mere empathy to my students when they reveal these past experiences, I have to be able to offer ways for them to deal with this situation that goes so far beyond the language. I cringe to imagine how many of them have simply given up speaking their Heritage language for fear of more ridicule, and the many others who have tried to hide their cultural background in an attempt to "arrive" at the Anglo culture.

A natural step, for a teacher, I believe, is to "teach the conflict." To that effect, since my subject is Spanish, I designed an upper-level course in which the students would review the basic published scholarship about Heritage speakers, bilingualism, code-switching, and the historico-linguistic background of Southwest Spanish. My aim was to provide my students -- especially the Heritage Spanish speakers -- with a sound meta-linguistic awareness about their specific situation. This awareness, I believe, will empower them to approach the learning of their third language -- the so called "standard Spanish," which I prefer to call "Castillian Spanish" -- not from a position of inferiority, but from a definite position of equality.

Quickly: what is the difference between a language and a dialect? A language is a dialect backed by an army.

At the beginning of the academic year, we had the usual general faculty meeting of the humanities, and I was asked to speak briefly about the course. I prepared a page about the project, and read it when invited to the podium. As I read, I glanced at the audience and saw a number of Hispanic colleagues making approving signs and nodding in agreement. After the meeting, during a brief get together over chips, cheese and wine, a number of colleagues told me that they loved the idea and thought this is a perfect time for such a course. Some non-Hispanic colleagues also expressed interest and approval. As the semester progressed, my dean decided to take the course to the university board that reviews new courses and their possible addition to the permanent catalogue. I was invited to go to the meeting. I thought this was going to be extremely simple. Boy, was I wrong.

To cut a long meeting short: soon after I gave a two minute presentation on the main tenets of the course, one member of the board pronounced himself "insulted" by my course. Why? Because, according to him, I used the expression "variant of standard Spanish" to refer to "Southwest Spanish."  "Why," he asked, "didn’t you refer to 'California Spanish,' or 'Chicago Spanish'? You make me feel that the Spanish I speak is a lesser kind of Spanish."

For the record: although he identifies himself as a Mexican American, the man is known to not speak any Spanish whatsoever.

My syllabus, my research, the fact that other linguists have dedicated years of study of these sociolinguistic phenomena and have coined the term "Southwest Spanish" meant zilch. The man was offended. He found fault with everything, from the "sloppy" self-assessment questionnaire I had designed, to the criteria for grades, to the elaborate class assessment system I have designed, to the fact that the course included students’ interviews with their Spanish-speaking relatives and friends. It didn’t matter that I agreed to have the proficiency questionnaire re-designed with the help of a specialist in questionnaires; it didn’t matter that I pointed out all the objectives of the course and their correlation with the criteria for assessment. It didn’t matter that in my syllabus one day was destined for a guest appearance by a member of the psychology
department to discuss interview techniques. It didn’t matter that I offered to have the specialist on research on human subjects go also visit the class, and to supervise the final version of the questionnaires for the interviews.  The man simply said that he didn’t like the course, and that Mexican Americans would be offended.

Some uncomfortable dragging of chairs indicated that my presence was no longer required, I thanked everyone and left.

Two days later, I got the news from my dean, that, even though "not everyone saw it this way," a) the course was NOT going to be put in the permanent catalogue, and b) it was going to be demoted from the upper level.

After the initial outrage at such an unbelievable turn of events, I reached some pretty sobering conclusions. First is that, yes, jerkdom in academia crosses lines of race, color, gender, and language. Second, that not all who purport to be in favor of empowering the students really want to do so: much narrower personal interests and ugly ego trips tend to be a lot more important. Third, there are all kinds of Hispanics, some of whom, unfortunately, do not recognize somebody who is an ally, and would rather have only people of one ethnic group teach any subject related to the interests of that ethnic group. Finally, that one should never assume that goodwill, hard work, and scholarship, will get a new course approved.

I have hit the campaign trail, talking to the other Hispanic faculty about the course. I have spoken to every Mexican American colleague on campus. Not a single one is offended by the project. Not a single one can understand why the offended man got so offended.

Maybe I can: the hurt of Spanish runs deeper than I thought at first. If I ever get to teach this course -- something very much uncertain at this point –- I will start with this episode, and ask my students to try to help me understand it.


Anónima teaches at a Southwest institution. She hates not to use her real name because of fear of losing her job over this column. But you never know.


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