Colonizing Wild Tongues
My brain is a constant battlefield: harsh ch‘s and guttural r’s fighting against soft ah‘s and rolling rrrr‘s. My tongue tries to follow, catch up, code switch to what my brain wants. As I suppress some words that come naturally for others that don’t quite fit what I am trying to say, I speak, knowing that there is a better way to express myself. I continually ask myself, “Who am I talking to?” I can’t say anything off the top of my head without running through it. When I write, I pick through the words in my head and constantly erase when I realize the “wrong” one slipped out.
The colonization began when I was 3. That was the year when one, two, three, and four staked their claim over my brain and tried to enslave uno, dos, tres, y cuatro—telling them they were no longer appropriate in public. It was the year when my favorite fruit became grapes instead of uvas and the year my abuelita couldn’t understand when I told her “I love you” because she could only understand “Te quiero.” My mind was colonized by the English language in preschool. Ever since, it has been a constant struggle between accepting the privilege and responsibility that comes with being bilingual, and fighting to keep my mother tongue alive in its original integrity.
On my first day of school, I was all excitement. Not like my brother, who had trembled beneath my mother’s skirt, trying to hold off entering the doors of education as long as possible. As soon as I was unbuckled from my car seat, I was flying through those doors too fast to hear my mom yelling, “Espera, mi hija!”
I greeted the teacher, “Hola, como está usted?”—just like I was taught to politely address my elders.
She said: “NO. We say hello.”
And just like that, a border was drawn across my mind—half of me was legitimate, appropriate, and civilized, and the other half was wild, inappropriate, and primitive. Living with the genetic memory of my Incan ancestras/os, whose tongues were cut for noncompliance, I obeyed. I let those unfamiliar words infect my brain, spread, grow, and exit out through my tongue—temporarily stunting the flourishing of my native language.
More than that, though, I let those colonizers make me believe that I was better than my own blood simply because my mother could not speak their words. I betrayed my people to claim a place for myself in the hierarchy of elementary school. And if learning those sounds and words was not enough, I had to make sure I could navigate them with convincing ease. When Debbie and Ashley—in blonde pigtails and corduroy overalls—told me I had a funny accent, I went home and talked to myself in my room for hours until I sounded just like them. That night at the dinner table, when my mom said “bold” instead of “bald” and “pass the carrrrrots,” I gloated inwardly at my superiority. The next day, I made a point of speaking to Debbie and Ashley in my new Western sound, but they still moved on to their hopscotch and jump rope without inviting me.
This is what colonialism does. It makes you believe that you are better and smarter if you adopt the ways of the colonizers. It made me believe that if I sounded like Debbie and Ashley I could have their life and their opportunities.
But I wasn’t Debbie and Ashley. I was Camila. Not Camille and not Camilla, even though that is what I let teachers call me. I would always be “other” in the United States. It was years later, when I truly understood this, through plenty of trial and error with the Debbies and Ashleys of the world, that I started my own revolution—a struggle for independence—promising to nourish my authentic self by never forgetting my birth language.
To talk about this colonization, though, without discussing the privilege that has come along with it would be unfair, because to be a survivor of colonialism is a privilege. Yes, bilingualism opens doors. Yes, I have opportunities that some people who look like me and have similar backgrounds do not have.
Still, these opportunities come with comments like “Oh, yeah, you got that job because you’re bilingual.” First of all, thank you for reducing me to one aspect of myself. I am sure I do not have any other positive qualities that could have aided in this achievement. Secondly, being given a job for being bilingual is like being handed broken pots as a Taíno in exchange for gold. Although multilingualism opens doors, it also serves as a gatekeeper—displacing me on the outside: somewhere between Latina and Ah-muh-ri-can. If I am speaking with a colleague and mispronounce jew-el-ry (one word my tongue has yet to conquer) then I am other. If I am speaking with my grandma and I pause, suck my teeth, and say “Como se dice?” she has an hour-long conversation with my mother mourning the death of my Spanish. My tongue becomes a casualty of war. I constantly find myself playing a losing game where I can never be Latina enough for the Latinas (“Where’s your accent?” they say) or American enough to be accepted (“You’re so exotic!” they exclaim).
And so the colonization continues. So the sh‘s and ll‘s try to coexist without slaughtering each other. And they will remain at a stalemate until I do not have to choose to use either when I’d rather use both, or until I can stop translating in my head, or until I can stop accommodating others by code switching. My mind is colonized and it is up to me to resist, day after day, fighting to overcome the tradition of silencing wild, inappropriate, and primitive tongues. As Gloria Anzaldúa said, “Wild tongues cannot be tamed; they can only be cut out.”