Strange, lucky, unique, divided, foreign, difficult… All are good descriptions of my life, but I couldn’t imagine myself living any other way. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t live in Mexico, if I wasn’t bilingual, if I didn’t clamp my mouth shut whenever my friends pleaded for me to speak English.
My blond hair and blue eyes made me stand out in a crowd, but when people learned I could speak English, and for some reason it never took them that long to find out, all hope of being overlooked vanished.
“Where are you from?” was the same question they would always ask me.
“I was born in Guadalajara, but I live in Puerto Escondido,” I would say. It wasn’t a lie but I knew it wasn’t what they were looking for. They would look at each other and then back at me, a skeptical look in their eyes.
“But where are your parents from?” they would prod, guessing the answer before I had to say it.
“Well, they’re from the United States,” I always admitted reluctantly, more than anything because I knew exactly what they were going to say next.
“Ah,” they would say, nodding to each other, “so you speak English?”
“Yeah.” Inwardly, I would sigh. I’m not sure I really minded this treatment anymore. I’d learned to accept it and deal with it, mostly by pretending that it didn’t exist.
When I went to school in first grade, I started to realize how different I was from other kids. My wispy blond hair, always escaping from its ponytail, stood out against the sea of perfectly combed dark hair, like a drop of yellow paint would against a perfectly painted black background. I got to leave school an entire hour early because everyone had agreed that English class would be a complete waste of time for me. Back then I did want to fit in. I wanted to have brown hair and dark eyes and not a single word of English vocabulary. I would have done anything for these things back then.
I was so determined that I decided I would never speak English again with my friends. I turned a deaf ear to my friends’ pleadings.
“Heather, please speak English.”
I refused. “No.” I would not speak English, and someday I would dye my hair black. I’d be just like everyone else one day, I thought stubbornly. “
Se forman al fondo. Correle!” (Form a line at the back. Hurry!), the teacher yelled, spacing the final word into separate syllables for emphasis. New Year’s was a recent memory and very few kids had made it to class. There was a loud chorus of pat, pat, pat as the small group of nine hurried to the last row of blue and yellow foam squares that covered the Tae Kwon Do school’s floor, the usual commotion occurring as children shuffled to be next to friends.
“Uno!” the teacher says, pointing at Angeles, a girl with short black hair who’s standing next to me in line. She repeats it.
“Dos!” I say when it’s my turn.
He continues until reaching the final girl who yells out, “Nueve!”
“Ahora todos me lo van a decir en inglés” (Now everyone will say it in English), he says, picking up a stack of neon orange cones and placing them in a line across the room. He smiles when he sees my scowl.
“One,” Angeles says, pronouncing with a Mexican accent so that it sounds more like wan.
The entire class looked at me expectantly.
Maria, a tall girl on my other side, with jet-black hair tied back in a high ponytail, was nodding at me as if for moral support. I looked around helplessly. I doubted it would matter if I said it with a Mexican accent as I did the rare times that I spoke in English with my friends. It took me little more than a fraction of a second to realize, no, I would not speak in English. I’d always listened well at Tae Kwon Do. It wasn’t just expected; it was taken for granted. Everyone did exactly what the teacher said, no exceptions, so it surprised me to find myself thinking, I don’t care. I won’t do it.
“Dos!” I said after hardly any hesitation, looking stubbornly back at the staring eyes.
The teacher rolled his eyes and the whole class cried in unison, “Heather!”
“A ver, de nuevo” (Let’s see, again), the teacher said, pointing at Angeles. I made a pitiful face. Sometimes people would just give up once they realized they would be better off asking a rock to speak English, and then there were other times…
“One,” Angeles said between laughs.
“Dos,” I said. I wasn’t about to back down now.
“Heather!” the kids around me grumbled. Now the teacher had joined in.
“Engleesh,” Maria said in a Mexican accent. “One, two, three,” she continued, until I gave her an exasperated “Ay Maria!”
“Pero es que yo no quiero hablar en inglés!” I said, making a face and throwing my hands up in the air. No way was I speaking English!
“But Heather…” my friends pleaded in Spanish.
“Your mom’s looking at you,” Angeles said in Spanish, pointing at my mom. I turned around. She was right. Mom was staring at me with a cross between bewilderment and laughter. “All this time and she hasn’t learned to speak English. You’re an embarrassment to your family,” Angeles continued with mock disapproval, shaking her head at me, and then laughed.
I was laughing along with everyone else. Though many of them were staring too, as though they didn’t quite know what to make of me. For a second I imagined what they must be thinking now: Heather, the only girl in the class who really could speak English, and she was refusing to do so.
“Heather,” the teacher finally said in Spanish, “if you don’t say your number now, then everyone gets to kick you and you have to say all the numbers in English.” I made a face at him. I knew exactly what getting kicked entailed, standing up in front of the class while the kids took turns hitting you—not a pleasant prospect by any stretch of the imagination. However, weighed against having to say something in English in front of the entire class, I wasn’t sure which one was worse.
“But it’s that I don’t want to. It’s not fair!” I said in Spanish, glaring at him, but he was already turning around.
“From the other side now,” he said, motioning for the girl on the opposite side of the line to start this time.
“One,” the girl said.
“Two, three, four, five, six, seven.” The rest of the class quickly followed.
I sighed, frustrated, glanced at the kids who were giving me anxious looks, and glared at the teacher one last time. I thought of all the kicks I would get if I didn’t do it, imagined myself having to recite all the numbers. He’d get me to do it sooner or later anyway.
I hated having to go back on things, but I truly could see no other way out of this one. “Ay. Ya bueno. Eight.” I said it with a Mexican accent, though, of course, no one noticed. I half expected him to make me say all the numbers anyway, but instead the teacher started clapping and it wasn’t long before the rest of the class joined in. Maria was hugging me and tears were rolling down my cheeks I was laughing so hard.
On the bumpy fifteen-minute drive home from class, I realized I didn’t even know why I so adamantly refused to speak English while around my friends— even a simple number. What was wrong with me? I’d always thought my refusal to speak English was because I wanted to fit in, but if I cared about that, I could have done what everyone else did and said the number in English. I hated speaking in English with my friends, but I also hardly ever spoke Spanish if I could avoid it with my family.
It felt strange and wrong to speak English with my friends. “Just say a word in English, Heather. Any word,” they would plead. In a strange way, I wanted to speak English to them, but every time, something inside of me would clench up, not in anger, simply in dread. Why, I didn’t really know. “Don’t speak, don’t speak,” a little voice whispers in the back of the head.
It had started as a want to be like everyone else. I had clamped my mouth shut, refusing to speak English. As I got older, however, the want to fit in faded. Why wish for something that was impossible? I was just gearing myself up for failure. Slowly, I accepted my fate, but still it wasn’t easy to back down. Even though I no longer believed in the reasons why I didn’t speak English with my friends, it had been nearly three years that I had been refusing to do so. I wanted to speak English, but some of the stubbornness that had supported me for almost three years remained.
Three years is a long time to never speak English out and about and never speak Spanish at home. Without even realizing it I had split myself into two people. I realized I could create an entire new person when I was with my friends, fix the mistakes I’d made with the person I was with my family. I could stop being sulky, sarcastic, and cynical. I could practically remake myself. The fact that I didn’t even speak the same language made it easier. At home I stayed the sarcastic, critical, book-loving girl I’d always been. With my friends, I became a quieter, happier version of myself.
It had started out as language but it had become more than that. It was like having two entirely different personalities. For a while I thought it was me living a double life. Now I realize it was a double me living the same life. I have to learn to live not with myself but with the two parts of me.
Only a few weeks after I was forced to say the number in English, Maria and I had to fight in combat. We bumped knees and both got huge bruises. One day, when she was limping across the mat and complaining about how much it hurt, I couldn’t help it. “Perdon,” I said. Usually she hated it when people said sorry after she got hurt.
“It’s combat,” she would say, her usual smile vanishing, turning into a cold glare. “Don’t say sorry.” But, although I knew she was rather exaggerated, I couldn’t help it.
She simply waved me off. “I’m only going to believe you if you say it English.”
I sighed, looking at her. She had a teasing, hopeful smile on her face she wore whenever she wanted me to speak in English. Over the years it had become more teasing than hopeful, as though she didn’t really think I was going to speak to her in English after all. Usually I would have rolled my eyes and said, “Don’t be silly. Do you really think I’m going to speak to you in English?” but now I realized that the only person I was hurting was me. Who was the one who had split herself into two parts? Me. Who was the one that had to patch herself back up? Me. I had built the wall that divided me. And only I could knock it down.
I opened my mouth and said the first English word I’d said willingly in a very, very long time. “Sorry,” I said and hugged her. The tiny word felt strange in my mouth, like I really was speaking in a foreign language.
She hugged me back. “That’s why I love you, Heather.” I shook my head. I don’t think she knew why I was smiling.