Why Speaking Spanish Fluently (Or Not) Was Important to My Sense of Self.

Why Speaking Spanish Fluently (Or Not) Was Important to My Sense of Self.

by @EricMartinRuiz

I took another sip of coffee and flipped my notes to the beginning. My room at the W Hotel in Mexico City acted as center stage as I rehearsed my presentation. In a few hours, dozens of media buyers would gather in a stuffy conference room to hear about "location-based advertising," the newest buzzword in the world of startups and ad-tech. As the Head of Business Development for @Waze Ads in Latin America, I was tasked with giving the opening keynote and setting the agenda.

My shirt, pressed the night before and protected by a plastic cover, hung in the nearby closet. I paced around the room in jeans and an undershirt. The smell of lemon and sage from the body wash still hung in the air and blended with the aromas escaping from the pot of coffee room service had brought up an hour ago. Stepping over discarded gym clothes and rearranged furniture, I breezed through the introduction of my presentation before staring at the snack bar as I transitioned into the history of the app.

“Más que una aplicación...es un movimiento…”

I caught my hands gesturing in the mirror as I emphasized the points that our P.R. team wanted me to highlight, namely the country's growing user base and our commitment to localizing the product. Both topics would be of the utmost importance to the litany of brand representatives in the audience. I had done this hundreds of times before, but my presentations were always in English. At the end of 2013, I went from working with American brands to leading expansion efforts in Latin America. This was my first ever professional presentation in Spanish.

As I continued through my talking points, I felt my throat tighten and my tongue curl. After drawing a deep breath, I tried to say "Mexico" again. But I couldn't get past the "M" sound. I began to stutter.

"AHHHHHH," I cried out. I could not have this happening during my presentation. I relaxed and tried to say "Mexico" once more. This time, I forced it out. I sounded like one of the ad-libs on a Rick Ross track.

"MMMMMMMMMexico."

Flipping back to the first page of my notes, I scribbled down a reminder. I crossed out the word "Mexico" and wrote este pais...this country. If I was going to stutter with another M word, I just wouldn't say it.

Spanish was my first language, and in fact, it was the only language I spoke until about 2nd grade. However, a lifetime of conversing with your grandmother isn't the same as presenting in a boardroom. I'd always considered myself fluent in my native tongue, but instances like the one at The W Hotel made me second guess not just my own abilities but my own identity.

The Spanish language, and the heritage and culture it elucidated, is what makes me both Latin and the "Mexican" in Mexican-American. But the degree to which I spoke it, at one point fluently, at another poorly, made me self-conscious. How could I be Mexican if I didn't command Spanish?

I looked at my phone. It was now 7:41am. I had about 40 minutes before I had to head down.

Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says "We're the same." A language barrier says "We're different.
-Trevor Noah

Language is the first bond of identity; it ties you to your family and connects you with the broader tribe. In Spain, the people of the Basque Country call themselves euskaldunak — singular euskaldun — in their native language. It means "a Basque speaker." In the early 20th Century, migrants from impoverished areas of Spain migrated en masse to the capital of Catalonia — Barcelona — to work in the booming textile industry. To become a local, i.e., a Catalan, all one had to do was learn the language and support the local soccer club, F.C. Barcelona.

Spanish was an inextricable part of my identity and upbringing. I grew up in Riverbank, a small city in California's Central Valley, in a neighborhood called "The States" that was home, perhaps ironically, to Mexican immigrants. My grandparents lived on Arizona Avenue and the first home I remember, was around the corner on Nevada Street.

Even today, if you were to ride around the neighborhood I grew up in, you might think you were in Mexico. Residents buy tripe for Sunday menudo or skirt steak for carne asadas at Garcia's Market. Special occasions were spent at El Ranchito, purveyors of delicious chile verde and enchiladas. The radio stations alternate between the popular ranchera music from rural northern Mexico and banda music, the polka-inspired ensemble music that serves as the soundtrack to birthday parties, weddings, and other celebrations.

Not even a quarter-mile from the house on Nevada is California Avenue Elementary, where I went to kindergarten, alongside my cousins. (I use "cousin" loosely, as either blood relatives or close family friends can qualify.) I'd walk to school, gripping my mother's hand or, whenever she was at work, my grandmother's dress. All around me would be a chorus of conversations in Spanish from the other students on their way to school.

The Spanish chatter would continue until our kindergarten teacher began class. Only then would my classmates and I switch to the little English we were familiar with. My parents knew the parents of the other students. They worked together side by side in one of the many farms or canneries in the area. DePalma Farms employed most of the Mexican men in the city, including my father and, a few decades prior, my grandfather. While most of the men worked in the fields, the women would either stay at home or work seasonally in one of the produce canning facilities.

My mother arrived in California in 1987, just a few months after she married my father in the Mexican village they had grown up in and a few months before I was born. Though she never learned English, she understood its importance for her children's success in America. Despite my father's doubts, my mother pulled me out of California Avenue and enrolled me at Stockard Coffee Elementary in the nearby city of Modesto. La Stockar, as my parents referred to the school, was so American to me, it felt foreign. Gone were the Ivans, Joses, Juans, and Maribels of Riverbank. Instead, my new classmates were named Tyler, Tyler, Sarah, Tyler, and Stephanie.

Like any new kid, I struggled to fit in. No one spoke Spanish, not even the one kid with the Hispanic last name. Unlike California Avenue, where every student liked Las Chivas or América, the two most popular teams in Mexican soccer, no one in my new classroom knew professional soccer even existed. Without commonalities like language and interests, it's tough to make friends at first.

Bit by bit however, I became more "American." I started following the NFL, I watched the same cartoons my classmates watched, and with the help of ESL classes and after-school help, my English improved. Of course, the moment I got on the bus or my parents picked me up, I became Mexican again, even adopting a different name. I went by my first name, Eric, at school. But at home, my family called me by my middle name, Martín, which is a lot easier for Spanish-speakers to say.

It was an unconscious duality, and I felt a part of both worlds. Yet, I didn't realize how unique this interchangeability of languages and cultures was.

Like all immigrants, Mexicans in California face a challenging dilemma. Do they push their children towards assimilation as quickly as possible? Or do they fight to inculcate in their children the customs, traditions, and language from their ancestral villages? I was friends with this kid named Richard. We played together on the same soccer team when we were 8 or 9 years old. Like my parents, his folks were Mexican immigrants. Our dads used to sit together on the sideline and yell instructions in Spanish. More often than not, I'd yell back in English, exasperated, "dad, I'M TRYYYYYYYING!"

But whereas I could argue back in two languages, Richard didn't speak Spanish. I didn't understand how you could call yourself Mexican, have Mexican parents but not speak it. I asked my dad about it one day after practice, and he told me that some parents want their kids to learn English as quickly as possible.

At the other extreme, my mother had a friend whose husband forbade their children from speaking English at home. For this family, it was essential to maintain the culture and not lose touch with their roots. When it came to Spanish in their household, it was true that if you didn't use it, you'd lose it.

My childhood journey was a middle road between the two extremes and was shaped by luck and circumstance. My parents were strict on several things. But never in language. Sure, I had to be polite and respectful regardless of what language I was speaking, making sure to saludar (greet) everyone in a room, wherever we went, or to say mande (excuse me) instead of the more brute que (what) to express you didn't understand something. But as far as what languages we spoke, they couldn't be bothered either way.

But it's not like I had much of a choice. As the oldest of my siblings and cousins in the Modesto area, I had no one to speak English with. Not only did my mother not speak a word of English, but my aunts and uncles had been U.S. residents for less than 15 years. I had no choice but to ONLY speak Spanish. "The States" neighborhood, the epicenter of my family's social life, was a Mexican enclave. Even the owners at the two mini-marts, Middle Eastern by birth, spoke Spanish.

The media we consumed was Mexican and Spanish language. My father had figured out a way to bootleg Mexican pay TV into California. We wouldn't get American pay TV until I was in middle school. TVNotas, a Spanish language tabloid magazine known for its risque stories and photos, was a staple of every States household.

By the time my siblings and younger cousins started going to school, they had older relatives with whom they could speak English. I had the opportunity to speak both languages often and to speak them well. At home, I'd translate my mom's mail, accompany her to the pharmacy when my dad was at work, and the one time my brother, then maybe 5 or 6, called 911 as a prank, I liaised with the Modesto Police Department.

There was nothing more stressful than trying to interpret important paperwork for my dad. He spoke English, but he still needed assistance in reviewing things like job applications or insurance notices. Once, when I was 7 or 8, he asked me to look over an unemployment claim he'd filed on behalf of my mom. I stared at the document and had no idea what any of it meant. So I told my dad, "I think it says you need to send in more papers." He replied incredulously, "I know that, but why do they need it?"

"I don't know, Dad!"

He'd sigh and, with a hint of a smile, as if aware of the pressure he was subjecting me to, would simply reply, mmm pues, which is universal Mexican dad speak for "alright, whatever."

At Stockard Coffee, meanwhile, I was the token Spanish speaker. Whenever the teachers would say a Spanish word in class, whether talking about San Francisco or how tacos would be on the menu for Parent-Teacher night, all the students would turn towards me as if to say, "Spanish, like you!" I would just nod, smile, and bask in my few seconds of elementary school fame.

Those early language skills would be tested one afternoon when I was in fifth grade. My brother was in third, and my sister was in first. It was the only time we'd ever be at the same school, at the same time. We had just moved back to a larger home in a better part of Riverbank. But it lay just outside the Sylvan School District and thus, Stockard Coffee. My mother didn't want us to go to Riverbank schools. She felt the quality and the diversity of Stockard Coffee and Modesto would be better for our development.

Ironic that a Mexican woman who didn't speak Spanish would want to keep her kids out of a predominately Mexican-American and Spanish-speaking school district. More on that later.

My parents decided to use a relative's Modesto address for all school-related correspondence. Since my Aunt Celia lived within the Sylvan School District, we could stay at Stockard Coffee. I not only had to memorize a new address, but I also had to commit to memory my new fake address. But my sister, who is not a snitch, accidentally revealed to administrators that we lived in Riverbank.

My mom had to call in sick for work and discuss "an important matter" with the Vice Principal. I was into the office over the school P.A. system. "Eric Ruiz, please report to the principal's office; your mother is here." Off I trotted, wondering what distant relative back in Mexico had passed away this time. But instead of being picked up and shuffled home, I was asked to translate. One of the vice principals, an older woman who looked like a Disney villain and smelled like a stuffy library, asked my mom to confirm our home address.

My mom is no dummy, and she asked why reminding the admin that they had our address on file. When the vice principal told my mom they had discovered an inconsistency, Margarita went from 0 to 100. She immediately went into the attack, asking why the school cared where we lived if my mom was the one bringing us to school. Her temper rose as she continued her diatribe; hell hath no fury like a defensive Mexican mother.

Pues que chingados les importa? Si son buenos estudiantes y yo los traigo cada día. No les pedimos nada a ustedes, pues que transan?

I was kinda shocked. I rarely heard my mother curse. I didn't even know how to translate the curse words. I stood there for a second, and then I told the vice principal that "she says that our aunt lives in Riverbank and that my sister was confused."

I could have been a diplomat.

Language, identity, place, home: these are all of a piece - just different elements of belonging and not-belonging - Jhumpa Lahiri

After half an hour or so, the school decided it wasn't going to out-argue a Mexican woman and that since no one was actually going to drive to those addresses and verify who lived there, then it wasn't worth their time or attention. The biggest loser in all of that was my sister, who eventually started crying on the drive home, thinking she'd failed the family by accidentally disclosing family information. My mother was still riled up by the audacity of the administrator. I learned new Spanish words that day.

One afternoon during my junior college years, I found myself in my friend Tyler's garage. A few of us sat around a wooden table that we'd been using as a canvas for our artistic ambitions. There were some intricate designs etched into the table, like the mountain range Eddie had worked on over several days, mixed with pedestrian efforts, like my poor attempt at the iconic Wu-Tang "W." The garage smelled like stale beer, weed, and body odor. An ugly backdrop for a beautiful era. We were pregaming, which is to say, we were smoking and drinking before we went to another house to smoke and drink.

On this particular evening, as the guys puffed away (I didn't smoke and drink at the time), I caught Brunner staring at me from across the table. I looked at him and said, "what's up?" Brunner coughed, then leaned back in his chair. He was a behemoth of a man, a former high school offensive lineman. His tight black t-shirt accentuated his muscles, and his bald head shone under the garage light. The only people who called him by his first name, Josh, were his sisters and mother. He had earned the nickname Bam-Bam as a child for his propensity to, well, hit. He looked like a pale, thick Vin Diesel.

"Ruiz," he began with his deep gruff voice, "this is hella random, bro. But do you think in Spanish or English?"

Eddie was mid-puff when he let out a loud laughing cough. On the other side of the table, Sean let out a hearty "hah" before asking, "Brunner, how long have you been wondering that?" Tyler had gotten up to walk inside to get water but turned around when he heard the question. "I want to hear this."

Brunner crossed his arms and leaned forward a bit.

"Ruiz, I love you, bro. I'm not...I don't care..but like you speak two languages, how do you know when to think in one or the other?"

I was speechless. Up until that point, I had never thought about the question.

"Uhhh, I think I...it was both at one point. I think now I think in English."

Brunner stared at me, perhaps finding the question more interesting than I did at the time.

"That's crazy, bro. I wish I spoke Spanish."

For probably the first twelve years or so of my life, I thought in Spanish. My internal monologue was in Spanish, my consciousness was in Spanish, my Hail Mary's were in Spanish. There wasn't a fixed point when I started to think in English. It just happened.

Attending Modesto schools exposed me to a diverse and rich set of experiences. The broad exposure to different people and ways of life allowed them to think beyond the "rancho" culture of Riverbank. That's what my mom had hoped for when she withdrew me from California Avenue in the first place.

However, the downside to leaving that environment was that I wasn't practicing Spanish as often as my cousins and neighbors. In both elementary and middle school, I was usually one of only a handful of Spanish speakers. Meanwhile, in Riverbank, the handful of white kids were learning Spanish curse words from the Mexican majority.

Without practice and without formal classes, my Spanish stagnated. In 6th grade, I was in an advanced English class, learning about subjunctive clauses and past participles. But the only Spanish I was speaking was with my parents, during the few hours they weren't at work. Even with my siblings or cousins, we were speaking English.

As far as I knew, however, my Spanish was OK. In seventh grade, our class took an intro to Spanish class. It was what was known as an "exploratory" course. The very high level where they teach you a few Spanish phrases and teach you about Hispanic culture. Everyone wanted to be my friend that month. They wanted to sit next to me and ask me to pronounce words like "arbol" and "Biblioteca." I was the teacher's pet, and since I could finish the quizzes and tests in a matter of minutes, I also became a T.A. of sorts.

All this was great for my confidence but did nothing for my abilities. It just perpetuated the false sense of mastery. What's the saying, "in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king?"

Beyer High School offered two types of Spanish classes. The first was your typical high school foreign language class, and the second was titled "Spanish for Spanish Speakers." If I could go back in time, I would tell the 14-year-old version of me to take the latter! (OK, that's a lie, I would say to myself to buy and hold Apple stock.) That class could have helped me! But I decided to take instead...drumroll, please….French! I took French. I took it because I thought my Spanish was the best. And I had no one around me, at least for the time being, to tell me otherwise. Furthermore, when compared to the other speakers at Beyer, I was miles ahead.

There were other Mexican kids at Beyer, of course. The school had almost 4,000 students. The majority of these students hung out in the "Norte Wall" section of the forum. With their Nike Cortez shoes, baggy jeans, and long, oversized white tee shirts covered with plaid button-ups, the students who hung out there looked like Nortenos, a Mexican-American gang active in Northern California at the time.

I was cool with many of those students, and most weren't gangsters; they were just influenced by the culture like some of us were influenced by hip-hop or South LA gang culture. We use different attributes to measure something. For the Norte Wall kids, being Mexican meant dressing like them and adopting their culture, including the "Chicano intonation," popularized by the comedians Church and Chong. For me, being Mexican meant speaking Spanish, watching soccer, and going to mass (amongst other things.)

In art class junior year, I sat next to this dude named Rafa. We didn't hang out outside of class, but we were cool with each other. He was tall, with a shaved head, and his wardrobe of choice was an oversized black or white tee from Foot Locker. He preferred red, but Beyer forbade “colors,” red and blue. Meanwhile, at the time, I wore Abercrombie polos and Axe Body Spray.

We bonded over hip-hop — he loved Tupac and Immortal Technique, whereas I was adamant that Kanye West was the future of music — and Bay Area sports. Though we both shared Mexican heritage, it wasn't the same type. His grandparents had been born in California. He used to tease me about my Mexican-ness or lack thereof, asking why I wore what I wore and why I "wanted to be white." It was less of an attack and more so playful banter among young men. Anytime Rafa accused me of being white, I'd reply, "bro, you don't even speak Spanish! How do you even have an accent?"

"My parents never taught me, foo,” he replied.

If we were going to play the "Who is More Mexican" card, I would always win because I had something no one on the Norte Wall had: command of the Spanish language. Or so I thought.

It wasn't just the Norte Kids who'd tease me about trying to be "white." Cousins and friends from Riverbank thought I was "hella white," too. I wasn't super bothered by it. If anything, I enjoyed the attention for being perceived as different. Being Martin in the neighborhood meant being the one who went to school in Modesto, wore glasses, and knew a lot about football. Their definition of being Mexican was simply...hanging out with other Mexicans and adopting the cultures and norms of the group. That had less to do with ethnicity and more to do with the fact they all went to the same schools. "White" then just meant "different than we're used to." My group norms and cultural touchstones were informed and influenced by my classmates in Modesto.

Above all, I wasn't fazed at being called white because I spoke Spanish, and as long as I spoke Spanish, I'd always be Mexican. I equated language skills with identity, and since I had no feedback loop to tell me my Spanish was truncated, I never questioned my sense of self. That is until midway through my sophomore year.

My cousin Chelly is the oldest of the 14 cousins on my dad's side. She's an accomplished nurse practitioner and a budding real estate investor. She was also the first in our family to go to college and grad school. In short, Chelly set the pace for her younger relatives. When we were young, we started calling her “The Dictator” because she'd boss us around. Sometime during my sophomore year of high school, I was hanging out with Chelly and the rest of the Ruiz clan at a family party. I was sitting next to Chelly on one of the picnic tables sprawled across the backyard. An older relative who had just arrived at the party walked up to say hello. We made pleasant conversation in Spanish and continued on with our afternoon. Once the older family member was out of sight, Chelly turned to me and said, "Martin, your Spanish is really bad."

This was a classic Chelly start to small talk.

"What? No, it's not. I can speak it...fine," I replied.

"You speak it. But it's broken. You don't speak grammatically correct, and you mispronounce words.”

I felt attacked. Maybe I didn't speak it as well as Chelly. But then again, she took classes in Spanish and hangs around mostly Mexicans. I have friends named Kyle and Randy!

As I protested further, I could feel the insecurity creep in. My first instinct was to fight back. I could have argued that at least I knew how to communicate in Spanish, which in and of itself was a huge asset, especially in California. I wanted to make excuses and change the subject to how my focus was on picking up a third language.

I was becoming defensive. And if I was becoming defensive, it was because I cared about how Spanish defined my sense of belonging and identity. Over time, my anger and denial made way for acceptance. She was right; my Spanish was no bueno. The environment prevented me from understanding my language gap. Either no one cared to tell me, or, more likely, my aunts and uncles didn't need to worry since I spoke English.

I became aware of how funny my Spanish sounded. Yet I wouldn't do anything about it for some time. A few years later, at Modesto Junior College, I made the same mistake of not taking Spanish classes. These missed opportunities could have set me back if it weren't for my impending transfer to San Diego State University.

After two years at Modesto Junior College, I transferred to SDSU in the fall of 2007 to major in International Business. The program was essentially a dual-degree in business and a language of your choice. Part of the degree requirements made it mandatory to study abroad in a country based on your concentration area.

I chose Spanish as my focus area, mostly because I'd be eligible to study in Barcelona as part of a study abroad requirement. I was a big soccer fan and I had long wanted to travel to Spain. But the only way my strict mother would let me go was if traveling was required for educational purposes.I was 19 years old when I took my first Spanish grammar class. I also enrolled in Spanish literature and Spanish / Latin American history courses. My Spanish was improving, but I was still deeply insecure about my abilities, mostly when I met Mexcian nationals studying at San Diego State University or at the University of Barcelona. When I was around them, I'd become self-conscious, aware of the American accent that tinged my Spanish.

The more I tried to emulate their speech patterns, accents, in short, the more I tried to be Mexican, the more inauthentic and self-aware I appeared. I had harbored the same feelings of inadequacy familiar to children of immigrants. If Spanish was so crucial to my sense of "Mexican-ness" and I didn't speak the language as I thought I should, then how "Mexican" was I?

Once, when I was living in Barcelona, my Italian flatmate organized a dinner for some friends. I met a trio of students from the Tec de Monterrey, one of Mexico's most renowned schools. Gennaro, who organized the dinner, introduced me to the crew.

"Guys, this is my flatmate I was telling you about, Eric. He's also Mexican!"

I introduced myself and shook their hands. One of the three, the more hipster-looking one, asked me what part of Mexico I was from.

"Well, I was born in California. But my parents are from Michoacan," I replied in Spanish.

The three of them looked at each other, unsure of what to say next. The momentary silence was killed when one finally replied, "then you are not Mexican. You are American."

It stung at the moment, and I tried to play it off by making a joke to diffuse my embarrassment. This guy's intention wasn't to insult me. For him, "Mexican" meant nationality, the passport we carry with us when we travel. To me, "Mexican" meant culture or heritage.

What I considered "Mexican" culture was informed by my upbringing in "The States" and its roots in a small rural village from the state of Michoacan. This is in stark contrast to the students from El Tec de Monterrey or from Mexican society's upper echelons. Imagine two Harvard students: one from the Connecticut elite and the other on scholarship, from Appalachia's backwoods. These students may share a skin color, a university, and maybe even a degree. But their frames of reference and their cultural outlook will vary significantly on account of their diverse upbringing.

Social class is more indicative of culture and behavior than ethnicity and nationality. I struggled to "be Mexican" around other Mexicans in university because we didn't share the same norms and reference frames. We could get along, and we did, if we shared other interests like sports, music, etc. But I was foolish in believing that we'd find common ground in a shared heritage because the hipster Mexican was right. Not only was I not born in Mexico, but if I had been, my parents would have been in a different social class than his parents.

In The Black Swan, the philosopher Nassim Taleb wrote, "... sex, social class, and profession seem to be better predictors of someone's behavior than nationality...a male from Sweden resembles a male from Togo more than a female from Sweden; a philosopher from Peru resembles a philosopher from Scotland more than a janitor from Peru, and so on."

I understood this intuitively, but I still had to work through disentangling language from nationality and nationality from social class.

The fact of simultaneously being Christian and having as my mother tongue Arabic, the holy language of Islam, is one of the basic paradoxes that have shaped my identity. - Amin Maalouf

A short time after I presented at The W Hotel in Mexico City, I was in Buenos Aires for a similar event and client meetings. I was greeted at the front desk by a slender Argentine man. He greeted me in accented English as I handed him my U.S. Passport. I replied to him in Spanish, asking how his day was going. He was confused for a second as if a man with a U.S. Passport shouldn't be speaking Spanish.

"You're from The U.S.?" He asked.

"Yep," I replied. "I'm from the great state of California."

"But...your name is...how do you know Spanish?" He had set my passport down, forgetting for a second that he had to check me in."

"Well," I began. "My parents were born in Mexico, so I grew up speaking Spanish."

"Ahhh, I see! So you're Mexican!" The receptionist exclaimed as he picked up my passport. He lowered his voice and said, "The Americans that come here tend to be uptight. They're not warm and open and like you. I knew you weren't American; I just didn't know where you were from."

I smiled. I wanted to protest and say that no, I was actually American and that Abraham Lincoln was my hero.

Later that evening, it dawned on me the irony of the receptionist's comment. I had tried for so long to be and to seem to be Mexican. That's why I stuttered in Mexico and why I felt self-conscious in Barcelona. But hearing the "you're not American" comment was also not what I wanted to hear. I strove to be accepted as a whole person, like anyone else. The challenge is it takes time to understand anyone individually. Maybe I was narcissistic, expecting people to just "get me" everywhere I went. That's why I cherish the places and people that don't make me feel like only one thing, one part of my being.

I was back in Modesto one weekend after having lived in New York for a couple years. I met up with some friends at our local spot. After a few hours, I excused myself, telling my friends I had to be up bright and early the next day for a family quinceanera (coming of age party for young women, a Mexican sweet 16). My friend Matt, whom I have known since high school, stared at me for a second with a blank look across his face. After a few moments, he came to and said, "oh shit. I forgot your Mexican. I was like, 'why is he going to that?'"

Identity is contextual. Where you are matters as much as where you are from. I’ve been perceived as "white" in some environments, American in others, and Mexican in other places. It’s rarely about language. Even when I speak the same Spanish in Chile or Argentina, I am still received as a Latin American and sometimes, as in Buenos Aires, as a Mexican. Language was an inextricable part of my upbringing. But so were Modesto and New York, Modesto Junior College, and the University of Barcelona. Just like everyone else, I am a collection of contradictions. As Walt Whitman wrote in the 19th Century, "...very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

What makes you you is what remains after your disparate identities violently crash on the highway of life. I had spent a lifetime equating my skills in a language with identity, and while it's true that language is the first bond of identity, it isn't always the first bond with a culture or nationality. Does speaking Dutch make one more Belgian than a French speaker from Brussels? Or what about the indigenous Mexicans who don't speak Spanish?

The Spanish I speak isn't "Mexican." I inherited it from my parents, who inherited it from their parents in the rural village of Rancho Nuevo, Michoacan. And along the way, it was influenced by California and the Central Valley in particular. Most recently, after almost a decade of working with Latin Americans and Western Europeans, I've adopted some of their mannerisms, slang terms, and even intonation. It doesn't make me less of anything. It makes me...me.

It’s been almost a decade since I started working in Latin America. Because I live in Northern California, these roles have a shelf life. Eventually, if I do my job right, we’ll open a new office or offices in the region. Nonetheless, I’ve built a nice niche for myself: I’m the “gringo” that gets things going. I still stutter sometimes, but that’s mostly because I’m excited about what I want to say, not because I’m nervous or self-conscious. Sometimes I still get asked about my accent. Is it Mexican? Spanish? Central American?

“It’s from Northern California,” I’ll reply. I tell them I’m happy to answer any more questions, but maybe first, we should run through the presentation.