First Words: English as a Second Language

Written By: Jasminne Mendez 

The South. We always lived in the Deep South. I was born on the east side of the Mississippi River in Alabama and we lived in those southern states until I was 12. I spent grade school at several different army base towns:  three years in New Llano, Louisiana, and four years on the border of Clarksville, Tennessee and Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Aside for our brief stint in Germany, we lived in the South. Always the Deep South. Somehow in those places, despite our varied shades of dark and darker we were always Dominican. No one said anything about being black.

We ate plátanos and arroz con leche. Mami put rolos in my hair. I learned to dance bachata while standing on my father’s toes. Celebrated Noche Buena with pernil and Mamajuana. And we always spoke Spanish at home. When people asked me “what are you?” I always responded “I’m Hispanic”. Or, “I’m Latina…yes full Latina”. I never said anything about being black.

When I first learned English, the voices of my teachers and classmates sounded at times soft and soothing like a bolero or ballad, other times like a broken cuckoo clock, loud and aggressive. I understood their inflections and intonations even if I couldn’t grasp the meaning of their words. It was 1988 and my family and I lived in the Deep South, a place where bilingual education and ESL classes were a thing of the future. A place where you were either black or white but everyone spoke English. We fit into the category of black. But I went to school speaking only Spanish. This of course, made Kindergarten very interesting.

During the first parent teacher conference Papi attended the teacher asked him if I was deaf. He cocked his head to the side, ruffled his brow and in his own cracked and rough English said “No, why do you ask?”

“Because I speak to her and she just stares at me. I mean, she doesn’t cause any trouble, but she never answers my questions. She just stares at me.” The kind but rookie Kindergarten teacher shuffled her papers and adjusted her glasses, trying to make sense of why a little black girl couldn’t speak or understand English.

He laughed. “No, no she’s not deaf. She just doesn’t understand you. She doesn’t speak English.”

“Oh, well what DOES she speak?”

“Espanish.”

“Oh.” And Papi laughed and told her not to worry about a thing. That he was confident I would pick up the language easily just as his son had, and that he and Mami would be sure to practice with me at home. He was right, I did learn English right away. By December of that school year, I was as fluent in English as any other kid in my class. The words and the sounds no longer ached in my ears or stumbled on my tongue.

After Louisiana, we were stationed in Nuremburg, Germany for two years. However, I didn’t learn German because we lived on the military base where we went to an English speaking school with other Americans and military brats. Whenever we were adventurous enough to travel off base, German words sounded like fireworks against my ears. German was rough and scary and reminded me of old World War II movies I loathed. I wanted nothing to do with German.

After our brief stay overseas we were transferred to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky where my parents bought a house in Clarksville, TN. By then I was headed to middle school, and in the sixth grade I decided I wanted to learn how to play the alto saxophone. I had grown up watching The Simpsons and Bill Clinton was president at the time, and I wanted and instrument that reflected greatness. An instrument played by intelligent and great people. I wanted to be just like the smart Lisa Simpson and the president Bill Clinton, so I chose the sax.

At the beginning, however, learning to play an instrument was not as easy as I expected it to be. The stray black shapes placed on the page were a foreign language to me much like English had been, and like German always was. The notes were translated into letters I understood, e, g, b, d, f and into phrases she could repeat on command: “every good boy does fine.” And into notes my ears could distinguish. But when I looked at the notes on the page it was gibberish. I couldn’t connect the dots. What did these markings on the page have to do with e, g, b, d, and f? What did the keys on my sax have to do with the circles and lines that dripped arbitrarily like black wax on the page? Like reading fluently and decoding words but lacking comprehension, I could make sounds on the sax that made sense, but I wasn’t really making music.

I used my diaphragm to blow out forced staccatos and belabored half notes that dragged on too long or were cut too short. I filled the spaces of my brass sax with flat whole notes that would decrescendo simply because I lacked the confidence to play with vibrato and strength. For the first three months, I fine-tuned the art of faking it. I listened to those around me for when to stop, and when to pick it back up. I labeled the notes on the page with their corresponding letters, and followed along, like watching a foreign film with the English subtitles on. I read above the notes but failed to look at them. In the 6th grade, the notes rested on the page like migrating birds on a wire, interesting to look at but meaningless to me.

It took me three months to learn how to read sheet music and play the saxophone. Just like it had taken me three months in Kindergarten to learn English. I worked hard at both because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be a part of the club. The “I’m an American” club. The band club. The “I promise I’m just like you even though I’m black and speak Spanish” club. The “I’m normal like everyone else” club. To speak English, to read music, to learn these universal languages was a rite of passage. I needed to feel included. I needed to feel like everyone else. Language was the only way.

I decide at the age of 11 or 12 to try to understand why I am not allowed to speak English to my parents. I know Spanish is my first language. I know Mami doesn’t speak English. But English, to me, feels so much easier. I speak English at school and with my siblings. I like English, it’s on TV, it’s spoken out in the world, and it’s in the books I read and love. I think in English, I dream in English and I sing in English. I want to speak English with Mami and Papi because I know more words in English. I feel in English! I do not know the Spanish words for ostracized, bullied and melancholic. My ten-year-old vocabulary in English far exceeds my conversational Spanish and I can’t understand why this language is forbidden with Mami and Papi. My brain has to think and work in two languages just to be heard and understood and all this code switching frustrates me. I translate for Mami at the store, “¿cuanto cuesta?” at the hairdresser, “Dile que no me gusta” and at the mall, “dile que quiero un tamaño mas grande.” This chore is exhausting and inconvenient. If they would learn English and we all spoke it at home, then everything would be easier.

So I ask Papi in Spanish one day: “Why do we have to keep speaking Spanish at home? In America, everyone speaks English.” He is sitting in his recliner, a book propped on his lap as usual and a cold beer in his hand. He’s still partially in his uniform wearing only his brown and green camouflage pants and the underarms of his chocolate covered undershirt are stained with sweat. His forehead wrinkles and his eyes narrow but he smiles slyly and looks at me from above his reading glasses. Like a parent repeating step-by-step instructions to a small child for the third time he says, deliberately, when you go into an interview for a job, knowing Spanish will be your advantage because they will need you. He closes his three-hundred page book and sits up, shifting his weight into his elbow and straightening his palm so all of his words flow through his hands. Having a degree will not be enough. His hand hacks at me sternly. Being bilingual, he says, te va’ ayudar. His eyes trace my melanin coated body up and down, and left and right understanding my place in this world in a way that I cannot yet, and I start surveying my arms and legs in an effort to find what he’s looking for. He points at me with his calloused ashy index finger and proclaims:  you, in order to compete with others in this world, tu tienes que ser más, hacer más, y saber más que ellos. It’s the only way, he says, que vas a poder progresar en este mundo. I assumed he said it because I was Latina, because after all, he never said anything about being black.


About the author: Jasminne Mendez is an award winning author, performance poet and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature and her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. Mendez has had poetry and memoir published both nationally and internationally and her first multi-genre memoir Island of Dreams was published by Floricanto Press was awarded Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards in 2015. Recently, her personal essay El Corte received honorable mention in the Barry Lopez Creative Non-Fiction Prize in CutThroat, A Journal of the Arts and was published in their Best of CutThroat edition March 2016. She has shared the stage as a performance poet with world renowned authors Taylor Mali, Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, and Aamalia Ortiz. She is a 2016 VONA Alumni and a Macondo Fellow and she is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the Rainier Writer’s Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

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