One summer day when a friend and I were finishing up a delicious lunch of puerco guisado at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Little Village, a man came into the dining area and softly uttered to us in Spanish if we wanted to buy some Chiclets. I asked him, “Sí, ¿a cuánto son?”– and he looked at me, confused. He repeated what he said, but this time in fragmented English, and I stammered again, “¿A cuánto son?” He then laughed softly and apologized, telling me, ‘Ay, perdón. Es que habla diferente…eh, muy bien, y no le entendí. Son cuatro a peso.’ (“Oh, sorry. It’s just that you talk different…uh, very well, and I didn’t understand you. They’re four for a dollar.”) As he walked away, I popped a a few chicles in my mouth and quietly freaked out.
Studying Spanish in college, my Spanish-learning experience broadened. Further away was I from middle and high school, which mainly consisted of teachers with pretty thick American accents, endless fill-in-the-blank workbook pages, learning and forgetting a lot about Spain, and learning about faraway Latin American places where people seemed only to talk about local cuisine. In college I’ve had professors from all over Latin America, and my fellow students ranged from Americans who recently learned Spanish to Latin American international students. However, this positive experience of acquainting myself with Latin America(ns) seems to have yielded more than scholarly knowledge — I think my accent in Spanish has been irreversibly changed.
Which brings me back to my restaurant scene. As I chewed my Chiclets, I declared that my Spanish accent was probably some bastard (or maybe ‘lovechild’?) mix of all the accents and dialects I’d been exposed to in college. I thought of all the ‘weird’ (for a Mexican, anyway) habits I’ve picked up: sporadic lisping, airing out or elimination of the letter “s”, the occasional “vale” to mean “yes,” etc. I wondered how I must have sounded when I asked the man a simple question about the cost of some gum. What of the Mexican Spanish I learned growing up was still there?
I often think to myself that maybe I’ve gone to the other side, a side that is more Latin@ or pan-Latin American rather than Mexican or Mexican-American. But perhaps this lapse was inevitable. Going to a big university in a so-called global city like New York draws people from all over the country and the world, myself included. My world view has changed through education and so has the way I describe it — the way I use language. Even in English I probably don’t talk the way I did when I was a kid or even when I was a teenager. Language is expression, and it is social and fluid. Sometimes we say what and talk like we think we should, and other times we do what comes natural. After a few years of college, I think it’s becoming more difficult for me to tell the difference between what I think on my own accord and what I’ve been taught, or how I think I should speak and how I really do speak. I guess I’ll just be saying what I say, how I say it, and hoping I’m understood.