RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Our own Steve Inskeep is headed today to the Middle East on assignment. Before he left, Steve sat down - as he often does - with NPR special correspondent Michele Norris, to talk about the Race Card Project. Michele has been asking people to submit six-word stories about race or cultural identity; stories like this one.
ELYSHA O'BRIEN: My name is Elysha O'Brien, and my six words are: Mexican white girl doesn't speak Spanish. I chose these six words because whites see me as Mexican; Mexicans see me as white because I don't speak Spanish. I find it interesting that we don't qualify other ethnic identities on the basis of language.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: OK. So Mexican white girl doesn't speak Spanish - those are the six words from Elysha O'Brien, who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. And to talk about the meaning behind those words, Michele Norris joins us once again. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: And I guess this is a moment to remember that when we say Hispanic, that's not a racial identity. There are lots of races of people who are Hispanic; it's about the language.
NORRIS: Well, and it's about the culture. And in this case, it's specifically about how the language and the culture are intertwined. And this represents one of those themes within the Race Card Project. We have received a lot of submissions from people who are Latino but don't speak Spanish, even though their parents spoke Spanish. They come from households where their parents made a deliberate choice that their kids were going to become more American, whatever that means; that their ambitions were wrapped up in making them more American. And for them, that meant making sure that they spoke perfect English. And even though the parents spoke Spanish, they didn't pass that onto the kids.
INSKEEP: How did Elysha end up not speaking Spanish?
NORRIS: Well, she was raised by parents who hail from Mexico. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Both of Elysha O'Brien's parents were born in the United States.] They spoke Spanish but in her household, Spanish was almost like the secret language - the language that the parents spoke when they didn't want the kids to hear about a tragedy in the family, or where the birthday presents were hidden.
NORRIS: Yeah. And they decided not to pass on their language skills - and that's what she calls them now, language skills. They didn't pass on their language to the kids for those same reasons. They wanted to make sure that they did well in school, but they also did it in part because of their own memory. She explains that.
O'BRIEN: I have talked to my father about this, and I've talked to my aunts and uncles individually about this; and they all give me the same reason. They said that they were so prejudiced against - growing up in Fort Worth, Texas - for speaking Spanish in school that they didn't want their children to endure that. They didn't want their children to get slapped on the wrist; they didn't want their children to get shushed in the lunchroom. They wanted their children to assimilate into the culture.
NORRIS: They were rapped on the knuckles if they spoke Spanish in class?
O'BRIEN: Yeah. They were - ears were turned; rapped on the knuckles; just - a bit of humiliation would occur if they spoke Spanish. My father failed first grade because he didn't speak English. You'd never hear of that now. He only spoke Spanish, and so he wasn't able to proceed to second grade. He had to repeat first.
INSKEEP: Michele Norris, this is such a classic immigrant tale. People come; they bring other languages, they bring other cultures. They are determined - many of them - to fit into the new country, or to make sure their kids fit into the new country.
NORRIS: And often, fitting in means speaking the language of the new homeland. And here in America, that - of course - means English. And that's why Elysha O'Brien's parents didn't speak Spanish to her, in part because of those memories of days before you had English-as-a-second-language classes in school, where they were penalized for speaking Spanish; but also because they wanted to give her something. And so, as she explains, she lives in this position where she has sort of a foot in two worlds and doesn't necessarily feel fully accepted in either, particularly when she is challenged by other Latinos who say, well, you're not really Mexican, if you don't speak the language. And over time, she really started - particularly when she was young - to internalize that criticism and really question herself.
O'BRIEN: Spanish always sounded like a bird singing to me. It was - my mom would watch the Mexican soap operas, and the women always sounded like they were chirping. And it was so fast and so quick, I couldn't discern where one word ended and another word began. It just all had this very musical quality to it. I couldn't tell. But it was just something I didn't have. It was my parents' language; it wasn't my language.
I used to say to a friend - actually, when you're kind of rebellious and trying to find your identity, I used to say, well, I'm not Mexican; my parents are - because of the comment that my friend said to me - well, not really my friend; but the comment that he said - well, you're not Mexican 'cause you don't speak Spanish. I think in trying to figure that out, I started responding to people, well, I'm not Mexican; my parents are.
NORRIS: How does that strike your adult ear now?
O'BRIEN: I think it sounds very flip. It sounds very - like I'm trying to make amends for a really deep wound, just trying to put a Band-Aid on something instead of digging out the infection that's there.
INSKEEP: So this gift that her parents worked so hard to give her - the gift of being sure that she knew English really, really well - does she regret not having learned Spanish?
NORRIS: It sounds like the whole family has a little bit of regret around this. Her parents regret it now because they recognize that their children might be more marketable if they actually were bilingual.
INSKEEP: Spanish is an asset in the globalized world.
NORRIS: Yes, particularly if you live in a place like Las Vegas. So there's regret around economic opportunity. Elysha regrets it for two reasons. One is academic, and one is a little bit emotional. And the academic side - she's a college professor - she would love to be able to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his native language; she would love to be able to dream in Spanish. She would love to be able to tackle a language and really learn how to master it, as an academic. On the emotional side, she says that there's a piece of her family, of her elders in her family, that's not available to her because she doesn't speak their native language. But when they speak their native language, that there's something musical about them; that's something that comes out. And she says that most clearly when she talks about her grandmother, who passed away two years ago.
O'BRIEN: Whenever we would go to Texas, the only thing that she knew how to say in English was "I love you, mija, I love you." And so she would say this to me over and over again - "I love you, mija, I love you." For, I think, the first seven years of my life, I thought my name was mija. I didn't realize that mija was an individual word in Spanish. I thought it was my nickname.
NORRIS: What does that mean?
O'BRIEN: It means "my daughter," in Spanish. It's actually a shortened, condensed version of "mi hija." "Mi hija" means my daughter; "mi hijo" means my son. And "mija" is just a shortened version of those two words.
NORRIS: What do you lose, when you lose your language?
O'BRIEN: I think you lose home. I think about my grandmother and how I wasn't able to communicate with her, and that sense of relationship that I lost.
NORRIS: If you could speak Spanish with your grandmother, what is it that you would say?
O'BRIEN: I love you, mi amor, abuela.
INSKEEP: I love you, grandma - the words that Elysha wishes she could say in Spanish, if she could speak it. Now, Michele, we should mention that Elysha has three boys of her own. Does she want them to learn Spanish?
NORRIS: Elysha is married. Her husband is Irish and Italian; thus, the last name O'Brien. And she has three sons, and she is going to make sure that they all are bilingual. And if you go to the website, you'll learn more about that.
INSKEEP: Michele Norris is curator of the Race Card Project. Michele, thanks for coming by.
NORRIS: Thanks, Steve.
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MONTAGNE: And you can learn more about Elysha O'Brien and the Race Card Project at our website, NPR.org.