The Goalposts Are Always Moving: What It Means to “Become” American
Julissa Arce on the Futilities and Frustrations of Assimilation
My parents spent nearly two decades in the United States before returning to Mexico. They never became fluent in English. My mom could hold whatever conversations she needed to have, using her hands, trying again and again until she was understood. She hasn’t lived in the United States in almost 20 years, but she still remembers some English. She is so proud of the words she knows, as though in English her words are worth more. My dad was a fast learner, but though he understood English well, the use of one wrong word could make him forget everything. English drained his confidence.
Once when I was a child, we went to a Taco Cabana where pretty much everyone spoke Spanish. He began placing his order in Spanish, as he had many times before. But this time, English greeted him. He tried to explain that he wanted his order in two separate bags, and the woman kept saying, “What? What are you saying?” With each what, my dad’s English became more infused with fear. I still have a feeling the cashier spoke enough Spanish to take my dad’s order, but she wanted to feel tall by pretending she didn’t understand him.
I didn’t speak English then, so I couldn’t step between my father and racism. A Latina behind us helped him place our order. I saw the embarrassment in my dad’s body: his eyes lowered; he shrank down. Each time something like this happened to him, he retreated further and further away from English.
I’ve seen this so many times. How in English we become more afraid instead of more confident—how often it robs us of our dignity. “I was scared that I could not speak English, and that in turn made me scared I could not do the job,” Julián, who is a day laborer, told Karla Cornejo Villavicencio in her book The Undocumented Americans. And yet, Karla writes, “I think every immigrant in this country knows that you can eat English and digest it so well that you will shit it out, and to some people, you will still not Speak English.”
Like many Latino immigrants in the 1990s, my parents bought Ingles sin Barreras after seeing a million advertisements for it on Sábado Gigante. The set contained various VHS videos, cassette tapes, workbooks, a dictionary, and a pronunciation course. Their ads didn’t just sell the ability to speak another language—they sold a better life. If only you spent the time and money, you’d achieve all your wildest immigrant dreams. But the reality was different.
My parents spent more money than they could afford to purchase the program. Then they had to pay off the debt by working more, leaving them with less time to open the books. Where does one find the time to learn English when there are children to feed? When family in Mexico is depending on our remittances? Even with time and money, people find it challenging to learn another language, especially as adults. It is no wonder that, according to the US Census Bureau, only 20 percent of Americans can have a conversation in two or more languages. Spanish doesn’t make us less than, it makes us uniquely skilled.
English did not protect me from the powerful race dynamics that labeled me foreign.
My parents viewed learning English as a matter of survival. They didn’t need anyone to demand that they teach their children. They saw it as a first step to finding success in America. When I immigrated, I spoke only Spanish. My mom enrolled me at a Catholic school where English as a Second Language (ESL) classes were not available. As a child, I found it traumatizing to be thrown into an environment where I could not communicate, express my thoughts, or push back when ridicule came my way. While I learned English, I was able to take open book tests, which I still often failed. My classmates and even my own teachers saw the extra help I received as indicating I had learning difficulties. I felt a drive to prove them wrong.
My parents constantly reminded me that I wasn’t here “para jugar a las comiditas.” They had brought me to America to be successful—to make good on their sacrifices. Learning English was important to improve my grades, to help my parents with their business, and eventually to get a good job—to achieve the American dream. But English is the first lie of assimilation.
My mom hired a private tutor to teach me English after school and on the weekends. I knew the financial sacrifices my parents had to make to afford private lessons—making sure it was all worth it fueled my tongue. Every day after school I spent hours studying my flash cards to expand my vocabulary with new words and idioms. The summer before seventh grade, I attended an expensive summer course that solidified my proficiency.
As soon as I could speak, write, and read in English, I became my parents’ primary translator. I translated bank statements, letters from the principal, unpleasant negotiations with the landlord, and even heart-wrenching conversations with doctors when my mom had a nearly fatal accident. But because I was a child speaking to adults on behalf of adults, I never knew if any of those people took me seriously, or if they laughed in words I couldn’t understand.
By the time I graduated from middle school, I was fluent. I even had dreams and thoughts in English, which made me feel like I was betraying my parents, the entire country of Mexico, and my dead ancestors. My tongue moved in ways that weren’t in my DNA. Still, I took such satisfaction when my teachers would say, “You speak English so well now, you can barely notice your accent.” As a child, I didn’t realize how patronizing those comments were. What saddens me even more now is remembering the pride my parents felt when one of their friends would comment how “pretty” my English was because I sounded like the gringos.
But my accent still showed up to terrify me when I wasn’t paying attention. I had not yet learned to love the texture of my English. From time to time my threes came out as trees. One day in eighth grade, we were reading about animals, and the word crocodile appeared in the text. I pronounced it as cocodrile, resembling the Spanish word cocodrilo. My classmates roared with laughter. It didn’t matter that I was an honor roll student: one bad move and I was back to being the dumb Mexican girl who couldn’t speak English. It was exhausting having to be perfect or unearth the ugliness in people.
Yes, learning English propelled me forward. But no ma ter how much I studied, my English continued to fall short. Sounding like a gringa didn’t make me American, and it didn’t give me the privileges of one. The bone-crushing realization that even with English we aren’t enough gives survival a bitter taste.
It’s not just the words, but everything they project: confidence, entitlement, and power.
Watching LaKeith Stanfield play Cassius Green in the film Sorry to Bother You reminded me of all the times I’ve had to sound like a white girl to be taken seriously. Stanfield plays a telemarketer having a hard time making sales. Boots Riley, the film’s director, describes Cassius using his white voice to land a sale as discovering “a magical power” which “disguises the fact that he is actually Black.” Hearing him describe it as “magical” punched me in the gut.
When I let go of my white girl voice, I was reminded by my Wall Street bosses that certain colloquialisms, a word I still have a hard time pronouncing, were not professional. I was dumbfounded to learn that screaming “Fuck!” while pounding the desk was acceptable behavior, but saying “yo” was not. I have a joyful laugh that fills any room. The volume of my voice offended just as much as my manner of speech. After my boss told me I was too loud, I learned to tame my laughter. This was a reminder that taking up space will make others uncomfortable because they only want to see us quiet and thankful.
The first time one of my Goldman Sachs clients asked me to bring him coffee because he mistook me for the assistant, I was embarrassed for him. I felt like I was the one who had to make up for his racism, the burden falling on me to make him comfortable. And isn’t that twisted? I told myself he had made an honest mistake since I looked so young. The truth was much uglier: having a Mexican woman advise him on how to protect and grow his precious money was not something that this white billionaire was used to.
After that occasion, I never went to a client meeting unless I had spoken to them on the phone first—using my white girl voice, of course. Assimilation forces us to erase, or at least hide, who we really are by dangling an illusion of success in front of our faces. I figured that if they could first hear my ideas, then they would know I was a smart and capable investment professional. But even if they didn’t ask me to serve them food and drinks, there were other subtle ways they reminded me that my white voice didn’t fool them. Comments that I was “so well spoken” and my speech so “eloquent” served as reminders that, in their mind, someone like me wasn’t supposed to have a mastery of words.
English, no matter how many of its words I mastered or how much of its magical power I harnessed, did not protect me from the powerful race dynamics that labeled me foreign. A white voice did not make me American. My English still trembled with a desire for acceptance.
Assimilation, whether linguistic, cultural, aesthetic, or otherwise, always has more steps to complete. As you master one, more appear. I honed my speech to sound like the popular white girls in my school, like the blond all-American girls I saw in movies and on TV shows. I stood in front of a mirror, saw my brown reflection, and tried to imagine the girl speaking back to me was someone white, someone whose words brought her pride and confidence. I cry when I think of that Julissa. I want to hold her and tell her one day she’ll laugh when she texts her friends, “I am going star crazy,” and they write back, “Comadre, qué es star crazy? Like stir crazy but more galactic?” She’ll respond, “We can all be star crazy with a little herb from the earth,” and roll on the floor laughing so hard her tummy will hurt.
My husband pokes fun at me whenever I make use of the wrong idiom or use the incorrect word in a sentence. He finds it endearing. My friend Carlos has a running list of all the things I say wrong, and we joke about it over drinks in a pool in Palm Springs. In my accent, in my mistaken words, in my imperfect English, I’ve found laughter and joy.
Excerpted from You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation by Julissa Arce. © 2022 Julissa Arce. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan).