We all remember that afternoon. The clouds hung at an uncomfortable low and the heat made the humidity stick. It was then the town council in all its wisdom had decided to pass a non-bilingual bill, despite the majority of the town’s opposition to it.
What hurt more was councilman Richard Rodriguez vote. He, raised amongst the locals, turned his back against his own folk.
– “Why, just last night he come over to take a’drink wit me, that bastad!” lauded Tauwny.
Tauwny was an immigrant from French Guyana and appealed most fervently of all for the dual capacity bilinguals have only to fall into deaf ears. The future couldn’t look bleaker for him. He had two sons and every February the third made a curios display of patriotism by taking out a flag no one but him knew where it came from. The vote had barely passed by a slight majority, and as the crowd gathered in front of the municipal building, the politicians where getting ready to read a statement to announce the town’s continuance of a monolingual policy for all.
Albert Villahermosa had been ambivalent throughout the debacle. His forefathers had moved from the city of Torreón in the state of Coahuila to what is now known as the San Joaquin Valley in California but then just another town in Alta California, not long before the American invasion of 1848 led then by Commodore Stockton. His great grandmother, or bisabuela as he would know her, would tell him “not to many freckled faced boys roamed the streets yet back then.” He was a fluent mexican spanish speaker but barely had need to use it except at family gatherings where he would endure a host of questions regarding his “Mexican-ness”.
He looked on the mass of people, wondering just what was he doing there amongst the throngs of angry people demanding that the city council reverse its vote. English after all, he thought in the back of his head, was what united everyone. It was the bridge that made this multicultural town what it was.
He headed homewards. That night, Angela, his wife of three years, had made a special dinner, mole, a chocolate spice sauce dish that Albert loved and as he readied himself to sit comfortably in the dinner table he heard on the radio that a protest had turned into a scuffle and Tauwny had been arrested for punching Councilman Rodriguez in the face. He could distinctly hear Tauwny’s voice in the background, yelling “traitor, traitor!”, as he was being dragged on while the radio reporter continued to report live from City Hall. Angela could be heard saying a few pity words for Tauwny but not much that moved Albert into a civic mood to go and demand Tauwny’s release, although the issue of bilingualism had slowly crept into his mind as the night passed on.
The next morning proved decisive for the whole town, during the course of the night many residents had gone out and held a vigil for Tauwny. They nearly broke the windows of Councilman Rodriguez car, had it not been for Sheriff Gonzalez timely intervention, although many would later wonder maliciously where had he been at the time of the punch that gave Councilman Rodriguez a black eye. A few had ventured to suggest that it was because he too had been on the pro-bilingual wagon but others spoke out plainly that it was because it had more to do with his insurance business where Rodriguez had recently taken out a policy insuring the 1956 Desoto he owned.
On the way to work, Albert met with disgruntled and sleepless neighbors who wondered where had he been all night while the town’s very essence was at stake. He shook his head in bewilderment at the utterance of those fancy words unable to answer quite right until he met his cousins walking by.
– Hey! Wuz up cuz? Were where’ya last night? Thought you be ‘round but I never caught sight of you …
– I went straight home from work, I was tired.
– Yeah, well, tomorrow were gonna be at it again till they change that fucking law, are you comin’?
– Don’t know, well see.
He never really understood his cousins; they didn’t even speak spanish although they belonged to the 1848 Committee. A group that demanded that the lands he grew up in be given back to México. As he walked by his neighborhood, he pondered what it was to be bilingual. Though he didn’t come to a clear conclusion as to its significance or its bearing to his town or himself. Worse yet, he was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of this discussion coming up so high as the to waste precious council time and taxpayers money on such a, what he considered to be, trivial business.
He pondered about the language he first heard at home, the one that nurtured him and the one language that soothed him so much whenever he came home from school. His mother tongue as it were. It was the language of the house, the one mama and papa spoke. The one he discovered the world with, the one that first made him cry and the one that first made him laugh but also the one language that left him so many scars. He remembered all too well how his teachers would chastise him whenever homely vowels blurted out of his mouth but that were foreign to the teacher: “greasy language” the teacher would decry. At one point he adamantly refused to speak that wretched language. A choice that only brought him acrimonious chastisement closer to home and in the streets, the children would call him “beaner” and make him feel a stranger in the only land he ever knew.
– “Spanish has been nothing but trouble for me and I don’t want that for my children, that’s for sure”, he thought.
At work there weren’t to many bilinguals so the topic never really came up and the day proceeded as normal until the waterman came by.
– Hey Albert, how is it going? Heard what happened last night?
– Yeah, pitiful ain’t it?
– What?! You mean you stand by those crooked gringos ese?
– Well, not really, well…, I don’t really know you see …
– Well would you look at’cha! You’re the only mexican here and yet you wonder, how cozy homes! Meanwhile, us little guys who’ve been here before these gringos ever came to run our lives and are now telling us how to speak have to fight for our very existence.
Albert just stared; it never occurred to him that he was being run over by people who until this time had been his co-workers, neighbours, friends and associates. Albert didn’t have any more strength to continue the conversation and walked away from the water fountain leaving the waterman shaking his head. That the whole issue had come to his work was more than he could tolerate and made it a point to get the issue out of his head for the rest of the day.
Then, it dawned upon him. The division of the town was the division he had so long felt within himself. Never really belonging here or there, always having to choose sides. Yet essentially, whatever it was that made him who he was, a straddler, a walker of in-betweeness, a hyphen between the anglo and the mexican and the rest of the world, it was also happening out there in the streets. He walked back to his office shaken by the realization. All along, since he was a child, translating for his mother, speaking for his father whenever they went to shop or do some business with the rest of the community he had to be the middleman between two worlds in his town. Now he understood what it was the throngs that so baffled him were all about. He thought pensively for the rest of the day and decided to take a stance.
On his way home, the issue of bilingualism had died down, the city council had backed down from its stance and Tauwny was free. The town went about its business in a regular fashion and Angela awaited to tell him of the funny language his son uttered, a mixture of English and Spanish, they called it spanglish. Albert now stood feeling better about his new identity. His new self to the point of considering running against counculman Rodriguez only to later recant, “one step at a time” he thought, looking outside the window of his house as life returned to its normalcy to his beloved city.