Fathom Mag

Caught between Two Languages

Unlocking discoveries to God and family

Published on:
February 12, 2018
Read time:
3 min.
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I read somewhere that a snake leaves its skin behind by going for a swim. While in the water, the snake’s skin is loosened and when the old layer is ready to be shed, a hole is punctured in the old skin as it rubs against a rock or a log.

Likewise, I’ve shed my own skin through the pools of immersion against the rocks that insist I conform to the American stereotype of a bilingual Latina, Los Angeles native, born-to-an-immigrant single mother. I had to puncture a hole in my old skin against the rocky surface of convention and the sharp corners of a Mexican cultural heritage I experienced second hand.

Trying My Hand at English

Finding my own place between American and Mexican expectations has been a linguistic matter. I have walked the tightrope between English and Spanish all my life. I’m not loyal to either language, so it seems, and I am not perceived as belonging to one culture over another.

I have walked the tightrope between English and Spanish all my life.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

I write in English. Writing is my way of revealing what I observe and what has held me hostage. My writing unlocks discoveries that draw me nearer to my God-given purpose. Writing helps me channel the past, the memories of what was or what is, and deconstruct them into the lives of characters who rouse up our deepest pathologies, who bring into question what we think we know and presume, and who insist we not be the same as we were. Isn’t that what we seek when we read—something palpable that will move us to shed our old skin and grow us into something we didn’t imagine we could be, stretching us into a new creature with new eyes and convictions?

But writing in English means I interpret my life in a way that distances me from my elders. English has been a struggle for them in ways I can’t even relate to—seeing that because I am not an immigrant, I haven’t left my homeland to dwell in another, and I’m not native to Mexico. Their complicated relationship with English means they don’t read what I write; they only ask for a summary and wonder about my work for a moment before the conversation turns to another topic.

I’m not loyal to either language and I’m not perceived as belonging to one culture over another. Mexican nationals tend to see second-generation Americans as second-class—hybrids navigating two worlds from el otro lado. In 1965, my mother boarded a bus from Guadalajara to Tijuana with her green card. She crossed the threshold to meet with her American employer at a bus station. She didn’t know a word of English. She considers herself a Mexican by culture and heritage, but her home is here—where she birthed me, where she grew into adulthood, where she bought her first car (something inconceivable to her had she been in Mexico), where she worked as a housekeeper and nanny to families in Palos Verdes. Eventually she spent more than two decades doing hard line assembly work, developing her English and earning her high school diploma, but refusing to assimilate to the point of erasing her heritage from her identity.

My family invested in my work because language and experience separate them from it, a reality we mutually accept.

Fluent in Family Heritage

Each nuance binds me to those in Mexico, but despite my connection to them through language, I remain an island.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

While my mother reluctantly buries her past, I must unearth it. Speaking Spanish summons my family’s history. I cannot live in Mexico, but I visit its many facets through language. Each nuance binds me to those in Mexico, but despite my connection to them through language, I remain an island. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.” That different world includes me—but only in its Mexican diaspora. Saussure put it this way: “In the lives of individuals and societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other.” So, I owe it to my family to continue speaking Spanish, a significant element that carries with it a profound responsibility and immutable history.

Federico Fellini said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” I am brought back home when I speak and write in Spanish. It is like a key to a door I’ve been given that not many enter. But still, it isn’t my preferred language to write with. At times I find I’m more able to naturally express myself in Spanish, but the English language insists I fix my pen to paper.

A New Voice

It takes courage to submit to the expectations of any language. My bilingual tongue fights to keep itself from being misunderstood or, worse yet, silenced. But walking the tightrope is how my voice is heard in a culture that struggles to understand how to even say my name. My family’s culture and my country’s expectations press upon me, not like friends or enemies do, but as sharp edges that empower me to emerge anew.

Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega writes fiction, essays, and poetry. She’s writing a novel. Find her list of published work here: www.erortega.com/writings.

Cover image by MCML XXXIII.

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